Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 27, 2011

Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin (2011), by Alasdair McGregor

It’s probably safe to say that the names of our local architects are not exactly household names in Australia – with one exception.  Almost everybody knows about Walter Burley Griffin because he famously won the competition to design our national capital, and the lake in the middle of that capital is named after him.

As every Australian schoolboy-or-girl knows, at the time of Federation in 1901, Australia’s biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, were fierce rivals and they could not agree about which one should be the nation’s capital.  Local mythology has it  that it was agreed that a new capital should be built half way between the two cities, but in fact it was more petty than that. It was to be built in New South Wales (the most populous state and site of first settlement) – as long as the capital was not Sydney.  The consolation prize for Melbourne was that the new parliament would sit in Melbourne until the new one was built – as long as the city was not referred to as the ‘capital’.

Lo! A windswept plain with some undistinguished hills  – one of which could eventually be dignified with the name Capital Hill – was eventually chosen in a Territory excised from New South Wales and imaginatively named the Australian Capital Territory.  It ended up being about 300km from Sydney and about 700km from Melbourne, making it more of a drag to get there for Victorian politicians – though nowhere near as big a pain as it is to get there from Western Australia.  It must have been a nightmare in the days before modern transport.

But the arguments over the capital’s location were just the beginning…

Grandiose plans for a third major city on the eastern seaboard (Brisbane, albeit a state capital, was just a country town back then) required an architect capable of designing to impress – and so an international competition was held.  And despite decades of feminism, it is still said  that Walter Burley Griffin won that competition, (as I deliberately did above, to emphasise that his is the name that is known) though in fact he worked throughout his career in partnership with his wife, Marion Mahoney Griffin (the first licensed female architect in the US).  The winning plans were designed on their honeymoon.

In later years they probably wished that they’d never taken the project on because there were endless fights and disagreements about almost everything, and the constant penny-pinching and political and bureaucratic sabotage of his plans culminated in the Griffins’ departure in 1920.  (In fact the only Griffin ‘building’ actually built in Canberra is a grave).  Australia was remarkably fortunate that they nevertheless chose to stay here for quite some time and designed some interesting buildings and housing estates before finally moving on to India.

The Griffins’ story was well overdue for a biography,  not least because of their early association  with America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.  The Griffins were part of the ‘democratic’ Prairie School of architects in Chicago and WBG is credited with developing an innovative modern style, including the L-shaped floor plan, the carport and new ways with reinforced concrete.  However there was professional jealousy between Wright and Griffin and even a cursory hunt on the web shows that there is, even today, dispute about which of the two men should be credited with various architectural innovations and designs. As for Mahoney, she seems to be mostly credited only with doing brilliant design drawings and interiors, thus bringing WBG’s designs to life.  Alasdair McGregor’s authoritative biography sets the record straight with convincing evidence that Walter Burley Griffin’s designs were not derivative or ‘stolen’ as Wright claimed, and that Marion Mahoney Griffin’s contributions were integral to the partnership despite her low profile authorship.

Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin explores the conflicts of the early days in America in detail which may frustrate the Australian general reader who’s mainly interested in the shenanigans in Canberra.  It’s (literally) a weighty tome at 545 pages, and is heavy going in some places, but the book has won the National Biography Award, in recognition of its comprehensive treatment of these significant characters in our nation’s history.

The ‘Australian’ chapters about the competition and its immediate aftermath are fascinating.  In retrospect, the churlish five-word telegram from the Minister of Home Affairs notifying the Griffins of their win was indicative of the stinginess that was to dog the project.  McGregor reveals the predictable media critique and the absurd objections from British rivals who claimed that the ‘majestic’ Molonglo River deserved better treatment, as if what was not much more than a creek were the Thames.

The book (printed on really nice expensive paper with gorgeous facsimile endpapers) is  illustrated with numerous house plans and photographs, and the plans and photos of American houses organically designed to fit into their natural environment by the Griffins show what might have been, had they been able to realise some of their building designs for Canberra.  Unfortunately so many of the Griffin buildings have since been demolished or renovated that there aren’t any pictures of some designs which from McGregor’s descriptions sound really interesting .

The more I read about the sabotage of the prize-winning plans for Canberra, the wonder it is that anything got built at all, but it does seem as if the Griffins were in some ways their own worst enemies.  Trying to maintain architectural practices on two continents was bound to result in compromises, and WBG – keen to indulge his creativity – also unwisely designed estates or lent his name for some dubious speculative housing developments which were never built.   Hamstrung in his finances by the Depression, WBG also took on private consulting work outside his role as designer of Canberra which, while not illegal, wasn’t really ethical.

But the real issue was the mismatch between the democratic ideals of the Griffins and the reality of public opinion in a democracy.  Anyone who’s marvelled at the great buildings of Europe must be aware that they were thus built thanks to autocracies.  Kings and Princes and aristocrats all over Europe were able to build their palaces free from interference and at vast expense because they could.  Indeed, as McGregor tells us, the Griffins saw for themselves how New Delhi in India was built at the same time as Canberra should have been, and this was achieved because it could be, under the Raj.

It’s the same today.  Try and build an innovative and interesting building in contemporary Australia and out come the shock-jocks and the talk-back morons to sabotage it.   People whose taste runs to look-alike McMansions and fake Georgians pontificate about architecture as if they – whose taste is a blight on the outer suburbs of our big cities – have a divine right to impose their ideas on the city.  They get away with it because the outer suburbs are marginal seats…

They got away it back in the Griffins’ day too.  Sure,  the 1916-17 Royal Commission set up to enquire into the building of Canberra culminated in a symbolic victory for Griffin, declaring that he had been unable to fulfil his contract because of wilful bureaucratic and political interference, but changes of government and the pressures of war on the budget meant the Canberra project was always going to be compromised.

These murky aspects of the building of Canberra take up many pages and you have to be very keen indeed to read your way through all the dramas.  In the end I became more interested in the buildings that succeeded than the ones that didn’t.

It’s possible to admire the Griffins’ work at Newman College in Melbourne.  There were the usual conflicts and criticisms,  but it did get built and survives today.   Florence Taylor, an architect so frustrated by male attitudes to women in the profession that she turned instead to publishing the magazine Building, was the Griffins’ most strident critic, and McGregor pulls no punches in recording her attacks as ‘bellowing’,  and ‘banging on’.  Well, I rather like the building, but I can see why fans of classical style might loathe it!

You will probably visit the Capitol Theatre if you attend the Melbourne Writers’ Festival because the designers of Federation Square didn’t include a venue big enough to hold a large audience for major events.  It’s a bit faded today and a ‘restoration’ is underway but the interior is still gorgeous and lovely to look at while you wait for events to start.  There are other bits and pieces around Australia but alas, the photo gallery of the Walter Burley Griffin Society (no Marion, eh??) is playing up today and won’t open any images…

Despite its daunting size and introductory chapters of more interest to the architectural profession than to general readers, Grand Obsessions opens a window on a fascinating aspect of Australia’s culture and identity.  I’ll be looking at our public buildings with a more informed eye from now onwards!

Alasdair McGregor has his own website which is well worth a visit to see his gorgeous paintings and photographs.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Alasdair McGregor
Title: Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin
Publisher: Lantern (Penguin Books) 2009
ISBN: 9781920989385
Source: Kingston Library


  1. A fascinating and informative article. I knew nothing of that and hadn’t really given much thought to the concept of carving out new cities from a blank canvas like that. One thing I know is that design should not be left to building corporations – its the same the world over – all our towns have identikit new estates on their fringes completely lacking in architectural merit.


    • I think we were talking a little while ago about Australian writing being different to Uk & American in some ways? This is one of the identity issues that crops up in our writing. In Britain, the idea of a new city is bizarre, whereas here, it’s not. It’s part of our national ‘furniture’.
      Heritage here is a different concept altogether too. If you visit the innards of our ‘old’ parliament house in Canberra, the one built in 1927, you are required to wear white gloves to protect ‘heritage values’ that wouldn’t rate notice in Europe or the UK.
      I suspect that battles over the environment that the Griffins found so special are also very different to UK battles about the countryside. They were troubled by unsympathetic development in bushland suburbs but it’s more than that. Here there is vast mineral wealth to be dug up and ancient old-growth forest to be felled for timber, and the extinction rate of unique flora and fauna and the destruction of wilderness should be a matter for national shame. Do powerful global corporations have the same sort of interests and impact on the national economy in Britain?


  2. Not too long ago I was lucky enough to go on a walking tour of Melbourne’s arcades and laneways and was really surprised to hear of the work that Frank Lloyd Wright did here, and also that Burley Griffin designed buildings here as well. Of course, I knew about Canberra, but didn’t even think about the fact that they might have worked elsewhere in the country.


    • Me too, Marg – in fact all I knew nothing at all about her and only negative things about him. I’m really pleased to have read this book.


  3. It might interest you to know that the UK has created very many new towns during the 20th century as part of a planning policy designed to solve the problem of population growth/housing shortages. I knew nothing of this until I moved to London and worked as a reporter on a magazine about town planning. Ten more new towns are on the drawing board.

    See for a good summary.


    • Hi Kim, that is so hard to imagine in the UK! I think this is a secret that they keep from tourists LOL…


  4. The story Alasdair McGregor has told in “Grand Obsessions” of the collaboration of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney in the design and building of Canberra, and of their other architectural achievements in Australia, America and India in the first half of the twentiest century, was an enthralling historical read. I particularly liked the way his narrative of their lives and work gained authenticity from the inclusion in the text of so much documentary material from those times.


    • Hello Graham, welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers:)
      I loved this book, and I wish there were more books about the design and building of our cities, written in an accessible way for those of us who are not architects. I’d especially like one about Melbourne, of course!


  5. I love the work of WBG, it says volumes about the sensitivity of design and its interrelationship to the user, that the relationship is co-existence, not two individual things.


    • Yes, there are buildings here in Melbourne that are very beautiful, but don’t work for the users, and vice versa. As one who is interested in architecture but doesn’t know much about its workings, I can see that it’s probably harder than it looks to get that balance right.


  6. […] […]


  7. […] Jørn Utzon who designed the Sydney Opera House, or the Burley-Griffins who designed Canberra.  (You can read my review of Grand Obsessions, a biography of the Griffins by Alasdair McGregor here).  But Jose makes a strong case for looking closer at the shaping of our cities, rather than just […]


  8. […] Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin by Alasdair McGregor has won the $20,000 National Biography Award.  I am reading this book at the moment  – but my review is going to take a while.  The book weighs 1.9kg so it’s not one that I’m taking to read in bed, just reading it over breakfast in the mornings!)  It’s a lavish publication by Lantern Books, a division of Penguin.  (The significance of this book, (if you are a non-Aussie reader of this blog), is that the Griffins were the architects who designed our national capital, Canberra.) #Update 3/6/16 See my review. […]


  9. […] I think that in the case of the Griffins, a joint bio that pays credit to both members of the partnership, works better. Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, by Alasdair McGregor won the National Biography Award and it’s a beautiful book, profusely illustrated with photos of their plans and designs. (Though that cover photo is dreadful, just dreadful. It does no favours to either of them). See my review here. […]


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