An overview of Walter Burley Griffin’s Plan for the National Capital would include the land and water axes, the National Triangle, Capital Hill, its radiating avenues, democratic symbolism, constitutional diagram, landscape settings and vistas. Seeing Marion Mahony Griffin’s competition drawings and looking today from Parliament House or Mount Ainslie over central Canberra, these features are still wonderful to behold.
However distinctive features of the National Capital Plan are currently under major threat from a series of Plan amendments, construction projects, approved developments and planning consultancies.
Deviations from Griffin’s Plan are not unprecedented but this time they are being conducted misleadingly in the name of Griffin himself.
In order of magnitude of impact, one of the worst would be the massive ASIO headquarters which will sit directly across the lake from the High Court and the Parliamentary Triangle, between Constitution Avenue and Parkes Way and just a stone’s throw from Anzac Parade.
The planned ASIO Headquarters is the largest building project in Canberra after the new Parliament House, and would be a highly visible intrusion in the symbolic centre of Canberra. The site is half a kilometre in length and seven hectares in area. The monolithic building will be a prominent intrusive element from across the Lake at Commonwealth Place, Peace Park and so many other vantage points in the Central National Area and on the hills around.
The large assertive building complex with perimeter security fences and devices would dissipate any attempt to create vibrant streets and active urban spaces. If built the mass and bulk of the project would intrude on the landscape of the most visually sensitive location of Central Canberra.
The project makes a mockery of Griffin’s design for the municipal axis of the great national triangle, intended to be a grand terrace of diverse civic and urban activity. The whole eastern half of Constitution Avenue and fronting Parkes Way will be locked into security and defence offices.
The planned ASIO Headquarters will destroy the balanced symmetrical urban pattern proposed in the Griffin Plan, and detract from the balance and symbolic strength of the Canberra land axis. These impacts will degrade the symmetry, landscape design and symbolism of Walter Burley Griffin’s vision.
The project was developed under wraps without parliamentary or public scrutiny. When the project was referred to the Environment Minister for environmental and heritage impact assessment on 25 March 2009, his delegate approved it on 23 April and the construction site office materialised the next day. Site clearance and construction commenced on 23 May. Yet it still requires formal works approval from the National Capital Authority.
It is the responsibility of NCA to safeguard the design integrity of the National Capital’s areas of national significance.