A proposal to revive the vision of Griffith’s original town planner into a new art precinct has been likened to “making boiled eggs out of an omelette”.
Walter Burley Griffin was an American architect who designed Griffith, Canberra and Leeton in the early 1910s. He was known for his love of wide-open spaces and circular streets, which later led to all three towns being known for their gigantic roundabouts.
Griffin based his Griffith design on similar principles he’d previously planned for Canberra, “a distinctive radial pattern with wide tree-lined streets, ring roads and parks”, according to the Griffin Society Incorporated, a group dedicated to preserving his legacy.
The architect believed the focal point of a town should be a grand circle – the centre of government administration – which is State Circle in Canberra and was to be Benerembah Street in Griffith.
The subsequent development of the irrigation town never quite matched Griffin’s original 1913 plans, but there is now a proposal in place to try to restore at least part of his vision.
A draft Cultural Precinct Master Plan was recently commissioned by Griffith City Council to provide a blueprint for sprucing up the town’s entertainment scene. It includes a proposal to build a new art gallery to complement existing attractions.
The master plan states a “desire to pay homage to the original Walter Burley Griffin vision by incorporating select aspects of it into the gallery’s design”.
Brian Sainty, chairman of the community-based Griffith Regional Art Gallery Group, believes this is “pie in the sky”.
“It would be like making boiled eggs out of an omelette,” he said.
“Past councils ignored the Walter Burley Griffith vision, it’s too late to bring it back. The town bears no relation [to what he envisioned].”
“Benerembah Street was to be the centre of government, he wanted that area to be a place for the people with parks and galleries … but the prime area was sold off to TAFE. Once they allowed big supermarkets, commerce and industry, that was it.
“To bring back the Griffin plan, you would have to knock down the TAFE building, and all buildings on the outside of the Benerembah Street, nobody is doing that.”
Denis Couch, chair of the Pioneer Park community association, agrees.
“I would love to restore the Burley Griffin vision but nobody has the mettle to make it happen,” he said.
“Griffith was a relatively poor town until the late 1960s, that’s what governed how it was developed … [this] meant that any civic grandstanding gave way to the pragmatism that laid out the CBD as the mess that it now is.
“The bulk of the land was given over in the early 1960s to the TAFE. Nobody has done anything about trying to get it back.”
Mr Sainty said the presence of TAFE and other buildings at the top end of Banna Avenue meant it would not make a good location for a new art gallery.
The Cultural Precinct Master Plan has highlighted that site as one of two preferred locations for a gallery and cultural precinct, with the visitors’ centre on the bottom block the other choice.
“It’s so important to have the visitors’ centre and art gallery close together,” Mr Sainty said. “That’s the way it is in Mudgee and Shepparton.
“It’s visitors from out of town that come to the art gallery. They might come to visit for commercial and medical reasons but then they go to the gallery, say, ‘This is interesting’, and they stay for another night. Visitors are very important to the art gallery.”
You can provide feedback on the draft Cultural Precinct Master Plan, including your thoughts on the location of a new art gallery and Burley Griffin’s vision, online before 29 September 2023.