Sydney Morning Herald Column

Paradise on Earth

Published December 22, 2020
Marion Mahony Griffin

Marion Mahony Griffin has long stood in the shadow of her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, but nowadays the couple are viewed as a partnership, rather like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In Paradise on Earth, the Museum of Sydney celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of a formidably talented woman.

It’s ironic that the MoS has presented a show about an outstanding architect and designer in such a fragmented form, with items squeezed in between bits of the permanent display while the major exhibition space resembles a children’s playground covered in graffiti. The awkward configuration of the building must take some of the blame, but the show is literally all over the place. The pandemic has made it difficult to secure loans but certain details, such as the elegant information boards in wood, hint that a more sympathetic display has gone missing.

‘Enchanted Valley’

The exhibition is fleshed out with three informative films running consecutively in the theatrette, and Enchanted Valley – an animated environment by Illuminart Australia inspired by the Haven Amphitheatre in Castlecrag. For most visitors this immersive, room-sized video will be the most memorable part of the show, but those who take the time to examine Marion’s original drawings will find they are not just architectural blueprints but self-contained works of art.

Marion Mahony was already a major force in Frank Lloyd Wright’s office by the time Walter Burley Griffin joined the firm in 1901. Born in Chicago in 1871, Marion was only the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an architecture degree. The first, Sophia Hayden (1868-1953), showed early promise but gave up the profession in frustration.

Marion Mahony Griffin, detail of a watercolor from a plan submitted for the design of Canberra (c. 1911)

Marion was luckier but also more determined. She may not have been the first female graduate but she was the first American woman to become a licensed architect. She emerges as an almost inconceivable mixture of fierce ambition and lifelong self-effacement, as she put her abilities at the disposal of two remarkable men.

The first, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), was a genius in the mould of Picasso or Rembrandt: a figure of towering ability who was also a deplorable human being. During the 15 years she spent working for Wright, Marion would act as superintendent of his office and produce the exquisite drawings that helped charm his clients. Her biographer, Glenda Korporaal, writes that when a German publisher produced a luxury portfolio of Wright’s architectural drawings in 1910, more than half of them were actually by Marion, who remained unacknowledged.

In Meryl Secrest’s 1992 biography of Wright, Marion is described as “a gifted designer of tables, chairs, murals and mosaics, renowned for her renderings (many of which were later exhibited as by Wright)”. That’s her only appearance in a volume of 564 pages.

Marion Mahony Griffin, ‘Eucalyptus Urnigera Tasmania/Scarlet Bark, Sunset’ (c.1919)

Marion devoted the best years of her life to Wright, from the age of 24 to 38, but her relationship with the philandering maestro seems to have been strictly professional. She was 40 years old when she married Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937), and threw herself into the advancement of his career. Five years younger than Marion, Walter was slow to respond to her overtures, both professional and personal, but they would become a highly-effective team.

Walter had been treated shabbily by Wright, who borrowed money from him and never repaid the debt. He had also been spurned by Wright’s sister, Maginel, to whom he proposed in vain. It took Marion some time to recognise Walter’s brilliance as an architect and to accept him as her soul mate. It was a romance between two late-blooming polymaths who had become accustomed to putting all their passion into their work.

The newlyweds’ first project was their entry for the international competition to design a capital city for Australia. They worked day and night on the project for nine, furious weeks, sending it off on the last train to catch the last boat before the deadline. The Griffins poured all their knowledge of history and architecture into the plans for Canberra, along with their ideals for a democracy. It was a spirit that perhaps only a pair of Americans could have tapped.

When Griffin won the competition over 130 other entrants it would change their lives entirely. The deciding factor had been Marion’s drawings and paintings that blitzed the opposition. Those drawings, now in the possession of the National Archives, were exhibited for an entire year when Canberra celebrated its centenary in 2013. They haven’t made it to Sydney for this survey.

What began in great excitement would be transformed into a perpetual arm wrestle as Walter found himself opposed by bureaucrats determined to undermine his plans and impose their own, cheaper models. As soon as they had arrived in Australia in May 1914 the Griffins began the fight to preserve their visionary design for a new capital in the face of unrelenting hostilty and political interference. It’s a scenario that would be repeated with Jørn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s.

Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin, ‘Capitol Theatre, Melbourne’ (detail) (1924)

While the wrangles over Canberra would drag on for well over a decade the Griffins established a private architectural practice in Australia. Their most ambitious plan was the creation of an ideal suburb on that part of Middle Harbour soon to be known as Castlecrag. Much of the material in this exhibition centres around Castlecrag, with its 14 Griffin-designed houses. They look fabulous in photos and in Marion’s drawings, but in one of the films residents complain about the cost and problems of maintaining these heritage properties. There’s always trouble in paradise, or at least a few leaks.

Marion Mahony Griffin, ‘Angophoras’ (detail)

After Walter’s death in India from peritonitis in 1937, Marion would return to America, where she would die in obscurity in 1961 at the of 90. Her rediscovery began in the 1990s, as she was praised for her vital role in the development of Chicago’s Prairie School of architecture, and then for the work she did in collaboration with her husband.

In looking back on Marion’s life her unflagging positivity and can-do attitude are astonishing. She was an idealist in her artistic, political and spiritual beliefs who took enormous pleasure in the Australian landscape and wondered why it was so little appreciated by most Australians. Her blunt description of her adopted home still has the depressing ring of truth: “a nation of pessimists full of fears; ideals are rarely to be found in the country. All their policies are based on fear.”

We see the results of these policies in the treatment of figures such as the Griffins and Utzon, and the scars these episodes have left on modern Australian culture. Why is it we’ve been so hostile to those visitors who have wanted to improve our cities and preserve the natural environment? We should be thankful that when politicians saw only real estate and resources there were artists and architects who felt they’d arrived in paradise.


Paradise on Earth

Museum of Sydney, 7 November, 2020 – 18 April, 2021


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December, 2020