A key connection
The Kambri precinct will help realise the vision of connecting the ANU campus to the city. Adam Spence reports.
Even when Canberra was only a glimmer in the eyes of planners, a site for a world-class research university was at the heart of the plan for the new national capital.
When Griffin thought of what a national capital should have, it was a university, and a university a bit like ANU.
However, like many aspects of the young city, realising the early planners’ vision took time. But now, with the opening of an exciting new precinct on campus, the vision is being realised – and the University is integrating with the city it was planned to become a central part of.
Professor Nicholas Brown from the ANU School of History who published A History of Canberra in 2014, is able to tell us how the vision of the capital city emerged. And, as a student, historian and now academic at ANU, how the University grew up alongside it.
“[Walter Burley] Griffin gave us the shape of the city, but had very little influence over the building of the city,” he says.
That shape, mapped out in strong axes representing its core functions, envisaged urban development on both sides of the lake. Terrace Avenue (later University Avenue) and Capital Terrace (later Constitution Avenue) formed an east-west link through the City Centre, sometimes called the municipal axis.
“Griffin’s idea, if you go back to his plans, was for a medium density city, a much more integrated urban grid form,” Brown says.
But with Griffin’s departure over differences with government planners, and following the interruption of World War I, the city’s development was shaped by a different planning philosophy and a more modest budget. That early vision was in large part set aside.
“John Sulman, the noted architect responsible for the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings, took Griffin’s medium density urbanism with a lot of public open space, and turned it into a suburb and bungalow garden city style with a lot of private garden space,” Brown says.
Sprawling suburbs emerged with private gardens and roads to accommodate motor vehicles. Centres developed in an ad-hoc way and isolated satellite centres and later town centres developed. It led to a city that some have said lacks a human scale and was focused on shopping and work precincts.
The city has traditionally lacked strong cultural precincts. The development also led to a nodal city, with areas serving distinct purposes, but lacking integration. One such nodal area was the future university, to be sited west of the City Centre.“It was identified as one of the core hubs of what the national capital should be,” Brown says. “When Griffin thought of what a national capital should have, it was a university, and a university a bit like ANU, one focused on areas of prime national interest, concepts of national government, social sciences, law.”
Union Court became the centre for political activism.
Like the city it developed alongside, the development of ANU has been shaped by different architectural leaders, and reflected changing, often pragmatic, needs as it grew.
After it was founded as a research university in 1946, early planners like Brian Lewis (who designed University House) shaped the campus according to the landscape, while taking into account Griffin’s water axis. They wanted freedom from the city’s sometimes rigid planning controls and, as a result, the campus became its own realm.
“You couldn’t really talk about the planning or development of ANU having an integrated sense of its place in the Canberra community,” Brown says.
The newly founded University soon attracted world-class researchers. When Canberra University College was amalgamated with ANU in 1960, student numbers swelled – from 948 undergraduates in 1961 to 2387 in 1965.
The University quickly had to build new teaching spaces and amenities to accommodate this growth, pushing the campus towards University Avenue and the City Centre. Architect Roy Simpson planned new buildings and aligned future development with the municipal axis along University Avenue.
The Haydon Allen precinct and pedestrianised University Avenue were to be a gateway from city to university – from town to gown – but only recently was this vision realised. The barren carparks and dilapidated buildings around Marcus Clarke and Childers Streets were replaced with the modern, vibrant ANU Exchange precinct, where plazas and street-level commercial buildings form strong pathways between city and campus.
Further along University Avenue, the car parks and rows of trees between Chifley Library and Sullivans Creek – chosen by early Canberra planner Thomas Watson – gave way to Union Court, an expansive plaza and home to shops and student organisation buildings.
Although derided by some as barren and uninviting, even after upgrades in 2001, it became a focal point for student culture as well as the city’s political activism and youth culture.
“As a high school student, I would smuggle myself into concerts at Union Court because that was the venue for some really cutting edge rock music performances – Midnight Oil for example – if you were in Canberra during the 1970s,” Brown recalls.
Union Court became the centre for political activism, from protesting the Vietnam War to demanding law reform on contraception. And the Union Bar attracted national and international acts including Nirvana in the 1990s, drawing people from across the city for live music and socialising.
ANU was becoming something more, not just the realm of researchers and students, but a part of the city. Now Kambri takes that further and helps realise important historical and contemporary aims for the city.
With its density and mixed uses from residential to hospitality, culture and lifestyle, Kambri realises a scale and style that is thoroughly modern, and yet akin to what was foreseen in the early plans for Canberra. It brings people from different walks of life together to enjoy and share a space. It creates the sort of true mixed use and cultural precinct that Canberra planning has traditionally struggled to foster. Modern and conscious design addresses the contemporary needs of safe and environmentally sustainable urban planning.
“We need to make more efficient use of urban space, we need to make more sustainable use of urban space,” Brown says. “That probably means creating a stronger sense of ownership of that space among groups of people so no one group of people feels they own it and no group feels they’re excluded.”
Kambri will have author events at the new bookstore, public lectures and creative performances, promising a precinct that is more strongly linked to the city than ever.
“Anything that can make it easier for people who are not necessarily a part of the ANU community to feel this is a site they can come on to and find their way around and feel welcome is a good thing,” Brown says.