The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s capital

colour map of the proposed city of Canberra.

Preliminary plan of Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin, 1914. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The capital city of Australia is a twentieth century creation.  It emerged from a paddock in rural New South Wales one hundred years ago.  On 12th March 1913 Lady Denman, the wife of Australia’s Governor-General, stood on the newly laid foundation stones and announced the name of the city to be – Canberra.

The city had already been born by the time the crowd gathered in the empty paddock to hear its chosen name.  The ideas for the built structures had flowed from the minds of American architect Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Chicago over fifteen thousand kilometres away.  In turn their design was indebted to the ancient landscape on which it was to be built and the indigenous people who nurtured that environment and from whose language the name of the city was derived.

This year is the centenary of the founding of Canberra.  It is also the year when one of our daughters moved to Canberra so we will be visiting it more often than we usually do.  Last month we fitted in a visit to the National Library where I saw their exhibition, ‘The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital’.

An important element in this exhibition is the depiction of Marion’s role in the design of Canberra.  The winning entry for the design of Canberra was solely in Walter’s name; however it is clear from the exhibition that this work was a collaboration between the two.  The exhibition notes states that:

… it is churlish to presume that Marion’s role was limited to delineation… she undoubtedly contributed to the winning design, as said by Walter to the press.

This is a reference to a report by Henry Hyde Champion in a Melbourne literary journal about an interview he had with Walter,

…he has always contended that the ideas of his plan for the building of the new city of Canberra are much more than half due to his wife, and that she ought to have much more than half the credit for winning the competition.

The Book Lover – A Literary Review, 16 no. 173 (September 1914), p. 99, quoted by James Weirick, ‘Motifs and Motives in the Lifework of Marion Mahony’, in Marion Mahony Reconsidered, edited by David Van Zanten, p. 103.

Marion Mahoney Griffin was a professional colleague of Walter’s from early in his career.  She had the distinction of being only the second woman to become a qualified architect in the United States.  Both she and Walter worked for the influential architect, Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, Marion joining the practice in 1895, while Walter joined it in 1901.

The distinguishing feature of the Griffin’s plans for Canberra was that they incorporated the landscape and vegetation into the design.  This was a significant break from the approach used to design many colonial towns where typically the town plan was plonked onto the location irrespective of the geography and history of the place.

It was extraordinary that people who had never visited Australia were so sensitive to the environment in which their design was to be placed.  From the outset of his study in architecture Walter Burley Griffin was drawn to landscape and went out of his way to study landscape gardening and forestry.  With the aid of the large contour map of the site, he and Marion designed a city that embraced the topography centring their design on the hills and water courses in the location.

The Griffin’s sensitivity to the natural environment was a theme running through the exhibition.  It includes Walter Griffin’s first significant landscape design for Eastern Illinois State Normal School which he designed in 1901.  The exhibition naturally included the Griffins’ award winning design, but it also included some wonderful artistic renderings by Marion Mahoney Griffin.

Drawing of eucalyptus trees on sepia background.

Marion Mahony Griffin, Eucalyptus urnigera c. 1919. I felt that Marion captured the form of these trees beautifully. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

I was particularly struck by Marion Griffin’s depiction of eucalyptus trees; a lithograph on silk restored by the National Library of Australia.  I recalled the difficulty that the European settlers had depicting the Australian landscape which was so foreign to them.  Yet Marion, who had only lived in Australia for five years, clearly understood these trees.  She did not try to cast them in the mould of the vegetation from her home in the United States.

The Griffin’s were passionate about the Australian environment.  They moved to Melbourne in 1914 to work on the implementation of their plans for Canberra.  Part of these plans was to revegetate Canberra’s denuded landscape.  They could not find much information about Australian flora so Marion compiled her own lists.

As with many grand designs the Griffin’s vision for the future of Canberra was significantly changed by the government officials who were implementing it.   By the end of 1920 Walter Burley Griffin was forced to leave his part-time position working on the future capital.  A tag in the exhibition notes, that “[s]oon the Chicago-like urbanity the Griffin’s envisaged would be insidiously transformed into a disparate collection of garden suburbs”.

The Griffin’s were committed to their new country.  They continued their architectural practice and moved to Sydney.  The suburb of Castlecrag became their new focus, but their practice also developed projects in other places in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.  Then in 1935, struggling for work in Australia, Walter Burley Griffin left the country for Lucknow in India where they designed around fifty projects.  This exhibition focussed on the Australian work the Griffin’s did but also had some interesting pieces from the Griffin’s American period and a couple from their Indian work.  Walter Burley Griffin died in India in early 1937.  Marion returned to Australia but after one final visit to Canberra in 1937 she left for Chicago where she died in 1961.

I was reminded about how our past, present and future are interconnected while I was in the exhibition.  Things leapt out at me such as the references to Miles Franklin and Alice Henry who knew the Griffins in Chicago before they left for Australia.  Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin which I read last year helped me understand the context for this association.  I was also startled by the exhibit of Effie Baker’s Australian Wild Flowers (1914).  Effie Baker was a pioneering photographer and the second person in Australia to become a Baha’i.  In the early 1930s she travelled to Iran and stayed there for a considerable time photographing sites important for Baha’i history – a very difficult journey for a western woman.  I have a reprint of the history in which her photos appeared.

Just a few weeks before I had seen a news item on television about the opening of the 250 hectare National Arboretum in Canberra.  This was first conceived by the Griffin’s in their original plans. To me this encapsulates the long-term vision of the Griffins and the fact that theirs is a vision that goes beyond inanimate objects.  Theirs is a living project that will continue way into the future.

This exhibition inspired me to explore Castlecrag which is close to where I live, so Hubble and I spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon wandering around the suburb using the helpful map provided by the Castlecrag Progress Association.  It is clear from this visit that the Griffin’s had a holistic approach to the architecture.  It was not just about buildings.  In this suburb they made their town planning and building design a servant to the creation of community while continuing to work with the natural environment.

Salmon coloured building, several stories high built on the side of a hill.

The Willoughby Incinerator designed by the Griffins and opened in 1934. Now it is the Willoughby Incinerator Art Space.

We also visited an incinerator designed by the Griffins.  Incinerators? It appears that these were popular with local councils for waste-disposal used. Several felt the need for an architect-designed incinerator.   It is appropriate that the Willoughby Incinerator which we visited has now been converted into an ‘Art Space‘.

I enjoyed this exhibition because it tapped into my interest in the history of urban planning, but I left feeling that there was something missing.  It left me wanting to know more about the lives of the Griffins and their work. They seemed to be enigmatic. Do I dare to add even more to my reading pile and read Marion’s memoirs or biographies about them?

An exhibition is by necessity a snapshot which cannot possibly cover all angles.  My response could be regarded as an indicator of a successful exhibition.  After all, isn’t the goal of an exhibition to spark curiosity?  Now I am determined to visit the exhibition at the National Archives of Australia, ‘Design 29: Creating a Capital’ when I am next in Canberra.

The Exhibitions

Great Griffin Resources on the Internet

  • Website of Walter Burley Griffin Society Incorporated: This website must be your first stop on the internet.  It has an abundance of resources and despite the name it recognises the contribution of Marion throughout.  It has a comprehensive, searchable photo database of all their projects in the United States, Australia and India plus an abundance of informative pages about their work.  It is here that I found out about their work in designing incinerators.
  • An Ideal City?  The 1912 Competition to Design Canberra: Dig deep into this comprehensive site and explore the abundance of resources about the competition and winning design from which Canberra emerged.
  • Castlecrag Community:  I found this useful to become better acquainted with the community-suburb that the Griffins developed. Grab the map and explore the suburb yourself.
  • Sheep paddock’ turns capital:  Canberra’s 100th:  In this segment for the ABC News 24 breakfast program we can see extracts from a film that recorded the event in the paddock where the name for the new capital was revealed one hundred years ago.  Reporter, Siobhan Heanue, interviews Michael Loebenstein, the chief executive officer of the National Film and Sound Archive who reflects on the film, its preservation and the history of Canberra.
  • Naming the Federal Capital of Australia: March 12th, 1913 The Ceremony: Watch the entire restored twenty-minute silent movie which documented proceedings at the naming ceremony of Canberra.  This film has it all: men in their top hats, women in big hats and long dresses, horses, carts, soldiers and bayonets, canons, more horses and the odd stray dog.  The music is good too.
  • National Press Club: Robyn Archer: Ok, this is not focussed on the Griffins but I love this talk so much I thought I might sneak it in here.  I came across this while channel flicking one day and was rivetted by Robyn Archer’s plea to the media to stop ‘Canberra bashing’.  Actually  she was talking to all Australians as I don’t think there are too many of us who can claim that we have never denigrated Canberra in our lives!  This viewer took on Archer’s message and resolved to do better in the future.  But this speech did more.  It made me interested in the history of Canberra and alerted me to this year’s centenary.  This is an excellent address and powerfully delivered.
  • Centenary of Canberra website:  Go to this website to find out more about this year-long festival.

7 thoughts on “The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s capital

  1. I’m hoping to fit in a visit to Canberra later this year and would love to see this exhibition. I read a bio of this amazing couple a while back – it was called Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, by Alasdair McGregor, and I think it won a biography prize? It would be really nice to see the things you’ve described…


  2. That is fascinating! A very “transnational story.” I stumbled on a website about Canberra a while back and wondered why its arrangement, architecture and landscape were so fine. Dolores Hayden has written some fine books about architecture/urban planning, include that of utopian communities. Thanks.


    • This review was already lengthy so I was not able to discuss the transnational aspect to the degree I could have. According to the exhibition Washington DC was the most important example the Griffins drew on but they also referred to Daniel Burnham’s redesign of Manila. King O’Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs in charge of the design competition and other work concerning Canberra is fascinating. I would love to read a biography about him. He said he was born in Canada but the Australian Dictionary of Biography said that he was most likely born in Kansas. His short biography in the Australian Dictionary of Biography suggests that he said he was born in Canada because to be eligible to be a candidate for Parliament in Australia at the time the candidate had to be a British citizen.


  3. By way of introduction, I am the guest curator of ‘The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital’. I am delighted that you enjoyed the exhibition and that it, indeed, piqued your curiosity. And, you’re quite right, I hoped to emphasise that Marion Mahony Griffin’s role in Canberra’s design extended beyond ‘making the pretty pictures’. Along with the quotation from ‘The Book Lover’, you might enjoy:
    ‘A Woman of Genius. A woman has designed the Federal capital of Australia. Mr. Griffin, the architect of Canberra, has declared in public that his wife is practically the planner and designer of all the works which have emanated from their house. “My wife is the genius, I am only the business man”, said Mr. Griffin, who is returning shortly to America to bring out to Australia his genius’. ‘The West Australian’, 28 November 1913.
    Another hope I had for the exhibition was to convey a sense of the Griffins as landscape architects, rather than just designers of, to borrow your words, ‘inanimate objects’ (albeit beautiful ones).
    Again, I am happy that the exhibition was of interest to you!


    • Thankyou for dropping by and adding your comment and for tracking down the newspaper article! For those readers who are interested you can find the quote through the National Library’s wonderful Trove website by clicking here.


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