The Tale of Two Cities - A Cultivated City, The Griffins in Australia’s Capital

I’m delighted to be chairing this session in today’s seminar – A Cultivated City, The Griffins in Australia’s Capital.

I am also pleased to be here as an enthusiastic, keenly interested amateur in a room that is filled with such luminaries when it comes to researching and appraising the work of the Griffins.

Canberra people can be, quite understandably I think, a little protective about their city sometimes. This is not surprising given the criticism that the place sometimes gets from outside – mainly because of the politics and the bureaucracy that happens here.

This is all symptomatic, I think, of a pervasive misunderstanding of – if not apathy about - the symbolic and practical functions of Australia’s national capital city. Perhaps that’s because Federation – to which Canberra’s evolution is inextricably linked – is popularly viewed as a yawn - something like a great big COAG meeting – when it comes to Australia’s past.

Thankfully now, as new generations of historians, writers and public intellectuals are pushing traditional cultural boundaries, that view – and Canberra’s place within it – may be slowly dissipating. I hope.

Anyway, as today’s turnout proves, Canberra people are immensely proud of what their city represents. They are also furiously and passionately interested in the rich history of the place.

In a way I think that the story of this city’s growth – tied as it is to the great achievement of Federation without bloodshed – was eclipsed by World War One and what arguably became the national identity defining losses at the Dardanelles and in Europe.

That of course is another argument all together – the subject, perhaps, for another whole seminar. But certainly the advent of World War One nearly scuttled the infant Canberra project.

The point I am making is that perhaps it is only now that the Canberra story, and its critical place in Australia’s history, is slowly re-gaining the popular currency it certainly had at the time of the great battle to choose the sites and the design competition that gave us the Griffins.

And it is a very compelling story.

That goes especially, I think, for the design and building phase of the city, with all of its incredible colour, challenges, disappointments and achievements. And, not least, with all of its amazing personalities – none more so than Walter Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.

Speaking briefly here after Alasdair, I don’t need to say any more about what remarkable individuals the Griffins were. Alasdair’s fine book is already compulsory reading for the Griffin enthusiasts of whom there are so many.

And so this session is focusing tightly on the Griffins’ work on and in Canberra.

When I moved to Canberra somewhat reluctantly 20 years ago, I did so in the belief shared by so many new arrivals that I was moving to a place that had been designed and built by Walter Griffin. I must concede that it has been a pretty recent revelation to me that while Walter and Marion did indeed design a beautiful city of profound symbolism as the capital of the new Australian Federation, their remarkable design was compromised and undermined from the moment it was chosen as the winner of the competition.

The Griffin’s city, as they envisaged it, and drew it and wanted it, was never built.

Yes, we can all see elements of the Griffin dream as they are represented in Marion’s beautiful triptych – the geometry, the position of the eventual lake, the land and water axes – when we stand on the heights around the city and look down upon it. But how much of their dream was actually realized? When I first began researching my recent book ‘Canberra’, which merely touches on this fascinating story, I visited a prominent member of the local branch of the Griffin Society. (Brett Odgers)

“How much of the city is Walt and Marion’s I asked?”

The answer – “perhaps just 20 or 30 per cent”. This was an absolute eye opener to me.

Of course the next question was: what happened?

Many of you will have seen the wonderful exhibition downstairs – “The Dream of a Century – The Griffins in Australia’s Capital”. And the answers to the question – What happened to the Griffins’ dream? – can mostly be found there. For all sorts of reasons, including the intervention of the First World War, this country – clinging to the last vestiges of colonial past and trapped in an imperial present - wasn’t ready for the bold vision the Griffins thought it deserved.

The exhibition pulls absolutely no punches about the crushing of the Griffin dream, making it clear that – quote – “The Griffins’ Chicago-like urbanity would be insidiously transformed into a disparate collection of garden suburbs.” – unquote. I wonder how many of you – particularly those of you who live here - feel that way about the city today. Would you like a little more of that Chicago-like urbanity of the original Griffin design?

And so, as per the title of this session in today’s seminar, we have A Tale of Two Cities.

There is the city of the Griffins’ broken Dream. And then we have the other city – the city that happened and the city that became the city where we are today, the city that encompasses the skeleton of the Griffin plan, but also the more prosaic practical demands of the Anglophile post-colonial planners and the suburban sprawl that has crept relentlessly across the plains since.

We are fortunate today to have on this panel three experts, each with unique insights into the Griffins, their architecture, their inspirations and their achievements.

First we have Associate Professor Christopher Vernon, a leading authority on the lives and works of the Griffins. Christopher is the guest curator of the exhibition downstairs, so he is uniquely placed to give an overview of the thinking and structure that underpins it, and to elaborate on the significance of its key themes and exhibits.

Then we will hear from Dr Dianne Firth, whose research focus has long been the history, theory and practice of Landscape Architecture, especially in relation to Canberra. Dianne is going to talk to us about Lake Burley Griffin – the ornamental waters that ultimately took Griffin’s name if not his design. She poses the very pertinent question: Is it really Griffin’s lake - or is it the lake of the National Capital Development Commission?

Then we will hear from Dr Jeff Turnbull, whose research has focused on interpreting the Griffins’ work here and abroad. Today he will deliver his paper “The Architecture of Walter Burley Griffin: Canberra Manifestations”. It includes fascinating insights about the inspirations for the Griffins’ work – not least on the pervasive influence of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello on their design for Canberra.

After our speakers have had their turn they will take some questions from you.

**I’d just like to open with a query about the name Walter Burley Griffin. The lake bears that name – Burley Griffin, and Griffin is routinely known as Walter Burley Griffin in Australia. I note that in a speech last year the US Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleisch said he thought the repeated use of the middle name “Burley” was a little weird because in the US anyway, the public application of middle names was usually reserved for serial killers. I’m hoping someone today might address how Australia came to permanently punctuate Walter Griffin with the Burley.

 

QUESTIONS.

 THANK YOU for coming. Thanks to our speakers Christopher Vernon, Dianna Firth and Jeff Turnbull.

Q: The Griffin plan was gazetted in 1925 – why was it gazetted by Stanley Bruce’s government?

- Bruce’s works minister Lyttleton Groom terminated Griffin in 1920?