Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory, is Australia’s capital city. After Federation in 1901, a site for the capital was sought, and Canberra was selected. The Australian Capital Territory was declared on 1 January 1911 and an international competition was held to design the new capital city of Australia. The competition was won by a submission from American architect Walter Burley Griffin with drawings drafted by Marion Mahony Griffin.
You are on Ngunnawal land – Canberra
For 21,000 years the Canberra region has been home to the Ngunnawal people. Evidence of their long occupation exists in archeological evidence found at Birrigai Rock Shelter at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, in rock paintings in Namadgi National Park and in other places throughout the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). When Europeans settled the area in the early 1820s hundreds of Aboriginals lived in the area, meeting regularly for corroborees and feasts and then breaking off into smaller bands.
The Aborigines moved about to take advantage of seasonal foods, such as bogong moths which arrived in their thousands during the summer months.
As elsewhere in Australia, European settlement disrupted Aboriginal patterns of land use and movement across the country, and many Aborigines died from European-brought diseases like influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis.
Aborigines continued to live in the area, often working on sheep properties, their numbers diminished by illness and starvation, their culture and language in decline.
Canberra, a good sheep station spoiled
In 1815 a road was constructed across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst Plains, and by 1820 a road to Goulburn Plains (which lie within 100 kilometres of Canberra) was under construction, opening up the vast interior of Australia to further exploration and development.
In 1820 explorers Joseph Wild, James Vaughan and Charles Throsby Smith discovered the Limestone Plains of the Canberra region, following the discovery of Lake George earlier that year. They crossed the range of hills beside Lake George and reached a point from which they saw what is now the site of Canberra.
The first European settler in the district was Joshua John Moore who established a stock station called ‘Canberry’. It’s thought the name Canberry is based on an Aboriginal name for the area ‘Kamberra’ or ‘Kambery’. The middle of Moore’s property is approximately where Canberra’s city centre is currently sited. In 1913 Canberra became the official name for the area.
A capital city for Australia
Subsequent to Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth Parliament was formed. The grand opening ceremony was held on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. The Commonwealth Parliament continued to sit in Melbourne as the site of the national capital was not yet decided.
The New South Wales Government commissioned a report suggesting possible locations for the seat of Government for the new Commonwealth of Australia. The report suggested three places — Bombala, Yass-Canberra, and Orange — which made it to a short list, and suggested others which were rejected: Albury, Tumut, Cooma and Armidale.
The decision for the Yass-Canberra option was made in 1908 by the Commonwealth Parliament and shortly afterwards the Commonwealth surveyor, Charles Scrivener, was dispatched to choose a site. His instructions were to choose somewhere picturesque, distinctive, and with views.
The Australian Capital Territory was declared on 1 January 1911 and an international competition to design the new capital city of Australia was held. More than 130 entries were received in the competition and the winning entry was submitted by American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his partner and wife, Marion Mahony Griffin.
The first Commonwealth Parliament House opened in Canberra in 1927. The Australian Capital Territory became a self-governing territory in 1989.
The development of modern Canberra
The Griffins, Walter Burley and Marion Mahony, had both spent considerable time working for Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. Marion worked for him for 14 years and Walter for five.
Walter Burley Griffin was influenced by the City Beautiful and Garden City movements which influenced town planning during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was also influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, particularly in the development of the Prairie style, which included not just the design of a house, but the interiors as well, including stained glass, fabrics, carpet and other accessories.
The influence of the City Beautiful and Garden City movements is clear in Griffin’s plans for Canberra – green bands surrounding areas of settlement, wide boulevards lined with large buildings, formal parks and water features.
There was considerable opposition to Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra, the Argus newspaper reporting that:
… the federal government cannot afford to throw money away … the plan is that of a landscape artist rather than an engineer … it looks as though the author of this plan … had been carefully reading books upon town planning without having much more theoretical knowledge to go upon.
King O’Malley, who was Minister for Home Affairs at the time, bowed to pressure and a Departmental Board made changes to Griffin’s design. Walter Burley Griffin was sent a copy of the changes by the Departmental Board. Griffin wasn’t happy with the changes and argued that he should be in Canberra to oversee the building.
The Griffins came to Australia and Walter was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. However, like Jørn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House years later, Burley Griffin had a hard time of it. Delays in construction led to a Royal Commission which, in 1917, supported Burley Griffin’s position and his continued appointment supervising the work. But Griffin continued to be criticised and from 1920 he was no longer part of the development of Canberra.
He continued practising as an architect in Australia and was responsible for the design of the suburb of Castlecrag in Sydney, the towns of Leeton and Griffith in NSW and for other buildings such as Newman College at the University of Melbourne.
Marion Mahony Griffin’s role has long been regarded as secondary. However, it was at her urging that Walter entered the design competition for the city of Canberra and it was she – the world’s first licensed female architect – who was responsible for the drawings which won the competition. She was a renowned draughtswoman and a talented architect in her own right.
In 1935 the Griffins went to India and set up practice. Walter Burley Griffin died there a year later. Marion returned to the USA and lived to be 91.
World War 1 slowed progress on the development of Canberra as did the depression and World War 2. Griffin originally designed the city for a population of 75,000 people but in the boom following World War 2 Canberra grew and now contains a population of more than 300,000.
Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House opened in 1927 and served as the home of Federal Parliament until 1988. In Canberra’s early years the House was the social, geographic and political heart of the new Australian capital. Over time, this impressive building became synonymous with some of the country’s most important moments including Australia’s declaration of war in 1939 and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975.
The sixty years during which Old Parliament House served as a working parliament were a time of enormous change for Australia. The country grew from an Imperial Dominion to a nation in its own right. Over that time, Old Parliament House was the theatre in which the politics of the day were played out and momentous decisions made.
The significance of Old Parliament House today lies in its historical and social value to the Australian people. The House is a nationally significant ‘museum of itself’ and of Australia’s political heritage – so, as well as being a popular tourist destination, it is also a precious place which needs conservation.
Today Canberra has become a hub for western New South Wales, as well as a major tourist destination for Australians and international visitors. People visit the national capital because it is the seat of federal government, and also because it boasts many major Australian cultural organisations and important cultural landmarks like the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the High Court, Parliament House, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and the National Library of Australia.
Canberra Day is held on the second Monday in March each year, the culmination of a 10 day Celebrate Canberra festival where Canberrans are able to celebrate the physical beauty, and cultural diversity and vibrancy of their city. The Day commemorates and celebrates the official founding of Canberra on 12 March 1913. The Canberra Citizen of the Year is named at this time.
- Design and development of the national capital- external site– Fact sheet, National Archives of Australia
- Building the provisional Parliament House- external site– Fact sheet, National Archives of Australia
- Discovering Mildenhall’s Canberra: photographs from the birth of our capital- external site
- Walter Burley Griffin: In His Own Right- external site– PBS documentary
- Commonwealth of Australia design for the layout of the Federal Capital City- external site– Copy of Federal Capital Design No. 29 by W. B. Griffin
- Walter Burley Griffin and the design of Canberra- external site– Fact sheet, National Archives of Australia
- Parliament of Australia- external site
- National Capital Authority- external site
- Australian Capital Territory Government- external site
- Aboriginal Tent Embassy- external site
- Australian War Memorial- external site
- High Court- external site
- Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House- external site
- Namadgi National Park- external site
- National Gallery of Australia- external site
- National Library of Australia- external site
- National Museum of Australia- external site
- Old Parliament House and Curtilage- external site– National Heritage listing
- Parliament House- external site
- Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve- external site
Tourism and events
- Visit Canberra- external site
- act.gov.au- external site
- Floriade- external site
- National Multicultural Festival- external site
Last updated: 7 January 2016