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Municipal Unmentionables

Agincourt is likely to undergo more change in its corporate infrastructure during the next ten years than it has seen in the previous one hundred and fifty. Next semester’s Landscape Architecture studio may resolve most of its past; the future can care for itself.

I often tell the story of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, designers of Canberra, capitol of Australia, as a case study in infrastructure. The Griffins had won an international competition for the design of a new national capitol, intent like the Brazilians fifty years later on opening their country’s interior by removing the seat of government from the coast (Melbourne for the Federation of Australia and Rio de Janeiro for Brazil) to the interior. In each case the chosen site had been either grazing or farmland. In each case an international competition generated new ideas. And, I suspect, in each case the authorities soon had second thoughts.

Things went well enough for the Griffins, who emigrated to implement their plan, until a change in political parties put the project in jeopardy. Sensing the winds of change—and certain compromise of Canberra’s underlying ordering systems—Griffin strove to do with the limited time and financial resources what would assure the greatest level of implementation. You or I (though I shouldn’t speak for you) might have gone for the money shot and built the Parliament Building, symbolic heart of their conception, but that would have been a hollow victory, for the plan’s genius lay in its adaptation of Ebeneezer Howard’s “Garden City” principles to the needs of a modern government center. The Griffins’ solution: lay out the sewer and water lines, a financial commitment so extensive that its underlying order could never be abandoned. That’s why you and I (again, I should speak only for myself) are unlikely to be remembered by history so well.

light and water

For five years or more, I’ve wondered how many of my nitpicky design decisions would eventually be undone by not having had such Griffin-esque insight. How would Agincourt’s water and sewer lines have been placed? At whose expense and in what order—the squeaky wheel traditionally getting lubrication before all others? And what about electrical service? Private or public? [You can guess my sympathies.] The collection of waste is one thing, but what the hell do you do with it? Somewhere there will be treatment plants for water (from the river and or from wells) and human waste. Everyone understands the need, but no one wants it in their back yard.

Your thoughts on waste in a 21st century context will be, as always, most welcome.


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