I had a glance at the post I wrote last year about my first visit to Canberra.  It starts by revealing the basic elements of my one good joke, then fails to offer up the punch line.  The joke is dated now, but it still appealing to anyone who loves the  peculiar way Bush had with the English language.

Bush scheduled a power breakfast with Karl Rove, his confidant and advisor. When the White House aide came in to take his order, George couldn’t make up his mind.  Finally, he told her he wanted a ‘quickie.’  The pretty young woman turned scarlet and told the President that she might have expected to hear that sort of talk from Clinton, but not Mr. Bush. Rove leaned over and said:  That egg dish you want, George.  It’s pronounced keesh

It was a conference that took us back to this country’s capital.  While my wife was doing her duty with her colleagues, I played tourist and did a good job of it.  I had learned from our previous (ill-considered) decision to drive that it was a long way from Melbourne to Canberra.  This time we booked flights.  Since there was no designated hotel for the conference, I decided to book one near the city center.  On the map, it looked like no more than a twenty-minute walk to the conference facility.  That was mistake.  Canberra is really, really spread out.

A brief recap here for those who may not have read my previous post about the place. Canberra is a purpose-built city,  like Brasilia.  When the States federated, neither Sydney nor Melbourne was willing to cede the seat of government to the other city, so they decided to build a capital from scratch.  A search committee considered several potential sites, (all of which had to be at least one hundred miles from Sydney), and a competition was held to elicit designs for a city plan from architects around the world.

Out of 137 entries, an architect from Chicago by the name of Walter Griffin won the field.  It would change his life forever.  He had worked for five years with Frank Lloyd Wright, but after the headline broke,  Wright never spoke to him again.   Griffin and his wife would end up moving to Australia.

Although the city’s plan had been chosen in 1912, it would take more than half a century for the most attractive and ambitious part of the layout to be constructed — a large expanse of ornamental water, a lake.  The site had been selected partly because of its steady source of water,  the Molonglo River.  Coming from almost anywhere in the parched country of Australia, Lake Burley Griffin looks lavish, almost looks like a mirage, simply too large and too blue to actually exist.

During our brief visit,  I was able to tour the Old Parliament House, the High Court, the National Gallery of Australia and the spectacular new Parliament House.  The Old Parliament House, home to my wife’s conference, is a substantial and pleasing white Colonial structure that would not look out of place in India.  It was built as a temporary parliament, not intended to serve for more than fifty years.  It is currently being turned into a Museum of Democracy.  I’m glad we got to see the building as Australia’s previous Parliament building, not an interactive museum.

The new Parliament is almost brand new.  It was finished only eleven years ago.  Its design was the result of yet another competition, won by an Italian architect, Romaldo Giurgola, based in New York City. It is a billion dollar building buried into the side of a hill.  Unassuming from the outside, its interior is grand and impressive.  In addition to the senate and house chambers and a grand hall, there are an additional 4,700 rooms.  Its roof is  covered with grass, the greenest I have  seen outside of a golf course.  Over this towers a stainless steel flag pole that can probably be seen from outer space.

From the roof, you can see Griffin’s vision– the long sweep of the boulevards, the grand design of the lake, the concentric circles, the placement of the government buildings.  The scope and scale are impressive, but even with 340,000 people the place seems empty.  Everyone lives in the suburbs.  The city offers some wonderful cycling, but it is not pedestrian friendly, and hardly anyone appears to live downtown or even in the government quarter.

On weekends, the capital is deserted by everyone but tourists.  With the exception of South Capitol, it is much the same in Washington DC.  It’s the capital syndrome, I guess, and it’s a shame.  Beautiful cities, but no people in them.

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