Anything but ordinary

How did a faded and forgotten corner of Canberra’s city centre become one of Australia’s most memorable new neighbourhoods?

Wander through the laneways of NewActon and it’s hard to believe that work on the precinct only began in 2006, when the cobwebs were dusted from the art deco Hotel Acton.

Molonglo Group was determined “not to be ordinary” when it laid out its vision for NewActon as a place of outstanding quality and design, of world-leading environmental sustainability and a destination with a thriving social and cultural life.

The home-grown Canberra developer faced its fair share of setbacks during the creation of NewActon – most notably when fire swept through the heritage-listed hotel in 2011 – but perseverance has paid off, and today, NewActon is one of Australia’s most talked-about places.

The precinct has won a swag of national and international awards, including the 2014 national Australia Award for Urban Design for a completed large-scale project, while the ground-breaking Nishi building was recently named International Project of the Year at the 2015 Building Awards in London. 

Hotel Hotel was named Australia’s best boutique hotel in 2014 by Gourmet Traveller magazine, and the fabulous Monster restaurant has made the magazine’s top 100 restaurants.  The hotel has even attracted the attention of the New York Times for being “eco-friendly, luxurious and unpretentious”. Mocan & Green Grout was also praised by the New York Times for both its dining and décor, which it hailed the “perfect combo for outdoor-loving, gourmandising Canberrans.”

But why is NewActon so special?  For starters, the size of the precinct – 2.5 hectares in total – gave the Molonglo Group an opportunity create a place, rather than a building.  What we have today is a landmark example of what private sector vision can deliver when it has the opportunity to do so.

The company’s managing director Nectar Efkarpidis says “we’re not developers, we are custodians building public assets,” and this approach is evident throughout the precinct.  This required a collaborative approach with a large team of architects, interior designers, landscape architects, engineers, artists, artisans and creatives, not to mention marketing agents, key tenants, builders and regulators.

The buildings are classic examples of mixed-use at their best.  The precinct embraces what the Molonglo Group calls “the philosophy of public occupation”, attracting everyone from five star travellers to office workers, residents to restaurant goers, cyclists to cinema buffs.  People come to work and play, buy and sell, interact and exchange ideas.  It’s a place where secrets are revealed slowly and surprises are found around every corner.

The old Hotel Acton, now rebranded as Peppers, has been revived, and is now a sparkling jewel set within a precinct of contemporary wonders.  Designed by then Commonwealth architect John Smith Murdoch in 1927, the building oozes the charm and character we expect from a place that has been everything from the census and patents office to billets for police during World War II, to a hostel for public servants, to the one-time residence of artist Albert Namatjira

The new buildings in the precinct - NewActon East, South, Nishi and the Gallery – do not mimic the old.  Instead, despite their varying heights and styles, the new buildings join the heritage hotel in a ‘conversation’. It is the integration between building uses and the spaces between those buildings that makes the precinct so special.

NewActon blends old and new to create not just a precinct, but an experience. The hotels, for example, weren’t designed solely for hotel guests; the commercial buildings aren’t just the preserve of office workers. The precinct encourages everyone to enjoy the spaces.  And who doesn’t enjoy a thrill when walking up THAT staircase?

While the spectacular façade of Nishi, designed by acclaimed architectural firm Fender Katsalidis, is impossible to miss, the space between the buildings is considered equally as important as the buildings themselves.  Efkarpidis has said that “the sign of a great city or great precinct is the strength of its cultural and artistic life”, and that arts and culture are economic drivers for success.  Art gives life to the precinct, and is both playful and thought-provoking.  The commissioned art and cultural programs, cafés and cinema, attract people day and night. These public places serve the community rather than cars. 

Activities and events cannot be built with bricks and mortar, so a full-time arts and cultural event coordinator oversees an ambitious events program – including poetry slams, contemporary art exhibitions and innovative concerts – which culminates each year in the Art Not Apart festival.  The team at NewActon often refer to the words of great urban planner Charles Landry, who says “the creator of the space is the curator of the space.”

NewActon, which was created through private sector vision, investment and effort – and a local family’s initiative – is a lighthouse example of Canberra’s potential. A place that encourages both lingering and bustling, that embraces both physical and intellectual pursuits, and that balances the old and the new.  Many local developers and investors are similarly passionate about Canberra – and about creating world-class buildings and precincts.  Just as the Efkarpidis family see themselves as “custodians building public assets”, many other developers are also actively contributing to a better, more beautiful built environment and to places that make us grateful that we live in the nation’s capital.

The Molonglo Group has created a memorable neighbourhood that demonstrates the possibilities when we embrace innovation, dare to be different, and breathe new life into old buildings.

Canberra began as idea for a place that “should be laid out in the most perfect manner possible”.  While we our city may be an exemplar of twentieth century planning, NewActon shows us that we can rise to the challenge and create places that are loved by twenty first century people too.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia