Unit 2
Walter Burley Griffin and the Competition for the Capital

Background Notes

In October 1908, the Yass-Canberra district was selected as the location for the Nation's Capital. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher engaged New South Wales district surveyor, Charles Scrivener, who completed a report on a recommended site for the new city. The Federal Minister for Home Affairs, Hugh Mahon, provided guidelines for Scrivener when he stated:

...the Federal Capital should be a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position, with extensive views, and embracing distinctive features which lend themselves to the evolution of a design worthy of the object, not only for the present, but for all time, consequently the potentialities of the site will demand careful consideration from an hygienic stand-point, with a view to securing picturesqueness, and also with the object of beautification and expansion.

On 30 April 1911 the Department of Home Affairs, on behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, issued an international ‘Invitation to Competitors' to produce a design for its capital city. Plaster cast models of the city site, along with contour, topographical and geological maps, were produced. A description of the site provided information on latitude and longitude, flood records, prevailing winds, temperatures, soil, the availability of sandstone and granite for building purposes and scenic views. All gave important information to any competition entrant who wanted to better understand the site. Even the estimated population of the capital city (25,000) and its future growth were included, based on the growth of population of Washington DC from 1800 to 1900. All this was sent to Commonwealth offices in every Australian state, diplomatic missions in London, Paris, Berlin, Washington, New York and Chicago, and public works departments in Cape Town, Pretoria and Wellington.

Competition information included an introduction to the history of the site for the National Capital, and instructions to locate important government buildings, national attractions, utilities plus public parks and gardens. The instructions given to surveyor Scrivener for the Yass-Canberra area (see above quote), Proclamations and Government Acts were also included to reinforce the importance of the National Capital for the Australian people.

The Federal Capital City will be the permanent Seat of Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, the place at which the Federal Parliament will meet, where all Commonwealth Legislation will be enacted, and where the Governor-General will have his official residence. The city will, therefore, be primarily the official and social centre of Australia .

Under a cloud of controversy, King O'Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, declared he would make the final decision in the selection process. Some architects were hesitant in submitting an entry, expressing concern that their design may be altered in the future by opinionated politicians. A board was also engaged to assist in the selection process, consisting of an engineer, an architect and a licensed surveyor. However, O'Malley's decision was final.

In total, 137 plans were submitted anonymously and assigned a number. A sealed packet containing the name and address of each author was attached to each design, only to be opened by the Governor-General after the adjudication process. Design entries were exhibited in Melbourne following the announcement of the winner - Chicago landscape architect, Walter Burley Griffin. Second place was awarded to Eliel Saarinen of Helsingfors (Helsinki), Finland, and third place went to Dr Alfred Agache, an architect from Paris, France.

Background Notes

Walter Burley Griffin, the eldest of four children, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 24 November 1876. His father, George Walter Griffin, was an insurance adjuster and his mother, Estelle, a socially active homemaker. Even as a child, Griffin had an inherent interest in landscape design and gardening.

Griffin studied architecture at the University of Illinois and graduated in 1899. He returned to Chicago and quickly found work with other contemporary (and very progressive) architects, including America's most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Both Wright and Griffin freely acknowledged the influence upon them of their older charismatic contemporaries; Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) the founder of a distinctive American architectural tradition, and the New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who shaped the beginnings of a unique American intellectual tradition. As a direct result of these influences, both Wright and Griffin often discussed the concept of ‘Democratic Architecture'. In short, the democratic architect would be inspired by nature, not classical architecture, and would contribute to the creation of an egalitarian society.

Such high-minded concerns no doubt fuelled Griffin's interest, as a teenager, in the Australian colonies. We know that Griffin had an active interest in Australia from the 1890s, probably dating back to 1893 when Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition (which featured a popular pavilion organised by the colony of New South Wales). Indeed, in a letter to King O'Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, Griffin acknowledged this long-term passion:

I…entered this Australian event to be my first and last competition, solely because I have for many years greatly admired the bold radical steps in politics and economics which your country has dared to take, and which must for a long time set ideals for Europe and America ahead of their possibility of accomplishment.

Griffin would expand on the connection in a magazine article:

Australia, of most democratic tendencies and bold radical government, may well be expected to look upon her great future, and with it her Federal capital, with characteristic big vision…we may be justified in believing that she will fully express the possibilities for individual freedom, comfort and convenience for public spirit, wealth and splendour of the great democratic city ideal for which her capital offers the best opportunity so far.

The competition for the design of Australia's National Capital gave Griffin the perfect opportunity to apply on a grand scale the philosophical, cultural and spiritual ideas he strongly believed in.

In 1906, Griffin started up his own successful practice and, through mutual business associations, met and fell in love with Marion Mahony, another architect and gifted artist.
They married in June 1911, Marion joining Walter's staff as chief draftsperson. The call for design submissions for the National Capital of Australia occurred shortly before they were married, in April 1911, and it was only through Marion's insistence that Walter finally sat down at the drawing board three months before the deadline. The winning designs were finally completed with Marion's vital contribution. Her beautiful graphic techniques expressed the interlocking of geometric architecture and the free flowing forms of nature. This unique representation brought Walter's plans to life and captured the eye of the judges. The competition submission comprised two parts. The first was the design drawings presented on a variety of treated cloths, expertly rendered by Marion, and the second part was a detailed report from Walter Burley Griffin describing the nature of a democratic, modern capital city. Towards the end of 1911 the submission (entry number 29) was carefully sealed in a container five feet square and sent by rail and then sea, from Chicago to Melbourne.

On 23 May 1912, it was declared that Walter Burley Griffin's submission had won the National Capital design competition. Walter came to visit Australia briefly in late 1913, and then in 1914 he and Marion settled in Melbourne, regularly visiting Canberra. Griffin was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in order to convert his design into a reality. Unfortunately the intervention of World War One, a lack of funding and bureaucratic obstacles made it difficult to bring his ideals of a modern city to fruition in the short term. Due to many differences with Public Service officials and his own uncompromising vision, Griffin left the National Capital project in 1920. However, because the Griffins were captivated by the pristine Australian landscape, they decided to stay on in Australia. They applied their unique architectural and town planning skills to the New South Wales towns of Griffith and Leeton. Griffin also designed a wide range of private buildings in Sydney and Melbourne, including a university college, cinemas and office buildings.

In 1935, Walter Burley Griffin was invited to India. He designed a new library and a number of other buildings in Lucknow. Griffin died of peritonitis on 11 February 1937, at the age of 61, and was buried in Lucknow.

Background Notes

Marion Lucy Mahony was born in Chicago, Illinios in 1871. She graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1894. Marion was only the second woman in the United States to graduate with a degree in architecture and the first woman in the world to become a certified architect.

Five years his senior, Marion Mahony married Walter Burley Griffin and joined him professionally just prior to the launch of the international competition for a design for the new capital city of Australia. Walter had longed to design a city, but if not for Marion, the Griffins' competition entry may never have occurred:

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 [the drawings] over there after they have started 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 ... 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, 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 .

Their personalities were very different and yet the Griffins worked together superbly, producing designs that reflected geometric order and democratic values (Walter), and natural beauty reflected through the interpretation of nature (Marion).

Marion Mahony was an exceptionally talented artist and draftsperson. Her presentation drawings were based loosely on the style of Japanese prints. Buildings were shown as interlocking architectural geometry and the surrounding landscape reflected her interest in the natural world, with flowing forms complementing the buildings they surrounded. Both Marion and Walter had a passion for nature and a love of the Australian landscape.

After Walter's death, Marion returned to America. She lived in Chicago until her death in 1961. Her ashes remained in an unmarked grave in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, before being re-interred there in 1997, with a plaque and headstone appropriate to her life and her status.