QUITE A CAP­I­TAL CITY

AS COOL AS ... CAN­BERRA? FOR­GET YOUR IM­PRES­SIONS OF OUR STAID, LIFE­LESS AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TIVE CEN­TRE — A HAND­FUL OF EN­TREPRENEURS ARE DO­ING THE CITY A REAL PUBLIC SER­VICE

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Monitoring - STORY MI­LANDA ROUT PHOTOGRAPHY SEAN DAVEY

At 8pm on a Fri­day night, so the joke goes, the busiest place in Can­berra is the air­port, fol­lowed closely by the road to Syd­ney. For­mer prime min­is­ter John Howard re­fused to live there and Amer­i­can au­thor Bill Bryson once sug­gested the help­ful mar­ket­ing slo­gan: “Can­berra: why wait for death?” The land of round­abouts, of politi­cians, of public ser­vants, of over­priced medi­ocrity in well, ev­ery­thing, has had 102 years’ worth of in­sults thrown at it. And de­servedly so (I know, I lived there for two years). But it is time to draw a line in the sand and say it — out loud — Can­berra has be­come cool.

Now at 8pm on a Fri­day night, you may find peo­ple hav­ing a drink at Mon­ster Bar at Ho­tel Ho­tel in New Ac­ton (the dé­cor has been de­scribed as Mad­men meets Nordic cool), oth­ers queue­ing for a Peru­vian pork belly sand­wich at a food truck in Brad­don or danc­ing un­til the early hours in a con­verted ship­ping con­tainer on the edge of Lake Bur­ley Grif­fin. This is Can­berra, but not as we know it, and not as I knew it when I fled — sorry, left, in 2013. Even The New York Times noted the trans­for­ma­tion, declar­ing Australia’s cap­i­tal as hav­ing a “de­cid­edly hip­ster un­der­belly” in a piece last May (writ­ten by for­mer lo­cal and now long­time New Yorker Emma Pearse). This val­i­da­tion was just what the town was look­ing for and was end­lessly re­hashed by chuffed Can­ber­rans.

So why has Can­berra be­come cool? And more im­por­tantly, what took it so long? Ac­cord­ing to the ar­chi­tects, de­vel­op­ers and res­tau­ra­teurs be­hind Can­berra’s evo­lu­tion into a hang­out wor­thy of hip­sters, it is all Wal­ter Bur­ley Grif­fin’s fault. Or per­haps more ac­cu­rately, the public ser­vants who have since in­ter­preted his vi­sion for a “utopian gar­den city” in the decades that fol­lowed. A city planned by public ser­vants pri­mar­ily for public ser­vants does not leave much to the imag­i­na­tion or chance or any type of change. There were no in­ner-city trans­for­ma­tions like Fitzroy or Brunswick in Mel­bourne or Surry Hills in Syd­ney be­cause there was no in­ner city. It was all planned sub­urbs con­nected by free­ways and round­abouts and sin­gle shop­ping strips.

“Can­berra’s big­gest fail­ure is that it is de­signed around a car,” says Nec­tar Efkar­pidis, co-direc­tor of the Mo­lon­glo Group, the com­pany be­hind the New Ac­ton devel­op­ment, which has been a game-changer for the cap­i­tal. “If you build sub­urbs where the only way to connect peo­ple to so­cial lo­ca­tions is to get into a car and drive down free­ways, you don’t in­ter­act with any­one. You wake up in the morn­ing and you live in your own pri­vate prop­erty, you get into the bub­ble of a car and go down the street — where are the con­nec­tions with other hu­man be­ings? You don’t have any of what makes in­ner-city living so rich. When you are in Brunswick (in Mel­bourne’s in­ner north), you walk down the street to get a tram, you en­gage with a hu­man be­ing even if it is only stand­ing at the traf­fic lights or get­ting a cof­fee. Th­ese are priceless ex­pe­ri­ences that build con­nec­tions be­tween hu­man be­ings. You didn’t have them in Can­berra un­til they started to build in­ner-city den­sity.”

Efkar­pidis, an ar­chi­tect, was con­vinced by his brother Jonathan to re­turn home to the fam­ily busi­ness in 2004 af­ter spend­ing a decade in Lon­don. Their fa­ther had bought a for­mer gov­ern­ment site sand­wiched be­tween Can­berra’s CBD and Lake Bur­ley Grif­fin with the aim of turn­ing it into a mixed-use precinct, with of­fices, apart­ments, ho­tels, cafes, restau­rants and bars. It would be some­thing Can­berra had not seen be­fore, some­thing you might find in Tokyo or New York or Syd­ney.

It started in 2008 with one build­ing that had of­fices, apart­ments and a cafe, then turn­ing a for­mer hos­tel for public ser­vants into a ho­tel, then a hole-in-the-wall espresso bar called Mo­can & Green Grout (which also dou­bles as a hand-made bike shop) in 2011, two restau­rants and fi­nally the stunning Nishi build­ing, which houses cine­mas, apart­ments, a gov­ern­ment depart­ment (it is still Can­berra, af­ter all) and the re­cently opened and uni­ver­sally ac­claimed Ho­tel Ho­tel.

“What we wanted to do was in­ject a bit of messi­ness. It is what we have in the big cities as they layer over a pe­riod of time,” Efkar­pidis tells WISH. “You can­not have the good and the in­ter­est­ing with­out the grit and messi­ness, and that re­quires us to see things that we don’t nec­es­sar­ily want or even like but we need to ac­cept them be­cause di­ver­sity mat­ters. With­out it, we are down a dead road. We need mul­ti­ple voices, we need mul­ti­ple en­vi­ron­ments, we need peo­ple’s thoughts and ideas. That is what places need and that is what Can­berra was lack­ing be­cause it was de­fined as a sin­gle utopian vi­sion.”

‘No fussi­ness, no smoke and mir­rors, just good food,’ says head chef Sean McConnell of Mon­ster Restau­rant and bar at Ho­tel Ho­tel in the New Ac­ton precinct

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