Walter Burley Griffin November 24, 1876–February 11, 1937) was a US architect and landscape architect, who is best known for his role in designing Canberra, Australia's capital city. He has also been credited with the development of the L-shaped floor plan, the carport and the first use of reinforced concrete.
Influenced by the Chicago-based Prairie School, Griffin went on to develop a unique modern style. For much of his career Griffin worked in partnership with his wife Marion Mahony Griffin. In the 28 years of their architectural partnership, the Griffins designed over 350 building, landscape and urban-design projects as well as designing construction materials, interiors, furniture and other household items.
He chose to study architecture and in 1899 Griffin received a bachelor's degree from the architecture program at the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois program was run by Nathan Clifford Ricker, a German-educated architect, whose teaching emphasized the technical aspects of architecture. During his studies he also took courses in horticulture and forestry.He received his degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1899.
In July 1901 Griffin passed the new Illinois architect licensing examination, which would enable him to enter private practice as an architect. He began to work in Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Oak Park studio. Although he was never made a partner, Griffin oversaw the construction on many of Lloyd Wright's renowned homes including the Willits House in 1902 and the Larkin Administration Building built in 1904. From 1905 he also began to supply landscape plans for Wright’s buildings. Wright allowed Griffin and his other staff to undertake small commissions of their own. The William Emery house, built in Elmhurst in 1903 was such a commission. While working for Wright, Griffin fell in love with Wright's sister, Maginel Wright. He proposed marriage to her, but his affections were not returned.
Early in 1906 Griffin resigned his position at Wright's studio and established his own practice at Steinway Hall. Griffin and Wright had fallen out over events following Wright's 1905 trip to Japan. While Wright was away for five months, Griffin ran the practice. When Wright returned, he told Griffin that he had overstepped his responsibilities as Griffin had completed several commissions and even substituted his own designs. Wright had borrowed money from Griffin to travel and tried to pay his financial debt to Griffin in Japanese prints. It became clear to Griffin that Wright would not make Griffin a partner in his practice.
Griffin's first independent commission was a landscape design for the State Normal School at Charleston, Illinois, now known as Eastern Illinois University. In the autumn of that year, 1906, he received his first residential commission from Harry Peters. The Peters' House was the first house designed with an L-shaped or open floor plan. The L-shape was an economical design and easily constructed. From 1907, 13 houses in this style were built in the Chicago neighborhood now known as Beverly-Morgan Park. Seven of these houses are on W. 104th Place in Beverly, the street is now known as Walter Burley Griffin Place, and forms a municipal historical district within the national Ridge Historic District, as this block conains the largest collection of small scale Griffin designs in existence.
In 1911 Griffin married Marion Lucy Mahony. She had been employed in Wright's office and subsequently by architect Herman von Holst, who had taken on Wright's commissions when Wright abruptly left for Europe in 1909. Mahony recommended to Von Holst that he hire Griffin to develop a landscape plan for the area surrounding the three houses initially commissioned from Wright in Decatur, Illinois. Mahony and Griffin worked closely on the Decatur project immediately preceding their marriage. After their marriage, Mahony went to work in Griffin's practice. A Walter Burley Griffin/Marion Mahony designed development with several homes, Rock Crest Rock Glen in Mason City, Iowa, is seen as their most dramatic American design development of the decade and remains the largest collection of Prairie Style homes surrounding a natural setting.
From 1899 to 1914, Griffin created more than 130 designs in his Chicago office for buildings, urban plans and landscapes; half of these were built in mid-western states of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The relationship between Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright cooled in the years following Griffin's departure from Wright's firm in 1906. With Walter and Marion's wedding Wright started to feel they were "against him". After Griffin's win in the Canberra design and resultant front page coverage in the 'New York Times', Wright and Griffin never spoke again. In later years whenever Griffin was brought up in conversation Wright would downplay his achievements and refer to him as a draughtsman.
In April 1911, the Australian Government held an international competition to produce a design for its new capital city. Griffin produced a design with impressive renderings of the plan produced by his wife. They had only heard about the plan 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. The win 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 initally left Marion in charge of the practice and travelled to Australia in July. (His Chicago practice was soon taken over by Barry Byrne.) His letters home reveal his appreciation for the Australian landscape. While in Australia, 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 to his dismay 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. For instance, plans to create a Westbourne, Southbourne and Eastbourne Avenue to complement Canberra's Northbourne Avenue came to nothing, as did a proposed railway that would have gone from 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 southwards 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. During this time 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 ever built. The grave of General Bridges on Mount Pleasant was the only permanent structure designed by Griffin to be built in Canberra.
In 1916 and 1917 Griffin developed a patented modular concrete construction system known as “Knitlock” for use in the construction of Canberra. No Knitlock buildings were ever built in Canberra, although several were built in Australia. The first were built on Griffin's property in Frankston in 1922, where he constructed two holiday houses called "Gumnuts". The best examples of Knitlock include the S.R. Salter House in Toorak and the Paling House. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a similar system and used Griffin's design to support the arguments for his design.
In 1919 the Griffins founded the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA), and in 1921 purchased 259 ha of land in North Sydney. The GSDA's goal was the development of an idyllic community with a consistent architectural feel and 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. The Redding House and several others in Castelcrag were also built in Knitlock. Almost all the houses Griffin designed in Castlecrag were small and had flat roofs, and he included an internal courtyard in many of them. Griffin used what was at that time the novel concept of including native bushland in these designs.
Other work the Griffins did during this time included the Melbourne subdivisions of Glenard and Mont Eagle at Eaglemont. Prior to 1920 the Griffins also designed the New South Wales towns of Leeton and Griffith. In the 1920s they prepared plans for the Milleara Estate (also known as City View) at Avondale Heights, and the Ranelagh Estate at Mount Eliza, in conjunction with surveyors Tuxen and Miller. During the financial hardship of the Depression in the 1930s Griffin was commissioned to design incinerators; Willoughby Incinerator in the Sydney suburb of Willoughby is a good example of this work. Another example was built in the suburb of Pyrmont, not far from the centre of Sydney.
Although he had planned to only stay to complete the drawings for the library, he soon received more than 40 commissions, including University of Lucknow Student Union building; a museum and library for the Raja of Mahmudabad; a zenana (women’s quarters) for the Raja of Jahangirabad; Pioneer Press building, a bank, municipal offices, many private houses, and a memorial to King George V. He also won complete design responsibility for the 1936–1937 United Provinces Exhibition of Industry and Agriculture. His 53 projects for the 160 acre site featured a stadium, arena, mosque, imambara, art gallery, restaurant, bazaar, pavilions, rotundas, arcades, and towers, however, only part of his elaborate plans were fully executed. Griffin was inspired by the architecture and culture of India, modifying forms as "he sought to create a modern Indian architecture... Griffin was able to expand his aesthetic vocabulary to create an exuberant, expressive architecture reflecting both the 'stamp of the place' and the 'spirit of the times'". While in India, Griffin also published numerous articles for the Pioneer, writing about architecture, in particular about ventilation design improvements. His wife Marion traveled to Lucknow in April 1936 to assist and contributed to several projects.
Griffin died in early 1937 from peritonitis five days after gall bladder surgery at King George’s Hospital in Lucknow, and was buried in Christian Cemetery in Lucknow. Marion oversaw the completion of the Pioneer Building that he had been working on at the time of his death. She closed the Indian office, left the Australian practice in the hands of Griffin's partner, Eric Nicholls, and returned to Chicago.
National Library of Australia: