Constructing a Capital

The legends that surround Canberra’s birth would have us believe that creating a national capital took nothing more than choosing a site equidistant from Sydney and Melbourne.

Of course, anyone who lives in Canberra - anyone who loves its unique natural and built environments - knows that constructing a city takes more than the simple gesture of pushing a pin into a map.

Thousands of people have lent their blood, sweat and tears to the task of building Canberra from a collection of farms. We should recognise these people - because without them, we would not have the city that stands today, nor would we have the flourishing property and construction industry that employs a third of our citizens.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Winston Churchill famously remarked. Never was this truer than for Canberra. Custom-built capital cities are shaped by the desire to make them symbols for national identity. But once erected, our buildings - from the grandeur of our galleries to the green roof of Parliament House - have played a central part in creating our cultural identity and the liveability of our city.

Our industry was one of the first to be established in Canberra. In fact, you could say it was established as the first brick was laid and the first foundations poured. Construction workers were some of the first to arrive on the site that would one day be the nation’s capital, and they began to build a city from scratch.

One of my favourite pictures of old Canberra, which can be found in the Mildenhall Collection, is an aerial shot which captures Old Parliament House, the Hotel Canberra and West Block. Far in the distance, the Sydney and Melbourne buildings stand sentinel. Between and behind them lie paddocks dotted with sheep.

Life was hard for those early builders of Canberra. Without adequate accommodation, they contented themselves with tents and humpies. Later, they built tiny cottages of timber frames, clad in iron on the roof and hessian on the walls. There was no electricity, no sewerage and no running water. Anyone who’s lived through a Canberra winter can imagine the hardship.

Creating a capital worthy for the nation was a great challenge, requiring visionary planning and design, smart engineering and innovative construction. As the capital and the property and construction industry grew, it became an incubator for new building types and techniques, new materials and alternative delivery methods. It attracted architects, engineers, designers and builders, each of whom wanted to put their stamp on a unique and significant city.

In the years following World War II, ours became the “industry of opportunity”. Large numbers of immigrants settled in Canberra, finding easy work in property and construction and bringing with them different ideas and approaches. These people started many of the family building dynasties that are well-known in Canberra today. For these families, contributing to Canberra is in their blood.

The building of a national capital continued through two world wars and the Great Depression, through political upheaval and changes of government, through changes to ideology and recalibrations of focus. During those years, the hands of our industry have touched everything from humble workmen’s cottages to imposing national institutions, two houses of parliament, churches and cathedrals, law courts and a national library, embassies and offices, dance halls and cinemas, hospitals, schools and shops.

By 1967, leading American urban planner, Edmund Bacon, had described Canberra as a statement of world culture which belonged “among the greatest creations of man”. He said he knew of no other work of architecture so under-rated. “Here is a network of sweeping vistas, vast gulps of fresh air, superbly exciting and dynamic interactions between the peaks of the hills and mountains and the movements of people.”

Today, we've built a city that frequently tops the rankings as Australia’s most liveable. We have a city that is intimately connected with its natural environment. We have buildings that remind us of the past and inspire us to a better future. And we have a vibrant property and construction sector that underpins Canberra’s economic growth.

Our industry generates almost 25,000 jobs across the ACT and is the third largest employer. The sector contributes $2.6 billion to the economy – just under 10 per cent of the Territory’s total wealth – and a further $3.0 billion in flow-on demand for goods and services, bringing the total contribution to $5.6 billion.

It also more than pays its dues, contributing more tax than other industry - around $600 million a year, or over half of all Territory taxes. In addition, the property sector pays 23 cents for every dollar generated in economic growth – a figure far in excess of the average of 4 cents among other industries.

We build the communities, homes and workplaces that the people of Canberra need to flourish. So, let’s honour the past by acknowledging the contribution our industry has made to a centenary of prosperity in Canberra, and ensure that smart, sustainable policies support its future.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia