Alasdair McGregor, Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Penguin, 545 pp.
To disparage Canberra is every non-Canberran Australian’s birthright. To many Sydneysiders and Melburnians, the bush capital, seemingly custom built for cars and the public servants they contain, is not a proper city. As with Washington, what goes on there has not helped the city’s image and “Canberra” has become shorthand both for government, and for the kind of self-referential political sausage-making which thwarts true progress. During my visits to ‘our nation’s capital’ I’ve often wondered if the city was the result of a scaling error; there is a weird discrepancy between what your brain envisages when looking at a map of the city and reality. All those circles which one might imagine to be urban boulevards turn out to be dusty suburban streets, their radii too large to be perceived, yet just curved enough to get the visitor well lost.
In spite of all Canberra lacks, it is most definitely sui generis and its strangeness has an undeniable appeal — there are, after all, very few purpose built capitals in the world. While a San Franciscan might say that Sydney is beautiful in the same way as his home city, in the moments when Canberra is beautiful — the lake on certain clear winter morning, say — it is beautiful in a uniquely Canberran way. After reading Alasdair McGregor’s excellent biography of Canberra’s designers, Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, I have no doubt that the city would be much more beautiful, and much more useful, had their plan been followed.
The story of the Griffins reads like a Choose You Own Adventure novel with only one fork in the road, one way leading to Canberra, the other away from it and toward what could have been. While the Griffin legacy is increasingly appreciated in Australia, at least among the architectural community, they remain comparatively obscure in their native land. Both were born in Chicago, and met while working together in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio. Griffin was a gifted city planner and landscape architect who had some trouble expressing his own architectural innovations due to his comparative weakness as a draughtsman. By some accounts he functioned as Wright’s junior partner, and Griffin’s calm demeanor seem to have saved a number of jobs when clients ran out of patience with the master and his eccentricities.
Marion Mahony was one of the first women to obtain an architectural degree in the US. She worked for Wright on and off for fourteen years and developed into one of the greatest architectural delineators of the century. McGregor convincingly demonstrates the importance of her flowing drawings, which typically combined plans, sections and perspectives on a single exquisitely rendered silk sheet, in the creation and dissemination of the FLW legend. As was often the case with Wright’s more talented associates, the Griffins’ relationship with the master deteriorated spectacularly. By the time Marion wrote her four volume memoir, The Magic of America, she was so embittered against her former boss that she was barely able to write his name. Magic, which McGregor describes as “chaotic, polemical, unreliable and fascinatingly brilliant,” is the book’s main source on the relationship between Marion and Walter, and McGregor sensibly uses it as a map of their subjective experience, rather than an objective chronicle of events.
McGregor tells their story with a confidence borne out of his extensive research and guided by his conviction that “we need the spirit of Walter and Marion more now than they ever could have imagined.” Be forewarned, it is a sad tale and the vividness with which he brings his subjects to life makes it all the sadder; they were as energetic, enthusiastic and talented as their opponents in Australia, and later in India, were vindictive and petty. McGregor, like almost all biographers, asserts the importance of his subjects, but the case he makes for the Griffins is convincing, even if it must necessarily be based on what might have been. While it is hard to imagine a second auteur in the Wright studio, the Griffins’ independent work at the time of their fateful departure for Australia makes a powerful case that they would have become major figures had they stayed in America. After winning the competition to design Canberra, Griffin developed his own architectural style with almost supernatural speed, a style related to, but distinct from Wright and the Prairie School. McGregor convincingly argues that by 1913-14, the Griffin office was more advanced than Wright, especially in the area of settlement planning, never Wright’s bailiwick. Of course, these years were Wright’s self-induced personal nadir, and in retrospect we can appreciate the inexhaustibility of his brilliance. It is interesting, though over-simplistic, to wonder whether Griffin’s continued presence in Chicago would have moderated the future direction of American town planning, then a discipline its infancy. Urban planning in the US quickly bifurcated, with few exceptions, into two tendencies: the towers in a park which parodied Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse; and the grotesque manifestation of Wright’s Broadacre City as suburban sprawl. The Griffin approach could perhaps have offered a liveable alternative, something like low-rise high density under a canopy of trees, something like what Griffin envisaged for Canberra.
As the capital of what Walter regarded as a utopian new new world, Canberra was too great a prize to ignore and after winning the international competition for the city’s design, Griffin decided to light out for Australia, the first foreign architect to suffer the tender mercies of what would become an Australian tradition of mismanaging the aftermath of major architectural competitions. The Australian Government conveniently exempted itself from actually working with the winning architect and, like a child with a glue stick discovering the art of collage, gave itself the right to freely combine elements of any of the awarded schemes. The telegram informing Griffin of his victory redefines “perfunctory”:
Your design awarded first premium.
Minister Home Affairs
Within weeks, the bureaucrats in Melbourne, Sir Humphrey Applebeys of the young Australian Federation, were overseeing the bastardization of Griffin’s plan. After his written overtures were ignored, Griffin could wait no longer and boarded a ship for the Antipodes. His first trip to Australia was a struggle, but went surprisingly well. The new Liberal government was more disposed to maintaining the integrity of his design, and Griffin was put in charge of realizing his vision. Though persistently undermined, he lasted in the position of Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction until the end of 1920 when his contract was terminated in favor of implementing Canberra by committee. Griffin was of course offered a place on the committee; like Utzon he was not fired, his situation was simply made intolerable.
The Griffins lived in Australia, first in Melbourne and then in Sydney, until they left for India in the mid-1930s. This period was perhaps the most interesting and productive as the Griffins took on some juicy commissions, many for clients who were also outsiders or immigrants. McGregor does not make a point of it, but there are fascinating differences between their Melbourne and Sydney projects which, at least to my eye, predict the divergent architectural cultures of the two cities today. Much of Griffin’s work in Melbourne was in the central city. Projects such as Newman College and the crystaline Capitol Theatre expanded upon Louis Sullivan’s dedication to devising a new ornamentation for a new world. Like Chicago, Melbourne is a flat river city which relies on architecture for its enlivenment. A preoccupation with the design of surfaces and skins characterizes Melbourne’s vibrant architecture to this day, and can be seen with bells on in recent projects such as Federation Square.
When the Griffins moved to Sydney in 1925, they naturally became property developers. Walter Griffin designed and developed the suburb of Castlecrag, located on a rugged peninsula in Middle Harbour only four kilometers from the city. Here he laid out a new settlement in harmony with the natural landscape, with unusually narrow streets running along the contours of the land. Much of the site’s natural bushland had already been cleared, and the development was used as an opportunity to restore the native vegetation. Griffin was the type of Sydney developer who perhaps never existed before or since. Without anyone forcing him to do so, he nearly went broke buying up waterfront land in order to turn it into the public reserve it remains today. On a recent excursion to Castlecrag, I was struck by the informality of the way the settlement sits on the landscape. In comparison to those contemporary engineering projects which end up overbuilt in response to a panalopy of regulations and standards, Castlecrag has a pleasing roughness which ought to come naturally to Sydney. The ruggedness of the site is ever-present; where the roads have been cut through sandstone, the natural bedrock, like a lurking counter force, does double duty as the curbstone. “Reserves” are just that, reserved pieces of bushland rather than designed parks. Castlecrag remains a unique response to the overwhelming natural environment of Sydney, just as the more stylized Melbourne projects suit that city’s less assertive setting.
Living in Castlecrag, the Griffins seemed to find some personal comfort. They surrounded themselves with friends from the world of architecture and anthroposophy, which Marion initially espoused more rigorously than Walter to the point where their philosophical differences led to a brief separation. Unfortunately Marion seems to have drifted away from architectural practice in these years. In addition to her dedication to anthroposophy, she became the impresario of Castlecrag, producing well-attended theatrical productions in a natural amphitheater on the site.
The final chapter of the Griffins’ shared life and work took place in India, mostly in and around Lucknow. This body of work, brought to a end by Walter’s sudden death in 1937, seems to have followed a truncated version of the Australian experience. As with his arrival in Australia, Walter’s optimistic and visionary sensibility was immediately stimulated by the local context. Judging from the drawings in McGregor’s book, he seems to have almost instantly synthesized his awe into an architectural expression which was ornamental, undeniably Indian, responsive to the local climate and yet completely original. Sadly, and it is too easy to begin sentences about the Griffins with that word, local politics was to do its worst, and several of their largest projects for India were not realized, while apparently none remain today. After Walter’s death, Marion returned to Chicago and managed to outlive Frank Lloyd Wright.
I have mostly concentrated on the Australian portion of the book, because it has such ramifications for Australia now, almost a century after the Griffins first arrived. There is the ingrained habit of botching the management of architectural competitions, and then there is Canberra itself, which Griffin intended to be a much more compact and lively city. McGregor quotes an eerily perceptive New York Times editorial from 1912:
The chances are that the Australians would have been better advised had they harmonized their local jealousies and used one of the fine cities they already had for the capital, instead of trying to make people go to a place which can’t be a very good place to live, else would they have gone there before.
The city’s problems start with its site, essentially in a paddock, which had to be inland so the Russians or other invaders couldn’t get at it. There are dark rumblings among today’s Canberra bureaucrats that the capital ended up in a site with such an extreme climate so as to encourage hard work, indoors. Certainly one could imagine that a coastal Australian capital, perhaps at Jervis Bay, where steaming Canberrans now culminate a two hour drive with a swim, could have been one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Of course these decisions are in the past and there are Canberrans who would not live anywhere else (for one thing the local mountain biking is undeniably world-class). Canberra was a missed opportunity for the entire country. As Sydney in particular struggles with unsustainable population growth and a lack of investment in the infrastructure which might begin to render that growth tolerable, a densely populated but leafy Canberra would relieve some of the pressure.
The design competitions for Canberra and the Sydney Opera House (and others I won’t mention here) were notoriously mismanaged, but the willingness to embark on big nation building projects in the first place is an admirable Australian quality and I’ll take this space to assert that a 300(+) km/hr train connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne should, and would in Griffin’s idealized young Australia, be the next big act of nation building. It would help overcome the internal ‘tyranny of distance’ which is far more debilitating than the external one. I was thrilled when, scrubbing time on Google Earth one day, I discovered that a straight line drawn from the center of Sydney to the center of Melbourne also passes through the center of Canberra. I wonder if Griffin knew this.
Aside from the public consequences of their mistreatment, the Griffins deserved better. The ‘Little Aussie Battler’ occupies a place in Australia’s constellation of archetypes which probably has no equivalent in other cultures. At best, the L.A.B. is a symbol of persistence in a hard land, at worst he/she is the staple of lazy populism, leading securely middle class Australians to think of themselves and their rapidly appreciating McMansions as under assault by a shadowy Other. The Griffins—gentle, creative, intellectual, unconcerned with money or power—are hardly what the politicians have in mind when they invoke this powerful spectre, and yet two Chicagoans were the true Aussie Battlers. McGregor’s powerful conclusion invokes the familiar comparison with the Sydney Opera House fiasco, and with the fates of a whole series of renowned foreigners who were subjected to a familiar progression from “adulation to castigation and recrimination.” Frank Gehry is lucky that his recent Sydney commission is modest enough to slip through the gears of this public outrage machine. Architectural postmortems of this kind often focus on the way the work itself was butchered by political circumstance—the compromised interior of the Opera House, Canberra’s unnerving spatial emptiness—but in recounting the story of the Griffins, McGregor rightly mourns the loss of their sensibility more than any city or building. Had their designs been successfully executed, it is highly likely that the Griffins, as well as Utzon, would have spent their lives in Australia and it is heartbreaking to imagine the ways the nation might have benefited.
McGregor seems to share the particularly lively enthusiasm I’ve noticed among Australian Griffinites, and which, thanks to his excellent book, I now find myself sharing. There is an immediacy about their enthusiasm which betrays that this story is about more than history, more than aesthetics; clearly when we talk about the Griffins we are talking about the present day. If they were to land at Sydney Airport tomorrow with competition-winning drawings on their hard drive, I am convinced that their struggle, or Utzon’s, would be no different than it was. Sydney, and I can’t really speak about other Australian cities, is a tough place for architects. Get a few young architects together and they’ll quickly start complaining about their run-ins with the recalcitrant local council over the details of a small house or extension. The stories are endless, and one can imagine the Griffins chiming in. Meanwhile, big developers navigate their way through the gaping holes and hairline cracks in the planning system and, in the name of jobs and prosperity, usually get their way regardless of what gum trees or overshadowed neighbors lie in the way. The result is an increasingly unpleasant city lurking behind the gorgeous harbor at its heart.
The Griffins understood Australia as a certain strain of newcomer sometimes does. Before the innocent word ‘sustainability’ was abused by oil companies and property developers, they proposed, in Canberra and Castlecrag, how life might be lived on this stark continent. Yes, the Griffins designed the odd leaky roof, but when you consistently ridicule or, worse, ignore the importance of experimentation in architecture, and fail to test compelling experiments in practice, there are sad consequences both for the experimenters and for society. These little battlers may wear funny ties and suffer from what Robert Venturi identified as the inarticulateness of the new, but they, and not the silent majority in their exurban drywall castles, are the voices we ignore at our peril.
The Walter Burley Griffin Society
The Magic of America, online edition