Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Mystique of Walter Burley Griffin



The Mystique of Walter Burley Griffin

By Satsuki Ranjou
Spirit News
December 5, 2073

Walter Burley Griffin (November 24, 1876 – February 11, 1937) was an American architect and landscape architect. He is known for designing Canberra, Australia's capital city. He has been credited with the development of the L-shaped floor plan, the carport and an innovative use of reinforced concrete. Influenced by the Chicago-based Prairie School, Griffin developed a unique modern style. He worked in partnership with his wife Marion Mahony Griffin. In 28 years they designed over 350 buildings, landscape and urban-design projects as well as designing construction materials, interiors, furniture and other household items.

In April 1911 the Australian Government held an international competition to produce a design for Canberra, its new capital city. Griffin produced a design with impressive renderings of the plan produced by his wife. They first heard about the competition 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. This created significant press coverage at the time and brought him professional and public recognition. Of his plan, he famously 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."

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 reveal his appreciation for the Australian landscape. Griffin and his wife Marion joined the Naturalists’ Society of New South Wales in 1914, where they enjoyed joined organised bush walks and field studies. The Society facilitated their contact with the Australian scientific community, especially botanists. This appreciation for Australia flora was reflected in Griffin's 1914 town plan for Leeton in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and later in a design for Melbourne's Newman College. He also utilised Australian flora botanical names as places names for suburbs and streets in Canberra, such as Grevillea Park, Telopea Park, Clienthus Circle and Blandfordia.

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 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. Plans to create Westbourne, Southbourne and Eastbourne Avenues to complement Canberra's Northbourne Avenue were eliminated, as did a proposed railway connecting South Canberra to North Canberra, and then in a northwesterly direction to Yass. A market area that would have been at Russell Hill in North Canberra was moved south to what is now Fyshwick, next to South Canberra.

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. Many of Griffin's design ideas were 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.

Griffin designed several buildings for Canberra, none of which were built. The grave of General Bridges on Mount Pleasant was the only permanent structure designed by Griffin to be built in Canberra. Aside from the city's design, his longest-living legacy is the forest of Redwood trees (both Sequoia sempervirens and Sequoiadendron giganteum) planted in 1918 by Walter Burley Griffin and arborist Thomas Charles Weston on Pialligo, ACT on Pialligo Avenue between Canberra and Queanbeyan.

Griffin was largely under-appreciated during his time in Australia, but since his death there has been a growing recognition of his work. In 1964 when Canberra finally got its central lake (as Griffin had intended), Prime Minister Robert Menzies declined to have the lake named after himself, and he instead named it Lake Burley Griffin, and this became the first monument in Canberra dedicated to the city's designer ("Burley" was included in the name because of the misconception that it was part of the Griffin's surname). Architectural drawings and other archival materials by and about the Griffins are held by numerous institutions in the United States, including the Drawings and Archives Department of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University; the Block Gallery at Northwestern University; the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago; and the New York Historical Society, as well as in several repositories in Australia, including the National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia, and the Newman College Archives of the University of Melbourne. At the centenary of the Griffins' design work for Canberra, some believe they are owed a permanent memorial. Leafa College commissioned a memorial dedicated to the Griffins in 2062 and it is now part of Leafa Square.