• Catherine Vandermark

On 27 May 2012 it will be 100 years since the Chicago-based architect Walter Burley Griffin received a telegram with the news that he had won the design competition for the capital city of Australia. While some in Australia’s fledgling national bureaucracy thought this should be the end of the matter, it was just the starting point for Walter and his wife, the extraordinary Marion Mahony Griffin, who fought to be involved in the creation of their ideal city. While many elements of the Griffin vision are manifest today, the failure to pursue some aspects of the original concept has led to environmental challenges such as the alarmingly poor water quality in Lake Burley Griffin.

A less widely discussed aspect of the Griffins’ creative partnership was their celebration of the Australian landscape. Building on Louis Sullivan’s Prairie School principles, the Griffins approached urban planning as the art of creating a better society. Their designs were fuelled by their shared commitment to democratic principles, anthroposophy and social environmentalism. Above all, their approach celebrated the primacy of nature and Marion’s growing understanding of the beauty and diversity of Australian plants.

The Griffins were finally worn down by their battles with bureaucracy and a difficult economic climate. Walter and Marion left Australia for India, but within 18 months Walter died, leaving Marion determined to preserve the Griffin legacy.

Walter and Marion Castlecrag cropped.png

Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Castlecrag, Sydney, 27 July 1930. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4513629. Photo by Jorma Pohjanpalo (published with the permission of the NLA)

I first saw a photograph of Marion Mahony Griffin in 1984. I was living in Farrer Street in Braddon, sharing a big, old (and cold) Canberra house with my friends Tim and Carol. I was at university; they were at the Australian National Gallery. Carol, who revelled in eccentricity, was quite taken with Marion. Perhaps she knew of the Griffins. Her mother lived in Chatswood, quite close to where the Griffins had set out to establish their creative community in Castlecrag.

I remember the guilty shock of her plainness. She looked crumpled, like unpressed washing. Stockings wrinkling at the ankle, gaunt frame lost in that (albeit very fashionable) 1930s drop-waisted sack dress. She stood in profile, hands behind her back, one leg cocked in unconventional tomboy style against the wall, feet shod in soft Mary Jane leather shoes (strap over the top of the foot, buttoned at the side), unfussy hair bobbed to the collar and roughly pushed behind her ears. Her whole being was focussed on Walter, who stood front of frame, hands in pockets, looking up with wary please-love-me reserve. Long-haired, clean shaven, floppy black tie in a loose bow – so much more the architect.

So I wasn’t surprised to read John Lloyd Wright’s description of Marion during her time as principal renderer in his father Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio (from 1895 to 1909):

Marion Mahony was so ugly and her laugh so boisterous that I was afraid of her. Later after seeing and appreciating her beautiful drawings, I thought her beautiful. Her drawings made Walter Griffin’s buildings look better than they were although Walter was good looking. (cited Reid 2002: 40)

Sometimes a photograph can capture the invisible. Early Victorian photographers set out deliberately to document fairies and other ineffable spirits. The Finnish photographer Dr Jorma Pohjanpalo, who took the unforgettable photograph that was my first encounter with Marion and Walter, does seem to have captured something of the essence of the Griffins, and Walter in particular. As Oak Park colleague Barry Byrne said:

Walter Griffin was a thoughtful, placid, sweet-natured being. This was so evident in him that his personality had a sort of incandescent quality, or, as some might say, an inner glow. (cited Reid 2002: 41)

Although rumour has it that Marion was not Walter’s one true love, the photograph captures something of the intensity of Marion’s devotion to him. It is said that Walter was really smitten with Frank Lloyd Wright’s sister, Maggie Ellen (or Maginel as she was called). Maginel went on to become a children’s book illustrator. Walter was shy and so awkward with women that when he asked Maginel to marry him it came as a complete surprise to her. This being the case, it is not surprising that she turned him down.

Griffin biographer Alasdair McGregor surmises that Walter, disconsolate at this unrequited love, threw himself into his work. For the best part of five years he and Marion would sit together at Oak Park, the Frank Lloyd Wright studio in Chicago. Marion would later write:

When I encountered Walter I was first swept off my feet by my delight in his achievements in my profession, then through a common bond of interests in nature and intellectual pursuits and then with the man himself. It was by no means love at first sight but it was a madness when it struck. (cited Reid 2002: 44)

The Griffins were married on 29 June 1911, the same year as the competition to design the new Federal Capital City of Australia.

What the Pohjanpalo photograph doesn’t capture is Marion’s burning spirit. It was Marion, ‘a rather fiery, spectacularly brilliant person’ (Byrne in Reid 2002: 41), who goaded Walter into completing his submission to the competition. And it was Marion’s sophisticated and stylish Japanese-influenced gold and sepia on Holland renditions of Walter’s designs that surely won the judges’ attention.

Marion’s unpublished memoir, completed around 1949, is titled The Magic of America. I haven’t read it, but Alasdair McGregor says it is ‘chaotic, polemical, unreliable and fascinatingly brilliant, it is both an indispensable and dangerous work’ (McGregor 2009). In it, Marion recounts her conversation with Walter in the lead-up to the competition:

For the love of Mike when are you going to get started on those Capital plans? How much time do you think there is left anyway? Do you realise that it takes a solid month to get them over there after they have started on their way? That leaves exactly nine weeks now to turn them out in. Perhaps you can design a city in two days but the drawings take time and that falls on me. Nine weeks! It isn’t possible to do them in nine weeks. I may be the swiftest draughtswoman in town but I can’t do the impossible. What’s the use of thinking about a thing like this for ten years if when the time comes you don’t get it done in time? Mark my words and I’m not joking, either you get busy on that this very day, this very minute (with rising tones) or I’ll not touch a pencil to the darn things. Serve you jolly well right if I refused to take it on now. (No, not jolly, such language would only come later). (in Reid 2002: 44)

And thus the blueprint for Canberra was harassed into being – a utopian blend of anthroposophist philosophy and a new environmentalism that celebrated the variety and beauty of natural landscape. A city nested in the amphitheatre of the surrounding hills. A design rich with (subversive) republican idealism, with wide tree-lined boulevards named Federation Mall, Constitution Avenue and State Circle. A design that, while it may have been mulling in the Griffins’ Prairie-School-meets-Garden-City subconscious for a decade, was cranked out in a couple of weeks.

If Walter was air and Marion fire, the binding element of their plan for the Federal Capital was water. In the original plan, the meandering Molonglo was to be diverted to create ‘ornamental waterways’—pools of reflection for majestic civic buildings and a focus for the inhabitants of the new city to swim, promenade and go boating. Water would simultaneously bind and divide the city, creating precincts for zones of activity.

From the moment in May 1912 that he received the perfunctory telegram informing him that he had won the competition, (‘your design awarded first premium’), Walter Burley Griffin wanted to be involved not just in imagining but also building his dream city. But it soon became clear that those on the other side of the world were not of the same mind. The Griffins’ design may have won a competition, but those responsible viewed this as incidental. Within three weeks of the jury decision, the Department had decided that the Griffin design was too expensive and did not fit the site. They were keen to implement their own vision, pulling together a pastiche of various elements of their favourite proposals. When Walter Burley Griffin initiated contact with the Department, offering his services, the Minister was advised:

There is no necessity for consultation suggested by Mr Griffin. The responsible officers of the Department are seized of all the facts ... They are thoroughly competent to carry out the scheme, and in my opinion it would be most unwise to interfere with them. (McGregor 2009: 187)

Perhaps the bureaucrats were uncomfortable with the decorative, consciously arty style of Marion’s drawings. We are a nation that tends to consider investment in culture to be an indulgence. We discuss funding for cultural heritage on the basis of cost per metre of floor space in our cultural institutions. And we tend to prefer the familiar to the unknown, regardless of artistic integrity or design merit. (Think of the conformity of much of our housing stock, or a former Prime Minister’s insistence on a dimpled Chesterfield lounge to replace the purpose-designed artist furniture in his office in Romaldo Giurgula’s Parliament House.)

But Walter persisted in his attempts to be involved in the realisation of Canberra. A change of government led to his arrival in Sydney on 18 August 1913. When he encountered the ancient Molonglo, more a sluggish creek than a river for much of each year, Griffin softened his original vision of geometric, hard-edged pools and agreed that the waterways should follow the natural contours of the Molonglo flood plain, as recommended by Chief Surveyor Charles Scrivener. Marion did not support Walter making changes to his winning design, but few would now argue against this response to the reality of a boom-bust climate, soft-edged landscape, rather torpid river and deeply entrenched national suspicion of fancy over-formality.

In relation to the engineering works for the waterways, Griffin argued that design and construction of the lake should be one process, with no demarcation between town planning, engineering and construction. He envisaged his pools in tiered formation, with the upper catchments filtering water that then flowed to the lower waterways. In recognition of the Molonglo’s low water flow, and in answer to the infrastructure needs of the new city, the total system was to be replenished with treated sewage.

The responsible Minister of the time, William Oliver Archibald, determined that the civil construction of the Capital was none of Griffin’s business. And, in pursuing the cheapest and most basic of approaches, the Griffin vision was further amended to integrate and level the waterways and broaden the banks of the lake – creating one big brown dam.

As it happens, if it weren’t for Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Canberra may not have had a lake at all. In 1953, after Cabinet had approved funds to construct the lake, Treasury persuaded the Department of the Interior to remove the proposal from the Budget while the Prime Minister was overseas. On his return, Menzies personally reinstated the item.

Lake Burley Griffin was finally filled in 1963. People would swim in the muddy waters of the lake in the early days, picking their way through coarse sand to the slackly lapping water. That was before the rumours of bodies from the Queanbeyan Cemetery washing into the main basin after heavy rains, regular raw sewage spills from inadequate treatment plants, unexplained fish kills that left carp with bloated bellies floating side up in the murky water, and blue-green algae blooms that would render the water poisonous and closed to the public.

The legacy of bureaucratic resistance to the Griffins’ carefully considered original vision for Canberra (with its integrated approach to town planning, engineering, site servicing, architecture and landscape design) is that, in place of the sparkling ornamental basins envisaged by Walter and Marion, we have a great inland dam that locks up 33 million cubic metres of water and converts it to poisonous sludge.

It seems ironic that this 20th-century creation, less than 50 years old, exists in such close proximity to one of the world’s oldest lakes, the equally undrinkable Lake George. From its 250-metre depth of sediment, Lake George is believed to be more that 1,000,000 years old. In the local Aboriginal language its name is Werriwa, which means ‘bad water’. Even when full, Lake George is one of the saltiest bodies of water in inland New South Wales, almost as saline as seawater. Lake George mysteriously waxes and wanes, periodically filling with water then draining away to nothing.

In May 1901, seven years before the Yass valley was officially agreed to be a good site for the new capital, a convention of engineers, architects and surveyors was held to discuss questions relating to the laying out and building of the Federal Capital. The benefits of building the capital on the banks of Lake George were expounded at length. A picture by Sydney artist, Walter Scott Griffiths, formed the frontispiece of the conference proceedings:

The view is taken from the Governor General’s residence, shewing his watergate entrance in the left foreground. On the sloping hillsides and down to the water’s edge are the palatial buildings of State and learning, whilst dotted amongst the foliage appear the villas of the residents and the spires of churches and public buildings. Along the shores would be handsome promenades and jetties. In the water appear picturesque boating sheds, whilst the white wings of yachts on the lake fill in the picture, alike beautiful in the full blaze of day, or in the purple twilight. (FCAC 1926)

Griffiths painting.png

WS Griffiths, Town plan for Australia’s Federal Capital, Canberra ACT: View of the lake at sunset, also showing the continuation of avenue over the railway line with stairways (1911). Commonwealth of Australia Federal Capital competition. National Archives of Australia, A710:20 (published with the permission of the NAA)

This same image illustrates the only Australian finalist in the Canberra design competition. Submitted by Walter Scott Griffiths, Robert Coulter and Charles Caswell, it was the favourite of the Chair of the Judging Committee.

The illustration was clearly made at a time of plenty for what was once Australia’s largest freshwater lake. Lake George has filled to a shallow depth and then seeped away eight times since European arrival 200 years ago. The timing of these events seems to match historically documented droughts. Indeed, Lake George has been described as a paleo-rain gauge for the region (Fitzsimmons et al, n.d.).

The ancient undulations of the surrounding landscape, chaffy muted colours, thin light and excessively wide sky have been an inspiration to artists, from traditional owners to colonial artist Joseph Lycett and, memorably, Rosalie Gascoigne, who captures the sensation of driving down the highway, up the ridge, round the bend and – suddenly, the lake. In Gascoigne’s words, ‘every time I go down the Federal Highway, before you go down to Lake George, suddenly there’s that water, that straight line, it’s absolutely miraculous, it’s breathtaking to me, every time I see it’ (in Feneley 1998).


Greg Weight 1993 Portrait of Rosalie Gascoigne. National Library of Australia, nla pic-an12130187 (published with the permission of the NLA)


It is tempting to wonder whether, when travelling between Melbourne, Canberra and Castlecrag, Marion ever encountered Lake George and marvelled at this extraordinary waterway, expanding and contracting as the earth slowly breathes. For in their time in Australia, the Griffins immersed themselves in the Australian landscape – bushwalking in and around Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Tasmania; getting to know native soils, plants, ecosystems and growing requirements. Marion prepared extensive plant lists, grouping native plants by seasonal colour, for use in Walter’s colour-specific landscape schemes. Stuart Read, landscape architect and adviser to the New South Wales Heritage Office, says that the Griffins planned to revegetate Canberra’s then degraded hills such as Red Hill, Mugga Mugga and Mount Ainslie, and paint them back to life using acacias, callistemon, banksias, angophora and flowing gums.

Marion was delighted by the colours of the Australian landscape, marvelling at the sunset salmons and creamy barks of eucalypts and the deep reds of new growth: ‘The landscape in Australia is remarkable. The flora is tough … durable, hardy, and yet supremely delicate. It is so light at its edges that its connection with the deep sky vault is unsurpassed anywhere’ (Glenn Murcutt, in Becker 2005). Marion created a series of tree portraits, in watercolour and ink on silk, and an extensive body of landscape photographs. Her drawings and photographs combine a disciplined eye for botanical detail with strong compositional confidence and a taste for the sublime. While some are highly decorative, others have a deeper, visceral quality and offer us a glimpse of how the impulse to draw allowed Marion to invest some of her seemingly boundless emotional energy in a growing appreciation of the Australian landscape.

The Griffins transferred their hopes for a new architecture that truly celebrated the beauty of the natural landscape from Canberra to their speculative development at Castlecrag, on Sydney’s Middle Harbour. Here the picturesque rocky outcrops were to remain undisturbed, and buildings were to be subordinate to landscape. The Griffins were not just building a suburb. They were building a community and a new way of life. The design for Castlecrag was to include parks and gardens and a large public amphitheatre.

The Haven Amphitheatre is set in a small harbourside gully and, replete with creek and tree fern canopy, it remains one of the great small performance spaces in Sydney. Marie Nicholls, whose father Eric Nicholls was the Griffins’ architectural partner in Australia, has said that:

The plays were put on there at night with flares in the trees so that the gum trees looked as though they had necklaces. It was very dark out there at that time. There was almost a religious ritualistic sense of excitement as the plays were put on, and that was how it was meant to be. (in Doogue 2004)

However, despite enthusiastic beginnings, the Castlecrag development was frustrated by the economic challenges of the Great Depression, and mired in officialdom. The experiences in Canberra and Castlecrag left Walter bitter and, in Australia Home Builder, he made trenchant attack on Australia’s development:

Our sordid environment is the consequence of an egotism that hardly even questions wanton sacrifice to immediate and personal—not social—advantage ... With rifle and axe, fire, dynamite, weeds and pests, are we invading every day more of the choice bits of this earth: even making desolate those portions which we do not actually encumber with our ‘necessary’ miscellaneous paraphernalia of factories and shops, verandas and fences ... sheet iron sheds and tanks, tracks and piers – unasserted ... [and] all without harmony or variety, or beginning or end. (Griffin 1922)

In addition to the Griffins’ professional disappointments, there were rumours of a romantic friendship between Walter and one of the Castlecrag neighbours breaching the boundaries of the Griffins’ marriage. In 1935, Walter said farewell to Australia, and Marion, and set out to establish a new practice in India.

The Griffins were soon reconciled and Marion joined Walter in Lucknow, in 1936. India marked the beginning of a new period of intense creativity for the Griffins. They talked about leading the development of a new Indian style—a style that would encapsulate their philosophical approach to design, and that would be neither conspicuously colonial nor overtly pan-Indian nationalist. It is tempting to wonder how Marion and Walter’s legacy might have been constructed should they have had more time in India. But, sadly, Walter contracted peritonitis after gall bladder surgery and died suddenly in 1937. Marion wrote to her sister:

Then as his breath began to fail, I talked to him, told him what a wonderful life I had had with him, how he was beloved by everybody. And suddenly he turned and fastened his eyes wide open and round on mine, startled and intense as if it had never occurred to him that he could die and they never left mine till he ceased breathing and I closed them. (in Becker 2005)

After briefly revisiting Castlecrag, Marion Mahony Griffin returned to Chicago in 1938. For the next decade she battled to preserve Walter’s legacy, preparing the eight volumes of memoir, The Magic of America. Perhaps indicative of Marion’s increasingly embattled state of mind, it is divided into four sections:

I           The Empirical Battle (or An American Architect’s Year in India)

II         The Federal Battle

III        The Municipal Battle

IV        The Individual Battle

The Magic of America remains unpublished. For many years the depth of the creative partnership between Walter and Marion was unacknowledged, in part a legacy of Marion’s fixation with Walter, captured so poignantly in the Pohjanpalo photograph.

Marion Mahoney Griffin died in Chicago on 10 August 1961, at the age of 90.



Works cited: 

Becker, Lynn 2005 Marion Mahony Griffin – in Australia and beyond, http://www.lynnbecker.com/repeat/Mahony/mahonyaussie.htm (accessed August 2011)

Doogue, Caroline 2004 ‘Beyond architecture’, Compass, ABC Television 18 April, http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s1089982.htm (accessed January 2012)

Federal Capital Advisory Committee (FCAC) 1926 Construction of Canberra, Final General Report (Parliamentary Paper no 56), Melbourne: Government Printer

Feneley, Stephen 1998 ‘Interview with Rosalie Gascoigne’, Headspace Express, ABC Radio http://www.abc.net.au/arts/headspace/tv/express/gascoigne/default.htm (accessed August 2011)

Fitzsimmons, Kathryn E, Timothy T Barrows, Geoff AT Duller, Helen M Roberts and Ann G Wintle (n.d.) ‘Reconstructing the history of hydrological change and drought in Australia – Evidence from Lake George, New South Wales’, Canberra: Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU http://rses.anu.edu.au/highlights/view.php?article=9 (accessed August 2011)

Griffin, Walter Burley 1922 ‘Picturesque waterside suburb. Scenic charm of Castlecrag’, Australian home builder (August): 50-52

McGregor, Alasdair 2009 Grand obsessions: The life and work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Camberwell Vic: Penguin

Reid, Paul 2002 Canberra following Griffin: A design history of Australia’s National Capital, Canberra: National Archives of Australia