Last night the fourth lecture in the UNSW BE Utzon lecture series was held at UNSW. The lecture was delivered by Professor James Weirick, Program Director for the Urban Development and Design program and was titled ‘100th Anniversary of Walter Burley Griffin: Griffin and Canberra’ the lecture covered a multitude of disciplines and interests.
Professor Weirick delivered an in-depth analysis of our capital city and its unique design history, his address touching on many of Canberra’s important buildings and spaces.
Professor Weirick made comparisons between the Utzon Opera house and the Griffin affair and referenced the 1966 march in Sydney when students carried placards reading “Griffin Now Utzon”. He stated “Those three words said all that was needed to be said about the long history of compromise that afflicts design competitions in Australia, and cuts down genius.” He continued to document how in 1920, Walter Burley Griffin – winner of the international competition for the design of the Australian Federal Capital – was forced from his position as Federal Capital Director of Design & Construction, for refusing to serve on a government-appointed advisory panel set up to replace him as design director of the project. Weirick drew upon the interesting parallels between Griffin and Joern Utzon quoting Harry Seidler “‘an incredible brilliance has been necessary to bring these ideas to paper. Nobody anywhere in the world could step into this situation and make anything but a ridiculous compromise.”
Professor Weirick acknowledged and celebrated Canberra’s 100 mark, acknowledging that 100 years ago, the winner of the Australian Federal Competition was announced. He explained how the competition had been controversial, banned by the Royal Institute of British Architects and affiliated institutes across the British Empire for conditions deemed unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, the competition attracted 137 entries from around the world.
The winner was Mr Walter Burley Griffin, an Architect and Landscape Architect from Chicago. Professor Weirick described the Griffin plan, the brief, the positive elements and the obvious flaws. He suggested that there was a strong correlation between Griffins political ideologies and his plan for Canberra.
In addressing the various stages of the plan and what it would look like Professor Weirick pointed out that Griffin’s Canberra Plan turned out to be too much for the Government officials who had organised the Competition. He stated “They were looking for ideas for a city plan, not an Ideal City Plan. Officials advised that the plan was too expensive, and adopted a plan they devised themselves – the notorious Departmental Board Plan of December 1912. This was a complete hodgepodge of borrowed elements, which raised a storm of protest, worldwide.” He recounted how “They made his job almost impossible, and succeeded in driving Griffin off the project at the end of 1920.”
Professor Weirick concluded the lecture by referencing the city as it stands today and how aspects of the city bear some relationship to the original Griffin Plan. He mentioned the fact that after ACT self-government in the late 1980s, the National Capital Authority undertook a number of studies of the Central National Area, culminating in the Griffin Legacy project of 2002-2004, which unearthed much valuable documentation of Griffin’s detailed development proposals and set in place controversial schemes for the redevelopment of the symbolic centre of Canberra in Griffin’s name. However, Weirick noted after all these years the results are still underwhelming.
“Canberra today has elements of the Griffin Plan but not the full intensity and resonance of the original vision – and as the centenary of the city approaches, our National Capital is facing a planning challenge of crisis proportions.”
The lecture was well attended, with government officials, industry members, BE staff, students and advisory council members all enjoying the lively and topical address. His observations inspired many post lecture discussions on the city and how it should be represented.
Fittingly, last week two teams of BE Masters Students’ were shortlisted in the CAPITheticAL competition to design a hypothetical capital city. Students from the MArch and MUDD programs were amongst the students selected to proceed to the final stage of the competition.
The next instalment of the 2012 Utzon Lecture Series will be held on Wednesday the 20th June at 7pm. Taken on a new format this forum style event is titled "The Future of Industrial Design" and will be given by Oliver Kratzer, National President Design Institute of Australia/Managing Director, Ideal Industrial; Mark Armstrong, Blue Sky Creative; Brandon Gien, Good Design Australia, President Elect ICSID; Professor Dr Sam Bucolo.