By Chris Wallace
Robyn Archer wearing her Centenary of Canberra creative director’s hat wowed Royal Melbourne Golf Club on Thursday in a lunchtime spruik on what’s happening in every Australian’s favourite capital next year.
Amazingly Archer, known more for belting out a good Bertolt Brecht number than blasting a Big Bertha down the fairway, managed to bond with the luncheon crowd of significant golfing Melbourne businesswomen with a golf anecdote of her own.
Like many daughters in one child households, she said, her father took her on the odd sporting foray including taking the battered old family clubs down to the Adelaide parklands and having a hit. The budding golfer gave it away though the day she hit her then boyfriend in the eye with a club, forcing him to wear glasses for the rest of his life.
“I was a cocky little thing,” she said. She didn’t change. Archer later recounted other little known aspects of her amateur sporting career, including a stints as a pool shark at the old Hotel Civic. When travelling through Canberra for concerts she’d stay at the old Civic’s primitive digs with skinny little beds so she could maximize her time playing pool. The Civic pub staff ran interference for her: if anyone rang they’d say no, she wasn’t there, she was staying at the flash pub up the road.
Who remembers the old Hotel Civic, since replaced by Civic bus interchange? What about the old Hotel Wellington (“The Wello”) on the corner of Canberra Avenue and National Circuit, replaced by a modern hotel not known for anything particular at all? Both the Civic and the Wello were built in the 1930s and hosted critical decades of carefree capital social life. This was the era in which people happily lived in small houses that had a couple of kids in each bedroom, no family room, no media room, no compulsory lockup garage, no deck, no pool and no Jacuzzi.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about old stuff. I’m still grieving over Kingston being steadily mown down since the 1980s for apartment buildings. I love medium density – Paris is my favourite city. But why knock down a suburb with beautiful old residential architecture when there were others in the vicinity which aesthetically at least would never have been missed?
The Archer discussion turned to Braddon, a little slice of cool Canberra with it’s low rise commercial dwellings and raffish population. She’s right: these things always follow the same cycle. Artists are poor and tend to run down inner city areas where rents are low. Once the artists move in, the cool crowd follows. Then the rich people follow the cool crowd, the rents go up and the artists move on to the next low rent inner city area.
That’s what’s happening in Braddon. You can go to Lonsdale Street Roasters and have a skinny flat white with a varied crew that any morning may include a clutch of hipsters, a few Canberra Capitals, a couple of cops and a motley crew. You can enjoy the eclectic surrounds, the wall art, the staff’s tattoos and the op shop china but when you walk out into Lonsdale Street, the sound you hear is of Braddon being demolished. Apartment blocks are being built hand over fist. Some of them are replacing terrible buildings and one can only cheer. But the fear lingers. Are they going to knock down ALL of Braddon? And if they do, will it be Braddon any more? And if it isn’t Braddon any more, isn’t the joke on all the rich people following the cool people following the artists into the area, not realizing the artists have already fled?
One of the most poignant buildings in Canberra is Northbourne Flats at 90 Northbourne Avenue. Originally built for the German Embassy’s staff, and exhibiting the modernist flavor one would expect for such residents, they’re crumbling into disrepair and are sadly circled by some of what would politely be described as mediocre vernacular apartment architecture. Why haven’t we done a better job as a community of protecting our modernist heritage, our community history, than this? Canberra doesn’t have many Braddons. Soon it may not recognizably exist.
English architecture writer Phyllis Richardson’s new book Nano House: Innovations for Small Dwellings includes some wisdom from Le Corbusier, that dwellings should provide “1) “a shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive. 2) A receptacle for light and sun. 3) A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, personal life.”
Perhaps we could all start rethinking how much domestic space we need and make a contribution to lessening the voracious thirst for dwelling land by a return to the modestly scaled homes of the past. Just like Robyn Archer staying at the Hotel Civic instead of the flash pub up the road, perhaps we’d have more fun.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 11 February, 2012