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Canberra: Where the City and Country Meet

November 22, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

CANBERRA, Australia — The bus that was taking us toward the new Parliament House in Australia's capital came to a stop. The driver explained matter-of-factly over his microphone, "A wild duck and her three babies are crossing the road just ahead of us."

The new Parliament House will be officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on May 9, 1988, as a highlight of Australia's bicentennial year. It has been described as a capital building of the 21st Century, far beyond in concept and architectural design what a visitor can see in any other capital city.

Yet it seems entirely possible that a wild duck and her three ducklings will still be able to amble across a road in this capital city when Australia celebrates its tricentennial in 2088.

Canberra is proudly called a "bush capital" by Australians, even though it is becoming a showplace of architecture, culture, recreational activities and gracious dining.

Parklands and Lakes

Bush capital means that you truly can't tell where the countryside ends and the city begins. Canberra is a historic city developed in clusters within vast parklands and lakes. The wooded hills and surrounding countryside are preserved in nature parks.

The bicentennial year will focus attention on this capital city of the arts, sciences and technology, where 6,000 "bicycle journeys" are made each day by residents and visitors.

A tour of Embassy Row in the wooded hillsides of Canberra's Yarralumia suburb can be a journey around the world, whether you walk, bike, drive a rental car or take a sightseeing bus. The embassies of 64 countries have brought something of their own architectural styles to the city.

The city design of Canberra was the work of Chicago landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Early this century, when neither Sydney nor Melbourne was willing for the other to be Australia's capital city, the U.S. example of the District of Columbia was followed by carving out the Australian Capital Territory between the two major cities.

Aboriginal Designation

The name Canberra came from the aboriginal designation of the area as Kamberra, which means "meeting place." Except for a small village and the St. John's Church of England, built on a hilltop in 1845, the site chosen for the capital was a pastoral valley framed by hills along the Molonglo River. There was a scattering of farms and ranch homes.

An international competition was held for the design of the capital city. Griffin was the winner of 137 entries. At the heart of his design was a lake to be created from the waters of the Molonglo River. Lake Burley Griffin's shoreline has many coves and promontories, parklands, marinas, scenic drives and bicycle paths.

Two bridges span the lake. Capital Hill is on the South Shore, the focal point of national government and galleries, diplomatic and community life. Around City Hill on the North Shore is the civic, business and cultural center of the city.

The city, with a population of 260,000, is 10 times the size of the one planned by Griffin, but green spaces that reach into downtown have preserved his concept.

Three Satellite Cities

Much of the population growth has been controlled in three smaller satellite cities within the Capital Territory. From the viewing platforms and revolving restaurant of Canberra's Telecom Tower atop 2,842-foot Black Mountain, you can get a 360-degree view of Canberra and Lake Burley Griffin, the satellite cities and the river valleys reaching toward the Brindabella Range.

Mt. Ainslee, rising to 2,762 feet behind the Civic Center and above Canberra Nature Park, is a lookout that brings Griffin's design into perspective. Directly below is the green dome of the Australian War Memorial, one of the nation's most respected attractions.

Behind stained-glass windows, the paintings, sculptures, photos and dioramas pay tribute to Australians who were lost in wartime, from the Sudan in 1855 through the Vietnam conflict.

From this memorial the Anzac Parade promenade reaches to the lake. Directly across the water is the classic white facade of what has been called the provisional and temporary Parliament House ever since it was built in 1927. It is expected to become a museum after Queen Elizabeth II opens the permanent Parliament House behind it in May.

King's Hall of the provisional building, between the visitors galleries of the Senate Chamber and the House of Representatives, has an art and historical collection that includes one of the three surviving originals of the Magna Charta.

Designed for the Future

The new Parliament House anticipates the continuing growth of the country while still harmonizing with Griffin's landscaping and master plan. Competition for the design of this complex drew 329 entries from 28 countries. The winner was the Philadelphia-based firm of Mitchell, Giurgola & Thorp (Thorp is an Australian architect).

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