Imagine starting with an isolated piece of land in the countryside, and imagine imposing upon that land a city. A great capital city which would somehow represent the nation in all its variety. A city loaded with nationalist symbolism, of which citizens could be proud. Canberra and Brasília are two such places, beginning in the town planners’ imagination and resulting in two remarkable capital cities.
The problem of finding a site for the Australian national capital was discussed at the first meeting of Australia’s Federal Cabinet in 1901. Fierce competition between Sydney and Melbourne meant that it took a further seven years before a site for Canberra, between Yass, Goulburn and Queanbeyan was selected over several country locations. In 1911 Walter Burley Griffin won a competition with a design that sited Canberra’s national buildings on a triangular axis, with Capital Hill at the apex. There have been many changes to Griffin’s original plan, but his idea of a bush capital, with natural landscape forming a resplendent backdrop to orderly tree-lined esplanades and grand Federal buildings, has, in some sense, been realised.
Brasília emerged from a similar desire to create a new capital city in pursuit of a new national identity. Like Canberra, Brasília was established in isolated countryside. Initiated in 1957, it was inaugurated by then President Juscelino Kubitschek on 21 April 1960. It is a landmark of contemporary town planning and modern architecture. The major players in the city’s design were the town planner Lucio Costa, creator of the Plano Piloto; the architect Oscar Niemeyer; and the principal landscape architect, Burle Marx. Brasília, like Canberra, is set out along strong axes and from an aerial perspective it is said to represent a bird.
Both capital cities have an extraordinary architectural lineage – Walter Burley Griffin worked with Frank Lloyd Wright; Oscar Niemeyer studied with Le Corbusier. Whilst Canberra is often described as a garden city and Brasília is known for its landmark modernist architecture, there are some remarkable visual and circumstantial similarities between the two places. They are both the result of self-conscious and idealistic experiments, in which those in power set out to realise visions of utopia. Renowned for their picture perfect good looks, they perform a splendid spectacle of nationalism and ensure a terrific series of tourist impressions.
But what has happened to these cities after the urban planners, architects and landscape architects have put pencil to paper, and their creative zeal has been realised? In Canberra/Brasília, Marta Penner from Brasília and Shane Breynard from Canberra reached beyond the facades, beyond the Monumental Axis and Parliamentary Triangle, to reveal other sides of the two cities. In June 2001 Shane travelled to Brasília where Marta, a long-term resident, introduced him to the city. In August Marta came to Canberra to be introduced to the city by Shane.
While in Brasília, Shane stayed in a superquadra apartment in one of the original residential sectors located on the two wings of the bird – superquadra sector north, and superquadra sector south. A bold experiment in communal living, the apartment buildings are clustered in groups of 8–10 and are reached by small winding cul-de-sac roads. Parkland runs along one side of the cluster, a local shopping centre along another, feeder roads lead north and south, east and west in an orderly repeat pattern to the end of each of the wings, across the monumental axis in the centre. There are no street names in these residential neighbourhoods, only sector letters, and apartment numbers. It is a simple code which, once understood, is a logical, accessible and efficient location system.
When Marta came to Canberra, she lived in an older suburb on the edge of Civic, the central commercial and shopping district. Like the superquadra clusters, a variation on this older suburb’s footprint has been repeated all over Canberra – smaller roads winding around natural contours that discourage through traffic; a larger road on a bus route leading to a local shopping centre, a high school, a primary school, a park, a tennis court and a church or two. As with Brasília, this footprint provides a simple code which, once understood, is a logical, accessible and efficient location system.
This is what makes these two places similar – each one is embedded with convenient codes and patterns which mystify outsiders and gratify the locals. In Canberra/Brasília, the artists chose to present their photographs without elaborating upon which city was which, thereby testing people's knowledge of their city's planning code. It became a guessing game – which was which, who could locate the landmarks and signatures which unequivocally confirmed whether it was their city or not. One Canberra viewer announced assuredly, though incorrectly, that Shane’s photographs were of Brasília, and Marta’s of Canberra. The response by a viewer in Brasília was perhaps even more fascinating – sheer delight that here was another city as strange as their own, that they were not alone in their weirdness.
In Brasília, the exhibition was hosted by Galeria Funarte, located in the Monumental Axis, behind the Torre TV (TV Tower) in a building designed by Oscar Niemeyer as part of a complex including a gallery, theatre and lecture theatre. A shortage of government funds has meant that this complex has been closed for the last ten years, the buildings used for storage. The gallery is a modest and elegant building, low slung with natural light from skylights which are built into a roof which looks from the outside like a series of small waves. The theatre and lecture theatre are round and white like water storage tanks, each with a red door, each equidistant from the gallery. Across a paddock is an abandoned planetarium, also round but domed, and with legs that make it look as if it has just landed.
Further along is a strange concrete mushroom sprouting out of a round slab of concrete with small windows at ground level. Underneath the slab is a jazz club. And at the end of the circuit, a concrete Stonehenge-like construction, round, significant, and completely mystifying to everyone. There are no paved roads leading to these places, tracks are worn into the red earth by people in cars driving to the entrance of their chosen building. It was in this odd place that Canberra/Brasília came to life. The rectangular gallery meant that the artists’ photographs were displayed face to face, and the difference in the way they saw and represented their own, and each other’s cities, became much more apparent.
Shane’s photographs of Canberra and Brasília are taken from eye level and focus on perspective and vanishing point. Many of them document the marks left by people as they move through the built and constructed environment. In Brasília, the photographs focus on the superquadra apartment clusters. In Canberra, Shane moved between parklands on the edge of the city, and the city periphery. These photographs continue his recent investigation of the ways in which people engage with their cities. In unplanned cities, this engagement is what shapes the city. Planned cities, by definition, minimise people’s opportunity for engagement, so that any kind of intervention is correspondingly smaller in scale yet larger in impact.
Marta’s photographs of Canberra and Brasília are all located within 2 km of her residences. Having found these places, Marta spent many hours contemplating the lay of the land before taking photographs with her camera made from a coffee tin. With their extreme contrast between light and dark, her camera obscura photographs are reminiscent of flickering black & white silent movies. In spite of there being no viewfinder, Marta’s photographs reveal the artist’s eye. In these works there is a strong emphasis on the mid horizon line, an object, usually a remnant of human presence, is foregrounded. Buildings distort on the distant horizon. Her photographs are about emptiness in two cities notorious for their wide open spaces. She finds beauty in these forgotten bits of Brasília and Canberra.
They are strange places which have somehow eluded the planner’s pencil, in spite of being right on the nexus between suburb and city. They are perhaps a visual representation of that uncomfortable place between government and people. In many ways, the weaknesses of these cities lie in their alienating national spaces, where huge distances, sweeping esplanades and bold facades both represent and cloak the machinations of government. Faced with these two audacious constructs, which have variously been described as glorious achievements or disastrous failures, the artists refined their investigations to the places where people live. It is there, in the suburban areas with their quiet tree-lined streets, public amenities and parklands, that these cities come into their own.
Jane Barney is the Manager, Public Art, ArtsACT.
Canberra/Brasília was initiated by Canberra Contemporary Art Space Director, Trevor Smith, and subsequently developed and curated by Jane Barney. Exhibition venues included the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (September 2001), Galeria Funarte, Brasília (March 2002), and Cultura Inglesa, São Paulo (May 2002).