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Walter Burley Griffin  

etween 1901 and 1913, Walter Burley Griffin designed some 130 houses, landscapes and buildings. He is now credited with developing the L-shaped floor plan (which Frank Lloyd Wright took credit), the carport (which did not see common use until the 1950s), and the first use of reinforced concrete. Many of his homes carry the familiar design elements of the Prairie School.Yet Griffin, true to the urging of his mentor Louis Sullivan, developed his own style of architecture free from the constraints of historical precedent.

Marilyn Mahony Griffin

n September, 1909, Pic: news headline.Frank Lloyd Wright captured headlines when he left his wife and children and ran off to Europe with the wife of one of his clients. The scandal caused an uproar. Wright's Oak Park studio closed its doors leaving his draftsmen and his clients in limbo.

efore his departure, Wright had searched for someone to finish his outstanding commissions but none of his former employees were willing. Wright finally convinced an associate from Steinway Hall, Herman Von Holst to take the job. Von Holst realized that he needed someone with a better understanding of Wright's design concepts to please Wright's clients. So he promptly hired Marion Mahony to finish the designs.

ahony had worked for Wright on and off for 14 years. At times she had been his only employee. She was an outspoken, dramatic woman and the only female draftsman in Wright's studio. Mahony was the second woman to graduate with a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first licensed female architect in history. She had a very strong personal relationship with her employer and his wife. Wright even posed the two women together for a photograph.

arion was an exceptionally talented artist and draftsman. Her presentation drawings were based on the style of Japanese prints. The buildings appeared surrounded by an abundant landscape, recalling Mahony's own interest in the natural world. Also she contributed many beautiful leaded glass windows as well as furniture and fireplaces to Wright's designs.

n 1909, one of Wright's larger commissions which was put in the hands of Mahony was a house for Henry Ford. Photo of MarionFord approved Mahony's design and the foundation was laid. But a disagreement erupted between Ford and Mahony. Ford brought in another architect to complete the home. All that remains of Mahony's magnificent home for Ford are the plans at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.

he was also to complete three of Wright's commissions on a private street in Decatur, Illinois. Wright had left sketches for a home to be built for Edward Irving, but two other homes needed to be designed.The first one Marion drew up was for Robert Mueller. She stuck with traditional Wrightian concepts such as leaded casement windows and overhanging eaves. But she added her own decorative touches such as colored tiles set in plaster.

he last house built under Marion's direction in Decatur was for Adolph Mueller, Robert's brother. Marion used some of the elements of her design for Henry Ford within the Adolph Mueller House. Pic: Mueller HouseWhile it was based on Wright's style, the Adolph Mueller House gave Marion a chance to display her own artistic talents. She filled the living room's tent ceiling with stained glass. And wrapped the home in a continuous pattern of leaded glass. The Mueller houses in Decatur Illinois, are two of only three Mahony houses remaining in America.

on Holst, on Mahony's recommendation, hired Walter Burley Griffin to develop a landscape plan for the entire area. Soon Marion and Walter were working closely in the offices at Steinway Hall. Mahony designed an entry gate and street lamps to integrate her home designs to Walter's landscaping.

s the Decatur project progressed, Marion who was five years older than Walter, began to think of him more than on a professional level. The friendship blossomed into marriage in the summer of 1911. News of the marriage between the two architects was greeted with a surprised reaction from friends, family and co-workers. No one could believe the fiery Marion and the mild-mannered Walter were suited to be husband and wife.

fter their marriage Marion went to work in Walter's office, becoming his partner both personally and professionally. But her new role was taken not without repercussions. Harry Robinson, Griffin's chief draftsman and fellow classmate from the University of Illinois, resigned and returned to work for his former employer Frank Lloyd Wright. Marion became chief draftsman in the Griffin office. She began to use her pen to breathe life into all of Walters designs.

arion changed her famous monogram of MLM to MMG, signifying her certainty of her new marriage. Still her monogram, Pic: monogramobscured amidst the flora, was the only credit she would claim. Despite her outspoken nature, her architectural license, and her recent taste of independence in Von Holst's office, Marion was never to take a step in that direction again.


oon after the commission in Mason City, Iowa, Griffin would take on the largest challenge of his career. On May 23, 1912, the Griffins received a telegram in their offices at the Monroe Building in downtown Chicago. It came from Melbourne Australia and read, "Your design awarded first prize." The telegram from Australia would prove to be the defining point in Griffin's career.

he Griffins' plan for the Federal Capital of Australia was the first test of their marriage. The call for designs occurred shortly after they were married. But it was only through Marion's insistence that Walter sat down at the drawing board three months before the deadline. His design allowed him to fully integrate his ideas on landscape, town planning and most importantly democracy.

arion's drawings of Walter's plans were immense in scope. Eight feet wide and thirty feet long, they unfolded like Japanese screens. Photo: Canberra CommissionThey were so beautiful and impressive that the judges had miniature copies made so as to not be swayed by their presence. Griffin's win made him an instant celebrity. He was asked to give lectures around the country. His design was hailed internationally for its creativity in layout, and its ability to incorporate the natural setting.

imultaneously with the announcement of the Griffin's win came a claim from Frank Lloyd Wright that Griffin was nothing but a draftsman. Wright and Griffin would never speak again after the Canberra competition was announced. For the next 45 years Wright made it his mission to disregard Griffin as an architect. He claimed that all his former employees including the Griffins were simply stealing his ideas, or as Wright put it, "sucking his eggs."

riffin was invited to visit the Canberra site in July of 1913. There, too, he became a celebrity. One press article swooned, "There resides under the fair billowing locks some of the finest ambitions that a person can cultivate for the service of his fellow creatures."

nknown to Marion, who was still in Chicago minding the store, Griffin was falling in love with the Australian landscape, and the Australian people were taken with him. He returned to Chicago after three months restless about his future. In short time, he received a letter from his alma mater, the University of Illinois, offering him the position as the head of the Department of Architecture. He would succeed his former teacher, Nathan Clifford Ricker. But the lure of Australia won Walter heart and soul.

riffin hurriedly made plans to move to Australia. with many projects still up in the air. The Mason City development was under construction, the Anna Library was incomplete, as well as his own house north of Chicago. Photo: Barry ByrneHe would have to find someone to manage the Chicago office and finish his commissions.Less than one week before their departure Griffin introduced Barry Byrne to his clients as his new American partner.

n the years ahead, Griffin would not only face criticism in Australia, but he would be discredited in America as well. Unbeknownst to Griffin, Byrne began changing his designs. Plans were altered at Mason City and also for an important commission for the University of New Mexico. When Griffin sent plans from Australia, Byrne would substitute his own drawings of that project, then write back to Griffin that all was well. It took Griffin three years before he realized what Byrne was doing in his absence, and before they parted company.

hile his Chicago practice was slipping from his grasp, Griffin's experience in Australia was proving to be no less frustrating. He spent years battling to see his ideas executed in Canberra. But city planners who had no intention of actually building his design. The outbreak of World War I was the final nail in coffin of both the Canberra project and Griffin's American practice.

riffin's constant battles with politicians and finally his public outcry of Australia's involvement in the war caused him to be removed from the Canberra project.

he next time Americans heard any news of Walter Burley Griffin it was the announcement of his death. Photo: Griffin in chairIn 1937 Griffin died of peritonitis in Lucknow, India. He was barely 60 years old. By comparison, when Wright was 60, he had a full 30 years of his career ahead of him. Most of the buildings that he is famous for were not designed at that point. There would be no Fallingwater if Wright had died when Griffin died, nor would there be a Guggenheim Museum.

fter Walters's death, Marion returned to America to visit her family. She intended to return to Australia but the outbreak of World War II prevented a trip to the south Pacific. Marion Griffin died in Chicago in 1961. Her ashes remained in an unmarked grave in Graceland Cemetery before they were re-interred there in 1997. Instead of lying beside her husband who is two continents away, she rests alongside some of America's greatest architects. In death, Marion has finally carved a place for herself and her husband in architectural history.

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Early life
Griffin was born in Maywood, in Chicago, Illinois, he was the eldest of the four children of George Walter Griffin, an insurance agent, and Estelle Griffin. His family moved to Oak Park and later to Elmhurst during his childhood. As a boy he had an interest in landscape design and gardening, his parents allowed him to landscape the yard at their new home in Elmhurst. Griffin completed high school at Oak Park High School. He considered studying landscape design but was advised by landscape gardener O. C. Simonds to pursue a more lucrative profession.

Griffin choose to study architecture and in 1899 Griffin received a bachelor's degree from architecture program at the University of Illinois. The architecture program at the University of Illinois was run by Nathan Clifford Ricker, a German-educated architect, whose teaching emphasised the technical aspects of architecture. During his studies he also took courses in horticulture and forestry.

Chicago career
Following the completion of his studies Griffin relocated to Chicago and was employed as a draftsman for two years in the offices of progressive architects Dwight H. Perkins, Robert C. Spencer, Jr., and H. Webster Tomlinson in Steinway Hall. Griffin's employers worked in the distinctive Prairie School style; the school's style is marked by horizontal lines, flat roofs with broad overhanging eaves, solid construction, craftsmanship, and discipline in the use of ornament. Louis Sullivan was highly influential amongst Prairie School and Griffin was a great admirer of his work, and also of his philosophy of architecture which stressed that design should be free of historical precedent.

In July 1901 Griffin passed the new Illinois architect licensing examination, which would enable him to enter private practice as an architect. He began to work in Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Oak Park studio. Although he was never made a partner, Griffin oversaw the construction on many of Lloyd Wright's renowned homes including the Willits House in 1902 and the Larkin Administration Building built in 1904. From 1905 he also began to supply landscape plans for Lloyd Wright’s buildings. Wright allowed Griffin and his other staff to undertake small commissions of their own, the William Emery house, built in Elmhurst in 1903 was such a commission. While working for Wright, Griffin fell in love with Wright's sister Maginel Wright, he proposed marriage to her, but his affections were not returned.

Early in 1906 Griffin resigned his position at Wright's studio and established his own practice at Steinway Hall. Griffin and Wright had fallen out over events following Wright's 1905 trip to Japan. While he was away for five months Griffin ran the practice. When Wright returned, he told Griffin that he had overstepped his responsibilities as Griffin had completed several commissions and even substituted his own designs. Wright had borrowed money from Griffin to travel and tried to pay his financial debt to Griffin in Japanese prints. It became clear to Griffin that Wright would not make Griffin a partner in his practice.

Griffin's first independent commission was a landscape design for the State Normal School at Charleston, Illinois, now known as Northern Illinois University. In the autumn of that year, 1906, he received his first residential commission from Harry Peters. The Peters' House was the first house designed with an L-shaped or open floor plan. The L-shape was an economical design and easily constructed. From 1907, 13 houses in this style were built on W. 104th Place in Beverly, the area is now known as Walter Burley Griffin Place, and forms a municipal historical district as it is the largest collection of small scale Griffin designs in existence.

In 1911 Griffin married Marion Lucy Mahony, she had been employed in Wright's office and subsequently by architect Hermann Von Holst who had taken on Wright's commissions when Wright abruptly left for Europe in 1909. Mahony recommended to Von Holst that he hire Griffin to develop a landscape plan for the area surrounding the three houses initially commissioned from Wright in Decatur, Illinois. Mahony and Griffin worked closely on the Decatur project immediately preceding their marriage. After their marriage, Mahony went to work in Griffin's practice.[1] A Walter Burley Griffin/Marion Mahony designed development with several homes, Rock Crest Rock Glen in Mason City, Iowa, is seen as their most dramatic American design development of the decade and remains the largest collection of Prairie Style homes surrounding a natural setting. [2]

From 1899 to 1914, Griffin created more than 130 designs in his Chicago office for buildings, urban plans and landscapes; half of these were built in mid-western states of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The relationship between Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright cooled in the years following Griffin's departure from Wright's firm in 1906. With Walter and Marion's wedding Wright started to feel they were "Against him". After Griffin's win in the Canberra design and resultant front page in the New York Times, Wright and Griffin never spoke again. In later years when ever Griffin was brought up in conversation Wright would downplay his achievements and refer to him as a draughtsman. [3]

In April 1911 the Australian Government held an international competition to produce a design for its new capital city. Griffin produced a design with impressive renderings of the plan produced by Mahony. They had only heard about the plan in July, while on honeymoon, and worked feverishly to prepare the plans. On May 23 1912 Griffin's design was selected as the winner from among 137 entries. The win created significant press coverage at the time and brought him professional and public recognition. In 1913 he was invited to Australia to inspect the site. He left Marion in charge of the practice and travelled to Australia in July. His letters home reveal his appreciation for the Australian landscape.

Griffin's plan for Canberra
While in Australia, Griffin was offered the position of head of the department of architecture at the University of Illinois. At the same time he was negotiating a three year contract with the Australian Government to remain in Australia and oversee the implementation of his plan, which to his dismay he felt had already been compromised. He was appointed the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. In this role, Griffin oversaw the design of North and South Canberra, though he struggled with political and bureaucratic obstacles. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Griffin was under pressure to reduce the scope and scale of his plans due to the Government diverting funds towards the war effort. Several parts of his basic design underwent change. For instance, plans to create a Westbourne, Southbourne and Eastbourne Avenue to complement Canberra's Northbourne Avenue came to nothing, as did a proposed railway that would have gone from South Canberra to North Canberra, and then in a northwest direction to Yass. A market area that would have been at Russell Hill in North Canberra was moved southwards to what is now Fyshwick, next to South Canberra.

Griffin was the consultant architect for the design and construction of the grave for General Bridges
The pace of building was slower than expected, partly because of a lack of funds and partly because of a dispute between Griffin and Federal government bureaucrats. During this time many of Griffin's design ideas where attacked by both the architectural profession and the press. In 1917, a Royal Commission determined that they had undermined Griffin's authority by supplying him with false data which he had used to carry out his work. Ultimately, Griffin resigned from the Canberra design project in December 1920, when he discovered that several of these bureaucrats had been appointed to an agency that would oversee Canberra's construction. The Commonwealth Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Hughes had removed Griffin as director of construction at Canberra after disagreements over his supervisory role, and in 1921 created the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, with John Sulman as chair. Griffin was offered membership, but declined and withdrew from further activity in Canberra.[4]

Griffin designed several buildings for Canberra, none of which where ever built. The grave of General Bridges on Mount Pleasant was the only permanent structure designed by Griffin to be built in Canberra.

Later career

Mannix Wing walkway at Newman College, University of Melbourne
The Griffins' office in Chicago had closed in 1917, for this and several other reasons they choose to continue to live in Australia. They had successful practices in Melbourne and Sydney. The Griffins had received commissions for work outside Canberra since Walter first arrived in the country in 1913, designing town plans, subdivisions, and one of his highly regarded buildings, Newman College, the Catholic residential college of the University of Melbourne while employed in Canberra. While supervising activities in Canberra, Griffin spent much time in Melbourne and, in 1918, became a founder, with Royden Powell, of the Henry George Club, an organisation devoted to providing a home for the Single Tax movement.[5] The Griffins' first major commission after leaving Canberra was the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne.

In 1919 the Griffins had founded the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA), and in 1921 purchased 259 ha of land in North Sydney. The GSDA's goal was the development of an idyllic community with a consistent architectural feel and bushland setting. Walter Burley Griffin as managing director of the GSDA designed all the buildings built in the area until 1935. Castlecrag was the first suburb to be developed by the GSDA. Under Griffins control houses in the area where built from locally sourced sandstone and "knitlock" prefabricated concrete. Almost all the houses Griffin designed where small and had flat roofs, and he included an internal courtyard in many of them. Griffin used what was at that time the novel concept of including native bushland in these designs.

Other work Griffin did during this time included the very original Melbourne suburb of Eaglemont. Griffin also helped to design the New South Wales towns Leeton, Griffith and Culburra Beach. During the financial hardship of the Depression in the 1930s Griffin was commissioned by local Sydney councils to design incinerators, Willoughby Incinerator in the Sydney suburb of Willoughby is a good example of this work. He returned to the United States in 1925 and 1932.

During their time at the GSDA the Griffins became more involved in anthroposophy and in 1935 through contacts in the movement Griffin won a commission to design the library at Lucknow University in India. Griffin left for India in 1935 with his wife following the next year. During his time in India, Griffin designed a series of 60 university buildings. He encouraged Marion to join him in India, and they operated a practice, and received numerous commissions, his designs of this period are said to have been highly original. However, only one building he designed, a newspaper office and plant, was ever built in India. He was still engaged in India when in 1937 he fell from a scaffold and suffered a ruptured gall bladder, dieing of peritonitis several days later after an unsuccessful operation. His wife closed the Indian office, leaving the Australian practice in the hands of Griffin's partner, Eric Nicholls, and returned to Chicago to write her memoirs.

A landmark in Chicago and an artificial lake in Canberra are both named after Walter Burley Griffin.

Major works

United States
W.H.Emery House, 1903 
Adolph Mueller House, 1906 
Ralph Griffin House, 1909 
Joshua Melson House, 1912 
Stinson Memorial Library, Anna, Illinois, 1913 

Canberra plan, 1914 -1920 
Leeton town plan, 1914 
Griffith town plan, 1914 
Eaglemont town plan, 1915 
Newman College, University of Melbourne, 1916 - 1918 
Café Australia, Melbourne, 1916 

Kruty, Paul. 2000. Griffin, Walter Burley. American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press 
MacMahon, Bill (2001). The Architecture of East Australia, Edition Axel Menges. 

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Walter Burley Griffin's Plan of Canberra as finally revised and accepted 1913

"Walter Burley Griffin's Plan of Canberra as finally revised and accepted 1913"
[satellite map]

Unidentified municipal incinerator No. 1 1930s

"Unidentified municipal incinerator No. 1, 1930s"

Perspective view of incinerator, Thebarton, South Australia, ca. 1937

"Perspective view of incinerator, Thebarton, South Australia, ca. 1937"

Perspective view of Brunswick incinerator, Brunswick, Victoria 1934

"Perspective view of Brunswick incinerator, Brunswick, Victoria 1934"

Oblique perspective view of unidentified municipal incinerator 1930s a

"Oblique perspective view of unidentified municipal incinerator, 1930s"

Oblique perspective view of unidentified municipal incinerator 1930s

"Oblique perspective view of unidentified municipal incinerator, 1930s"

Exterior facade perspective of Romance Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria 1931

"Exterior facade perspective of Romance Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria 1931"

Elevation of Jwala Bank, Jhansi, India 1936

"Elevation of Jwala Bank, Jhansi, India 1936"

Perspective of General Post Office, Sydney showing proposed additions and alterations 1919

"Perspective of General Post Office, Sydney
showing proposed additions and alterations 1919"

Opera House for Sydney 1938

"Opera House for Sydney 1938"

Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) was a Chicago architect with a background in landscape design. He is closely associated with the Prairie School, a uniquely American style of architecture that favoured horizontal lines (reflecting prairies) and whose most famous practitioner was Frank Lloyd Wright.

Griffin worked under Wright for a few years at the beginning of the 20th century until they had a dispute over salary payments. Ultimately, this led to an irreconcilable estrangement, and it seems Wright was rather disparaging of Griffin's talents whenever he referred to him later on.

One of the benefits of the association with Wright (beyond the obvious professional influence) was that Griffin met his future wife, Marion Mahony, at the Wright office. She, too, was an architect and a particularly gifted draughtsman (draughtswoman?).
"In the 28 years of their architectural partnership, the Griffins designed over 350 building, landscape and urban-design projects as well as designing construction materials, interiors, furniture and other household items."
Dare I suggest that their marriage was established on a strong foundation? It was while they were on their honeymoon that the Griffins learned of a competition to design the city of Canberra which would become the new capital city of Australia (1927). They "worked feverishly to prepare the plans" before the submission deadline.

Their proposal was of course the winning entry (1912) and gave the Griffins international recognition. Of the Canberra plan, Walter Burley Griffin remarked:
"I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city - a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future."
Whether or not a survey among Australians today would give such a favourable review of the outcome is perhaps a moot point. The circular alignments and satellite arrangements of the suburbs evoke an overtly artificial reality, but after visiting (and, significantly, not living in) Canberra many times over the last couple of decades, I've become comfortable with its atmosphere at least. And, as a government bureaucracy-heavy city, it's fairly well appointed with amenities like good quality transport and roads, as well as cultural establishments. It's also close to our snowfields which is a big plus! An eponymous lake, built in 1963 in the centre of Canberra, assures that anyone who visits the city is familiar with the name of Burley Griffin.

The Griffins moved to Australia soon after their Canberra design was selected and they stayed for the next twenty-odd years. Walter Burley Griffin died in Lucknow in India in 1937 following a two year stint working in the sub-continent.

I was particularly taken with the modernist/Art Deco building designs and I'm sure I've over emphasised - in the selection above - the prevalence of incinerator designs among his legacy. It would be a starving architect that tried to rely upon municipal incinerator designing for a decent living in today's world.

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