Walter Burley Griffin - Point of Creation
*Speakers: Marcus Hughes (M), Peter Graves (P), Liz Lee (L)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Yama. My name is Marcus Hughes and I’m the Director of Indigenous Engagement here at the National Library of Australia. In welcoming you to this session I acknowledge Australia’s first nations peoples, the first Australians, as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and I give my respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In doing so I’d also like to acknowledge the remarkable work and words of Narinyan elder, David Moajali and his map of Australia, the documentation of his deep understanding of the song lines that travel across and tie this country together culturally, spiritually and physically.
His lines hold meaning beyond marks on a map, their triangulations and intersections describe everything, land, people and story. In his words, our country is living breathing life, our land is reflected in us and we are reflected in this land, our past, present and future is all in the land from creation time to future time all at once.
I want to show you something, I want to show you how all Aboriginal people in Australia are connected. If we share these stories with our country, with the whitefella then they’ll have our country in their hearts as we do and they’ll understand and love it and never damage it. Thank you.
P: My name’s Peter Graves, I’m the Chair of the Canberra Chapter of the Walter Burley Griffin Society. I’m going to talk today about Walter and Marion, the people and their work in three countries, in America where they began, in Australia where Canberra is their memorial and in India and I’ll give a summary at the end of what lingers on after them.
Walter was born in Illinois on the 24th of November 1876 and he died in Lucknow in India on the 11th of February 1937 where he is buried. He worked as an architect, a landscape architect and planner in the United States, Australia and India. His professional career spanned nearly 40 years as a young architect in the turn of the century Chicago where he worked with Frank Lloyd Wright between 1901 and 1905. The next 20 years were in Australia between 1914 and 1935 and the last two years were in India between 1935 and 1937.
He became an important assistant in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio from 1901 to 1905. The working relationship was informal, allowing Walter his own personal commissions. He left Wright’s office and set up his own private practice late in 1905. By 1909 he had a wide variety of commissions including over 12 houses, a club house and a library. A love of nature was to be Walter’s great source of inspiration which was evident not only in the work of Walter and Marion but also in their lives.
They combined this with a search for pure form, a geometric, abstract ideal inspired by the patterns of nature. They both became passionately involved with early conservation groups in the Midwest. On being awarded the prize in 1912 of designing Canberra Walter declared to The New York Times, I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expect that any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city, a city that meets my ideal of a city of the future.
He was married eventually to Marion Mahony Griffin. She was the second woman to graduate in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1894 and was the first registered woman architect in Illinois helping to pioneer women’s participation in architecture in the United States. She contributed as a designer to the development of the Prairie School which revolutionalised American architecture and to the dissemination of its ideas through her drawings.
When Wright closed his studio and went to Europe in 1909 he left his practice to Hermann van Holst who engaged Marion to design the more difficult commissions. They commissioned Walter to design a landscape plan for a proposal with three large houses in Decatur, Illinois. Every weekend in the summer months between 1909 to ‘11 Walter and Marion went on extended canoeing expeditions, exploring the streams and rivers of Illinois. On 29 June 1911 they married in Michigan City.
Within weeks of their marriage the Griffins embarked on the design and presentation of their entry for the competition to design Australia’s national capital. Against 137 worldwide entries the Griffins’ entry, number 29, was announced as the winner by the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, on the 23rd of May 1912. Marion had prepared the exquisitely rendered drawings.
Walter was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and arrived with Marion and his relatives, the Lippincotts, in Sydney in May 1914. His Canberra contract allowed him to set up independent practice while working on the federal capital. After six years of work the frustrating obstacles created by bureaucrats and politicians became too much and Walter was forced to resign from the project on the 31st of December 1920.
They had moved to Melbourne in 1916 where Walter had established his own architectural office. He and Marion worked on many commissions including Newman College at the University of Melbourne, the towns of Leeton and Griffith, Café Australia which is unfortunately now demolished, at the Chinese Nationalist Club, the office building, Leonard House, the Capitol Theatre and a 12-storey office building, Capitol House as well as numerous private houses and several urban town planning schemes. In 1919 working at weekends they built themselves a small house in the yard of the Lippincott’s Eaglemont House using the prefabricated knit-lock building system designed and patented by Walter in 1918.
With Walter heavily committed at the Federal Capital Office during 1917 Marion became involved in the Women’s Branch of the Town Planning Association and accepted a private commission. The drawings were completed by the builder’s quotation, exceeded the financial limit of the client who refused to pay any architectural commission to Marion. She suspected he might proceed to build the house so she patented her design as a work of art with the Patents Office.
When the client built his house in a simplified and altered form of Marion’s design she took him to court to recover her fees. However the judge ruled a house design could not be cooperated and dismissed her claim. This unfortunate incident dissuaded Marion from doing any more independent commissions in Australia. From then on she contented herself with assisting her husband’s career.
After he was appointed for a third three-year term as Director of Design and Construction Walter and Marion designed the two-storey knit-lock house in Melbourne in 1920 for their private home with the lower floor as their architectural office. On a steep slope the upper level of the house was at street level with a basement cut into the fall of the land. Not facing the street the house faced spectacular views over bushland and the Yarra River.
Griffin had to convince the local council his patented knit-lock construction was a suitable material for a home in the wealthy suburb of Toorak. Unfortunately the council’s procrastination delayed construction to the late 1920s when Griffin’s tenure was soon to be terminated. The Griffins decided not to proceed with this project and because of their uncertainty about living in Melbourne or Sydney built a replica of Gumnuts Cottage on their vacant land on the Glenard Division adjacent to the Littincotts’ house.
The Griffins and a chicken farmer built it themselves, naming it Foliota, the mushroom that sprang up overnight. In her memoirs, Magic of America, Marion said it was the cheapest and most perfect house ever built. Nine of their houses were built in Melbourne between 1917 and 1928 plus two incinerators. Nearly 30 incinerators were designed, 13 of which were constructed and seven survive. There are two in Sydney, one here in Canberra, one in Melbourne, two in South Australia and one at Ipswich in Queensland. The Canberra incinerator is in Westbourne Woods next to the 10th Fairway of Royal Canberra Golf Course. It was decommissioned in 1959 and the furnace removed.
Walter and Marion worked in Melbourne from 1915 until they returned to Sydney in 1925. When Walter left Canberra he focused on creating an urban development in Sydney to demonstrate how sympathetic planning and architecture subordinate to the landscape would create an ideal suburb in harmony with its natural landscape. Formed in 1920 the Greater Sydney Development Association bought 263ha of land that became the suburbs of Middle Cove, Castle Cove and Castlecrag. By the time they moved to Castlecrag in 1925 the Griffins had developed a reverence for the natural Australian landscape and its preservation was a dominant theme in their ideas for the community environment.
Castlecrag was developed first. Walter designed narrow roads to follow the contours. All the foreshore land was to be public land with a network of interconnected walkways and reserves for all to enjoy, especially for the houses to harmonise with the superb landscape. The importance of community interaction, regard for the environment and sustainable living were fundamental to the Griffins’ ethos.
Over the next decade they lived at various addresses in Castlecrag and designed more than 50 houses of which 15 were built. Marion would do a perspective drawing of the site and they would sit there together looking at this perspective trying to discover from which part of the site the house would seem to want to grow. Outside of Castlecrag their architectural commissions included private houses for five different clients, all in the northern suburbs of Sydney.
Walter moved to India in October 1935 to implement his design for the new library at the University of Lucknow. He planned to stay there just three months. In the two years he lived in India, part of that time with Marion, they designed 95 projects including 53 for the United Provinces Exhibition in Lucknow including a stadium, numerous pavilions, rotundas, arcades and towers. He was entranced by India and was inundated with new commissions including Lucknow University Student Union, a library and a museum for the Raja of Mahmudabad, a zenana which are the women’s quarters for the Raja of Jahangirabad which still exists but is in ruins, Pioneer Press building, municipal offices, many private houses, a memorial to King George V and all the buildings for the 160-acre United Province Exhibition in December 1936.
It was the biggest job Walter actually completed in India although they were always meant to be temporary and were subsequently demolished. Walter Griffin enthusiastically embraced Indian architecture and its decorative elements, adapting them and reinterpreting them in self-assured diverse architectural forms seeking to create a modern Indian architecture.
Marion arrived in Lucknow in April 1936 to assist with the workload and immediately began to train the draughtsmen. The magnificent perspective she drew for the numerous projects reveal her characteristic skill and vigour, capturing Walter’s Indian designs with great brilliance.
Walter died on the 11th of February 1937 unexpectedly in Lucknow five days after gall bladder surgery and is buried there. Marion stayed on for a few weeks finishing some of his plans before being persuaded to return to Australia and she did visit Canberra in 1938.
After her return to America in 1939 Marion received two commissions, a World Fellowship Centre in New Hampshire and the Hills and Rosary Crystals subdivision in Texas. Neither proceeded nor did a third project, a plan for South Chicago. She also wrote her unpublished memoir, The Magic of America, memorialising her life with Walter and his life’s work. Over 1,000 pages it is organised into four sections or what she called battles. The Imperial Battle in India, the Federal Battle in Canberra, the Municipal Battle, and they had them in Castlecrag, and Individual Battle, the Griffins’ relationship.
It tells of her role in the partnership with Walter, both as a forceful intellectual and spiritual muse to a more retiring yet equally strongminded Walter and as the practical organiser of the office. It shows that Marion lived a feminist principle well ahead of her time in the way that she was able to integrate the various aspects of her life into a whole. She finished The Magic of America in 1949 and died in 1961.
The Griffins’ legacy is diverse across three continents, in America, Australia and India. Their design for Canberra remains visionary. Griffin developed a unique synthesis of city beautiful and garden city elements against a backdrop of Canberra’s landscapes. He provided a host of grand boulevards from the central city to the periphery and terminal landscape features. The axial lines, principal avenues, urban densities and mixed land uses were designed to facilitate communication, accessibility, transport and connectedness.
Griffin was a lover of nature, landscape architect and planned an organic city in harmony with the natural environment and satisfying human needs. Extensive parks and a variety of street trees were planted under his direction.
The designs for Canberra and Castlecrag are central to the reputations of both Marion and Walter. The connection between Canberra and the Griffin name became fused in the Australian imagination when Marion Mahony’s renderings of the plan became recognisable at the end of the 20th century and began to appear in a wide range of materials used to either denote or promote the city. Her golden renderings maintain a strong symbolic connection with the original design in creating the national capital in the national interest, the city of Canberra that I love. Thank you very much.
L: Thank you to Marcus and Peter. Marcus, for his very warm welcome and Peter for his delightfully and in-depth talk about Marion and Walter. My name is Liz Lee, I’m a dancer and choreographer based here on Ngunnawal land after many years travelling and touring around the world. Our talk today is being screened today on the 18th of October 2020. This is the anniversary of the date in 1913 when Walter Burley Griffin was declared to be the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction of Canberra.
I’ve been based as I mentioned in Canberra for 10 years and the purpose of our talk today is to look into connections between India and Australia, specifically Canberra as I’m researching the development of a new full length dance work that will premiere in 2021. This project is funded by Arts ACT and supported by a number of other organisations including the National Library of Australia and premieres at the new Belconnen Arts Centre. The work is called Bindu and it explores and celebrates some of the interconnections in design, movement and music between Australia and India.
The inspiration for this piece derives from the notion of Bindu, the point of creation in Hindu mythology from which all design, creation and connection begins. It applies this concept to the design process behind Canberra with Canberra acting as the Bindu around which the triangle of creation reveals itself, the Griffins, India and Australia. The triangles in the design of Canberra connect into mandalas which represent the universe, interrelations and intersections uniquely explored with national and international relevance through the lens of a very special cross-cultural collaboration. The work also celebrates of course first nation’s culture and those aspects of the work will be devised solely by first nation’s artists.
The National Library of Australia archives are our genesis, collection content will be reimagined and innovatively transformed into exquisite tableaus that are projected onto the dancers. The still body moves through to extraordinarily rhythmic and detailed dexterity, mirroring the beautiful geometry of Canberra’s layout juxtaposed with placing Canberra in the midst of the stunning natural landscape. Projection of Marion’s drawings and her exquisite depictions of nature align with the intricacies of Walter’s Indian architecture. The static images are brought to life through animation, the visuals complementing the opposing complexities and freedom of classical Indian and contemporary Australian dance and music.
The Bindu Company comprises of first nations dancers and musicians from across Australia, ACT-based classical Indian and contemporary dancers and from Singapore’s Maya Dance Theatre trained in both contemporary and classical Indian dance. Our language of classical Indian dance and first nations music makes the work profoundly cross-cultural however Bindu creates art we hope that transcends elements of cultural ownership and dives into an experience in which each element is fundamental, the experience wholly consuming and utterly beguiling, a unique exploration of contemporary Australasian identity and expression.
The origins for this work arise for me in the many years of practice I have in classical Indian dance and martial arts. I began training in 1992 and wrote my dissertation on the assimilation of classical Indian dance in contemporary Bangladesh as we were living there as a family at the time. As a non-Asian artist I have undertaken many years’ research into previous interrelations between east and west. This includes travelling deep into the mountains in northern Pakistan to visit the Kalash tribe descended from Alexander the Great’s Army when he passed through in 326BC. I have also undertaken many years of research into the work of Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn, American modern dance pioneers, and of course Anna Pavlova and I have reinterpreted a number of St Denis' solos inspired by India from 1906.
I have spent many, many months here at the Library poring over the archives belonging to Harcourt Halgeranoff, dancer, ballet master and teacher and a member of Anna Pavlova’s company. Pavlova first visited Australia in 1926 and she returned in 1929. Her visits to Australia were ground-breaking and they laid the beginnings of the start of a hugely strong ballet base in this country. Her 1926 tour to Australia followed straight on from her tour of India. Both the Dennis Shawn and Pavlova companies toured India in 1926 to ’27.
In April 2008 I followed the route that the Pavlova Company took through India and later that year returned with a film crew and we developed a documentary which researched the route that St Denis has taken throughout the country. I felt like a detective as we searched for buildings and hotels and sites that they had seen. I would walk into a building that looked vaguely art decoesque, not knowing anything about architecture, and say “when was it built?” and if it was ’32 I’d say “too late” and I’d walk out. In Calcutta, walked into the new Empire Theatre and they were just redoing it. I touched the floorboards upon which Ruth St Denis, Ted Shawn and Anna Pavlova danced, inspired as they were by India and what they saw.
I created a work, a dance piece called 120 Birds inspired by the crazy travelling stories of these amazing and intrepid artists and the 120 Birds that Anna Pavlova toured Australia with in 1929, played havoc with customs. Footage from both the National Library of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive are the backdrop for this particular work. I had a fellow ship at the National Film and Sound Archive to research the impact that Anna Pavlova had on Australia on her two visits.
My character’s name was Madam Lou, named after the dancer, Louise Lightfoot. Lightfoot was the first Australian female recipient of a degree in architecture from the University of Melbourne in 1923. She was a dancer and also became the first known Australian woman to train in classical Indian dance and the first person to bring classical Indian dance to Australia. She worked with Walter and Marion Burley Griffin as an architect before seeing Anna Pavlova dance in 1926 and the beginnings of our interconnections and interweaving start to reveal themselves.
From here Louise Lightfoot established the first Australian ballet, a precursor to the Australian Ballet before she turned her focus to Indian dance. As part of our documentary we visited Lucknow and this of course is where Walter Burley Griffin is buried. As Peter says 95 designs and he was passionately inspired by the country. If he had not died so early how many more incredible buildings designed by him would still exist?
In 2013 as part of the centenary celebrations Robyn Archer visited his grave and earlier this year Deepak-Raj Gupta also visited his grave, had it all spruced up, had a wonderful ceremony to mark the importance of this particular and incredible individual. Both Marion and Walter were deeply involved with theatre, especially Marion and this is another aspect of their lives that brings inspiration for this work and this brings us back to the point, literally, of Bindu.
The Bindu is the point that sits right at the very centre of the Shri Yantra. This is a form of mystical diagram. It consists of nine interlocking triangles that surround the central point, the Bindu. The triangles represent the cosmos and the human body. The Bindu is considered the meeting place or junction between the physical world and the spiritual world or the unmanifest source, the lions of energy. Of the nine triangles four point to the sky and are believed to be the symbols of the masculine. Five point downwards representing the feminine.
The Shri Yantra is believed to be a strong symbol for the union of the masculine and the feminine design. The nine triangles also form 43 smaller triangles which are said to represent the entire universe or cosmos. The correlations and the notions of energy, connections and lay lines, the cultural, physical and spiritual nature of this country of Australia bring together everything that we are looking at within this work, our point of focus.
We're very much at the beginning of our research even though there is such a huge body of research that sits underneath the work. We have an incredible team of dancers and musicians including the Gold Elders from Canberra Dance Theatre. A number of the dancers are world class exponents of the different classical forms that they practise and they are based here in the ACT. We have Parmithium dancers, Kathak dancers and Kuchipudi. We will also be working with dancers from Singapore from Maya Dance Theatre, trained in the classical Indian form, Parmithium, and contemporary dance.
Nature is what will be drawing us altogether. Some of the early designs that Marion and Walter had imagined, plants that would arise in different colours on the different mountains around Canberra. We always as dancers look to nature for our creation. I see the work as starting in black and white costumes when we’re looking at the architecture and then there’s a burst of colour as Marion’s exquisite description and depictions of nature come into play.
Our talk today is part of a series of events running up to the premiere of the work in 2021. On the 21st of November, three days before Walter Burley Griffin’s birthday, we will present a performance called Interconnect at Gorman Arts Centre, bringing together a series of dancers and design elements together as part of the Design Canberra Festival. We hope to be celebrating Marion’s 150th birthday on Valentine’s Day in 2021.
Bindu will be the opportunity to step back from this incredible wealth of history dating back 60 to 80,000 years to look to a common connection between all people, nature, movement, music and design. Thank you.
Sunday 18 October is the anniversary of Walter Burley Griffin’s 1913 appointment as Canberra’s Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction.
The city planning work undertaken by Griffin and the design drawings his wife, Marion Mahoney Griffin, produced remain visionary.
To mark the anniversary, Chair of the Canberra chapter of the Walter Burley Griffin Society, Peter Graves, and Artistic Director, and Director at the BOLD Festival, Liz Lea, come together to present a unique online talk connecting the history of the Griffin’s work and travels, and how they formed the genesis of Lea’s latest dance production.
Both talks provide a fascinating insight into the history of the Griffins’s extensive travel and their lives in the USA, Australia and India, while working and creating distinctive urban developments and architecture, always with the natural landscape in mind.
Peter first traces the lives of Walter and Marion’s life in the USA, Australia and India, including descriptions of the geometric elements of their Canberra design and how they embraced and were influenced by Indian architecture.
Liz has explored the National Library of Australia’s archive as inspiration to produce her reimagined and innovative dance project, referencing the collection and mirroring and projecting some of Marion Griffin’s drawings along with the designs and intricacies of Walter Griffin’s Indian architecture.
More from the Library
- Delve into the design and architecture of Australia’s built environment through our current exhibition, Australian Dreams: Picturing Our Built World
- Explore the Library’s Dance collection which includes unique Australian dance resources across a spectrum of dance styles