This festival in the nation’s capital celebrated the city’s suburbs, once a mecca for modernist design, art and architecture.
Surrounding Canberra’s epicentre of politics and policy is an abundant bush landscape studded with unassuming mementos of Australian residential design. Built on Ngunnawal Country, from timber and brick, and entangled by native plantings, the suburban homes of our capital city form a catalogue of enduring architecture and design. This built environment was recently examined through a series of talks, walks and exhibitions developed for Design Canberra 2020. Within a vibrant festival calendar, Design Canberra’s tours of iconic and lesser known houses formed a valuable reference point for reflecting on which aspects of our suburbs could be thoughtfully retained or reinvented.
On the final weekend of the festival, an “architecture stroll” through Waller Crescent, designed by local architect Neville Ward in 1967, offered a layered representation of architectural history. Edging a central courtyard planted with skyward-snaking eucalypts, the original structure at one time stood as an exemplar of Australian modernist housing. Unlike many suburban mid-century gems, though, the house at Waller Crescent diverges from the untouched time capsules whose architectural significance is much easier to vouch for, and that’s part of what makes the visit so interesting. At Waller Crescent the quite evident deviations from the original, minimal and rational plan form a sketch of our current suburban condition and the ways in which people’s values have shifted over time. Over the years, the carport and undercroft have been enclosed for more internal living space. A new handrail creates a barrier between large operable windows and a two-storey fall from the narrow balcony that skirts the facade. As the new owners showed us through the home, they told us that the walls of glass will soon need shading as the reality of climate change is now being felt.
As a counterpoint to the architecture tours,
Design Canberra 2020 presented broader interpretations of Canberra’s built environment through the This is Suburbia exhibition and associated photography competition. Exhibited at Canberra Contemporary Art Space and Belconnen Arts Centre and commissioned by Craft ACT, This is Suburbia presented a series of photographs by Davey Barber that capture the shops, parks, houses and people making up the suburban tapestry. Against the backdrop of Canberra’s bush landscape, the photographs highlight the way that understated or unintended design items – a letterbox, a street sign or a garden fence – can create subtle focal points in local narratives.
Culminating in a community gathering on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin, Design Canberra 2020 demonstrated the cultural importance of architecture and design in Canberra’s suburbs. Creating histories, honouring experiences and supporting simple, sustainable ways of living, the festival celebrates the suburban identity of Canberra while also interrogating the legacy of design that we live with and that which we will leave behind. designcanberrafestival.com.au
Design Canberra 2020 ran from 9 to 29 November.