Once you start researching a move to Canberra, it doesn’t take you long to realise that Australians have a rather schizophrenic relationship with their own capital, to the extent that ‘Canberra-bashing’ would easily compete with cricket and Aussie rules football for the title of national sport.
The uneasy between Aussies and Canberra seems to taken as carte-blanche for others to say what they like about the place, whether based on fact or not.
Take last week’s Guardian article ‘50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?’ by Guardian architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright.
In the article, Oliver is pretty scathing about our new home town, describing it as “a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.”
What seems to have riled Oliver is the recent announcement by the OECD that Canberra is the best place in the world to live. No, seriously, this really seems to have upset him.
What’s strange about this whole debate is that the people who seems to hate Canberra, are on the outside, while the people who love it, actually live here. On the whole, Canberrans seem used to the idea that the rest of Australia (and indeed, the world) will readily line up to pour scorn over their city. But it’s something that I find bemusing.
Oliver’s tirade and others like it seem a little to me like one of those Facebook memes ‘First World Problems’, where people take to Facebook and tell everyone the world is at an end because they can’t find organic feta cheese for their forthcoming dinner party, or that they’ve arrived at a cocktail party to find someone is wearing the same shoes and now can’t leave the bathroom. These are not real problems.
If Oliver wants to see deathly communities, I suggest he takes a trot to a refugee camp, or a shanty town, or dare I say it, one of the high-rise estates his architect forebears foisted on people like my grandmother as their vision of ideal communities – architects who indulged their own creative follies while afterwards walking a mile from the problems they created or failed to anticipate.
For my money, and I did a fair bit of research before bringing my family here, Canberra is family-friendly, of a manageable size and full of both professional and leisure opportunities. When I look at my kids splashing about in our community’s brand new swimming pool, or playing on the Xbox as the brand new local library, or begging to visit the local zoo, dinosaur museum, reptile house, water park, playground, or just to walk the 100 metres from our house to open bushland so they can watch the kangaroos grazing, they’re not bemoaning the lack of architectural soul or the deathly community vacuum created by the roundabouts on the way to school. They’re thinking that this is a pretty cool place to live and that they’re glad we moved here.
That’s what real families do. They live real lives, in real places like Canberra. And they call this a community, not an architectural case study.
Meanwhile, people like Oliver move on, stroking their chins and raining down wrath on real lives while praising esoteric follies that they don’t have to live next door to. The 1950s was full of architects like that, and the blight of them can be felt all over the world. Meanwhile, from the “windswept plazas” to the “soulless wipe-clean charm of an identikit downtown,” real people are just looking for places where they can be happy. Like us, in Canberra.