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Canberra’s answer to a lively Greek village

Catherine Carter

“I want to create Canberra’s answer to a lively Greek village.”

When Johnathan Efkarpidis, the director of Molonglo Group and one of the masterminds behind the world-acclaimed NewActon precinct, told me of his vision for Dairy Road, I was startled.

I couldn’t picture it. I imagined steep escarpments dotted with goats, whitewashed windmills, and black beaches set against the sparkling Aegean.

But when I visited Dairy Road last week, I understood.

Greek villages, with their charming and chaotic mix of buildings, formed haphazardly over centuries. At the heart of each lies the market, or agora, where artisans, makers and farmers can sell their wares. People shop, vote, socialise and debate the issues of the day, and everyone from the philosopher to the fisherman is welcome.

And this is Johnathan’s vision for Dairy Road – a place where layers of culture create a rich experience, and a place where everyone belongs.

Dairy Road sits within a much wider area, known as East Lake, identified for urban intensification. The East Lake area stretches from Kingston Foreshore, along Canberra Avenue to Fyshwick, and the ACT Government’s vision is for “a lively urban community providing a showcase of Australian showcase of sustainable development”.

Because Molonglo Group owns the site, and plans to hold onto it for the long-term, the team aren’t just developers. They are curators.

Credit: Oculus Landscape Architects. Image: Supplied.

Credit: Oculus Landscape Architects. Image: Supplied.

Gordon Lowe, Molonglo Group’s director of planning, is fond of saying the “creators of the space are the curators of the space” – and you only have to look at what was achieved at NewActon to understand how this philosophy plays out.

Gordon says Dairy Road will be a place where “men and women, the old and young, from all economic backgrounds, have a place to sit, play and relax”. It’s about making a place which sparks the “simple, eternal, continuous and quite wonderful process of people engaging, talking and interacting with one other.”

Because great places evolve over time, Molonglo Group’s initial focus is on retaining the industrial character of the site. In the past, the 14 hectare site was used predominantly for storage, transport and distribution. However, many of these tenants have relocated and Molonglo Group is transforming the space from industrial wasteland to creative hotspot.

Red Robot Team. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

Red Robot Team. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

Among the tenancies are Red Robot, the largest manufacturer of photo booths in the southern hemisphere, 42 Lines letterpress, a local company specialising in printing and design, and Barrio coffee roasters. Capital Brewing Co., which makes first-rate beers using local and regional produce, features a tap room, space for 600 people, as well as food trucks, regular live music and a giant cubby house.

Capital Brewing Co. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

Capital Brewing Co. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

Bloc Haus, a bouldering gym, has been met with acclaim from the rock climbing community. Vertikal Indoor Snow Sports – with its three indoor ski slopes and highly-trained instructors – will be another drawcard when it opens later this year.

Bloc Haus. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

Bloc Haus. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

“It’s a question of ‘curation’ of the place,” Gordon reaffirms.

“We sought tenants that needed industrial space but who would be a fit with the future vision. The opportunity arose to accommodate new innovative, creative and export orientated businesses. There are many such businesses emerging in Canberra and we wanted to provide the right sort of environment in which these could thrive.”

Gordon says this is an important part of Canberra’s future if we want to be seen as a ‘Cool Little Capital’.

In its first phase, Molonglo Group is providing flexible space for tenants, as well as group amenities from Wi-Fi to waste collection. A car sharing provider will provide vehicles, including commercial vans, for tenants. “This means that start-up businesses have ready access to commercial vans without themselves having to wear the burden of purchase or permanent lease,” Gordon explains.

A central space is also starting to take shape. This will orient visitors and provide tenants with “formal and informal places to meet, exchange ideas, collaborate, display and present products”. Just like the Greek agora.

It’s about “building up the diverse layers”, Gordon says, which form the invitation. “Saying come in and explore – this is the key to making a successful place.”

Greg and Elise from Lines Press. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

Greg and Elise from Lines Press. Credit: Lee/Molonglo Group.

“Pluralism” is another word Gordon uses to explain the Molonglo Group philosophy. He thinks we should be aiming to build small communities within our larger city that maintain their own unique cultural identities.

Canberra may be a planned city, but the urban spaces we love and value most have evolved over time. “Their origins are still evident but new layers have been added reflecting each stage of the evolution of the city and the Canberra community.”

Gordon points to Manuka and Lonsdale Street as prime examples, and, of course, NewActon.

“The original 1920s fabric was kept but NewActon wasn’t conceived as a heritage museum precinct reflecting a single narrow period in Canberra’s history and society. Its origins were respected but we also sought to reveal and celebrate a wider Canberra and Australian society by overlaying the work of contemporary Australian designers, innovators and creative people.”

While there is a great deal of discussion about ‘placemaking’, Gordon says there is “no code, no prescriptive formula for great places”. He openly admits that Molonglo Group’s process is often “messy, collaborative and cross-disciplinary”.

This allows for enormous fluidity and flexibility, and reflects Molonglo Group’s philosophy that to foster healthy, cohesive and tolerant societies, we need to accept messy arrangements. As do the residents of those Greek villages.

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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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