Canberra is one of the most significant products of twentieth century planning. The conventional historiography of its origins divides into three successive phases: a 'battle of ideas' over the very notion of a federal capital, the 'battle of the sites', and a 'battle of the pkms' defined by the international design competition of 1911-12 won by Walter Burley Griffin. A less well chartered strand through the decade leading up to this competition was popular, professional and governmental debate and discussion about the desired look and layout of the new federal city. The aim of this paper is to recover this 'prehistory' of planning to give some insight into the state of early modern planning theory in Australia. The paper charts the evolution of the generalised notion of a federal 'city beautiful', its hardening into planning concepts for a 'practical twentieth century town', and the maturation of an integrated set of planning ideas and images that helped set the scene for the ways in which the competition entries would be assessed.