Laura Kennedy: Australia leaves me longing for older buildings to carry me into the past

Life in Canberra is convenient and comfortable but when I miss home, it is the sense of age that I miss

Australia’s capital – Canberra – is just 111 years old, making it, relatively speaking, a very young capital city. It was founded in 1913 and it’s here that you will find key Australian sites such as Parliament House, the National Gallery, the National Library of Australia and the Australian War Memorial. It was originally planned as a purpose-built capital, designed for a population of about 25,000, but as of 2020 there were 400,000 people living here.

I moved here last autumn, having never been to Canberra – or even Australia – before.

As Australian cities go, this is a particularly underrated place to live, especially for immigrants. Understandably, most young people want to go to Sydney or Melbourne, both of which have significant Irish populations and a much faster pace of life. For any Irish emigrant who is not in their 20s, though, and particularly for families, Canberra is an incredibly safe and comfortable place to live.

Traffic isn’t an issue. There is an abundance of rental property. Public events and facilities are inclusive of children, and pets are an entitlement in rentals. People here work to live. Canberrans constantly tell me that this is the most expensive city in Australia to live in. That may be the case, but it is significantly cheaper to live and rent here than in Dublin or London. I try to sympathise with Canberrans who lament the price of things here, but I still feel astonished by the low cost of every restaurant or café bill – even groceries and utilities – compared to home.

After the furore of London life and a daily commute of close to three hours in total, which cost me hundreds of pounds every month, I’m still trying to get into step with Canberra where personal space follows from the wide thoroughfares and vast abundance of the landscape. Despite the fact that this is a government and military city, nobody ever seems to be in a rush. People are mellow. This is a place devoid of the collective impatience and anxiety that always arises from overcrowding. Every autumn and winter in London, I would pinch myself on to jammed Tube carriages with sweaty windows and spend the cold months nursing one ailment after the other. I haven’t had a single cold or flu in the nine months I’ve been here in Canberra, despite the fact that we are into the colder months now and the trees are bare.

Life is entirely different. The nature of the city compels you to move, live and behave differently. For the most part, life here is far easier than it was in London and less expensive by orders of magnitude. I live in the city, so nothing I need on a daily basis is more than a 20-minute walk away at most. Public transport here is objectively bad – everyone drives – but I’m rarely travelling far enough to need it. When I do take the bus, it’s not a stressful or overcrowded experience. Buildings and facilities are new, so the standard of most rental accommodation is incredibly high.

I didn’t view a single apartment with outdated fittings, drafty windows or a mouldy bathroom – all features that are standard anywhere I’ve lived in Dublin. Some of it is hard to help. When buildings are old, they’re old. In Europe, we often live modern lives inside buildings that were designed for another time and another way of being.

The convenience of life in Canberra is something I’ve never experienced before. The days contain so little friction that it still feels a bit like being on holiday. However, when I’m feeling homesick, it is age that I feel the conspicuous absence of. The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is nine years older than the city I now live in. Dublin Castle was built in the early 13th century. Even Áras an Uachtaráin, where I like to imagine Michael D’s Bernese mountain dog Misneach takes naps in puddles of sun with his back legs kicked out flat (the internet parlance for this is ‘splooted’) on the weave of rugs older than Canberra, was built in 1751.

Old buildings have a tendency to let the cold air in, to feel damp, to have perpetually leaking rooves and in a public context, to cost the Irish taxpayer exorbitant amounts to keep upright, but they are key to our landscape, our self-image and our national story. When I miss home, it is the sense of age that I miss. Sometimes, it is the inconvenience too – the narrower streets where you have to dodge people to get by, the houses that are impossible to heat and the big grey edifices that remind us of where we have come from, that connect us to our past.

There is a church here in Canberra which predates the city. It’s the oldest surviving public building in the inner city and the oldest church in the Australian Capital Territory. If you ever visit, you’ll find it hidden away in Reid, very close to the city centre. It’s a sandstone Anglican church – St John’s – and it was consecrated in 1845. It is a strange, beautiful little building nestled in a churchyard peppered with gravestones and rose beds. You could easily think yourself into a little English village or even an Irish one. Despite my total lack of religiosity, I visit the church when I’m feeling that longing for older architecture.

Inside, it’s small and snug, wrapping you instantly in that ermine of cool air that only thick stone walls can generate. The fragrance is all rich wood and the spiced olibanum scent that evokes a church so utterly, like the fragrance of memory. Stained glass windows filter the vivid yellow Australian light into something mellower, something that dances. For a moment, you sit there and you are carried into the past with all of its dissonances and its sense of somewhere other.

In Europe, the past is constantly reiterated in the architecture of the present. It shapes who we are now.

Here in Canberra, I find myself seeking that out.

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