The 1924 opening of Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre was marked by a grand gala charity screening of Cecil B. de Mille’s epic, The Ten Commandments. This was perhaps an unsettling choice, given a recent structural failure elsewhere in Swanston Street, coupled with the film’s second-half morality tale of a cathedral collapsing because of a greedy contractor skimping on the cement ratio in his concrete. Lest the Capitol be damned by association, the theatre management took advertising space in the press in the week leading up to the opening, reassuring potential patrons that this massive reinforced concrete building was indeed structurally sound. The advertisements must have worked, as The Ten Commandments ran for an unprecedented nineteen weeks, with its venue immediately setting new standards for the pre-talkie era theatre-going experience.
In early December 1920, nearly four years prior to the theatre’s glittering opening, the Griffins’ associate – and Walter Burley Griffin’s brother in law – Roy Lippincott, formally presented sketch plans for the project to their clients. Also that December – two days before Christmas in fact – Griffin resigned his position as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. And so ended what Roy would later bleakly, though entirely accurately, describe as ‘seven years of struggle and slander’. He was, of course, referring to Walter’s, and by intimate association, his wife Marion’s, experiences in seeing their vision splendid for Canberra, first lauded, but then pilloried, twisted and diluted to the point where Griffin felt he had no alternative than to sever his connection with the national government. How had it come to this?
In search of an answer we need first to return some six and a half years to Tuesday 12 May 1914. On that day Walter Burley Griffin arrived in Australia for a second time. Waiting on the Sydney docks to greet the young American architect was an enthusiastic posse of pressmen, and the next morning’s edition of the Daily Telegraph reported an optimistic Griffin as stating: ‘If people will back me up and take as much interest in the … capital city as I do – well, we’ll get along alright’. His optimism was typical of the man, yet over the next few years, Griffin’s hopes for the orderly creation of what he had once described as an ‘ideal city’ unlike any other in the world, would be sorely tested and inexorably destroyed.
As winner of a 1912 international competition for the design of a national capital for the recently federated Australian nation, the 37-year-old Chicagoan had, in the intervening two years, become something of a trans-Pacific celebrity. Griffin’s design was praised (though far from unanimously) in Australia, Britain and Europe, and naturally, his achievement was widely celebrated at home. Despite such fame, the more frivolous sections of the local press preferred to see him mainly as a curiosity. On sighting the handsomely fresh-faced Griffin on his first Australian visit in August 1913, Melbourne’s Punch remarked rather snootily that ‘Architects in America dress the part apparently’. To Punch, Griffin was: a long-haired, clean-shaven gentleman in a soft collar and a huge artistic cravat, who seemed to be either a sculptor, or a star violinist, or a tragedian. He was none of these things. … Mr. Griffin is an American. His appearance, his manner, his speech, all proclaim it.
Of course, such outwardly trivial reports betray a wider and more unpleasant sentiment. Griffin was an outsider. As such he would have far more to contend with than merely overseeing the progress of his capital plan in the rigidly anglophile and xenophobic corner of the world that was Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century.
When Griffin returned to this country in 1914, his brilliant wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, his sister Genevieve, and her architect husband – the aforementioned Roy Lippincott – all accompanied him. In addition to being Walter’s spouse, Marion was also his architectural partner. They had met in the early 1900s while both were employed in the studio of that egomaniacal genius Frank Lloyd Wright in suburban Chicago, and there been integral members of the so-called Prairie School, one of the most important movements in the creation of an indigenous American architecture. But by the time of the international competition, the studio had been closed for the best part of two years, its demise precipitated by Wright’s scandalous affair with the wife of a client. Out on their own, Walter and Marion had first entered an informal working arrangement, that only later quickened to love. They married in June 1911 –she was 40, her husband, almost six years her junior.
The Griffin marriage heralded a remarkable and enduring partnership in both work and in life, one that was particularly unusual by the societal norms of the day. Most importantly, in the all-consuming sphere of their work, Walter and Marion were completely complimentary. Walter was possessed of an almost uncanny spatial imagination – a powerful faculty for any architect. His three-dimensional imaginings were as natural as a breath taken and a breath exhaled, yet as a draftsman he was almost stillborn. He could readily visualise his bold architectural forms, but faced persistent frustration at his limited ability to illustrate them to others. In Marion, he had found the perfect complement to his talents; in her skills abounded the other half of the whole. Not only was she the first female architect licensed to practice anywhere in the world, Marion was also widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished architectural illustrators of her era.
And when it came to the submission for the Australian competition, she was in every sense a co-author of that scheme, and the lucidity and simple beauty of her drawings did much to push Walter’s scheme to the head of the pack. But her integral involvement in both the design and its visualisation was rarely promoted at the time, lest their combined efforts be dismissed as mere ‘women’s work’.
Griffin’s initial appointment as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction was to be for three years. The contract with the government would later be extended for a further three, and as the end drew nigh, his tenure would be renewed at humiliatingly short three-monthly intervals. The end finally came when Griffin was offered an advisor-only post by the Billy Hughes-led Nationalist government, a make- savings-at-all-cost post war outfit. Subservience to yet another bureaucratic board of supposed experts was too bitter a pill for Griffin to swallow. What was the point of being an advisor to those who advised the government?
Yet on arrival in Australia in 1914, Griffin’s small band of energetic and fervently hopeful Americans might confidently have expected to see the first stages of the competition-winning design steadily transformed from graceful lines on drafting linen to three-dimensional reality among the dusty sheep paddocks of the Yass Canberra district in southern New South Wales. However, within a month, Griffin had received his first lesson in the art of bureaucratic obduracy. Future prospects in an alien land for this band of outsiders must soon have looked anything but smooth.
On 10 June 1914, Griffin met in Melbourne with Colonel Percy Owen, Boer War veteran, military and civil engineer, and Director-General of Works within the Department of Home Affairs, the branch of the executive with responsibility for the capital’s development. Owen was one of a breed of ex-military officer who inhabited the upper echelons of the new federal bureaucracy. Former Minister for Home Affairs, the colourful and somewhat erratic American-born King O’Malley, had dubbed Owen, and the department’s first secretary, Colonel David Miller, ‘gilt-spurred roosters’. Like Owen, Miller had also seen action in the South African war.
At issue at that early stage of the capital project was the fundamental matter of sewage disposal. Griffin wanted to employ the latest in treatment methods witnessed firsthand on a five-week fact-finding tour of Europe in early 1914. He sought details of water storage and reticulation from Owen in order to determine the practicalities of treating sewage within the city and using the effluent to irrigate open spaces and to replenish a series of ornamental lakes. In addition, Griffin was keen to appoint a number of consultant engineers drawn from both the relevant state departments and from private industry.
Owen contended that such matters were ‘not Mr. Griffin’s business’. Griffin challenged this rebuff and referred to the authority of his contract with the government, to which Owen retorted: ‘Contract or no contract, I will give no information’. Owen and others in his department believed that all works – railways, roads, bridges, utilities, and even suburbs – outside the city limits of the preliminary plan adopted by the government in 1913 were no business of the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. Work had already started on many of these undertakings during Griffin’s absence and would continue under Owen’s control.
Griffin immediately complained to his minister, W.H. Kelly. In Griffin’s words, Owen considered that ‘design and construction should be independent of each other … [and that] design, in his estimation, primarily concerns aesthetics.’ ‘Of course’, continued Griffin, ‘my own understanding is quite the reverse’. For his part, Owen feared that Griffin’s ‘idea was to assume the absolute control in every way of construction of engineering works’. No consultants were appointed and Griffin’s requests for information remained unfulfilled despite his repeated protestations. To make matters worse, the tide of political fortune also flowed against Griffin in those early days.
In the same month that Griffin met Owen, Joseph Cook’s Commonwealth Liberal government was granted the nation’s first double dissolution election, and as caretaker minister, Kelly went to ground. At the ensuing September election, Labor won office and rather than the smooth, urbane and supportive Kelly, Griffin was forced to deal with former wharf labourer and union organiser, William Oliver Archibald.
The new Minister for Home Affairs took an instant and vehement dislike to Griffin. He was lumped in with Archibald’s own ministerial predecessor, King O’Malley, as being a ‘Yankee bounder’ – one who was supposedly overwhelmed by selfish motives and interested in money and little else.
And so a wearying pattern of poor relations with the Home Affairs bureaucrats and their political masters prevailed, eventually leading to an embittered and exhausted Griffin resigning his post. The full history of Griffin’s Canberra is sad, complex, dramatic, and frequently confounding, full of twists and turns, false dawns and dashed hopes, bloody-mindedness and catch-22 dilemmas – literally the stuff of tragedy. I believe that we are still acting out further scenes in that tragedy today.
To develop my themes further, I’ll again pose the question – how had it come to this? How had this mild-mannered, though fiercely determined architect, previously almost unknown outside America’s Midwest, fallen out so quickly and decisively with the civil service mandarins of Melbourne? And how had he failed to garner sufficient support within the parliament and also within his own profession?
The seeds of acrimony and conflict were scattered long before Griffin’s competition entry was ever adjudged the winner. There had been years of careful and at times seemingly glacial progress towards the selection and acquisition of the site for a grand and unifying capital, one that Austin Chapman, a minister in Alfred Deakin’s second government, felt would be a ‘city for all time … unique in its beauty and utility’. Its proponents confidently predicted that Australia’s capital would eventually be numbered among the finest in the world, the equal of Paris, London or Rome. Yet despite the future city’s very existence being enshrined in the nation’s constitution, many within the parliament, the bureaucracy, a parochial Melbourne press, and the wider populace had nothing but contempt for what they regarded as an extravagant folly. To them, it was nothing more than the ‘bush capital absurdity’. Why couldn’t Melbourne remain as the seat of national government, they asked.
Since Federation, an international quest for the best design the world could offer had always been intended. An international search for the best design was a common aspiration in both the parliament and the bureaucracy, but in the mechanics of the eventual 1912 competition that search for the grand idea began to lose its way.
With all the colour of a revivalist meeting, King O’Malley as Minister for Home Affairs in the second Fisher Labor government, had told the House in 1910: ‘If an Australian can produce a design, it will be accepted; but we require the best we can get, whether it comes from Swede or Dane, from Quaker, Shaker, or Holy Roller’. Counselling the minister in the formulation of the competition rules was the Federal Capital Advisory Board (Colonels David Miller and Percy Owen from the Department of Home Affairs; New South Wales District Surveyor, Charles Scrivener; and New South Wales Government Architect, Colonel Walter Liberty Vernon). The Board thought that it should be the arbiter of the competition, calling on the advice of experts as required. But with a rush of blood to the political head, O'Malley took it upon himself to be the ultimate judge. The minister would appoint an advisory panel of three – an architect, engineer and surveyor – to report directly to him, but the ultimate decision would be his alone. Bureaucratic hackles must have risen at such a prospect, but as loyal servants of the Crown the members of the board feigned public solidarity to their minister.
The professions, however, owed him no such dues. The Royal Victorian Institute of Architects protested strenuously, suggesting that the competition conditions should be put to a joint meeting of all relevant professional bodies. But the architects did not speak for all; the Victorian Institute of Engineers remained unmoved by their brother professionals. To them, the project was essentially an engineering problem. Their sanguine attitude earned a stinging rebuke. ‘The complaisant engineers’, the architects thundered:have now the satisfaction of knowing that they stand alone among the professional bodies … in the acquiescence with a fiasco … Of all the “pussycat” positions to be found in, this is about the silliest.
Without a unanimous stance from the professions, O’Malley was never likely to be swayed. The Victorian architects redirected their opprobrium towards the minister. In the letters page of Melbourne’s Argus they sneered (albeit with acertain uncanny prescience given the eventual location of the current Parliament House):
[O’Malley’s] scheme of a Federal Capital is that of a large number of ‘boulevards’ converging to a central hill, upon which the Parliament House, spread-eagle fashion, shall be the dominating feature … To some hair-brained design of this nature the prizes are likely to go.
Upset over the adequacy of the prizes offered to the winner and placegetters (the winner would receive just under $190,000 in today’s money) and incensed by O'Malley presumption of the ultimate say, the local institutes of architects and their brothers in Britain leaned on their members to boycott the competition.
Having secured first prize, the winner (and for good measure, the placegetters) could not then expect to be intimately involved in the development of the project, or even further consulted. The ‘Conditions of Competition’ stated rather baldly that:
18. The premiated [sic] Designs shall become the property of the Government for its unrestricted use, either in whole or part. Any claim for further remuneration by one or all of the authors … will not … be recognised.
23. The Government by its own officers will give effect to the adopted Design.
Despite O’Malley’s intention to be the final arbiter, his bureaucrats were equally intent on keeping the project firmly under their own control. In these two clauses lay the germ of much bitter dispute.
The Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and their New South Wales colleagues complained to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who in turn petitioned the Australian High Commission in London over the premiums, the conditions, and the power of the minister. But their efforts proved fruitless, leading the RIBA, and their brother institutes in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, to demand that their members boycott the competition. The American Institute of Architects and the remaining Australian state bodies all voiced misgivings, but stopped short of any proscription of their members.
Through the turbulent air of boycotts, parliamentary and professional attack, and the pillories of the press, the competition moved inexorably to its climax. One hundred and thirty seven entries were received by an amended deadline of mid-February 1912: 43 were Australian, 39 British, and 26 were sent from North America. The remaining thirty or so came from as far afield as Finland, South Africa and Mexico. Only a handful of entrants dared reveal an affiliation with the RIBA.
After three months of deliberation, Minister O’Malley was duly presented with the verdict, or verdicts, of his advisory panel. A unanimous decision evaded the hardworking trio of John Kirkpatrick, a New South Wales Architect, James Alexander Smith, a Melbourne mechanical engineer, and John Montgomery Coane, a fellow of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors, with Coane presenting a dissenting report.
The identity of the winning scheme and the placegetters was not revealed until 23 May 1912. The scene was the Melbourne offices of the Department of Home Affairs.
I quote here from the Sydney Morning Herald for the following day:
“Mr Bingle do your duty,” said the Minister and the Governor-General’s Deputy thereupon produced a bulging envelope bearing a big red seal. He showed this package to those present, and on all agreeing that it had not been tampered with, he broke the seal and displayed an assortment of envelopes … No.29 was soon picked out.
“Look at the seal carefully,” said the Minister, “I don’t want any Liberal jerry-wobblers to say that I opened them.” No. 29 was found to be intact. … “Open her up,” commanded Mr O’Malley.
Entry number 29, that of Walter Burley Griffin, architect and landscape architect of Steinway Hall, Chicago Illinois was deemed the winner. On hearing the news, the phlegmatic Griffin simply said: “Ah then, I’ll not be able to see a better plan than mine”.
The reaction to Griffin’s win was mixed at best. Even the New York Times was at first cautious in its appraisal. The Chicago press was, of course, far less equivocal in its coverage.
In Australia, the old Sydney – Melbourne rivalries flared. The Melbourne-based Australasian declared that the ‘Federal Capital is an evil that is actually upon us. … The fixing of the national parliament in a remote bush settlement will admirably suit the secret, hole-and-corner methods of the Labour party. …Yass Canberra is without a single hope of ever coming to anything.’
Architect John Sulman, a long-time advocate of a planned capital echoed the sentiments of his profession: ‘I cannot but feel that a much better result would have been attained if more liberal premiums had been offered, and the just request of the various Institutes of Architects had been adhered to. As it is none of the well known town-planners have entered the lists.’
A few months later, the British journal, Town Planning Review, published a lengthy editorial by the town-planning pioneer Patrick Abercrombie. His critique was typical of many. Like Sulman, he also pointed to the weak field, estimating that the ‘no more than half-a-dozen [British entrants] did not represent the cream of the profession’. The competition had been ‘most antagonistic to Imperialistic ideals. To ignore the advice of a Royal Society like the institute of British architects … [and] the best brains of the mother country, was hardly what one would have expected.’ Abercrombie could but think ‘that the first cannot be the best, as it contains so many obvious defects’. Griffin’s formalism was thought excessive: ‘there always comes a time when natural features must dominate and control the work of man’; the main axis directed at Mount Ainslie – ‘nothing more than a natural impasse’ – was an ‘unpardonable error’; and the city was ‘severed in half by a series of artificial lagoons’. Abercrombie then posed a rather foolish rhetorical question, which, in contrast to the realities of the site, only serves to emphasise Griffin’s remarkable intuitive grasp of the Australian nature of things:
What would be the value of the Thames converted into a larger Serpentine and dotted with model boats and swans? A majestic river [the Molonglo was anything but] is a glory in the heart of a city, but a calm lagoon is the quintessence … of a park.
In conclusion, Abercrombie rather uncharitably acknowledged the ‘beautiful though somewhat eccentric method of presentment … the Board of Assessors may have been carried away with the mere charm of the display’.
Inevitably, Griffin’s winning entry would often be viewed as no more than the best in a poor and depleted field.
O'Malley’s bureaucrats, yes, in the form of yet another committee, a so-called Departmental Board (Percy Owen, Charles Scrivener, and the regimentally upright and Machiavellian Colonel David Miller principal among its members), then acted true to the conditions of the competition and presumed a license to cherry pick from the highest placed designs (Griffin’s and several others, including the local entry of W. Scott Griffiths, Robert Coulter and Charles Caswell, favoured in Coane’s minority report) – literally taking a park from one, a boulevard from another, and so on. Effecting savings in a never-defined budget was touted as a motivation, but their deliberations also suited O'Malley’s contrary instincts – why back a single scheme when a ‘two bob each way’ bet was politically safer?
The resulting plan proved to be as laughably muddled, as it was divisive and unfortunate. Patrick Abercrombie again proffered criticism, describing the board’s creation as a ‘turmoil of confusion’, with a layout ‘so totally outside the pale of serious criticism, that … it cannot be put into execution’. The perspective sketch which accompanied the plan reminded Abercrombie of a ‘third-rate Luna Park, or the Christmas production of a toy factory’. In the Australian idiom, the board’s plan was comparable to that poor maligned camel – the horse designed by a committee.
Yet it was on the basis of the Departmental Board’s plan that construction actually commenced on the capital site in February 1913. It took a change of government and the election of Joseph Cook’s Commonwealth Liberals in May, and Griffin’s first visit to Australia in August, to see the board disbanded, their work overthrown, and Griffin’s scheme tenuously returned to the ascendant.
The Sydney publisher, technocrat, and influence peddler, George Taylor, proclaimed in a lengthy panegyric published in his trade journal Building at the timethat:
Griffin is the rebel I have been waiting for … The more I study this matter the more I am convinced that Australia did more than secure a great design for her Capital City. She proved her motto of “Advance,” by publicly recognising an architect who is an absolute rebel against dogmatic ideas, methods and manners. Griffin is a progressionist possessed to the full of that freedom of thought and action which harmonises so admirably with the aims and aspirations of this free and maturing nation – the country with “the clean sheet”.
George Taylor, of whom more will be said, became an early champion of Griffins’ and the broader ‘new movement in architecture’, particularly as it emanated from Chicago. In the light of such giddy sentiments, Griffin might have been forgiven for assuming that his progressive ideas had at last taken firm hold in Australia. But in reality, his ascendancy was tenuous at best. Griffin might have been an alluring rebel in some quarters, but to others his ideas were deeply suspect. His gains were fragile, and they could never be maintained. The temporarily humiliated Owen and Miller would see to that in the relentless defence of their bureaucratic fiefdoms. Griffin’s great tactical error was made even before he settled in Australia. After securing his appointment with Joseph Cook’s government, he immediately returned to Chicago to wind up his practice and then spent the next few months on a fact-finding tour of Europe. While the cat was away, the mice did play.
Such a plainly resented presence as Griffin’s would always require a nimble and determined phalanx of defenders. His supporters within the Parliament could not always be relied upon for protection, as they themselves were subject to the fortunes of a particularly turbulent period in the young nation’s political life. Relations between Griffin and the executive were never better than coldly civil, with communication only possible through a discombobulating paper trail. The wilful inefficiencies and wastage generated therein precipitated, in part, the 1916 Royal Commission on Federal Capital Administration. There, Griffin won something of a Pyhrric victory, but on the political wheel of fortune his resurgence didn’t last long.
Griffin held an implacable belief in the correctness of his ideas, and no one was ever more determined than he to see these ideas realised – he would not otherwise have managed to become so deeply embroiled in this great saga – but he lacked the essential ability to pre-empt or second-guess his opponents. What might the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham – ever an inspiration to Griffin – have done with Canberra, bringing all his considerable entrepreneurial zeal to bear? Moot speculation perhaps, but Chicago was after all the birthplace of the skyscraper where the ‘business of business’ reigned supreme. Griffin was neither a diplomat, nor a manipulator, nor an effective strategist suited to an Australian political landscape, where, in his direct dealings with the government, he had to work with no fewer than five ministers with responsibility for the capital project. Similarly, four prime ministers – Andrew Fisher (twice), Joseph Cook and Billy Hughes – each, as I’ve hinted, led governments with radically shifting priorities in handling the capital’s development from 1912 to 1920.
If all that were not enough to test Griffin’s equanimity, in the midst of such turmoil came the worst blow of all – a world war. The nation’s energies were immediately swung behind the Imperial cause and the vital conditions for the orderly development of a great symbol of national sentiment simply evaporated. The advent of Billy Hughes’s Nationalist government following the first conscription referendum and the Labor split, effectively sealed Griffin’s fate. His erratic champion, the pacifist King O’Malley, was cast into the political wilderness – he and Hughes had always loathed one another – and the Hughes government’s main priority was never anything than prosecuting the war at all cost. As a telling aside, it is interesting to note that between 1913 and 1918 nearly £1 million was spent on site acquisition and construction for Australia House in London. In contrast, spending on the capital site declined from £100,000 in the fiscal year 1916-17 to less than £9,000 spread over the following three years. Imperial ties overwhelmed national sentiment.
In the post-war push to move the Federal Government to Canberra, the Seat of Government Act 1924 enshrined Griffin’s 1918 final plan in law. As early Griffin scholar, Peter Harrison noted: ‘Although little more than a street pattern and an outline of the lake, the Gazetted Plan proved effective in drawing attention to ill-considered departures from Griffin’s intentions’. But in reality the plan was nothing more than a mutant echo of his true intent. Most significantly, the repositioning of the parliament house destroyed his three dimensional hierarchy, where the executive was submissive to parliament, which in turn was beholden to the people, symbolised by Griffin’s Capitol atop the highest point in the parliamentary triangle.
After his 1920 resignation, Griffin occasionally broke his silence to comment on the growth of what he saw as a retarded infant, that with loving care could be put to right.
It could be argued that Walter and Marion Griffin in the end did not get the point, as achingly wondrous as their vision for Australia’s capital might have been. Ironically, the failure of Australia to properly embrace the Griffins’ city splendid at heart lay in the very democratic ideal they were intent on symbolizing. To quote Alexis de Tocqueville, the French commentator on the flowering of the nineteenth century American nation:
The universal desire for comfort, and the constant efforts by which everyone attempts to procure it make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations … [will] cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.
The three-dimensional democratic map that was the Griffins’ Canberra, and the aspirations and expression of the common man, had been mismatched in time and in place.
I’ll now divert to say something of the Griffins’ personal struggles. World events again weighed heavily. As outsiders, and especially Americans, citizens of a nation unwilling to take up the cudgels until late in the war, Walter and Marion found that attitudes toward them only hardened.
Within their own profession, their espousal of the great Louis Sullivan’s rallying call for a new architecture devoid of historic precedent was at first met with curiosity, but was soon replaced by puzzlement and indifference. And from their own quarter, neither Walter nor Marion ever courted the institutes, or sought the embrace of the local profession. Perhaps life might have been easier had they done so. From 1915 onwards, as their buildings began to appear in Melbourne, the wider public was, in the wonderful Robin Boyd’s words, a ‘little bewildered, but still prepared to believe that Griffin’s buildings could not be as mad as they looked because, after all, the man had come from America’.
But of those who considered themselves the public arbiters of architectural taste, their response to the Griffin’s architecture soon took on a manic edge. Almost overnight, two of their most energetic champions, that remarkable and meddlesome publishing duo and town-planning advocates, the aforementioned George Taylor and his wife Florence, became their most strident critics.
The Taylors and Griffins were alike in certain respects. Both couples were thoroughly modern working duos, and linked to their mutual planning interests, there was an undoubted early connection. But following a 1914 study tour of North America during which the Taylors met a baleful Wright eternally bitter over what he saw as the plagiarism of his erstwhile followers; the outbreak of a war for which the Americans had no stomach; and the refusal of the Griffins to aid and abet George and Florence’s attempts at influence peddling over the capital project – the relationship between the two couples soon came dramatically unstuck.
Outside of the capital project, the Taylors used their journal to attack the products of the Griffin’s private architectural practice, in particular two works of profound creativity – the wondrously escapist Café Australia in Collins Street, Melbourne, and the sublime Newman College at the University of Melbourne. As examples of their ire, Florence Taylor saw Café Australia’s sumptuous plasterwork as ‘vermin haunts’ and Newman College as ‘dangerous to all architectural principals of truth in design’.
With the war mired in blood in Europe, and the Australian press draped with the innocent faces of the nation’s dead youth, the Griffins’ never-disguised pacifist sympathies enraged the likes of the Taylors. Their journals seethed with attacks on American and German city planning models, while George’s adroitly drawn cartoons shouted a base message – Americans were as good as the enemy. While never actually naming the Griffins, George left none doubting their target. ‘If the Huns marched through Illinois and left 4000 outraged women in their wake, where would America’s non-resistant policy stand’, George Taylor posited contemptuously.
Malicious carping over the Griffins’ architecture was one thing -- but the Taylors went further. At times they attempted to discredit Walter back home in Chicago, and they also gathered supposed evidence from the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright to undermine his standing before the government here. It was behaviour that greatly disturbed the otherwise perennially sanguine Walter.
The post-war push to move government and the bureaucracy to the new city brought forth a new round of criticism. ‘Canberra has been spoilt’, concluded George Taylor deridingly, ‘by the inclusion of individuals who, though having artistic conceptions, have not been practical enough to have their schemes economically carried out’. And without the supposed surety of a much-touted ‘committee of experts’ – a magically endowed posse of technocrats and businessmen who could somehow create harmony and progress where there had been none – the project had, in Taylor’s opinion, foundered. ‘We predicted failure’, pontificated George:as we could see that Mr. Griffin, though skilled in one branch of Town Planning draughtsmanship, had not the experience to fit him for the great and onerous duties involved in the management and control of development and construction.
While attaching too much importance to the opinions of the likes of George and Florence Taylor is a risk, they do embody the vocal, hysterical end of a persistent continuity of contemporary opinion. And opinions expressed quietly through the corridors of power only affirm the public ranting of the likes of the Taylors.
In the excited build up to the 1927 opening of the supposedly temporary Parliament House, there was scant mention in the Australian press of Griffin, or his role through the preceding decade in the development of the national capital. But a couple of paragraphs from Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner of a few days before the big event say much more in their 88 words than breathless paragraphs anticipating the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. The Barrier Miner piece is as brief as it is chillingly dismissive. In part, it noted that ‘Officialdom has decreed that Mr Griffin shall be only one of the throng.’ There were to be no presentations to royalty, no panegyrics to ‘an absolute rebel against dogmatic ideas, methods and manners.’ Griffin was to be a mere bystander – simply one of the throng. Amongst all the pomp and circumstance, O’Malley’s ‘gilt-spurred roosters’ would of course have their day. When asked if Griffin was to be a special guest, the Minister for Home and Territories, Senator George Pearce, simply snarled: ‘He got the prize, isn’t that enough?’ Summoning all of his considerable equanimity, Walter did attend in the company of Sir John Sulman. Equally surprising perhaps was Marion’s attendance.
I’ll end my remarks where I began – in the great theatre of the imagination that was Melbourne’s Capitol. Was the name ‘Capitol’ a mere coincidence with the Griffins’ lofty democratic locus of Canberra. Perhaps so – there were Capitol Theatres from Hong Kong to New York – but after the seven years of struggle and slander that was the Griffins’ Canberra, the Capitol proved to be a place of professional and personal renewal for Walter and Marion. Its realisation was not without its difficulties, but its dazzling interior provides emphatic proof of how art can triumph over mediocrity.
In the late 1940s, Robin Boyd was the first architect with a foot in our generation to appreciate the great contribution made to Australia by the Griffins. The times, they were gradually a changing. Like many Melburnians, Boyd had come to the Capitol Theatre as a child and was instantly enraptured by the lightshow overhead. For him, the Capitol was simply ‘one of the most important Australian buildings of the century’. Almost lost to the forces of expediency in the 1960s, the theatre, like the surviving elements of the Griffins’ Canberra, lives on today as a vibrant part of their Australian legacy.
In 1961, just a couple of years before the Robin Boyd-orchestrated campaign to save the Capitol gathered strength, Marion died in humble circumstances in Chicago at the age of 90. Walter had died in India nearly a quarter of a century before. And so departed the other half of the whole, only perhaps at last to be reunited in spirit with her beloved Walter; or as one-time employee and friend, Louise Lightfoot, put it: ‘like drops of water in the cosmic ocean where egos persist.’
When researching and writing my biography of the Griffins I was at times moved to a niggling feeling of shame by the behaviour of many among previous generations of Australians. I wanted to right the irreparable wrongs of the past. ‘If only’, was a common thought, an unfinished sentence in a re-written history. Not that the Griffins were always right – far from it. But arising from all their struggles and difficulties, there is another, brighter side – at least for our time. That the Griffins endured years of derision and exclusion, yet remained energetic and engaged, building and dreaming, imaging, creating and hoping, is, of itself, an inspiring story for all who seek a better world.
And what of their legacy? Perhaps at the distance of a century it is not so much their design for an ‘ideal city’ on a distant continent, or a remarkable though irregular suite of buildings in their home country, Australia or India. Without making light of their tangible achievements, in many ways, Walter and Marion’s legacy is the way they lived their lives, and their implacable belief in the truth of life’s purpose.
In their eventful lives together, Walter and Marion bestrode three continents, absorbing the wonder and magic in each environment – teaching, bewitching, badgering and cajoling all those with whom they mixed – never resiling from a belief that there is a better way for the individual, for communities, for humankind and for the planet. We need the spirit of Walter and Marion more now than they could ever have imagined.