The Federal Capital Design Competition


by Ian Batterham
Assistant Director, Preservation Services and Projects


My connection with Walter Burley Griffin’s designs for Canberra goes back a long way. I started at the NAA in 1980 and not long afterwards I became aware of drawings from the Federal Capital Design Competition, sitting a little unloved in storage in what was then our repository on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. At that time I resolved to find out what I could about their history and why they were in the state they were. This led ultimately to a large conservation project carried out between 1986 and 1994, involving not just the Griffin drawings, but all the drawings held by the NAA from the Federal Capital Design Competition:

  • 15 drawings submitted by the winner Walter Burley Griffin:

View from Summit of Mount Ainslie

(View from Summit of Mount Ainslie.  NAA: A710, 48, 49, 50)

  • Seven drawings submitted by Eliel Saarinen, first place getter in the majority report

[Competitor number 18 Eliel Saarinen] Perspective view general.

([Competitor number 18 Eliel Saarinen] Perspective view general. NAA: 710, 33)

  • 17 drawings submitted by D. A. Agache, second place getter in the majority report

Competitor number 4 D Alf Agache perspective I

([Competitor number 4 D Alf Agache perspective I] Prospect view number I. Taken on board on aeroplan[e] flying at a height of 3280 feet and at a distance of 24000 feet from the Federal Monument.  NAA: A710, 8)

  • 11 drawings submitted by Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell, the entrant placed first in the minority report.

Perspective view from bridge

([Competitor number 10 WS Griffiths, RCG Coulter and CH Caswell. Perspective – view from the bridge and looking south-east toward the city]. NAA: A710, 21)

The Griffin image that we are discussing in this blog is rightfully part of this group of drawings and was long thought to be lost…but first, a little history.

The Federal Capital Design Competition

In 1912 the Commonwealth Government of Australia held a competition to find a design for its proposed national capital. The competition was run by the Department of Home Affairs which established a board to judge the entries. The board consisted of a Chairman, John Montgomery Coane, a licensed surveyor and two other members, John Kirkpatrick, a Sydney architect and James A. Smith, a Melbourne engineer. Secretary of the board was Conway Inglis Clark, a Hobart architect.

By the closing date of the competition (29 February 1912) 137 entries had been received from all over the world including such far-flung countries as Mexico, Paraguay, India, France, South Africa and Sweden. One of the last entries to reach the board was from an American, Walter Burley Griffin. The entries were unpacked and displayed in the ballroom at Government House, Melbourne.

Judging took place in Melbourne, the temporary seat of Government at that time. After much deliberating, the Board were unable to reach a consensus and came up with two separate reports. The Majority Report, agreed to by Kirkpatrick and Smith, gave first place to Griffin, second to Eliel Saarinen of Finland and third to D Alfred Agache of France. The Minority Report, put up by Coane, gave first ranking to an Australian syndicate consisting of Robert Charles Coulter, Charles Henry Caswell and Walter Scott Griffiths. The Majority Report was accepted by King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, and Griffin was duly awarded first place. The entry which was placed first in the Minority Report was given an honourable mention.

On 23 May 1912 in Melbourne, Walter D Bingle, Chief Clerk of the Department of Home Affairs, before an assembly of officials and press, opened an envelope containing the names of the competition winners. Subsequently, all entries were publicly displayed in Sydney and Melbourne. Those which had not achieved placings were then returned to their authors.  As part of the competition rules, the drawings submitted by the winner and placegetters were purchased by the Commonwealth.  These drawings are now held by the National Archives of Australia as CRS A710; the series contains 50 designs, 15 of which were submitted by Walter Burley Griffin.

More information

UNESCO Memory of the World: Griffin design for Canberra

Lecture by Senator Kate Lundy ‘Creating a new nation’s capital: the Griffin’s vision for Canberra

Fact sheet 60 – Design and development of the national capital

Fact sheet 95 – Walter Burley Griffin and the design of Canberra

Plan for Canberra – view from the summit of Mount Ainslie

An Ideal City? The competition to design Canberra