W. L. Vernon

Building 6 (June 12, 1913):46-49

An editorial comment--doubtless written by George Taylor, the journal's owner and editor--introduced the author's contribution:

"Australia has an opportunity hitherto almost unknown in the history of the world--that of building a capital city on virgin soil

"The world wide competition for a city plan was won by American Architect Griffin, but the Federal Government waived aside the accepted design and adopted a "built up" idea, which is proposed to be carried out.

"The Writer, who has been closely associated with the preliminaries, advises a re-consideration of the present proposal.

"The following communication, written simply from a national standpoint, is well worth the serious attention of Authorities."

Vernon's statement and drawings that followed criticized the so-called Departmental Board plan that a group of civil servants on the Department of Home Affairs recommended to the Government in November, 1912. This was to take the place of ny of the prize-winners in the recent international competition.

Walter Liberty Vernon (1846-1914), born in England qualified both as an architect and as a surveyor. He came to Australia in 1883 and began a highly successful practice in Sydney. In 1890 Vernon became government architect in the New South Wales Department of Public Works, supervising the design of all public buildings. Beginning in 1901 he was closely involved in studying possible sites for the new Australian Federal Capital, and he served on the committee that specified the boundaries of the site for the new city.

"Compared with Mr. Griffin's plan, the defects of which are, after all, aesthetic rather than functional and technical, it is obvious at once that the final plan is the work of an amateur, who has yet to learn the elementary principles of laying out a town."

The above criticism by "The Town Planning Review" of the Departmental design is of an exceptionally scathing character, and although, perhaps, a fuller knowledge of local conditions and of the Government's requirements might modify its severity, yet it is of too important a character--coming, as it does, from an acknowledged authority---to pass by without a close investigation into the grounds upon which it is based.

In Mr. Griffin's first prize design the main avenue leading from Parliament House, on Camphill, now called Canberra Hill, to the City Hall on, Mt. Vernon traverses the heart of the city, and crossing the lake by bridge, forms the essential basis and keynote of the design itself.


In the recently published Departmental one, however, for some reason not discernible, this feature is abandoned, and as a consequence a singularly disconnected and disjointed scheme substituted.


It is true that the subsidiary "vista,","running north-east from Camp Hill in the direction of Mt. Ainslie, of the prize design, is retained in the Departmental one, but it is made to do duty as the leading feature, having for its objective a prosaic Military Barracks located on an indistinguishable and featureless site, and still more serious, it affords no direct means of communication, as its course is abruptly stopped on either shore of the ornamental lake .

The necessary city bridge connections are, of course, provided, but only in secondary positions and with purposeless directions and in the case of the more eastern of two bridges by one designed for combined railway and vehicular purposes. Surely it is not seriously intended to deface the otherwise stately appearance of the city from its main spectacular point of view with the unsightliness and discomfort of a mixed railway traffic--when, as in the prize design so much better railway route is provided?

A critical examination of the two designs, so far as information is publicly available, gives the impression that the one is an emasculated reflex of the other with the best points omitted, and a desultory scheme substituted.

The somewhat "crude" and toylike perspective drawing accompanying the Departmental design (and, alas, published in the London papers!) gives little or no information, but indicates an inferiority of conception.

Grading and Configuration.

An ideal city avenue should be concave in its continuous longitudinal configuration; and dip by sweeping grades down from one eminence crowned by an important building to rise to a corresponding eminence and feature at its other terminal.

An experimental glance at the sections shows that the prize design meets these requirements most satisfactorily, and includes the desirable features referred to, having a handsome bridge crossing the ornamental lake at its greatest depression. An ideally perfect proposal.

The necessary removal of a rounded hillock of shale lying across the route on the northern end is a very minor matter, permitting of refilling a minor depression on the line of the route.

On the other hand the "vista" (not avenue) of the Departmental design fails in these essentials--it is not a continuous thoroughfare--and it traverses a very considerable elevation on its southern section; and on the northern side, in order to secure some kind of grade, it would have to be carried by continuous cutting in country practically level on its traverse sections to the commonplace terminal before mentioned.

This longitudinal configuration is therefore, marred by a "camel's hump," if not two--unless these obstructions are removed. The southern one comprises about 25 acres of excavation, averaging 15ft. in depth in "Schistose," and with no visible tip for debris. It is more than doubtful if this physical fact occurred to the minds of the Departmental Board.

Such a circumstance in the Avenue des Champs Elysee is absolutely unthinkable, and it must be remembered all the time that the Commonwealth Government has allocated and paid a first prize premium for something so much better.

Relative Dispositions.

In the prize design, the avenue practically bisects the northern portion of the city, thus giving equal access from all parts, and a very satisfactory panoramic effect from the fact that the view, looking northward from Parliament House, is buttressed on either flank by the heights of Black Mountain and Mt. Ainslie respectively, and further to an appreciable extent obtains shelter under the former from the cold westerly winds of winter.

On the other hand these features are missing in the Departmental design if its "vista" must be taken as its impracticable avenue--the direction is northeast, direct on to Mt. Ainslie, losing much scenic effect, and traversing into a remote part of the City Site and lying fully exposed to the westerly winds.

There are other important points, such as the apparently unconcentrated disposition of the public buildings. The intrusion of the railway into the spectacular zone--that on critical examination suggests the desirability of a modification or even re-designing of the scheme--or better still, a return to the acknowledged finer conceptions of Mr. Griffin before money is expended on what may subsequently be found to be mistakes incapable of improvement. 

    Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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