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A Capital Competition

The competition to design Canberra was fraught from the beginning. Many prospective entrants were discouraged by the news that a politician would ultimately decide on the winner. Still, 137 entries came in. This page relates the story of the competition. And it leads to pages on the information and materials entrants received, the 46 shortlisted entries, and the runners-up.

The idea

International competitions for major city plans were not uncommon at the turn of the 20th century. George Sydney Jones first suggested a competition to design the federal capital at the 1901 town planning conference in Melbourne. John Sulman later echoed the idea. In January 1910, a powerful bureaucrat, Colonel David Miller, lent his support. He was Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, and responsible for federal capital development. Miller wrote to the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, about conducting a worldwide competition to design the Australian capital.

The call

In 1911 O’Malley approved an international design competition. But he reserved the right to make the final decision on the winning plan to design the federal capital.

Interest in the competition soon turned to suspicion. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) ruled that only qualified architects and planners should judge the entries. It advised its members – including those in Australia – not to compete.

O’Malley thus excluded a large number of potential competitors. Despite strong advice from professionals in Australia and Britain, and from Miller – his own departmental secretary – O’Malley would not relent. He would make the ultimate decision on the plan for the new capital.

The competition was announced on 30 April 1911. Entries were due in nine months from that date, on 31 January 1912. In May the department began to distribute the material. Crates containing a model of the site and 25 wooden boxes filled with competition material were sent to:

  • Commonwealth offices in every Australian state
  • diplomatic missions in London, Paris, Berlin, Washington, New York and Chicago
  • public works departments in Cape Town, Pretoria and Wellington.

Most entrants never saw the site for which their design was intended.


By late January 1912 entries were pouring in. Hearing that more were on the way from overseas, O’Malley extended the deadline to mid-February. In the end, the judges considered 137 entries.

Many entries came with extra drawings. Some even had plaster models. The sheer bulk of the entries precluded their display in the Home Affairs offices. The ballroom of Government House in Melbourne was used to display the entries for judging. When space there proved insufficient, the annex was used as well.

The judges

The RIBA had discouraged its members from entering and leading Australian professionals were also reluctant to judge the competition. O’Malley finally selected one architect, one mechanical engineer and one civil engineer and surveyor. John Kirkpatrick, James Alexander Smith and John Montgomery Coane formed the Federal Capital Designs Board. Coane became the chair and a Hobart architect, Conway Clark, was appointed secretary.

How the winner was chosen

The judging began on 4 March 1912. For each plan the judges asked:

  • Did it meet the listed requirements?
  • Did it take account of stormwater and drainage?
  • Did it give sufficient area to parks and gardens or allow for ornamental waters?
  • Were residential areas separated from heavy traffic and industry?
  • Did it suggest grandeur?
  • Was it well adapted to the landscape?
  • Did it effectively symbolise a national capital?

By late March they had narrowed their choice to 46 entries. These were photographed, and taken to the capital site for evaluation. By this process they whittled the list to 11 plans. Back in Melbourne, there were more elimination rounds over several days.

As the lists grew shorter, it became clear that the judges could not agree on the winner and runners-up. Kirkpatrick and Smith agreed. But Coane – the board’s chairman – favoured a different set of entries. They submitted majority and minority reports on 14 May 1912. O’Malley considered the reports and discussed them with other ministers. Then he made the final decision to accept the majority report.

Announcing the winners

At noon on 23 May 1912, O’Malley held a press conference at the Department of Home Affairs in Melbourne. He extracted three sealed envelopes from a large package with the numbers 29, 18 and 4.

O’Malley opened number 29 first, and declared the winner of the federal capital design competition: Walter Burley Griffin, architect and landscape artist, of Chicago, Illinois.

The second envelope, number 18, was that of Eliel Saarinen, of Helsingfors (Helsinki), Finland. Third place went to number 4, the plan of Dr Alfred Agache, architect, of Paris.

John Montgomery Coane, chairman of the judging board, preferred plan number 10, the work of an Australian consortium of Walter Scott Griffiths, Charles Coulter and Charles Caswell. O’Malley exercised his right to make the final decision and chose the Griffin plan.

O’Malley’s hotchpotch

A report on the announcement in the Melbourne Argus (24 May 1912) confirmed the worst fears of the architects and town planners. The journalist quotes O’Malley as follows:

as Minister for Home Affairs, [I] would be justified in using all the designs if necessary in order to produce the working design on which the capital would be built. A park might be taken from one, a boulevard from another, and a public square from a third.

The Sydney Morning Herald (27 May 1912) condemned this approach. A plan derived in this fashion would be ‘in truth a hotchpotch plan, a source of derision for all the ages’.