Northbourne Flats

We may have the world’s most liveable city, but our gateway is surely one of the ugliest.

Any visitor driving down Northbourne Avenue last weekend would have been greeted by a vista of derelict and down-at-heel public housing developments, interrupted only by the occasional discarded ‘nana couch’ or dilapidated chair. 

Are we happy that many people’s first impression of Canberra is tarnished by embarrassing eyesores such as the Northbourne Flats?  Or can we do better?

As the debate around the heritage value of the Northbourne Flats continues, with the Heritage Council recently registering the precinct as an example of “post-war international-style architecture”, we must ask ourselves a simple question: are these really the sorts of buildings we want to preserve for our grandchildren?

Some of Canberra’s most iconic new spaces have been created by breathing new life into ageing buildings – think the historic Kingston Powerhouse’s transformation into the Canberra Glassworks, the revival of Hotel Acton (which is now Peppers) or the careful restoration of the old patent’s office into the RM Hope Building.  All these buildings have one thing in common: quality. 

In a young city like Canberra, we cannot afford to lose exceptional examples of our history.  But protecting our past doesn’t mean keeping second-rate buildings simply because they are old.  The Northbourne Flats are poorly insulated and ventilated, riddled with rising damp and asbestos, and expensive to maintain.  Debating their heritage value overlooks what every resident knows: they are unhealthy and unliveable.

Tenants of these and other public housing developments have lived with the architectural and aesthetic mistakes that the rest of us rejected decades ago.  Now, with Northbourne and ABC flats slated for demolition, we have an opportunity to dismantle the concentration of disadvantage in pockets of our inner city, and improve the quality of development.

Every new building in Canberra must be well designed, carefully considered and address the needs of our community. 

Every existing building must do the same.  It is clear that, regardless of whether the some individuals think they are good examples of late modernist architecture, the Northbourne Flats no longer meet the needs of the community.

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