This is the Australian War Memorial.
The importance of each word is vital. Australian - every city and town throughout the country has a memorial to wars, often a central sculptural or architectural piece, with a list of locals who never came back. This is the biggie, the main one in our Canberra capital. War - originally intended for one war, now representing all wars. Memorial – commemoration through sacred space, it's not a populist museum.
I raise this point because the AWM is about to be overrun by a $500m building program which will overwhelm the memorial. It originally had a small museum (and research facilities), later increased, including the very fine Anzac Hall designed by Denton Corker Marshall. But the proposed changes are all about expanding the museum function, at the expense of the sacred memorial, and it has nothing to do at all with enhancing a great piece of architecture.
Not to say that memorials can't be added to or improved. The 1927 Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance had two tranches of remodeling and later additions by Ashton Raggatt and McDougall in the last 20 years, which improved access and created spaces under the building for educational facilities.
The 1934 Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park was never finished to the design by Bruce Dellit but had interpretive additions and further memorials designed by Johnson Pilton Walker, ably coralled by Matt Devine, Sydney's upcoming architectural historian, then of the NSW Government Architects Office.
By contrast the proposed changes to the AWM will not add to, but rather detract from, it’s power as our key memorial. To understand what is about to be lost we need a little history. The AWM sits at the base of Mount Ainslie at one end of the ‘land axis’ in Marion Mahoney’s and Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra plan. From the elevated site you can see clearly how the axis runs as a direct line across the central lake (the water axis) to the Parliament Houses.
The Griffins designated the site as a ‘Casino’, in those days’ places of entertainment, theatre, and celebration, not as we now know them as gaudy gambling houses. During the first world war the historian C. W. Bean proposed the building of a home memorial to those who had died in Europe. This was not long after the Griffins approved plan, and the site of the ‘Casino’ was chosen.An architectural competition was held, without a clear winner, but entries from Emil Sodersten and John Crust so impressed the judges that they were asked to collaborate, and that produced one of the great spatial sequences in Australian architecture. It's worth mapping this sequence out to highlight its true power.
It is at this point that the full power of the design is revealed. You are standing on an elevated platform, at the highest point, looking past the spaces that you just explored, to see the reasons that man goes to war (it’s always men). The land, epitomized particularly by the water and mountains beyond; and democracy represented by not one but two Houses of Parliament.
You are confronted by the way over one hundred years of war has shaped Australia’s attitudes; and given us freedom to enjoy both the country and its democratic conditions. It is, without doubt, one of the most sacred spaces of white Australia.
Whilst the proposals for change to the AWM will make only minor amendments to this sequence, the ‘museumification’ of the AWM will nevertheless detract from this spiritual experience. A ‘newseum’ with a series of digitally enhanced interactive Disneyfied events, surrounded by war toys, may have its place, but it’s not here. Not now. Not ever.
Maybe it should be located close to the large collection of war memorabilia in the AWM annex, in Mitchell, an industrial suburb of Canberra, a soulless place more suited to the desolation of war.
It is an outrageous waste to demolish the unobtrusive DCM designed Anzac Hall at the rear, only to see it replaced with a massive overdevelopment, which seems to only serve as a vanity project for various right wing political and media interests.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]