Climb to the top of Capital Hill above the new Parliament House and you will discern no statues, but as you turn full circle you will take in the city’s layout as an environmental sculpture, with its patina of foliage through which buildings protrude. The ground beneath your feet and the flagpole overhead exemplify this earthwork, rivaled only by the artificial lake to your north.

At the base of the hill is the tent embassy which a National Party minister tried to have demolished as an eyesore for tourist promoters. But who is doing the most damage to the parliamentary triangle and its northern vista?

Neither the ACT Assembly nor the Federal Parliament demonstrates any apprehension of the specialness of this precinct. Hence, it is hardly surprising that so many MPs have difficulty in grasping the significance of a sacred site for indigenous people. Proof of our leaders’ insensitivity is the annual installation of barriers and grandstands for the V-8 race, turning the heartland of democracy into a mock gulag. The mix of sculpture, architecture and planning required for its construction is one intervention to which professionals lay no claim, although such barbarism could not be erected without their guidance.

Burley Griffin’s 1911 scheme is remembered for its respect for the environment and the integrity of its design – indeed, its spiritualist inspiration. Such esteem cannot survive standing in front of his conception of the future capital, which is as gross as any lunacy by Ludwig II.

Most of the buildings within the triangle are distinguished by their lack of sympathy with their surroundings, their functional failure, or their mimicry of the landmarks in the capitals of other nations. These edifices range from the fake Greek of the Library, through the totalitarianism of the old External Affairs and Treasury, the brutalism of the High Court and Gallery, and the toilet block walls of the Science and Technology Centre. On top of these blights, the authorities encourage rings of commercial buildings which block the sight lines towards the new Parliament, one of the few structures in the Territory worth taking visitors to see.

Every minister and departmental head seeks to leave their mark on the look of the place. So we have the flags of all nations by the lake and a Commonwealth Place. Civic is a sand-pit for the kiddidults who preside over the town, as gardens, paths and alleged amenities come and go like the leaves on its plane trees. A proposal to turn Glebe Park into Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens confirmed that the overseas study tour is a shopping expedition for bargain-basement ideas. Absent from such fantasies is any understanding that Denmark’s playground succeeds because of its capital’s structure and services, past and present, which cannot be duplicated at whim.

Failure to know the lie of Canberra’s land becomes blatant once we regain our vantage point and peer north. To the right of Commonwealth Avenue bridge, the rectangular extension to the visitors center on Regatta Point looks like a 1950s motel, disrupting the original structure that sat comfortably on the curved promontory. Further around the shore, the cack green iron wall at the Featurist Museum defies both its waterside frontage and the sweep of bush behind. The Lakeside hotel, its contiguous Capital Tower, and the two residential blocks in Kingston puncture the skyline with a randomness which testifies to the inability of the planning authority to sustain a vision.

Although the Captain Cook water jet is an unacknowledged sculpture, as is the Carillon on Aspen Island, the dominant example is the Telecom tower on Black Mountain which, in one more instance of bureaucratic hubris, was thrown up in imitation of one in London. The lake itself is another denial of the local, drowning the Molongo and defying the dryness, as if we were Geneva.

Across the water to the nor-nor-west from Capital Hill rests the Australian National University which, on 14 October, opened its International Sculpture Park in the Acton Peninsula cranny of its campus. In the ambiguous title of the first commission, “Spirit Levels” by Christine O’Loughlin, the Park has paid its homage to the whitefellas’ fascination with the primitive. No sign of this development is visible from our distant elevation. Indeed, one wonders how many visitors will ever find their way there as they shuttle to the Featurist Museum? If only aficionados reach the ANU site, such neglect will be in keeping with the fate of other sculptures in town.

Coincidentally with the ANU’s launch, the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) held an exhibition of public art in the national capital, a display consisting of drawings, photographs and marquettes.

“Public” is a debatable description, on two grounds. First, although the works are open to the public, many are not on any pathway. Norma Redpath’s 1969 fountain in the Treasury courtyard is identified in the captions and catalogue as her masterpiece, yet it might as well be in storage for all the notice it receives.

Secondly, some of the most accessible works do not meet the “public” needs for which they were funded. For instance, the so-called bus shelters in Civic, sketches for which are show, won a design award on the grounds that the less user-friendly and environmentally inept a structure is, the more laurels it deserves. Why are bankers the object of witch hunts when there are still architects who have not had tripods driven through where their hearts would be?

By bringing together city planning, design, architecture and sculpture, CMAG has underlined the confusion of aims among their practitioners. Are they meeting human needs, or making giant-sized costume jewelry, as in the attachments to facades around the ANU where Geoffrey Bartlett’s “Fusion” achieves nothing of its title with the Ian Ross Building.

Before the ANU”s venture, Canberra already had a designated sculpture garden beside the National Gallery and another leading to the War Memorial.

The area beside the Gallery is best viewed from the windows of the members lounge, where the metal objects are out of sight and the flowering gum tops absorb your attention. The native tree planting here remains a triumph. In contrast to the Kroller-Muller outside Oterloo in the Netherlands, the NGA’s zone for outdoor scuplture is cramped and does not contain works appropriate to the surroundings, except the artificial mist, wood poles and metal boat by the pond. The rest are also blind to the building and the lake. Most of the abstract pieces have lost their power to outrage or even amuse.

The solemnity of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais puzzle passers-by because no plaque explains their social or aesthetic significance, as they would if indoors. Boudelle’s “Penelope” is in the line of sight of the Burghers but no help is offered to the visitor hoping to make sense of the aesthetic differences. The current exhibition of Rodins is unlikely to have the marketing appeal of any show with the Monet brand-name attached, even though they are equal in achievement.

Anzac Parade is a sculpture court in all but name along which the armed services battle each other for attention, only to be vanquished once again by the chasteness of the Turkish memorial at the northern end. The Infantry group of oversized figures renders the heroic ludicrous. By contrast, in the Memorial grounds, Simpson and his donkey appear on a scale congruent with the man’s own equalitarianism.

For a national capital, Canberra has few statues of the undeserving or the notorious. The best elements in Australia’s polity must struggle to keep Canberra’s monuments close to the everyday. The alternative, as James Joyce observed, is to erect statues of two kinds. “He folds his arms across his chest. The statue which says; ‘How shall I get down?’ And the other kind (he unfolds his arms and extends his right arm, averting his head) the statue which says: ‘In my time, the dung hill was so high’.”

George V sits outside the old Parliament while his grand-daughter has strayed out onto the balcony of the permanent Parliament House, only to be democratised by the sarcasm of pigeons and as a photo opportunity for tourists.

Pedestrians stumble upon busts of various worthies such as the first public servant, Solicitor-General, Robert Garran. The first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, stands outside the eponymous office building in a pose suggesting that his pants are too tight around his crutch. Serbs and Croats no longer blow up the busts of war criminals in each other’s churchyards.

In Rhymes for a Small Capital, Les Murray observed that tourists driving round Canberra in circles come to accept that “twelve identical statues of Burns/ are unlikely even in this braw town”. Murray’s jest depends on the city’s failure to integrate its sculpture, architecture and urban design.

Finally, there are the city’s stand-alone sculptures, most importantly, Redpath’s fountain which fulfils Schopenhauer’s requirement that the nature of water is to flow downwards, and not to be forced up. Admiration of the Redpath does not depend on comparison with the piddling fountains in Civic. The homoerotic Ganymede donated by Alexander Downer, senior, for Garema Place, lost its relevance when the toilet block-cum-gay beat was demolished. The kangaroos by the pond in Commonwealth Park, the Kossuth sheep and casurina pods along the City Walk, like the pears outside the NGA, aspire to the cutesy rather than the kitsch.

The CMAG exhibition omits the most talked about and visited installation in the city, namely, the Aboriginal Embassy outside the old Parliament House.

The Ngunawal and Ngarigo perceived the surrounding hills and watercourses as elements in a creation story which both informed their struggle for survival and enriched their image-making and story-telling. In the precinct of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, stand the decorated poles of Fiona Foley’s “Winged Harvest”, invoking the place of the Bogong moth in the region’s food-gathering

To label those pre-contact activities as capital-A Art, however, is to impose the colonisers’ mentality on ways of living where creativity and religion were not isolated from each other, separated from the mundane, or price-tagged.

That caution does not apply to how Aborigines from all over the continent are reshaping the land around their tent embassy, by maintaining fires, building humpies from local vegetation, and painting on the concrete platform. Moreover, the occupants have planted saplings and mowed the grass in circles reminiscent of motifs from their iconography, casually mocking the rose gardens to either side.

Because these efforts are directed against expropriation they must tussle with commodification and with the mass media that both spreads and distorts their message. Yet the protest remains. When the Howard government sought to divert attention from its refusal to say “sorry” by installing a “Reconciliation Place” between the lake and the Tent Embassy site, the latter’s residents resisted before being fenced off in another instance of power expressed through architecture.

Out of their originating context are the funeral poles inside the National Gallery. In their own country, they would be decaying. In the hands of conservators, the carvings are shielded against the processes that their prototypes celebrated and which are aging the poles out in the sculpture garden. The fear of death in our society is so potent that nothing is allowed to proceed through its cycle of fluorescence and corruption. No species is to become extinct – in defiance of evolution. Sculptures in bronze, marble and plastics claim immortality while buildings are heritage-listed or declared works of art to impede the remodeling essential to overcome the mistakes in their initial design, as at the NGA.

By contrast, the Aboriginal Embassy expresses the attraction of impermanence and the transitory while proclaiming a persistence of values. The hands of reconciliation briefly on the Capital Hill lawns flourish as memories long after they and their planters have left town. Ingo Kleinert’s corrugated iron dogs on the same site were in situ for only weeks in 1995 but they too have become a memory trace about that slope. Gregory Taylor’s naked and then decapitated Royals, who sunned themselves by the Lake briefly in 1995, haunt the monarchists who decapitated those dummies.

Humphrey McQueen