Marion Mahony Griffin – The power behind the architectural throne.....

Many Australians will know the name of Walter Burley Griffin as he is the architect known for designing the layout of Canberra, the capital of Australia. It is known as The Australian Capital Territory, or "the ACT.” The Australian Federal Government moved there from the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne in 1927, (which we have written about previously - (see links in the Footnotes below 4).)

The man-made lake in the centre of Canberra is named “Lake Burley Griffin” after the architect who won the world wide competition to design this brand new capital.

But something that is perhaps not so well known is that Walter Burley Griffin’s wife, Marion, was also a talented architect in her own right. Even though only Walter’s name appeared on their entry into the competition to choose the architect for the new capital, Walter himself acknowledged Marion as actually being the planner and designer. Further, her watercolour paintings of the design were instrumental in the duo winning the work!

An entry in the ‘News and Notes’ section of The West Australian newspaper dated November 28, 1913 says:

A Woman of Genius – A woman has designed the Federal capital of Australia. Mr. Griffin, the architect of Canberra, has declared in public that his wife is practically the planner and designer of all the works which have emanated [?] from their house. “My wife is the genius, I am only the businessman,” said Mr. Griffin, who is returning shortly to America to bring out to Australia his genius.

I hadn’t ever heard of Marion Griffin until I came across a chair that she designed in the Know My Name exhibition that I went to recently at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery. The Know My Name initiative is part of an ongoing series of gender equity displays which seeks to raise the profile of women artists who have previously been omitted from published histories and public collections.1

It was lovely to see her represented in this exhibition as, being a woman, she was rarely given credit for her work throughout her life - it was seen only as an extension of the work done by male architects. Of course!!! Typical of the times in the early 20th century, I guess......

Here is the chair and the place card describing it and its purpose:

Seeing the chair and the connection with Walter Burley Griffin, I was interested to find out a bit more about her and her work.

Marion Mahony was born in Massachusetts, America, in February 1871 and became the first licensed architect in Illinois, America, in 1898 and one of the first in the whole of the USA. After a few years working, and with several commissions to her name, Marion became the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is also a famous name in the world of architecture.

She worked for him until 1909, and it has been stated previously that.... “Marion Mahony did the drawings people think of when they think of Frank Lloyd Wright”.....

Walter Burley Griffin (1876 - 1937) was an employee of Frank Lloyd Wright as well, and he and Marion married in 1911, apparently after a canoe trip! They shared a number of hobbies and interests, particularly outdoors in the natural world.

Plants and landscaping featured prominently in all their designs. I've read that Marion did a number of botanical paintings as well, but I couldn’t find any pictures of these.

Apart from buildings and houses, Marion also designed furniture, stained glass windows, and decorative panels.

Though they didn’t have any children, Marion and Walter were partners in life as well as professionally for 26 years. Marion worked in the “Office of Walter Burley Griffin” in Chicago after they married, until 1913 when she transferred to his office in Melbourne after they won the Canberra competition.

Apart from working on Canberra, they designed the Newman College, in the Melbourne University, and the Capitol Theatre, which Robyn Boyd described as "the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built".2

They also designed several housing estates in suburbs such as Avondale Heights, Mount Eagle (Eaglemont) and Frankston.

They moved their office to Sydney in 1925 till about 1929, and there they founded the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA) and purchased 259 hectares of land. The aim of the GSDA was the development of an idyllic suburb in a 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, and Walter was known as the Wizard of Castlecrag. 2

During their time at the GSDA, the Griffins became more involved in anthroposophy, a new spiritual religious movement, which you can read more about here if you wish.

In 1935, through contacts in the movement the Griffins won a commission to design the library at the University of Lucknow in Lucknow, India. And so off they went to India to establish a practice there.

The following Wikipedia link gives more detail about all their myriads of projects:

Walter Burley Griffin - Wikipedia

Sadly, Walter Burley Griffin died of peritonitis in early 1937, (aged 61), five days after gall bladder surgery at King George's Hospital, Lucknow, in India, and was buried there. Marion Mahony Griffin oversaw the completion of the Pioneer Building that he had been working on at the time of his death. She then closed down their Indian offices, left their Australian practice in the hands of Griffin's partner, Eric Milton Nicholls, and she returned to Chicago in 1938.3

There she continued to lecture, design, and write, and wrote an (unpublished) autobiography of the couple’s life and work together titled The Magic of America.3 Marion didn't ever re-marry.

She lived in Chicago for the rest of her life, till she died 24 years later, apparently in poverty, on the 10th of August 1961.

Marion was truly a pioneer as an architect and artist in a career that spanned sixty years and three continents. Yet her impressive body of work in design, drawings, painting and writing are still largely unknown due to male dominance in the professional world back in those days.3

So it was lovely to see an example of her work at the Mornington Gallery....


  1. With thanks to the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

  2. With thanks to Wikipedia

  3. There is more detail about Marion’s work if you care to click here and here.

There is also a Griffin Society website which contains more information and images, (including photos of Castelcrag by Max Duapin (the first husband of Olive Cotton who we have written about previously)):

  1. Our two posts about the history of the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne may be found here and here.