Scrivener's legacy

Earlier this year I read Terry Birtles' book Charles Robert Scrivener: The Surveyor who Sited Australia's National Capital Twice. It wasn't something I'd normally read but I'm glad I did.

His early life was fascinating and challenging, entering surveying after getting 100% in his entrance exam and earning the nickname hundred. The work involved a lot of travel and hardwork, including dragging of chains through bushland to triangulate measurements. He slept in canvas tents through winters, later designed the Scrivener tent that was still in use after his death.

Scrivener's legacy was partly known to me from my time in Canberra but reading this book made me aware of how misrepresented he has been. For example, a few years ago I read a piece that suggested it was telling that Scrivener Dam holds back the waters of Lake Burley Griffin because Scrivener prevented the American architect from realising his vision for Canberra -- which is one of only a few designed cities in the world.

Walter Burley Griffin rose to prominence after winning the competition to design the national capital of Australia and was given a position on site that allowed him to undertake this role, while working part-time on private projects including the designs for Leeton and Griffith. I get the impression he stretched himself and the delays in submitting plans for Canberra eventually led to his contract not being renewed.

Griffin's employment with Frank Lloyd Wright, where he met his wife Marion, suggests a lot of the possibility that Canberra could've been designed to be magnificent. Aside from the urban design that Griffin has become known for, like the circular streets bounding suburbs, the school of Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for designing houses from top to bottom -- including furniture and interior features. So I guess there's always been a tantalising question of what might've been as Canberra is only loosely based on Griffin's plan and I think I remember there's only one feature that was built to his specifications.

Birtles' book outlines how Scrivener's relationship with Griffin deteriorated as the American sought to shift blame for delays. But the book keeps this episode in perspective with the rest of Scrivener's career and provides a great overview, including his role in mapping many areas throughout the state.

It was fascinating to read descriptions of places with which I'm familiar as well as the history surrounding the national capital, like why Jervis Bay is part of the Australian Capital Territory and how Burrinjuck Dam got its name. As well as, of course, how Scrivener's Dam was named because he identified the spot as being the best place to build the damn thing.