On this day in 1961, trailblazing American architect and Marion Mahony Griffin died in Chicago, aged 90.
She created architectural drawings for an entry in the 1911 competition to design Canberra, a collaboration with her husband Walter Burley Griffin.
Born in Chicago on 14 February 1871, she grew up in a stimulating environment where outdoor activities were encouraged, and social issues discussed. In 1894, she graduated in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and became the first licensed female architect in Illinois.
Mahony worked in the Chicago office of architect Frank Lloyd Wright from 1895 to 1909, a period coinciding with Wright’s most intensely creative years and the consolidation of the ‘Prairie School’ style – its low, horizontal lines influenced by the plains of the American Midwest – on which his international fame would be built.
In 1909 Wright abandoned his family and practice and travelled to Europe with the wife of a client, with whom he had started an affair. Mahony took over a number of his unexecuted projects, which she effectively designed independently.
The most significant was the design of three houses in Decatur, Illinois. For the landscape scheme, Mahony turned to Walter Burley Griffin, a former Wright employee who now ran his own practice.
The project launched Marion and Walter’s professional partnership and cemented their personal relationship. In mid-1910, Mahony added her monogram to her first known presentation drawing for Griffin.
The F P Marshall house rendering – showing perspective, site plan and interior cross-section framed by decorative foliage – established the unique presentation format for many of their subsequent American projects.
United by their shared ideals – architectural, environmental, social – Marion and Walter married in June 1911 and soon after entered the competition to design Australia’s new federal capital, Canberra. Mahony’s exquisite, minimal drawings for their winning entry articulated a scheme dictated by the site’s natural features and expressing, symbolically, the Griffins’ democratic ideal for the new city.
Canberra may have exercised the Griffins’ planning and design ideas, but it was Sydney’s harbour that captivated them. Visiting in 1913, without Mahony, Griffin extolled, ‘You folk in Sydney have the chance of making a city beautiful that could easily be one of the finest in the world … You have the most magnificent waterfront I have ever seen’.
The couple relocated together to Australia in May 1914, Mahony running the Sydney office while Griffin took up his position as director of the Federal Capital Office in Melbourne. By late 1915 Mahony had moved to Melbourne as commissions for major projects rolled in, including the Café Australia (1916), Capitol House and the Capitol Theatre (1921–24), as well as planning the Ranelagh and Glenard estates on Melbourne’s fringe. Mahony relished the hectic schedule: ‘The only thing I take any interest in doing is the work and I keep at it long after I have a curl in my backbone’.
One of the projects that can with certainty be attributed to Mahony’s creative integration of architecture and nature was the Café Australia in Melbourne’s fashionable Collins Street. A redesign of the existing cafe’s entrance and interior, it was conceived as a sequence of dining areas integrated by a decorative geometric scheme – plasterwork, stained glass, sculpture, mural – inspired by natural motifs.
For this Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), Mahony also designed elegant blackwood furniture, tableware, and even the opening-day menu.
In 1920 the Griffins’ greatest Australian adventure began. Frustrated by prolonged bureaucratic meddling in the implementation of their Canberra plans, Griffin resigned from the federal capital project and, with a group of shareholders, acquired a large tract of land on Sydney’s Middle Harbour.
Castlecrag was to be the Griffins’ ‘model residential’ suburb of houses, reserves, walkways and contoured roads ‘aesthetically in keeping with the surroundings … and subordinate to the natural beauty of the land’.
Mahony became deeply involved in Castlecrag life, organising community activities as well as plays staged in the open-air Haven Scenic Theatre, constructed by residents in the early 1930s.
The Haven, picturesquely located in a natural, rocky amphitheatre, survives today, as do 14 Griffin houses built before the Depression, restrictive covenants and Walter’s untimely death ended the Griffins’ utopian aspirations.
Castlecrag’s enduring natural amenity is testament to the timelessness of the ideas that anchored the Griffins’ grand suburban vision.
Mahony’s last great work after returning to Chicago in 1938 – where she died in 1961 – was her unpublished magnum opus ‘The magic of America’, a 1500-page assemblage of transcribed documents, essays, commentary and photographs recording her, and Walter’s lives. Exploring its many layers, now possible through digitisation, is a compelling journey into the long life and complex intellect of one of the 20th century’s most original women.
Information from: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/marion-mahony-griffin-architect-environmentalist-visionary
Additional material: Dr. Anne Watson