Canberra’s Westside wonder


Last July the ACT Government announced plans to develop a shipping container village by the lake on the west side of Commonwealth Avenue.

I missed the original announcement, but having now read some of the media releases, I can see that there was a lot of optimism about how this wondrous project was going change our lives.

I was out of the country for quite a bit late last year, but when I was in Canberra in late September I drove past the Westside construction for the first time and was unable to work out at exactly what I was looking.

To be honest, having walked around the Westside site in April, I am still not sure what it is really all about. I have read the spin and looked at information online, but the reality is something else. This thing they called Westside is a mess! I wonder, did our glorious National Capital Authority, who came down heavy on that red burger van on the other side of the lake, provide their approval for this blight on the landscape?

Last September I attended a photography festival in Singapore and was taken aback when we walked to the site early in the week to see that construction was just starting for a major opening to be there on the Friday night. Well despite all our doubts, it happened. The centre has continued to be an innovative art centre to this day. When I questioned the event director about how she brought it all together in time, she laughed and explained that Australia was at the leading edge in the use of shipping containers for such innovations. Here’s a picture or two from the opening night in Singapore.




So what is going on here in Canberra? The ACT Government generously blessed someone’s bright idea with close to one million dollars on the grounds that it would be ready for Floriade (no, not this year’s Floriade. Floriade 2014).

Whether you agree with this initiative or not, many – myself included – are stunned that this million dollar so-called pop-up centre is yet to fully pop-up. There are some food vans now open, and apparently they are optimistic about being fully functional very soon. I just love optimism!



The use of shipping containers and other materials to build exciting structures for cultural activities is now a well-accepted model. In the hands of people who know what they are doing, previously overlooked spaces in cities have certainly been brought to life and become fun places to gather. Sadly for Canberra, this Westside project is yet to be one of these success stories, despite all the tax payer money.

I would usually throw heaps of praise at any government that takes calculated chances and goes out on a limb to something that is culturally innovative. So far this isn’t one of those.

I can only imagine that someone in our government has believed their own hype around the developments in Braddon and they thought that it could be easily exported from Braddon to another part of the city. Naivety in government can be a dangerous thing when it comes to cultural events and a million dollars.

I hope that this Westside shambles is not going to spoil opportunities for realistic creative ideas for cultural activities any time in the near future. I cannot help to think what the same amount of money assigned to some of our established artists or experienced arts organisations could have done to bring some life to that piece of our cherished landscape.

Someone in this government needs to re-think how such decision are made.

This post was originally posted to RiotACT


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Paul Costigan

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