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On This Day in (Engineering) History…

King O'Malley drives in the first survey peg to mark the commencement of work on the construction of Canberra, February 20th 1913 

February 1913, Summer in Australia. Gathered on Kurrajong Hill in New South Wales, (and perhaps sweating already in the 28°C heat) are a small crowd of Australia’s great and good, among them the minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley.  They all gathered here on this barren, unremarkable piece of scrub to witness the very first piece of work to build a new capital city for a new country - Canberra, the federal capital of the Commonwealth of Australia. 

O’Malley would be the one to strike the first surveyor’s peg into the ground, Charles McDonald, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, would strike the second, a few metres away. 

Location, Location, Location…

Immediately after Federation of the old colonies into the new Commonwealth, work set about finding a new capital.  For now, government would reside in Melbourne, but the new city would have to be a maximum of 100 miles from Sydney and within reach of Melbourne. 

After years of wrangling and disagreement, 20 sites were narrowed down to the settlement at Yass-Canberra, formally chosen by the House of Representatives in 1908. They had a site, but not a city. In 1911, an international competition was launched to find a design. 

A truly new vision

It was won by Walter Burley Griffin, an architect from Chicago, Illinois, USA.   Griffin was an idealist, a pacifist who wanted a city fit for ‘bold democrats.’  A poor draughtsman, the plans and other images were sketched out by his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, an architect and  highly regarded architectural artist. 

His design was said to be the only entry that displayed a true, artistic grasp of town planning.  It was also one of the few to take into account the area’s topography and climate.  Other entries, being more focused on the type of city seen in the colder climates of Europe or North America. 

The city would be placed between three hills (Black Mountain, Mugga Mugga and Mount Ainslie), while being set north and south of an ornamental lake.  Its structure would be based around a land axis and a water axis.  King’s Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue would form a triangle with Constitution Avenue on the northern side of the lake.  The southern apex would be Kurrajong Hill (now Parliament or Capital Hill).  Here would be situated a place of the people, less venue for sober deliberation, more reception, archive and celebratory site. 

In turn, Kurrajong Hill would overlook government buildings set out on a terrace below the hill, including Parliament House (now Old Parliament House) on Camp Hill. Other institutions such as, City Hall, a Museum, a University, and the Military College would be housed on the surrounding lower hills.  

Burley-Griffin wanted Canberra to be a low rise, medium density city inspired by (among others) the garden city movement. It would feature hexagons clustered around the artificial lake. These hexagons would link to each other with boulevards set along angular axes, like a set of geometric stars gently overlaid each other.  This would be punctuated with urban terraces, monuments and vast amounts of plants.  

Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin at Castlecrag, Sydney on July 27, 1930.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Relax, chill…

If the capital was to be one architectural anchor for the city, the other would be the ‘casino’, an open space at the foot of Mount Ainslie.  Here would be space for residents and visitors to stretch their legs; space would be given to leisure, in the form of theatres, shops and restaurants with al-fresco eating areas and German style beer gardens. 

Communities would sit within triangular precincts of between 15 and 25 acres in size. These would be terraced with front and back yards.  Larger blocks of free-standing houses would be connected by bush corridors. 

Each element of the new capital would work together to create an open, liveable city.  It would be an ideal city of the future, a ‘home for bold democrats.’ In 1913, not long after arriving in Canberra, Burley-Griffin was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. 

Troubling Omens

Early on, there were warning signs. To begin with, while governments came and went, officials remained the same.  

There had been solid opposition to Burley-Griffin’s appointment as Director of Design and Construction. Even before he arrived in Canberra, this opposition found expression in the building of a power station in an area Griffin had earmarked for residential development. 

All of this meant supportive figures such as King O’Malley were unable to steer the project in a way that adhered to Burley-Griffin’s vision. Instead, more conservative figures such as surveyor Charles Scrivener, Percy Owen, Commonwealth works director, and Walter Liberty Vernon, New South Wales chief architect were implacably opposed to something they saw as a foreign idea. 

The World takes a turn

This was happening against a background of growing tensions in Europe.  When the First World War broke out, spending on a new capital city fell by the wayside, financing the war effort became more pressing. 

Work on the city continued, through the 1920s.  The building site with its tent cities for workers gave way to a picturesque town with grand ambitions for the future.  The new Parliament building was completed by 1927, but without Burley-Griffin.  

The war had fundamentally changed Australia.  Walter and Marion’s idealistic pacifism no longer had a place in the capital, still less ‘strange ideas’ such as German-style beer gardens and tree lined boulevards. He left Canberra in 1920, moving to Melbourne to practice architecture.   

The modern city has little of the prize-winning design that caught the imagination of King O’Malley and other politicians.  It has more of the vision of his opponents. 


Few things divide people like architecture. Why do we, as a species, seem so opposed to new ideas around how we live and what can be achieved by buildings and new approaches to city-space can do?

 If a house is a ‘machine for living in’, what is a city?


Stephen Phillips is an IET Content Producer, with passions for history, engineering, tech and the sciences.