Unit 4
Your National Capital

Background Notes

The role of a national capital is a not a simple investigation. Capital cities throughout the world take on varying roles and responsibilities. Some national capitals are ancient cities with long and impressive histories, others are relatively new creations and strive to represent modern ideals:

a national capital is more than a city. As the Seat of Government it requires a symbolic presence to promote a sense of national identity. It is not too outlandish to regard the capital as a symbol of the ideals, dreams, aspirations, achievements, culture and history of the nation.

Looking to the Future: Australia's National Capital, Central National Area Design Study (1994)

As the National Capital of Australia, Canberra shares the following characteristics with most global national capitals. It is the home to, or site of:

The Seat of Government

‘Capital' comes from the Latin word ‘caput', meaning head or headquarters. As a capital city, Canberra is the location for the Seat of Government and is the centre of national administration. Many public buildings accommodate the day-to-day workings of a government and, within them, a large number of public servants assist in a wide range of public services including national administration, finance, defence, immigration and education. An important role for a national capital is to accommodate the people who assist in the running of the nation.

The National Parliament

Canberra houses the Australian Parliament. It is the place where our Federal Government operates and the place where our federal representatives meet and make laws that affect the lives of all Australians.

Embassies and Diplomatic Missions

Many of the world's national capitals are home to embassies, diplomatic missions and international organisations. The diplomatic missions maintain the formal relationships between a country and the governments of other nations.

In Canberra, there are over eighty embassies, high commissions and consulates. Many of these impressive buildings are situated in picturesque suburbs close to Parliament House. The Embassy of the United States of America was the first embassy built in Canberra and the first to introduce the notion of reproducing design characteristics representative of the cultures of the particular mission's home country. Many other missions have followed, including India, Japan, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Egypt. Their striking designs symbolise the distinctive cultural identity of each nation.

National Institutions and Memorials

National capitals around the world contain a wide variety of important cultural buildings and memorials. These buildings often showcase particular objects and documents that the country treasures. These comprise an integral part of the history of the country in question and its modern identity.

Visitors to Canberra can experience the National Capital's history through interactive displays, exhibitions, historic objects and story telling. Many of these experiences create a lasting impression and form a fundamental part of Australia's history.

Commemorative Works and National Monuments

All cultures create emblems whose primary purpose is commemoration - the celebration of people, history or events that have meaning and value for the community at large. A nation's capital is often seen as the most appropriate symbolic site for national commemoration as it fosters a social and cultural environment which closely reflects the values of a nation and its community.

Memorials are a physical expression of prevailing ideas and beliefs within a community.
As permanent structures, their strength resides in the fact that they will remain as constant markers to be appreciated by generations to follow. Canberra's memorials inform current and future generations of the values held by the Australian community at particular points in time.

National Protest, Celebration and Ceremonial Events

A national capital is a centre of symbolism, sacredness and cultural expression. It is often a place for national protest, celebration and official events. As the political pulse of the nation, the capital city will host regular visits from international world leaders, royalty and heads of state.

Canberra is the home to national events, national celebrations and national memories. These occasions can take the form of political demonstrations, often focused on a Federal Government decision, or official celebrations, such as the Australian of the Year Awards (which recognise the personal achievements of Australians).

National Symbolism

National capitals are a symbol of unity for all citizens, a Seat of Government and a place where the buildings and institutions symbolic of the values of the nation are to be found. A capital city is a national symbol, an embodiment of national identity. A national capital promotes images that symbolise national identity and conveys the qualities that a country wishes to present to the world.

A capital city's character and relationships often evolve to recognise changing times and attitudes. Cultural expression, technological innovations and concepts of national identity are just some of the things that can impact on the future direction of a national capital.

Canberra is Australia's National Capital. It is a planned city and a conscious creation of an emerging nation. The Australian people have sought to build a National Capital of which they are proud: a beautiful city; a capital which symbolises our unity as a people; a capital which stands proudly in the ranks of national capitals throughout the world.

Celebrate! Australian Day Live concertIt should be noted, that the information in this section is not representative of all national capitals. Individual national capitals vary in their roles and responsibilities. Further investigation is recommended if a particular national capital is being researched.

Background Notes

Walter Burley Griffin's original design for the National Capital called for a grand construction on the peak of Capital Hill. This area was to be part of Griffin's apex for his National Triangle and the primary building (the Capitol) was to be a striking architectural creation that could be viewed from many parts of the city.

Griffin's idea for the Capitol building was well ahead of its time. He proposed that the official residences of the Governor-General and Prime Minister be located on Capital Hill on either side of the Capitol building. The Capitol, Griffin explained, was to have:

a limited function, either as a general administration structure for popular reception and ceremonial, or for housing archives and commemorating Australian achievements rather than for deliberation or counsel; at any rate representing the sentimental and spiritual head, if not the actual working mechanism of the Government of the Federation.

Although appearing quite small in the original Griffin Plan, the Capitol was a huge building, as high as a twenty-storey building above the summit of its prominent hill site. Marion Mahony Griffin illustrated the Capitol in the shape of a large stepped pyramid, a construction totally different from the traditional dome design such as the Capitol in Washington. The Griffins intended their Capitol to be an expression of ancient civilisations such as Egypt, Babylonia, India, Mexico or Peru.

Parliament House was to be located below the Capitol on Camp Hill, a spur of Capital Hill and a natural platform for an important building that would both unify and dominate the government buildings located below within the Parliamentary Triangle. The elevated location of the Capitol building, compared to Parliament House, was intended to symbolise the fact that in a democracy the people should always stand above their elected representatives.

This deliberate design placement by Griffin was radical for its time. After Griffin's resignation as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in 1920, debate about a permanent Parliament House and its location was virtually unheard of from the time of the opening of the Provisional (Old) Parliament House in 1927 through to 1957, when the Joint House Department began discussing likely sites for the new Parliament House. It was eventually decided that Parliament House should be located on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. However, after intense discussion and debate, both Houses passed the 1974 Parliament Act that confirmed the location for Parliament House to be on Capital Hill (Griffin's proposed location for the Capitol).

The Griffin dream for a Capitol building was never fulfilled, but the architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, which eventually won the competition to design Australia's Parliament House, did cleverly (and sympathetically) acknowledge Griffin's original design for the Capitol. Principal Design Architect Romaldo Giurgola created a building that contains a monumental centerpiece and pavilion style buildings on either side. This is representative of Griffin's large Capitol and the location of the residences for the Prime Minister and Governor-General.

The Capitol Building and Parliament House

This image shows an overlay of two architectural images sited on Capital Hill in the National Capital. You can see an image of Parliament House and its flag pole (Old Parliament House is located in the foreground), but if you look closely you can also see a ghostly image of Griffin's design for the Capitol building, expertly rendered by Marion Mahony Griffin.

When designing Parliament House, Romaldo Giurgola said that he could feel Walter Burley Griffin looking over his shoulder. Many design aspects of our new Parliament building pay homage to Griffin's Capitol building.

The Capitol Building and Parliament House rendered by Marion Mahony Griffin

Giurgola's design of the Australian flag pole, situated on the top of Parliament House, allows for Griffin's design for the Capitol building to fit neatly within the flag's triangular supports.

Parliament House is largely built into the sides of Capital Hill, allowing for large areas of lawn to cover the sides and crown of the building. This distinctive design allows the Australian people and their visitors physically to walk above the Federal Parliament and may be interpreted as an acknowledgment of Griffin's belief that in a democracy the people should always stand above their elected representatives.

A school excursion to the National Domain

Background Notes

From 1928 to 1989, public places in the National Capital were named solely in accordance with the National Memorials Ordinance 1928. Following ACT Self-Government in 1989, public place names in the National Capital are either determined by the Commonwealth Minister for National Land areas, or in accordance with the Public Place Names Act 1989 for Territory Land areas administered by the ACT Government.

The respective legislation provides for the relevant Minister to determine the names of geographical locations, suburbs and street names.

The ACT Government has formed a Place Name Committee November 1998, with members including government experts in heritage, roads and traffic, cultural planning and mapping. The Committee's role is to establish policies and guidelines for the determination of public place names on Territory Land in the National Capital and to provide recommendations to the ACT Minister.

The Commonwealth Government Minister makes determinations in accordance with the National Memorials Ordinance 1928 for place names on National Land.

The following is a section from the ACT Government guidelines that have been produced to assist in the selection process of a place name in the National Capital:

  1. It is preferred that the name of any person proposed for commemoration should have contributed significantly to the area where the street name or suburb is located. When such a name is applied, it should be given posthumously, at least twelve months after the date of death.
  2. Duplication of names must be avoided.
  3. Long names can not be applied to short streets. Street names with five or less characters enable the street name to be legible when reproduced on an A4 map.
  4. Offensive names, or names considered likely to cause offence, must be avoided in all circumstances.
  5. The use of hyphens in connecting parts of names should, as far as possible, be avoided.
  6. Street names are chosen according to the theme assigned to the suburb in which they are located. For example, the streets in Mawson are named after Antarctic explorers.
  7. A person considered to have attained exceptional prominence or standing may have a major road or thoroughfare named after them using both their christian and surname.
  8. Suggestions from individuals and organisations are to be given due consideration.






Film industry


Sportsmen and sportswomen


Scientists and educationalists




Notable women


Tasmanian towns


Governors and Governors-General
and diplomats


Names associated with
the wool industry


Inventors and inventions




Queensland politicians




Mines and mining towns


Notable Aborigines and Aboriginal words