A towering opportunity

A sign barring access to the viewing platform at Telstra Tower.

The no admittance sign makes a regular appearance at Telstra Tower.

Canberra has its fair share of critics, and much of the mud thrown at the city is unwarranted, so I want to be careful about criticising any of the capital’s attractions, lest I should unwittingly join  the ranks of the Canberra-bashers.

But there’s one feature here that really could do with a little more imagination and TLC than it seems to have received of late, and that’s the needlepoint landmark that is Telstra Tower.

Only completed in 1980, which seems pretty recent to me, the Telstra Tower is a landmark in search of a purpose these days. There’s little doubt about its dramatic punctuation of Canberra’s skyline — it both identifies the city and stands above it — and the story of its construction serves as a parable for the ambition of Canberra itself and of the kind of public projects that seem impossible to imagine today.

An exterior view of Telstra Tower.

Telstra Tower is vivid proof of the kind of ambition that was attached to Canberra’s creation.

It stands at the top of Black Mountain, west of Canberra’s commercial centre and marking the way to the National Arboretum, while offering impressive views of both, and everything else that lies on Canberra’s once-grassy plain.

A first inspection reveals the tell-tale signs of 1970s construction techniques — concrete, lots of it, grainy and pocked with grit, soaring in monolith fashion like some space age, man-made super-tree. Even the approach ramp looks like those that were used to connect the high-rise social housing projects of the same era.

But, from the outside at least, it also looks like a vision of optimism. The type of landmark that was built as much to see if it could be done as because it was a practical solution to an engineering challenge. In that, it deserves its place alongside the Sydney Opera House, the Viaduc de Millau, Casa Batllo and other modern marvels.

What were these people thinking? Goodness knows. But we’re glad that they were.

But inside, the wonder fades. A basement movie show, depicting the vision, planning and construction of the tower blares its soundtrack without any pictures.

A model of the Telstra Tower leading to the telecommunications exhibition and movie theatre.

Inside, the exhibition and theatrette shouldn’t raise too much excitement.

“Yeah, it’s broken,” says the woman in the upstairs ticket office. “I could switch the monitor on but it would just turn itself off again in ten minutes.”

Meanwhile, a mini-museum to Australian telecommunications fills three glass cabinets and you think: really, Telstra (owners of the tower and the largest telecoms company in Australia)? That’s the best you could do?

The sense of neglect continues upstairs. One of the tower’s two elevators is out of order, the revolving restaurant that once welcomed Canberra’s elite for elegant soirees while they surveyed the twinkling lights of the city is no more. The only twinkling now is a glowing ‘No service’ message next to the restaurant floor on the elevator’s display.

The elevator readout, showing the number of metres above sea level.

The elevator alone makes you feel like you’ve entered the set of Thunderbirds.

One floor higher, on the viewing gallery, a gift shop with minimal offerings gives way to a cafe which, although limited in its fare, offers good quality food and drinks at reasonable prices. But it’s the only part of the tower that seems to be trying any more.

After a tour of the viewing gallery, where each pane of glass is labelled so that you can gauge your orientation and vista, we walk up another level to the open air viewing platform. Surrounded by bars, it nevertheless offers spectacular views of the whole city.

Here, Canberra becomes a real-life moving map, with all those ‘planned city’ gridlines plain to see along with all the green intervals that make the city so liveable and so un-city-like. And beyond, that gorgeous surround of mountains, like rugged teepees, hemming the city in and offering the most spectacular of backdrops to its sunrises and sunsets.

And that’s when it hits you. The tower that was partly built as a crowning glory to Australia’s capital is its jewel no more. It’s just the place you go to get the best view of the real jewel — Canberra itself.

A view of the gift shop leading to the cafe.

A small gift shop and simple cafe are all that the tower has to offer now, a far cry from its glitzy heyday.

There’s a higher viewing platform above, with lower barriers and which is a better place for photographs, but it’s closed due to dangerous winds, despite the breeze being nothing more than a light flutter (and certainly nothing like the wind on our first visit when the top floor remained open). Perhaps someone forgot to check the weather forecast, or forgot to unlock the gate when the weather forecast changed and the day turned out bright and pleasant.

I should be annoyed but, actually, it sums the place up. A brilliant building, daringly built, but now somewhat at a loose end. It could be so much more, it could yet have a new life ahead of it, but for that, someone would have to care enough to love it back to life. For now, it seems content just to cling to it.

It’s still worth a visit, just in case someone decides it’s all too much effort — it has that feeling about it anyway.


4 thoughts on “A towering opportunity

  1. Thanks for this Mark. I have been wondering about the tower, and particularly about the revolving restaurant which I’ve been to several times under it’s different manifestations. I rather sensed the last people had gone as there’s been no talk about it for a while. It suffered a little from the greater-the-view-the-more-expensive-the-food syndrome, with varying food quality over the time BUT it was always OK and a great place to dine with visitors. And it was a quiet venue – with the tables spread around the perimeter you never felt crowded. Surely some enterprising entrepreneur could do something new and exciting with it.


    • I agree, it’s such a shame. You know, I may post about this in the future, but having also visited the tower and the various museums telling Canberra’s story (CMAG and the National Capital Exhibition), they all seem a little… splintered, lacking focus or critical mass, and I wonder whether all three could be combined in a more coherent and satisfying way, perhaps at the Tower? Canberra has a great history of its own, but it is quite hard to dig it out as things stand.


      • That’s an interesting observation. And I think you’re right. It’s probably partly due to our schizophrenic nature – the national, political and the local, regional. They are probably not really married well. Keep those creative juices re Canberra going .. They are often best when you ate new and fresh.


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