Marion Mahony Griffin - The heroine that shaped our capital

Despite being born in Chicago, Illinois, Marion Mahony Griffin left her legacy in Australia’s capital city of Canberra. Many know her in relation to her work undertaken for Frank Lloyd Wright, and with her husband and business partner Walter Burley Griffin, but she was an incredible architect in her own right. As a woman beginning her career in the 1890’s, being able to stand on her own two feet was no easy task for Mahony, despite her clear talent.

No stranger to the plight of the ‘weaker sex’, Marion was exposed to female activists and suffragists from an early age. Born to a school teacher and a journalist, her father died young and her widowed mother then joined the influential Chicago Women’s Club. As a result, Marion and her mother became surrounded with strong females fighting for women’s liberation, education and labour reform. Something which no doubt gave Marion the strength to forge a career in what was essentially a man’s world at the time.

Marion was just the second female to graduate with a degree of architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, following in the footsteps of Sophia Hayden, designer of the Women’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. It is reported that Marion struggled with a lack of confidence in her abilities during her school years, nearly dropping out before completing her thesis. Gratefully, her professor, Constant-Désiré Despradelle, had successfully encouraged her to continue.

Two things are said to have inspired Marion’s pursuit of architecture. One, having grown up during the Great Chicago Fire of 1880, Marion witnessed the rebirth of the city and the creation of suburbia. Two, she was fascinated and inspired by her cousin, Dwight Perkins, who practiced as an architect. Shortly after completing her degree, Marion worked with Dwight. This is where she met Frank Lloyd Wright, a man she worked with for nearly 15 years, albeit, on and off.

Arguably, Mahony produced drawings for Wright that would assist him in establishing his career. These drawings formed a volume of work known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, published in Germany in 1910, showcasing Wright’s designs. But their work relationship was tumultuous. Despite his progressive move in hiring a female, Wright later slandered Marion and her husband Walter’s work, never crediting Marion and calling Walter nothing more than a draftsman. It was an act which formed a lifelong grudge which both parties harboured to the grave.

Canberra - Australian Federal Capital Competition

Marion met her husband Walter Burley Griffin whilst working for Wright. The pair married in 1911, and in the same year, the Commonwealth of Australia announced its Australia Federal Capital Competition to design the nation’s capital. A competition which captured the attention of designers and planners across the world.

Walter wasn’t interested in entering, believing the project would be too difficult to manage. It is said that Marion embarrassed Walter in front of their friends, shaming him into entering. Amusingly, if it wasn’t for his wife’s persistence, the pair wouldn’t nearly have the fame they share today.

Marion drew Walter’s designs for Canberra on cloth, outlining Mount Kurrajong as the focal point of the city. The drawings are said to express a ‘form follows nature’ approach, fitting the built environment into the landscape and leaving as little damage to the natural environment as possible.

While it is not known how much input Marion had in the overall planning, it certainly matches her style of rendering - perfectly capturing the essence of landscape on a page by depicting lush vegetation and a connection to the land. Having never stepped foot in Australia, her ability to visualise Canberra was quite remarkable. After successfully winning the Australia Federal Capital Competition, the pair moved to Australia in 1914 to oversee their ideas into reality.

In 1921, the Griffins designed the town of Castlecrag in New South Wales, a project which involved much landscaping and tree planting, amongst the design of houses. Marion’s intrinsic connection to the natural environment is a skill designers of today strive to live up to. Following Walter’s passing in in 1937, Marion continued to work as an architect following her return to the USA.

A sample of the Griffins’ designs Castlecrag in New South Wales
A sample of the Griffins’ designs Castlecrag in New South Wales

Until 2008, it was impossible for anyone to read Mahony’s memoir without visiting the Art Institute of Chicago or the New York Historical Society where her unpublished manuscripts were kept. Now, the work has been digitalised in an effort for Mahony to garner greater attention.

Rarely discussed in her own right, Marion Mahony was so much more than a support to the men she worked with. Mary’s affinity with the natural environment gifted Australia with a beautiful capital city we can be proud of. A true pioneer, Marion Mahony’s legacy will live on forever, not only in American architecture, but in Australia also.

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