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How to get over Canberra’s growing pains

Not wanting Canberra to grow is like wanting to freeze frame your child at 12 years old, says ACT Government Architect Catherine Townsend.

Appointed to the role in August 2016 to provide independent design advice to the ACT Government on architecture, urban design and planning for both major government projects and private proposals, Catherine says our great challenge is to build a unified vision for Canberra as we “move into mature city mode”.

The 2016 Census revealed that the national capital had attracted 75,000 new residents over the last 15 years, and we are expected to grow by another 93,000 in the next 15 years.

Not everybody in Canberra likes the idea of growth, Catherine says, but “no growth is not an option”.

The real question is not whether we should grow – because that is happening around the world whether we like it or not. The question is how fast we should grow, and where to grow.

Canberra’s biggest opportunity is found in our region, Catherine argues, which now boasts a combined population of 620,000 people, and contributes a massive $46 billion to the national economy.

“This slightly weird but strategic position between Sydney and Melbourne will start working for us”, particularly as Sydney now exceeds five million residents and is losing its liveability appeal and any last vestiges of affordability.

“The linkage between Sydney and Canberra now moves to an economic necessity,” she says, and points to the possibility of a fast train as the conduit for future growth. Canberra’s light rail is another important measure of mass public transit, she says. As is the Canberra International Airport.

Griffin’s plan for a garden city was built around a proposed population of 25,000 people. “But here we are today at 400,000-plus, and it’s still a garden city. And I do think it’s achievable for Canberra to continue the garden city character and also increase in density. I don’t think the garden city and density are mutually exclusive.”

Canberra has a “difficult relationship with the whole idea of height”, which poses some planning problems. But there is no reason why we should be afraid of height, which she says can be a “useful tool” when used in the right way.

“If you ask the average ratepayer, they would probably guess that the total amount of high density development in Canberra was around 10 per cent, but it’s actually 1.5 per cent. How incredible is that?”

Catherine says we’ve got a really “workable plan” for higher density in our town centres and along transport corridors, but what is really interesting is the “fine grain” of smaller scale development in suburbs – townhouses, terraces, co-operative housing and multi-generational housing.

We also have “fantastic embedded opportunities within the city state”, she adds.

“In pure size terms we are probably not that different from other big regional centres, but we are the national capital, with the National Capital Authority and the Parliamentary Triangle, and we have these buildings that represent our cultural and political endeavours.”

Having completed a Bachelor of Applied Science in Environmental Design from the University of Canberra, Catherine studied architecture at the University of Sydney. During the 1980s, she worked for Mitchell Giurgola and Thorp Architects, which designed Parliament House, and Peter Freeman and Partners Architects and Planners before establishing her Canberra-based firm, Townsend and Associates Architects, in 1993 with her partner Bruce Townsend.

Catherine says asking an architect to name her favourite building is like asking a musician to nominate a favourite song.

But she points to some of Canberra’s iconic buildings – such as the National Gallery of Australia and the High Court, both by Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Briggs – which she says are of an “extraordinary” international standard, both in terms of design, detail and quality of construction.

“You can’t walk up to the High Court and not feel that it is a built expression of the law. And despite that I find it a warm and remarkable building. Musician Chris Latham has held a number of musical performances in there and revealed its beautiful acoustics. Sometimes you have to look a bit harder for the interesting things about buildings and give them their due.”

She also loves the Shine Dome, by Sir Roy Grounds, because it is “so uplifting, modest and inventive”. And University House, designed by Brian Lewis, is a “combination of a beautiful big idea with quite restrained realisation at the ground”.

These buildings represent our national achievements and our national psyche, she says.

“I think it’s fair that some of Canberra’s buildings are contentious. You can argue that the National Museum of Australia is not easy to love, but I think it’s important that architecture elicits a range of responses.”

What will Canberra’s next generation of buildings look like? Certainly, they will be sustainable, she says. And Canberra will continue to densify with what she calls “cottage infill” – or relatively low-rise density.

As the government architect, Catherine’s job is to provide strategic advice – but she’s quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean a new plan.

“It’s about finding opportunities in the plans we already have,” she says.

“We often criticise the satellite city idea, and it has had a difficult childhood and a slightly rocky adolescence, but it will come to fruition when we’ve got the light rail and a higher population.

“And then everyone will look at Canberra and say, ‘that was a good idea’.”

This article was first published in Her Canberra 20 November 2017

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