Canberra: home of the 10-minute taxi ride

If you visit Australia's capital city, you'll end up going round in circles.

Almost everybody does.

Even within the rarefied context of artificial capitals - Washington, Ottawa, Brasilia - Canberra can be a bit strange. To say it is a planned city is like saying Will Shakespeare was a playwright.

In Canberra, even the taxi drivers wax enthusiastic about the vision of Walter Burley Griffin, the American architect who in 1911 won the commission to design a new capital for Australia, in the midst of pasturelands.

He planned Canberra's streets, not along a rectilinear grid, but as sets of concentric circles in little settlements referred to as suburbs, although it's not always clear what or where the "urb" is.

The Parliament House, the War Memorial, and a handful of other striking structures command great respect, but Canberra mostly has three- and four-story buildings that seem to be trying to keep a low profile.

Visitors here inevitably end up bouncing from one suburb to another by taxi - it's not a pedestrian city. And almost everything seems to be only 10 minutes by taxi from anything else.

If you're one of those people who try to remain oriented even in a new place, it can be frustrating.

If Canberra were a person instead of a city, it would be someone who always smiles pleasantly but never quite says what's on his mind.

But wait - just when I feel I've got Canberra pegged as a sort of metropolitan-scale office park - it shows signs of being a real city. Consider:

*The private sector now employs more people here than the government does - although that private sector does include quite a number of workers on government contracts.

*Recently, travel sections in American newspapers have been taking notice of the growing sophistication of Canberra's restaurant scene.

*The city is deemed old enough to need urban renewal.

Colin Stewart, a Harvard-educated architect who has been in Canberra for 20 years, is working to redevelop some old industrial buildings in the so-called Kingston Foreshores of Lake Burley Griffin, not far from Parliament Hill.

The goal of the redevelopment is a "modern-day Soho-type loft district - mixed use," Mr. Stewart explains.

Why Canberra is capital

Canberra was chosen to be the national capital in 1908, when Australians settled the question, "Sydney or Melbourne?" by opting for neither and locating the capital between the two.

The Parliament first sat here in 1927. But not until the 1950s and '60s, under the government of Sir Robert Menzies, was Griffin's vision completely carried out. "His master stroke was to put in the lake," Stewart says of Lake Burley Griffin, which was created in 1963 by damming the Molonglo River. The lake gives the cityscape a focal point it would otherwise lack.

Canberra is home to several universities and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization - the kinds of knowledge institutions that are the economic engines of today's post-industrial cities.

"There aren't that many rich people but everyone is pretty comfortable," Stewart says. "And this is a very well-educated group."

Canberra's office-park quality may be part of what makes it attractive to the 300,000 people who call it home nowadays. "It's really a safe, secure environment," says Elizabeth Tobler, whose family has been here since her Swiss grandfather arrived in 1927 as project manager for the construction of the American Embassy. (Yes, they are related to the chocolatiers of the same name.)

"Our family still has a copy of the original plans," she adds.

Grandfather Tobler had been on his way by ship to the United States when he met some Australian servicemen during a stopover in Algiers. They persuaded him to go to Australia instead.

"You can be at a restaurant and see the deputy prime minister right next to Joe Blow. There are no security people around," Ms. Tobler says by way of explaining Canberra's low-key appeal.

'So many trees!'

"There's a nice feel to the place. And so many trees!" Tobler says. More than half of the Australian Capital Territory is national parks and forest preserves, she explains.

As a result, wildlife is never too far away in Canberra; Tobler remembers one severe drought many years ago that brought kangaroos in search of water onto the front lawn of the family home.

"A lot of people see coming to Canberra as penance for something done in an earlier life," she says frankly.

But people find themselves getting used to the convenience of those 10- or maybe 12-minute taxi rides. "I was in Melbourne recently for a ball, and it took us 45 minutes just to get a cab."

In some ways the best analogue for Canberra may be another "artificial capital" that has recently lost its commission: Bonn, Germany. The two cities are about the same size, and they share a pastoral past, accessible parklands, and generally unpretentious architecture. Instead of kangaroos, though, Bonn has cows.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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