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Canberra Today 22°/28° | Tuesday, January 25, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

There’s more to Marion, the woman behind Walter

Marion Mahony Griffin… responsible for the plans that accompanied her husband’s entry for the 1912 design competition for the new Australian capital.

VIVID watercolour sketches that transformed Canberra from paddocks to a civic utopia, embody the work of the less celebrated half of the husband and wife team – Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin – the architects of Canberra.

On the 150th anniversary of Marion’s birth (February 14), there’s still a long way to go to properly acknowledge her considerable legacy, says Peter Graves, the chair of the Walter Burley Griffin Society of Canberra.  

Peter Graves… “There are all sorts of inferences that Marion was a better architect than Walter Burley.”

A talented draftswoman, Marion was responsible for the plans that accompanied her husband’s entry for the 1912 design competition for the new Australian capital.

Not unusual for the times, Marion was relegated to a less prominent role in her husband’s design work.

“She had a 19th century view on marriage that a woman did not overshadow her husband,” says Graves.

“But there are all sorts of inferences that Marion was a better architect than Walter Burley and it was her artwork that won them the prize and if you look at those original designs of Marion’s, they are absolutely superb.”

Detail of a “View from Summit of Mount Ainslie” by Marion Mahony Griffin, ink on silk, 1912. Image: National Archive of Australia

Despite being born in Chicago, Marion – one of the first licenced female architects in the world – left her legacy in Canberra.

But Graves, a retired federal public servant, argues that Marion’s legacy is all but invisible to a handful of Canberrans who know about her.

“The Marion Mahony Griffin view at the top of Mt Ainslie is the only place in Canberra where you have recognition of her name,” he says.

“We have in the past suggested a statue, but you have to fight hard to get statues in Canberra.”

An institute to remember where Canberra came from and who designed it, would be a good place to start, Graves suggests.

“What we would like to see is a Griffin Institute established here in Canberra to acknowledge and honour Marion but also Walter, a place where architecture students could come and learn more about them and perhaps do post graduate architectural work.

“It’s important to have something permanent, not just a one-off burst of fireworks everyone forgets because this year is also the 60th anniversary of Marion’s death, she died in 1961 on August 10.”

Born in Chicago (February 14, 1871) Marion’s early career as an architect began in the studio of world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This is where she met her husband and business partner Walter Burley Griffin.

Unique among her contemporaries, Marion promoted progressive ideas, as relevant today, 150 years after her birth, as in her own time, says Dr Anne Watson, curator of “Paradise on Earth”, an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, dedicated to Marion.

“She was definitely a woman ahead of her time,” Dr Watson says.

Dr Anne Watson… “What the Griffins planned for Canberra and the philosophy behind those plans should be in the public conscience.”

“She struck out as a female architect in a very male-dominated profession, in a time when most women could really look forward to a life of children and domesticity. 

“Marion was highly intelligent and very knowledgeable about a whole range of things; her and Walter were kindred spirits because they were interested in similar things like social equity and democracy, a lot of progressive philosophies.”

Dr Watson’s exhibition points to the progress made in recent years to acknowledge Marion’s design talents and achievements, and her efforts in pioneering a role for women in the architecture profession.

During Marion’s lifetime she would never have expected to receive the same level of recognition as her husband. According to Dr Watson, it was clearly a very different era.

“You have to look at her career from the point of view of a woman in those times and she was probably content enough to stay in his shadow to a point,” Dr Watson says.

“In her biography the ‘Magic of America’, Marion refers to Walter all the time and when he is credited for projects that we know she was the primary designer on, she takes no umbrage.

“But the interesting thing is there are a number of her drawings that she later donated to institutions in America that have Walter’s signature inked out and we presume that was her doing that.

“I guess it’s possible later in life in the 1950s when the issue of women’s rights and women’s independence were coming to the fore that maybe a bit of resentment crept in, but that’s hypothetical.”

What is certain, is Marion’s role as a trailblazer for women in architecture needs to be given greater prominence and greater attention paid to Griffin’s original concept for Canberra.

“I’m sure reminders of what the Griffins planned for Canberra and the philosophy behind those plans should be in the public conscience and should be considered in current and future planning of Canberra and I suspect that is not happening,” Dr Watson says.

“If you look at Griffin’s Canberra plan there is very little development around the lake but there are lots of areas for parks and recreation and that’s not really being adhered to.”

Dr Watson will give a lecture at the National Museum of Australia on March 13, tickets via


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Belinda Strahorn

Belinda Strahorn

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