Creating Canberra
A new national capital

Australia Between The Wars

In the debates before Federation in 1901 it was agreed that there would be a new capital city for the new nation. Section 125 of the Constitution said:The seat of Government of the Commonwealth... shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth,and shall be in the state of New South Wales,and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney. It took another eight years of discussion before a site of 2368 square kilometres in New South Wales was set aside as the Australian Capital Territory.
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Future site of Canberra

The Design for Canberra

Canberra is one of the few cities that was planned from the very start. In May 1911 the government announced an international competition for the design of the new city. Since it was very difficult for people to visit the site, entrants were sent details of the topography and layout and were asked to plan their city from this. Some 137 entries were received, mostly from people who had never seen the place. The winnng design was from a young American architect, Walter Burley Griffin, and in 1913, after the name Canberra had finally been chosen for the new national capital, Griffin was invited to Australia to supervise the building of the city.

Griffin was a landscape architect and he was influenced by a movement in city design which began at the close of the nineteenth century. It was called the Garden City Movement and it emerged as a reaction to the overcrowding and pollution of industrial cities. The concept was based on the idea of anew town laid out as a city with wide streets radiating out from a central point, sufficient unused green space, and areas for specialised activities such as residential housing, recreation, a civic centre, a cultural centre and administrative or government centres.

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Walter Burley Griffin - Architect of Canberra

In his design, Walter Burley Griffin proposed that the city would have the following features:

  • The parliament for the new nation would be built on what was called Camp Hill and this would be at the centre of the city.
  • From Camp Hill, wide avenues, each one named after a state capital, would radiate outwards.

There would be a large water feature in the form of a lake, to be achieved by damming the Molonglo River that flowed through the site.

  • One part of the city would be the government precinct with the future Parliament House and High Court buildings.
  • Other areas were to be developed for residential and commercial activity.
  • Surrounding it all, the hills, mountains and shores of the lake were to be kept green,with no development allowed.

Building the city

In 1913 Griffin was appointed the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and he began work on the planning of Canberra. The outbreak of World War I slowed progress on the new city, and although Griffin was in charge of the planning he was increasingly frustrated by the delays and the attempts of different government agencies to change his plan.
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Prime Minister Bruce welcomes the Duke and Duchess of York at the opening of Parliament House, Canberra, 9 May 1927.

In 1920, when his contract ended, the plans were complete, a dam had been built to provide the water supply, and the main avenues had been marked out. After 1920 work continued on the project under the direction of a government agency, but progress was slow.

Parliament moves to Canberra

Since 1901 the federal parliament had met in Melbourne and the priority in the 1920s was to move the parliament to Canberra. Plans were put in place to build a temporary Parliament House which would function for fifty years. It was in fact destined to be used for the next sixty-six years, until the present Parliament House was opened in 1988.

The design, by a government architect, was for a building that would be functional rather than grand, and to save money it was built at the base of Camp Hill. Griffin had planned for a much grander structure to be built on top of Camp Hill, where indeed Parliament House sits today. Work began on the temporary Parliament House in 1923, and four years later, in May 1927, the opening ceremony was performed by the Duke of York (later King George VI).
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As sheep grazed behind the new building, Dame Nellie Melba sang the national anthem, ‘God Save the King’, and a crowd of about one thousand watched the historic occasion. The prime minister, Stanley Bruce, handed the Duke a golden key to open the doors of the new building.

At the time, Canberra was still very much a small town, with a population of only seven thousand. In the middle of a bare landscape were collections of bungalows which made up the original suburbs of Canberra, a house called The Lodge for the prime minister, small stores, five hotels, the Royal Military College at nearby Duntroon, a dam, a powerhouse, construction camps for workers and Parliament House. Nearby, work was under way to build two large government blocks, called East Block and West Block (on both sides of Parliament House), to accommodate the people who worked for the government or public service. Many were forced to move to Canberra from Melbourne once Parliament and its 112 politicians began to sit in Canberra after 1927.