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Architecture Awards Embassy of Sweden - Credit Anthony Basheer

Does Canberra have some of the country’s best buildings?

Catherine Carter

When compared with more established cities around the world, it’s easy to dismiss Canberra as one lacking in architectural tradition.

But this could not be further from the truth.

From the humble colonial architecture of Blundell’s cottage to the monolithic proportions of the neoclassical National Library of Australia, Canberra actually has some of our country’s most interesting buildings.

Of course, Parliament House is a national icon, and the bold, brutalist shapes of the High Court and National Gallery of Australia are monumental pieces of architecture. But there are other outstanding buildings scattered throughout the city: the garden pavilions of the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, the Palladian columns at the National Film and Sound archive, the domed Hall of Memory and Pool of Reflection at the Australian War Memorial.

And did you know that the Shine Dome was a significant technical and engineering achievement when it was completed in 1959, boasting the largest dome in Australia at the time?

I think we have many contemporary buildings that will join this illustrious list – and a few of them have just been honoured at this year’s Australian Institute of Architects’ National Architecture Awards.

Nishi at NewActon, the brainchild of Molonglo Group and designed by Fender Katsalidis, took home a national commendation for its “refreshing model for commercial architecture”.

Nishi. Credit: John Gollings

Nishi. Credit: John Gollings

The judges were impressed with the “imposing timber sunscreen and hanging gardens” which announce the building’s “impressive” environmental credentials, as well as a design that provides “a framework for collaborators and artists to come together and create a vibrant and commercially viable hub not seen previously in Canberra”.

Canberra Airport. Credit: John Gollings

Canberra Airport. Credit: John Gollings

The Canberra International Airport’s new international facilities was recognised with a national commendation for a departure lounge and arrivals hall that builds upon the “geometric dynamism and light-filled quality” of the existing terminal’s main hall.

Local architecture firm Guida Moseley Brown Architects was applauded for “seamlessly integrating a bold sculptural expression” that celebrates the beauty of aviation technology, and that has “transformed the mundane and pragmatic aspects of international air travel into delight and dignity”.

Canberra Airport. Credit: John Gollings

Canberra Airport. Credit: John Gollings

Guida Moseley Brown Architects also took home a national commendation for heritage architecture for its extensive renovation of the Embassy of Sweden.

Constructed in the early 1950s, the embassy was one of the first purpose-built diplomatic buildings in Canberra. The design team was rewarded for “subtle restoration” which retains the intrinsic Swedish character.

Embassy of Sweden. Credit: Anthony Basheer

Embassy of Sweden. Credit: Anthony Basheer

These three projects were awarded from the largest field of entries received in the almost four decades since the national awards program began, trumping 983 entries.

Speaking about the importance of the awards, jury chair Ken Maher noted that preference was given to “projects demonstrating the contribution architecture can make to the public good” as well as buildings that were “inventive” in their responses to their context and site.

Embassy of Sweden

Embassy of Sweden

When I visit a new city, the first thing I do is check out the buildings. They help me to understand a place and the people who live there. Architecture is not just about structure and function, it’s also an art form that inspires, intrigues or imposes a set of values.

Our buildings memorialise the age in which they were constructed, but how they adapt and evolve over time says much about us today.

Nishi. Credit: John Gollings

Nishi. Credit: John Gollings

These three buildings – Nishi, the Canberra Airport and the Swedish Embassy – say many things about us as a city.

Nishi could have been a boring office block – and there are many of those around the traps – but a home-grown family of curators understood that a beautiful building could transform a windswept corner of the city and create a vibrant hub where the commercial and artistic collide.

Canberra Airport. Credit: John Gollings

Canberra Airport. Credit: John Gollings

The Canberra International Airport’s new departure lounge and arrival hall could have been as humdrum and monochromatic as those found around the world, but another home-grown development family understood we needed a memorable gateway that would stop visitors in their tracks.

And the team behind the Swedish Embassy’s restoration could have resorted to remodelling and repurposing. But by maintaining the rich and layered history of one of our earliest embassies, we are reminded that Canberra is a rich and layered multi-cultural community.

Embassy of Sweden. Credit: Anthony Basheer

Embassy of Sweden. Credit: Anthony Basheer

The most important thing about architecture is to experience it for yourself. And with such a rich tradition of architectural heritage on our doorsteps, there is no excuse not to.

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up Indigo Consulting Australia where she provides specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010, and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author

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