Farrelly, Elizabeth: Dull, wasteful and overblown – is this the best Australia can do?

Elizabeth Farrelly

Dull, wasteful and overblown – is this the best Australia can do?‘, Age, 30 November 2019

Architecture critic and commentator looks at the expansion plans for the Australian War Memorial against a backdrop of consideration of Canberra’s planning: ‘the tension between the landscape romanticism of Canberra’s design and the hard-headed militarism of its execution is a constant presence’. (Also in the Sydney Morning Herald.)

I’m here to consider Scott Morrison’s newest half-billion-dollar baby; the knock-down rebuild of Anzac Hall, behind the War Memorial museum. Designed by DCM, Anzac Hall is barely 18 years old and bears the nation’s highest architectural honour, the Sir Zelman Cowen Award. If demolished, it will be the only such winner to bite the dust.

Farrelly looks at how Canberra’s Griffin plan was overtaken after World War II by military emphases, seen in the Russell Defence precinct, preferential job and land allocation for ex-service people, Major Sir John Butters on the early Federal Capital Commission, Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Overall on the later National Capital Development Commission, and earlier, Charles Bean on the War Memorial, although he did not want the Memorial to be ‘colossal in scale’. The War Memorial’s original design was graceful and tasteful but recent developments threaten it.

Fast-forward to now. How to extend this building, and indeed, why? How to commemorate (for example) the Iraq war which has, no doubt, its heroic tales but, implicating us in what was likely a war crime, is one that should never have been fought? And how to justify $500 million when almost every other federal institution, from the archives and the ABC to the CSIRO’s critical climate work, is suffering ruthless cuts?

Farrelly compares the Canberra plans with those to extend the Hyde Park Memorial in Sydney. She says the Canberra concept ‘at more than 10 times the cost, seems dull, wasteful, overblown and smug’.

This is no mere hangar for guns and poppies. This building will represent who we are now, at the intersection of one of the most important songlines in the country (Mt Ainslie to the parliament) with perhaps the most critical moment in history. Can we recreate Bean’s uncolossal gem? Or is dull, wasteful, overblown and smug the best Australia we can find?

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