History of the NCA

1913 - 1920 Walter Burley Griffin, Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction

Role: To direct the design and development of Canberra based on his design for the plan of Canberra.

Having won the international design competition for Canberra in 1912, Griffin was appointed the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction on 18 October 1913. He commenced work in Melbourne with his architect wife Marion Mahony Griffin in May 1914.

Almost immediately he faced difficulties. Senior bureaucrats in the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Works regarded the appointment of Griffin - an outsider and an American - as a slight on their ability and responsibilities. They set out to undermine Griffin's position, determined that his three-year contract would not be renewed.

In 1916, a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Canberra found in Griffin's favour, declaring that necessary information and assistance had been withheld from him and his powers usurped by certain officials. Although his contract was renewed, Australia's involvement in the First World War from 1914 meant that money and resources to develop the Capital were in short supply.

By the time his contract was terminated in 1920, Griffin had managed to revise his plan, carry out some earthworks to mark the main avenues of his design and to plant a few hectares of trees beyond the city limits.

1921 - 1924 Federal Capital Advisory Committee

Role: To advise the Minister of Home Affairs on the Construction of Canberra and Review the Griffin Plan.

Sir John Sulman, an Australian architect (chairman); an engineer; the Director-General of Works and the Surveyor-General.

The Committee proposed that Canberra be developed in three stages. The first stage, to take three years, would see the Parliament and key administrative staff moved from Melbourne and housed in Canberra. The second stage, to be carried out over the next three years, would see the transfer to Canberra of some government departments, construction of an additional railway connection, and construction of some permanent architectural and engineering works. No time limit or estimated cost was provided for the third stage which would provide character and permanence to the capital. The government accepted the Committee's recommendations but little progress on development was made.

The first sod for the Provisional Parliament House was turned on 28 August 1923. The building was located below and in front of the site designated for the Parliament House in Griffin's plan. A construction railway began to operate between the brickworks in Yarralumla and the major building sites and a passenger service to Canberra via Queanbeyan was inaugurated in October 1923. The first land auction for residential and business sites was held in December 1924 shortly before the Advisory Committee was abolished because of dissatisfaction with the pace of development. At this time, Canberra had about 3,000 residents, mostly workmen and their families living in camps and under canvas.

1925 - 1930 Federal Capital Commission

Role: To construct and administer Canberra.

Sir John Butters, Chief Commissioner

The Federal Capital Commission took over responsibility for the planning and development of Canberra on 1 January 1925. By that time, the Federal Capital Advisory Committee had overseen the partial construction of the Parliament House, the Hotel Canberra and some cottages in the suburbs of Acton, Ainslie, Braddon and Kingston. The government now abandoned the Advisory Committee's proposal to transfer only key personnel to Canberra and told the Federal Capital Commission to prepare for the transfer of 1,100 officers and their families. In the first two years of operation, the Commission completed the construction of the Parliament House, the Prime Minister's Lodge, built 500 cottages, several hotels and schools, West Block Offices, the Albert Hall, the Institute of Anatomy, the Australian School of Forestry and an Observatory on Mount Stromlo. Further development included hostels for housing single public servants and construction of the Sydney and Melbourne commercial buildings.

Problems arose for the Federal Capital Commission which both administered and developed the National Capital. Public servants transferred from Melbourne where they had known local government resented the Commission's often high-handed decision-making on local matters from which there was no appeal. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 meant that the government cut expenditure on the Capital and disbanded the Commission. Canberra's development was returned to the divided departmental responsibility which had characterised its stop-start development since 1913. As a sop to residents, a partly elected, partly nominated Advisory Council was established to advise the Minister on all matters pertaining to the Capital.

1938 - 1957 National Capital Planning and Development Committee

Role: Advisory body to the Minister of the Interior to safeguard the Griffin plan and maintain high aesthetic and architectural standards worthy of a National Capital.

The Great Depression of 1929 - 1933 brought almost all construction to a halt in Canberra. By 1938 when a new albeit powerless advisory body was appointed, Canberra consisted of a handful of suburbs housing about 7,000 people, separated from each other by open paddocks and the flood plain of the Molonglo River. In the middle of this pastoral setting and in the Parliamentary Triangle was the provisional Parliament House, flanked by the East and West Block Offices for bureaucrats which faced lucerne flats and the willow-lined bed of the Molonglo River. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 was to demonstrate the development inadequacies of Canberra as a National Capital. The lack of facilities in Canberra led to the expansion of government departments in Melbourne and Sydney. The war effort was directed from these three cities with officials shuttling back and forth between them.

The first decade after the war was marked by shortages of materials and improvisation in Canberra with a number of cheap, temporary buildings being constructed to house public servants. Plans to transfer 7,000 public servants from Melbourne were abandoned. The National Capital Planning and Development Committee, lacking any executive power, found its views were increasingly ignored and decisions made without reference to it, including variations to the Griffin Plan. The government again dissatisfied with progress, established a Senate Select Committee in 1954 to inquire into Canberra's development. The Committee recommended major changes and an end to divided responsibility for the capital's design and construction with the establishment of a single Commission to plan, develop and construct the National Capital with adequate finance and a coordinated plan.

1958 - 1989 National Capital Development Commission

Role: To Plan, Develop and construct Canberra as Australia's National Capital

  • Sir John Overall, Commissioner, 1958-1972
  • W.C. Andrews, Commissioner, 1972-1974
  • Tony Powell, Commissioner, 1974-1985
  • Malcolm Latham, Commissioner, 1985-1989

The NCDC identified four principal tasks in its first annual report. These were to complete the establishment of Canberra as the seat of government, to further its development as the administrative centre by providing facilities to permit further transfer of public servants from Melbourne, to give Canberra an atmosphere and individuality worthy of the National Capital, and to further the growth of the city as a place in which to live in comfort and dignity. Over the next 31 years the Commission implemented much of this vision.

The NCDC's first task was to implement the lake scheme in the Griffin Plan which was completed in 1964 giving the capital an ornamental and recreational waterway with extensive lakeshore parklands. It adopted a Y-Plan for decentralised development and built four new towns called Woden-Weston Creek, Belconnen, Tuggeranong and Gungahlin - to cope with demands for rapid urban growth. At the same time, the NCDC undertook major projects of national significance such as the Russell Hill Defence Offices, construction of Anzac Parade and monuments and memorials, and planning sites for an increasing number of diplomatic missions. The design and construction of major institutions in the Parliamentary Triangle - the National Library, High Court of Australia, National Gallery of Australia and the National Science and Technology Centre went some way towards realising Griffin's vision for the capital. The development of the National Capital Open Space System addressed environmental concerns as well as the need for recreation areas for a rapidly expanding population. Canberra's population rose by almost ten-fold under the NCDC, from nearly 40,000 to just under 300,000.

With the completion of the new Parliament House on Capital Hill in 1988 (built by the Parliament House Construction Authority, not the NCDC) and the proposed introduction of self government to the Australian Capital Territory, the government believed the Commission's role was largely over. The NCDC was abolished in 1989 and most of its functions and staff transferred to the Australian Capital Territory Government. A new National Capital Planning Authority was established to represent the Commonwealth's interest in the future planning and development of the National Capital.

National Capital Planning Committee

Role: Advisory Committee to the NCDC

Chaired by the NCDC Commissioner and comprised of six nominated representatives of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, the Institution of Engineers, Australia and the Royal Australian Planning Institute plus two other members with special knowledge and experience in cultural matters,

The National Capital Planning Committee first met on 16 April 1958 and replaced the 20-year old National Capital Planning and Development Committee. All major development and planning proposals generated by the NCDC went before the Committee for comment. Over the years, the changing membership of the Committee provided sound advice to the NCDC on all the matters referred to it by the Commission. The Committee played a valuable role in the consideration of the design and development of the National Capital. The Committee was abolished with the introduction of self-government to the Australian Capital Territory in 1989 and the establishment of the National Capital Planning Authority (now the National Capital Authority).

1989 to Present Day National Capital Authority

Since Federation successive Australian Governments have supported the dream that our young nation could have a capital which represented our unity as a people and which could stand proudly in the ranks of National Capitals throughout the world.

In 1989, following the introduction of self government to the Australian Capital Territory, the National Capital Authority (initially called the National Capital Planning Authority) was established to represent the Commonwealth's interest in the planning and development of the National Capital.

The Authority performs a custodial role ensuring the unique heritage and culture of Canberra are maintained through its planning and land management as well as through its construction and restoration programs.

The Commonwealth looks to maximise returns on the Australian people's substantial investment in the National Capital and requires the asset to be properly managed, maintained and its value reinforced.

The National Capital Authority is responsible for ensuring the full range of functions to maintain, enhance and promote the national qualities of the National Capital are performed for the Commonwealth on behalf of the Australian people.

The Authority's role of fostering awareness of Canberra as the National Capital is also developing as a major focus for the future, with the goal to build the National Capital in the hearts of all Australians.

The National Capital Authority seeks to do this by creating an enduring capital which is relevant to all Australians and which is recognised as a place for important events and ceremonies.

A National Capital is never "complete". The Authority will continue to develop the National Capital in a way that will ensure its relevance, not just for today but for all time.

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