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The historical development of cities and their effects on the economic and political prosperity in Australia are popular topics of the political and economic analysis. Much has been written and said about the role of cities for the economic stability in Australia. However, the effects of political power on the historical development of Australian cities are poorly understood. The relationship between city evolution and changes in Australia’s political landscapes is frequently overlooked. This paper links the process of urban development in Australia to the political and power processes that shaped the direction of the main architectural decisions in the 19th and 20th centuries. The results of this architectural analysis suggest that, from their inception until present, Australian cities have been heavily influenced by the politics of rationalism and power advantages, which eventually turned the Australian city into an expression of the exercise of power by those in control.
The history of urban development in Australia dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when cities reflected Australian commitment to sustained economic and social prosperity. From their inception, cities in Australia had to reflect and pursue a complex cluster of the national and individual values and promote the well-being and comfort of citisens. Most urban architects in 19th century Australia were confident that “the streets should be wide and tree-planted, that the circus, the square and the boulevard, straight and curved lines, park lands, gardens and the like should find their proper places; that the public, semi-public and private building blocks should be disposed in due relation one to the other” (Hamnett & Freestone 2000, p.29). 19th century architects believed that Australian cities had to have their structures and streets well adapted to the needs of their residents (Hamnett & Freestone 2000).
As a result, civic beautification became the central ingredient of the historical city development in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century. The civic beautification ideology embraced the principles of artistic expression through refined urban forms (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). At that time, few Australian cities could boast architectural squares or noble vistas (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). Business districts that emerged in response to accelerated economic growth in Australia resembled a chaotic compilation of uncoordinated heights and designs networked by telephone and telegraph wires (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). By contrast, the civic beautification ideology pursued the idea of an artistically planned city, with symmetry, harmony and formality as the foundations of economic and social wellbeing (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). Yet, not a single urban idea can be fully separated from politics. Most civic beautification ideas in Australia were short-lived. Harmony and formality slowly gave place to efficiency and coordination. Politics became the main driver of urban development in the Australian continent.
Since the very beginning of the urban development in Australia, the city had been a relevant manifestation of the political power and an instrument of the political dominance for those in control. The beautification ideology suffered one of its major losses in the history of urban Australia. Aesthetic improvement became a matter of “state governments and advisory boards” (Hamnett & Freestone 2000, p.33). It goes without saying that most if not all advisory boards were deeply influenced by the political moods in Australia. The sphere of urban architecture in Australia was ruled and regulated by a small group of architect-planners, led by Briton John Sulman (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). Sulman was a talented architect and ensured that the influence of other architects on city development in Australia was minimal (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). The creation of advisory boards and councils marked a new stage in the urban evolution in Australia. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Australian cities have turned into the main instrument of political power by those in control.
It seems that no Australian city could escape the legacy and influence of politics. Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney are the brightest examples and the primary objects of these influences. The pace of urban development in these cities captured the rhetoric of the dominant political ideology. It reflected the decisions and political values of those in control. Canberra used to be the battle field of the competing political forces. Created for a specific purpose – to be the capital of Australia – Canberra reflects the ideological symbolism of its architectural forms and the ideals that enabled the creation and proliferation of the ‘national capital spirit’ in its residents (Tranter 1990). A future capital, Canberra had to be designed in ways that met the political and economic expectations of the ruling majority. Its built form never dominated the natural landscape: as of today, Canberra is a rare example of how natural and built environments complement each other (Tranter 1990). In the meantime, the city is often criticised for being overly ordered and sanitised (Tranter 1990). It seems to reflect the ideas and desires of others, not those living in Canberra (Tranter 1990). The decision to construct the Black Mountain telecommunications tower caused public protests and proved to be an effective instrument of the political fight between residents and the ruling majority: despite numerous court decisions, the creation of the tower was allowed and later proved to be of significant practical value for Canberra residents (Tranter 1990).
Like Canberra, Sydney often became an instrument of power exercise by those in positions of control. Throughout its history, it is politicians and city councils that took decisions relating to urban development in Sydney. Before the 19th century, state government politicians had been extremely reluctant to involve in urban development of Sidney (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, State Parliament realised the need to coordinate multiple architectural efforts and develop a strategic plan to embrace the needs of the entire metropolitan area (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). The Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and Its Suburbs had to investigate and analyse all city improvement proposals, but the ideology of beautification eventually gave place to pragmatic considerations: the ideal plan of urban reconstruction was rejected for cost reasons (Hamnett & Freestone 2000). In a similar vein, the inner part of Melbourne suffered the lack of architectural attention, until in 1982 the Cain government inherited the city’s political power after twenty seven years in opposition (O’Hanlon 2009). The Cain government proclaimed a new policy of urban development in Melbourne, to make the city the center of entertainment and sports (O’Hanlon 2009). Those policies benefited citisens only indirectly and relied on purely economic grounds. Central Melbourne had to play “a unique social role by providing the greatest diversity and most compact distribution of cultural, sporting and entertainment in the State” (O’Hanlon 2009, p.4). The reconstruction of the south bank of the Yarra River was the result of the Labor government’s decision to close factories (O’Hanlon 2009). The government focused on the development of the city’s cultural and spiritual heritage (O’Hanlon 2009). Whether or not government decisions can benefit city residents in the long run is yet to be discovered. However, it is clear that architecture can be never separated from politics. As a result, Australian cities are likely to remain the main instruments of power exercise by those in control.
The historical development of cities and their effects on the economic and political prosperity in Australia are popular topics of the political and economic analysis. From their inception until present, Australian cities have been heavily influenced by the politics of rationalism and power advantages, which eventually turned the Australian city into an expression of the exercise of power by those in control. No Australian city could escape the legacy and influence of politics. Whether or not government decisions can benefit city residents in the long run is yet to be discovered. However, Australian cities are likely to remain the main instruments of power exercise by those in control.
Hamnett, S & R Freestone 2000, The Australian metropolis: A planning history, Taylor & Francis, Australia.
O’Hanlon, S 2009, ‘eEvents city: Sport, culture, and the transformation of inner Melbourne, 1977-2006’, Urban History Review, vol.XXXVII, no.2, pp.0-9.
Tranter, P 1990, ‘The role of the national capital spirit in Canberra’s development’, Focus, vol.40, no.4, pp.18-23.