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The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital


'[Guest Curator] Christopher Vernon takes us on a tour of the Library’s latest exhibition'.
 , 
ceremoniously began the construction
of its national capital. Since then,
many hands have shaped Canberra. None,
however, are more important than the
contributions made by the capital’s original
authors, Walter Burley Grin (1876–1937)
and Marion Mahony Grin (1871–1961). e
National Library of Australia’s exhibition, e
Dream of a Century: e Grins in Australia’s
Capital, explores the saga of Walter and
Marion’s eorts to realise their prizewinning
Walter rst learned of Australia’s imminent
Federation while a university student between
1895 and 1899. Divining the need for a new
national capital, he then resolved to build it.
Unknown to him at the time, it would be a
lengthy wait, during which he would monitor
the press vigilantly for word from Australia. At
last, more than a decade later, the opportunity
to design Australia’s capital city nally arrived.
e announcement of the design competition
for Canberra (yet to be named) must have been
a dreamlike experience. Near the end of 1911,
in the depths of a frozen Chicago winter,
Walter and his new wife and professional
partner Marion put their heads together and
poured their creative energies into recording
their shared vision for the city. eir victory
the next year would immerse them in
Australia’s capital building enterprise; their
association with Canberra would span the next
eight years, alter the course of their lives and
bring them both joy and despair.
e exhibition showcases materials drawn
from the oce records of the couple’s trans-
hemispherical practice in the United States of
America (1899–1917), Australia (1913–1935)
Christopher Vernon takes us
on a tour of the Library’s
latest exhibition
The Griffins in AusTrAliA’s CApiTAl
The Dream of a CenTuryThe Dream of a CenTury
above lef t
Walter Burley Griffin
Canberra Plan of City and
Environs, 103A 1916 (detail)
coloured linen-mounted map;
67.7 x 66.7 cm
Maps Collection
above ri ght
Marion Mahony Griff in and
Walter Burley Griffin Gardening
in the Backyard of “Pholiota”,
Heidelberg, Victoria, 1918
sepia toned print; 10.3 x 6 cm
Pictures Collection
the nati onal li brary m agazine :: ma rch 201 3 ::
and India (1935–1937). In 2006 the Library
acquired these documents from the children
of the Grins’ Australian partner, Eric
Milton Nicholls (1902–1965). Astonishing
in size, scope and complexity, the Nicholls
Collection covers some 40 years and comprises
over 2,500 items, including a diverse range of
original drawings, maps, blueprints and other
reproductions, and photographs and lantern
slides of the Grins’ public and private works.
Although the Grins’ Australian oeuvre is the
most comprehensive, the Nicholls Collection
also documents their American work and
swansong Indian projects. e collection
also includes preliminary sketches, scrawled
annotations to maps and drawings, typescript
lecture and essay drafts, correspondence,
newspaper cuttings, travel expense receipts
and all manner of paperwork from a working
architectural oce. is seemingly ordinary
ephemera puts a human face on the legendary
designers and oers insights into the workings
of their creative process.
e Dream of a Century is chronologically
and thematically organised into six sections.
Visitors can retrace the Grins’ circuitous
journey from Chicago across the globe to
Australia, then on to India and lastly the
return to Canberra. ‘Prelude to a Dream’,
the opening section, contextually considers
Federation as the genesis to the idea of
erecting a capital for the new nation. It
next takes visitors to the Grins’ native
Chicago, then an epicentre of architectural
innovation. After identifying the couple’s
intellectual mentor, Louis Sullivan, and their
famous employer, Frank Lloyd Wright, this
section focuses on the Grins’ own diverse
American work.
Having gained familiarity with Canberra’s
American backdrop, visitors will next enter
‘e Dream’. is section is devoted to the
competition and interprets the couple’s prize-
winning design, emphasising its symbolic
content. ‘e Dream’, however, also records a
nightmarish interlude. Although the Grins
had won the competition, the Minister for
Home Aairs, King O’Malley, notoriously
set their plan aside and replaced it with the
government’s Departmental Board plan, a
composite of features ‘cannibalised’ from
other contest submissions. Indeed, when
Canberra’s construction began in 1913, it was
to the Board’s, not the Grins’, layout. Upon
learning of the substitution, Walter voyaged
alone to Australia, determined to persuade
the government to restore the couple’s design.
He ultimately met with success and was
appointed Australia’s Federal Capital Director
of Design and Construction before departing
for Chicago.
Walter returned to Australia with Marion
in 1914. Working from the Federal Capital
Oce in the temporary national capital,
Melbourne (neither Walter nor Marion ever
lived in Canberra), Walter now set out to
orchestrate Canberra’s realisation—or so he
thought. Bureaucrats would soon begin to
thwart his eorts. ‘e Reality’ surveys the
Grins’ initiatives to bring the city Marion
so beautifully portrayed into reality. Indeed,
many are familiar with her exquisite and,
consequently, often-reproduced competition
renderings; their visual allure is no less so
today than it was for the adjudicators in 1912.
en, as now, nal presentation renderings
were made to persuasively ‘sell’ a design and
Marion’s were certainly successful at this.
By marked contrast, this section illuminates
Walter Burley Griffin
Canberra Plan of City and
Environs, 103A 1916
coloured linen-mounted map;
67.7 x 66.7 cm
Maps Collection
opposite page
Walter Burley Griffin
General Plan of Plantings,
Northern Illinois State Normal
School c. 1906
photographic reproduction;
33.4 x 29 cm
Pictures Collection
bottom left
Walter Burley Griffin
Townsite “Idalia”, Lee County,
Florida 1911
b&w photographic
reproduction of drawing
22.5 x 18 cm
Pictures Collection
bottom right
View of Harry Gunn House,
Chicago, From the Garden
c. 1906
b&w print; 12.5 x 17.5 cm
Pictures Collection
the nati onal li brary m agazine :: ma rch 201 3 ::
a selection of ‘working drawings’, until
now known largely only to scholars. ese
comparatively ‘gritty’, ne-grain, detailed and
by no means beautiful documents were the
sort required to actually construct the city.
ey record, for instance, the detailed layout
of Canberra’s streets and suburbs. It is also not
widely known that Walter’s work in Canberra
was only a part-time job. His contract required
him to allocate only half of his time (but
undoubtedly all of his heart) to the capital;
he devoted the remainder to private practice.
‘e Reality’ also provides an overview of this
work, highlighting the couple’s tour-de-force,
Café Australia (now long demolished).
Bureaucrats eventually succeeded in
undermining Grin’s eorts and, in 1921, the
government abolished Walter’s position. ‘e
Aftermath’ chronicles Walter’s exit, eectively
‘forced’ from the national capital enterprise.
Despite this demoralising outcome, Walter
and Marion chose to remain in Australia to
further their private work. By the mid-1930s,
they had built works in the Australian Capital
Territory, New South Wales, Queensland,
South Australia and Victoria. ‘e Aftermath’
also focuses on the couple’s ‘utopia-esque’
masterwork, Castlecrag, near Sydney. ere,
the Grins rehabilitated and conserved a
bushland site, folding roadways and dwellings
into the contours of the
Castlecrag promontory:
the landscape was given
primacy and architecture
receded in deference
to the natural world.
Castlecrag residents
themselves, the Grins
at last realised the ideals
eectively rejected at
As the stranglehold of
the Great Depression
tightened, however,
commissions for new
work dwindled. rough
channels cultivated
by an Australian then
living in India, Walter
won a commission to
design a library for the
University of Lucknow.
As this substantial
new job required his
presence on site, he
travelled to India in
1935; Marion joined him the next year. As
surveyed in ‘Indian Swansong’, the couple
soon developed a ourishing practice. On 11
February 1937, however, fate intervened and
Walter died ofperitonitis.
Profoundly bereaved, Marion returned to
Australia some months after her husband’s
death. Soon nding life too dicult at
Castlecrag without him, she decided to return
home to Chicago. Before doing so, however,
she wished to see Canberra for one last time.
‘Coda’ concludes the exhibition and recounts
Marion’s farewell visit to the national capital,
symbolically her nal Australian act.
Emphasis that Walter’s design approach at
Canberra was that of a landscape architect—
his talents as such were fundamental to the
couple’s competition success—pervades the
entire exhibition. e Grins’ vision was
holistic and comprehensive; they sought to
design not just isolated buildings but also
the wider garden surrounds, parklands and
suburban communities. e fact that Walter
is largely unknown as a landscape architect
reects the ephemeral nature of gardens
and other designed landscapes—most of
his landscape compositions no longer exist,
although many of the exhibition’s photographs
spectacularly reveal their original splendour.
e Grins’ pursuits as landscape architects
and, more broadly, their esteem for the natural
world led them to become avid bushwalkers.
e exhibition features a selection of the
documentary photographs the couple shot
while on botanical expeditions throughout
eastern Australia. Like their designed
counterparts, some of the landscapes they
captured on lm have since been altered,
making the signicance of these images
Of all the ephemera drawn from the
Nicholls Collection, an array of meticulously
crafted booklets is especially resonant with,
and attests to, the value the Grins awarded
the capital’s landscape. Early on, Walter
resolved to embellish the national capital with
native ora but he soon experienced diculty.
‘Information about Australian ora’, Marion
wrote in 1916, was ‘almost impossible to
get’. ere were ‘botanical books of course’,
however, ‘it was not possible to get much for
landscape work from them’. Unlike today,
interest in the native ora was then chiey
limited to scientic or economic concerns.
To remedy this, she compiled her own lists
of native plants, indexing them according
The Grampians, Victoria 1918
b&w print; 13.5 x 8.5 cm
Pictures Collection
to ‘dierent growth requirements, [such] as
soil, moisture; heights and shapes of growths;
colour of owers, foliage, berries and barks
to produce what amounted to a series of
horticultural catalogues. With titles such as
‘Yellow / Light Yellow / Red Yellow / Red’,
the hand-bound volumes feature Japanese-
inspired paper covers. Marion’s catalogues
are signicant both as works of graphic art,
as well as for the horticultural knowledge
Along with its landscape emphasis, there is
another important dimension to e Dream
of a Century. e exhibition considers the
capital’s design to have been an unequivocally
collaborative project and values Marion
Mahony Grin as Canberra’s co-author, not
merely ‘the hand that held the pencil’. Walter
himself made a similar public attribution. e
ideas of his plan’, he explained in 1913, were
‘much more than half due to his wife’ and
‘she ought to have much more than half the
credit for winning the competition’. Within
this context, one of the items to be displayed
is a reproduction of a revised Canberra plan,
rubber-stamped and hand-annotated on its
verso: ‘Federal Capital Oce Melbourne. Plan
Received from Mrs Grin’. Marion’s activities,
despite conventional wisdom to the contrary,
were not conned to private practice; she, too,
undoubtedly had a part in Canberra’s making.
Although Walter and Marion Grin
were unable to fully realise their vision for
Canberra, the national capital endures as a
monument to these remarkable designers. e
Dream of a Century: e Grins in Australia’s
Capital oers an unprecedented opportunity
to become immersed in the American couple’s
vision for an Antipodean arcadia, one no-less
compelling over a century later.
CHRISTOPHER VERNON is the guest curator of
The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s
Capital and an
Associate Professor
of Landscape
Architecture in
the Faculty of
Landscape and Visual
Arts, University of
Western Australia
Marion Mahony Griff in
(1871–19 61)
Botanical Catalogues c.1916
Manuscripts Collection
Walter Burley Griffin
Canberra Plan of City and
Environs, 103A (detail) 1916
coloured linen-mounted map;
67.7 x 66.7 cm
Maps Collection
the nati onal li brary m agazine :: ma rch 201 3 :: 
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