Bagging Canberra

Bagging Canberra. It’s a bit of a national pastime. For my part I was somewhat surprised that Guy Ritchie bothered to apologise for it. This post is inspired by this piece by the ABC’s Louise Maher; “Canberra bashing as tired as NZ sheep jokes“:

It’s bad enough – sad enough – that Canberra bashing is a national sport. It’s even more depressing when Australians conduct the bashing on an international stage.

Why? Because Canberra is our national capital. It’s YOUR national capital. If Australians don’t feel pride or at least a certain connection with this city, there’s something wrong. Particularly if it’s deemed OK for Canberra to be the butt of cheap, boring jokes.

So let’s have a look for interesting examples of Canberra bashing in the National Library of Australia’s Trove archive. The first examples I found were from the early construction of the city. As a city planned to such an unusual extent there was a lot of room for criticism and bike shedding. From 1926:


One of the types of cottages offered to public servants by the Federal Capital Commission, which have been criticised adversely. The price of this cottago is £1,440 but this is exclusive of lease, rent of land, fencing, and other oharges, including a 7 per cent charge made by the commission for out of pocket expenses in connection with the building.

– CANBERRA COTTAGES CRITICISED. (1926, June 16). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), p. 17. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

Interestingly, the criticism of the accommodations above seems to have been part of a bigger problem. Here’s an interesting piece from 1928, discussing the class structure of the newly constructed city:



“Canberra is a hideous waste of public money; a hotbed of class consciousness and snobbery, and it was planned in a nightmare.”

Tliis is from one of the fiercest attaclcs yet launched on the Federal Capital, loy the Victorian Minister for Forests, Mr Beckett, who went to Canberra to inspect the Forestry School. “The roads arc a dizzy whirl of curves —a taxi-driver’s paradise,” he said. “If Canberra over has a big population, —and it will not, has no trade or industry to sustain it—the streets will be found to be too narrow. “Canberra has-no future,” he declar ed. “Population follows trade, and in Canberra there is no trade. Every- where there is class distinction. “The workmen, who are the back bone of the place, are segregated into one corner, and pushed into four-roomed hutches built of imported timber. Then there are the junior offices; then the not-so junior; then the curled darlings of the service– and between them all there is plenty to spare for the wind to blow and prevent contamination. “The architecture of Canberra is dreadful.”

– CANBERRA. (1928, February 9). Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954) , p. 1. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

The final category of early Canberra trashing was on the basis of cost. Here’s an example from 1929:



CANBERRA, March l8.

In the course of his cross-examina- tion of Mr. W. Hayward Morris, the designing architect of the Federal Capital Commission, who gave evidence to-day before the Public Works Com- mittee which is investigating the estab- lisliment of a laboratory of the Economic Botany at Canberra, Mr. Gregory (C.P.) expressed dissatisfac- tion at the cost of the construction of the buildings in Canberra as com- pared with Melbourne and Sydney. The estimated cost of the botanical block In connection with the proposed buildings, said Mr. Morris, would be £22,810, and that of the administrative block £19,615, which, plus essential ser- vices and interest, made the estimated total cost of the proposal £52,624.

CANBERRA BUILDINGS. (1929, March 19). The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), p. 23. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

Here’s an outrage from 1945, as the “girls” of Canberra are allegedly repressed and frustrated.


CANBERRA, September 30.— The segregation of sexes under the Government’s hostel scheme in Canberra was criticised yesterday by the superintendent of the Canberra Community Hospital (Dr. Nott), who said the segregation was having a bad psychological effect on the girls employed in Government departments in Canberra.

Dr. Nott, who is a member of the Canberra Advisory Council, said the Council had renewed its request to the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Johnson) that the sex barrier be lifted. The Government’s policy threatened to turn girl departmental workers into old maids. The girls generally had had far too much spirit to let the segregation get them down, but the continued repression and frustration was having effect.

– CANBERRA HOSTEL SCHEME CRITICISED. (1945, October 1). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1885 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

The attitude of that article is quite disturbing, as is the idea that the government had decided to hide the young women away. I’m not sure what was going on there. Whatever the outrage, I’m sure it pales in significance compared to the outrage of being unable to get a decent sandwich.


CANBERRA, Tuesday The Minister for the Interior, Mr. Johnson, has asked an officer of his department to see it conditions in Canberra cafes can be improved.

Mr. Johnson’s action follows complaints about the cafes’ restricted hours of opening and the service given.

He said to-day that scarcity ot accommodation was still an obstacle to the establishing of new cafe pre- mises, with consequent beneficial competition.

CANBERRA CAFES CRITICISED. (1946, July 3). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

Of course, criticism of Canberra’s architecture continued – as it does today. Here’s a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from Walter Bunning – amusingly, he went on to be the architect of the National Library of Australia. This is a long one:


National University

Sir,-When the Federal Government announced that a National University was to bc established at Canberra, those interested in thc development qf their capital city foresaw opportunity for a group of buildings of major importance, serving the purposeof thc highest research institution in Australia and giving architectural expression to its most noble ideals.

]t is now disclosed that the first building of thc group is being erected, and that plans have been completed for the Research School of Physical Sciences, but so far the public has not had an opportunity of seeing thc designs or expressing opinion upon them.

In the case of a major national institution financed from public revenue, it is most surely the right of the public to see illustrations of the proposed project. The aesthetic expression of the design alone raises numerous issues of interest to all.

The University offers a magnificent opportunity to present to thc visiting public and those from overseas the strongest impression of thc character of Australian architecture. One might express the opinion that such a major work could exert an influence on our future architecture as important as Governor Macquarie’s Sydney Hospital in relation to its time.

The only way in which public confidence can be secured in the design of such major buildings is the calling of a nation-wide architectural competition. The fine University at Perth was carried out in this way.

Canberra is a city of mediocre and undistinguished civic architecture, apart from the National War Memorial, which resulted from an architectural competition. lt is not too late to hold such a competition for those buildings which have not been started.

It is high time that a full state- ment on the position was made by the Prime Minister as to what is the design policy, who is advising the Government, how the selection was made, and how the work is being carried out.

In the absence of any authoritative information the impression has been created, perhaps erroneously, that the whole project is the close preserve of a handful of professors.



– Letters. (1949, August 30). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

Then nothing further raise the ire of Australia’s architects than fly-in, fly-out British competitors:

Canberra House Criticised

Canberra House, the residence of the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra, was sharply criticised this, week in “Cross-Section,” a publication of the Melbourne University School of Architecture.

“Cross-Section” said:

“Canberra House is the latest overseas contribution to Canberra architecture, and it was designed by a Ministry of Works (Eng.) architect who flew out ‘to get an idea of living conditions.’

“Described by the Press as British contemporary architecture, rather it is an extra-ordinary combination of the most commonplace prentious elements in both English and Australian ‘ideal home’ taste, blown up to panoramic pioportions dressed with interiors in such diverse but socially acceptable styles as ‘Modern Regency’ and Festival of Britain, constructed and finished with an extravagance that doubtless compensates the occupiers for its inadequacies in design for Canberra climate ”

– Canberra House Criticised. (1954, January 26). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 14. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

Finally, here is a plea the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women for a form of local government:


Canberra.- Canberra was “red tape” from one end of the city to the other under the present civic administraiton, Mr. B. C. Davis said.

Mr. Davis, a delegate from the Australian -Legion of Ex-Service- men and Women, was speaking at a conference of Canberra citizens who met to discuss a new form ofadministration for the city.

Tlie conference decided to urge a system of local government.

CANBERRA’S “RED TAPE” CRITICISED. (1949, November 3).Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

There you have it. Bagging Canberra – not just a national pastime, but also a part of our rich media history. Or perhaps it’s just the uninspired enterprise of dullards. Whichever it is, it’s certainly not at all news.

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