The Eight-Storey Flats

Artist’s statement Social Capital, group exhibition at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, curated by Lisa Byrne. , 9 March to 15 April. Catalogue, 32 pp,  ISBN 1 921 157 02X.

Martyn Jolly

The eight storey flats, 2006.

Eight inkjet prints on rag board

(Images sourced from National Archives of Australia)

900 x 1112 mm

Eight framed inkjet prints

200 x 250 mm

The Eight-Storey Flats

With the onset of the cold war in the 1950s the government’s attempts to transfer reluctant public servants to Canberra took on a new political urgency. The families of senior public servants uprooted from their lives in Sydney and Melbourne needed suburban bungalows, and flats for the younger transferees also needed to be built — quickly and in quantity. A model was provided by the new medium and high-density housing schemes of Britain. These modernist town plans featured groupings of walk-up flats that would hopefully create community environments, as well as tall apartment blocks spaced widely apart in park-like landscapes.

Unfortunately, the government’s lack of proper funding, lack of time, lack of understanding and lack of imagination meant that Canberra’s experiments with these modern developments were yet another opportunity wasted. To the architectural critic Phillip Jackson the pleasant sense of scale that could have been created by grouping the three-storey Allawah Flats north-east of Civic, was absolutely destroyed by the huge and completely unrelated eight-storeyed blocks of the Currong Flats right behind them.

Nonetheless, when they were completed in 1959, the two hundred or so small flats in what was then the tallest building in Canberra, with their views over the Molonglo River toward the Brindabella Ranges, as well as their central heating, delivery hatches and incinerator chutes, were highly sought after by Canberra’s newly transferred single workers. As Canberra matured during the 1960s, the flats formed a modern architectural backdrop to Civic, they became a kind of bachelor machine generating Canberra’s much needed urban life.

In the 1970s and 80s public housing policy in the nation’s capital shifted to become more in line with the rest of Australia — a service for low-income social welfare clients. By the 1990s the flats were tenanted by elderly people still ensconced from its halcyon days, along with short-term tenants who were often involved in the criminal justice or mental health systems, all toxically mixing within buildings that were themselves suffering the effects of long-term neglect. Although many support services and community activities were taking place within the complex, to the rest of Canberra the flats came to be regarded as a kind of a Dickensian eyrie hulking over the burgeoning shopping malls of Civic.

Today, a new wave of high-density housing has swept over Canberra, as every week newspaper ads for yet another fomecore development offer us the chance to invest in ‘stylish apartment living’. However the old Currong Flats stubbornly remain a Canberra landmark. They are still right behind Civic, and they are still eight storeys high. But at the end of their life the impetus of their vertical vector has pivoted. They no longer elevate their tenants to a pleasant prospect over a growing city, instead their high balconies provide a readily accessible spot from which to commit suicide — a final plummet no safety net can catch.

Martyn Jolly

Sources: Architecture in Australia, December 1959. Cornerstone of the Capital: A History of Public Housing in Canberra, Bruce Wright, 2000. If these walls could speak…, Mary Hutchison, 2005.


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