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
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