Peter sees a danger of forgetting the Griffins

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Walter and Marion Griffin.

Peter Graves, ACT chapter chair if the Walter Burley Griffin Society fears we are at risk of forgetting where Canberra came from and who designed it, reports DANIELLE NOHRA.

THE Canberra chapter of the Walter Burley Griffin Society is calling for a Griffin institute to remember where Canberra came from and who designed it. 

“We are in danger of forgetting,” says the society’s chair, Peter Graves, of Curtin. 

“An institute would be a place to see how the capital began, who designed it and how it has become what it is in the years after.” 

Peter, a former Federal public servant, wants to see an institute highlighting the significant work of architects Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin, who, he describes as the mother and father of Canberra’s planning. 

“What we would like to do is upgrade the image of Canberra as the capital of the nation, as it was destined to be.

Peter Graves… “If they can bring together the Griffins in a single place where you can finally understand who they are, why they’re important and why it’s important to recognise them today.” Photo: Danielle Nohra

“When I got here in 1972, I fell in love with the city for its planning, its relationship between the natural environment as it was and the planned environment that was under a single development authority.

“I’ve seen these relationships being damaged.”

An example of this, Peter says, is the demolition of Anzac Park East. 

“The land access has been disrupted and the very way we remember Marion has been disrupted,” he says. 

“We are in danger of forgetting.” 

The Griffins’ relationship with the ACT began from their home in Chicago when Walter submitted designs, drawn by wife Marion, to an international competition, launched by the Australian government in 1911, to design the capital.

Their design won, but the bureaucrats working on the plans decided to take the best features from the top six entries. 

“Fortunately the minister at the time said: ‘No, there is one winning prize and it’s Griffin’s’,” Peter says. 

One of Marion Griffin’s conceptual views of Canberra.

In 1913, after the fall of the Fisher government, Walter was invited to supervise the detailed planning of his design, so he and Marion came to Australia. 

“[In Australia] Marion was running the Sydney office getting private contracts and Walter was locked in Canberra for seven years,” Peter says. 

But even after initial issues from afar, Walter continued to have problems once he arrived in Canberra. 

“The Griffins weren’t Australians, they were up-to-date architects and the bureaucrats at the time tried to derail him,” he says. 

In 1920, Walter’s job as the federal capital director of design and construction was abolished and he was offered a contract, which meant he had to report to a committee of bureaucrats. He rejected it.

Even though Marion and Walter were key figures to the initial planning of Canberra, the only way they’re remembered now is Lake Burley Griffin, for Walter, and the Marion Mahony Griffin View on Mt Ainslie, for Marion. 

And, there have been many unsuccessful attempts to do more, Peter says. 

“Fifteen years ago the National Capital Authority assembled a thing called the Griffin Legacy,” he says. 

In the Griffin Legacy strategy, eight propositions were made, one of which was to promote the Griffin legacy, including the establishment of a “Griffin Institute” as a permanent archive/exhibition/museum to broaden the understanding of the national and international significance of the work of the Griffins.

“If they can bring together the Griffins in a single place where you can finally understand who they are, why they’re important and why it’s important to recognise them today,” Peter says. 

“[Currently] there are little bits of them all over the place. If you’re an architecture student and you wanted to learn more about the Griffins, you would have to ferret for information.

“If you want to go to an area to learn about the mother and father of Canberra, there’s no single place.”

Which is why the Canberra chapter of the Walter Burley Griffin Society is trying to build a coalition of interested and committed partners to present a business case for its establishment. 

A preliminary plan of Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin.


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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is the assistant editor of "CityNews".

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