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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.