Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2016

Making Magic, the Marion Mahony Griffin Story (2015), by Glenda Korporaal

making-magicI picked up this book straight away as soon as I saw it at the library because I had read Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, by Alasdair McGregor.  McGregor’s biography of the husband-and-wife designers of our national capital won the National Biography Award in 2011 and even though it was a bit heavy-going in places, I thought it was an excellent book.  It was, I also thought, fair to Marion Mahony Griffin who is a bit of an unsung hero in the national consciousness, making it clear that her contributions were integral to the partnership despite her low profile authorship.

Journalist Glenda Korporaal’s biography of Marion Mahony Griffin aims to go one step further and elevate her subject’s importance to the Chicago Prairie School of Architecture.  It’s a worthy aim, but IMO it falls short because of the elusive nature of MMG’s authorship.  MMG collaborated with her husband and despite her status as the first woman in America to become a licensed architect was apparently content to let him take the limelight.  If the exhaustive research of Korporaal and McGregor has failed to find much in the way of documentary evidence of MMG’s specific architectural input, then clear evidence is unlikely to exist.  As this NYT article shows, MMG was her own worst enemy in terms of staking a claim to her own architectural legacy.

However, the importance of this bio (which seems not to have had its fair share of attention in the LitBlogSphere if my Google search for reviews is any indication) is that it is about the female half of an undisputed duo, and it is about MMG’s life, an interesting life in its own right.  While she may have been an elusive presence in the architectural portfolio of Griffin designs, she was a strong, assertive woman in her relationship with her husband, and it was she who pressured him into getting started on designs for the Canberra competition.  And while she was devoted to Walter and enjoyed working in partnership with him, she was no doormat, initiating a separation when she’d had enough of his refusal to cooperate with sensible meeting times with other staff in their office.  (He was a workaholic, and he would do his stuff all day, and then late in the evening when normal people were at home with their families, expect his draftsmen to attend meetings so that they would know what to do next on their projects).

MMG spent their separation building up the Castlecrag community, her input as good as ignored by the historians of the Castlecrag Progress Association. She was the inspiration behind the theatrical productions that they held there and her home (one of the distinctive Griffin designs) was the centre of a very special kind of community life.  Her home, (what we would call today a display house) was, BTW, not a lavish place, but an example of living simply and well.  The Griffins did not only design amazing buildings like Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre and the Café Australia, but also houses for the suburbs such as The Fishwick House nestled into the bush landscape which Walter and Marion loved.  Marion loved painting and produced beautiful paintings of forest trees (and later, a quixotic mural of fairies feeding the herons, at a primary school in Chicago.)

It seems, however, that in her latter years, MMG was a bit of an oddball.  She became interested in Anthroposophy and (IMO misapplying the spiritual theories of Rudolph Steiner) believed that children could see fairies – and adults could too if they tried hard enough.  And by the evidence of her massive Magic of America which she wrote late in life to assert Walter’s place in architectural history, she had a combative view of the world, characterising his career as a series of battles.  Well, yes, there were disputes with Frank Lloyd Wright, who doesn’t come out of this bio very well, but professional jealousies aren’t uncommon.  And yes, there were battles with bureaucracy over Canberra and municipal projects in Australia, but it sits ill with my democratic principles that she ended up happier working in India where they could work without interference on lavish projects for wealthy autocratic rajas.

Occasionally I was taken aback by some of the conjectural passages.  I can see that it must have been enormously frustrating to be trying to rescue MMG from an undeserved oblivion, but in trying to work with evidence that just isn’t there, Korporaal in this 300+page book is sometimes reduced to claiming insight into the mind of her subject, and IMO she is rather hard on Australia as a culture determined to obliterate her.

… Marion knew that her drawings had to be impressive enough to convince the committee to support her husband’s striking design.  She produced a drawing of the [Newman] college, viewed from inside one of the landscaped courtyards.  It was a long, wide view with the cloistered dormitory corridors stretching out across the page.  It highlighted the striking dome of the rotunda, with the pinnacles on the roof, both a landmark for the site and a protective presence for the students who lived there. On the right-hand side were drawings of gum trees with native plants across the foreground.  Each plant was finely detailed.  Someone who had seen Marion’s drawings in America might have been tempted to look for her signature monogram hidden among the plants, but it was nowhere to be seen.  In Australia, Marion was Mrs Griffin, her husband’s loyal helper.  (p. 155)

(Reading this, you’re probably as frustrated as I was by the absence of an image.  In contrast to the lavish illustrations in McGregor’s book published by Lantern books (an imprint of Penguin), what images there are in Korporaal’s self-published book are small, B&W, and sometimes grainy.  But in the age of the internet one can easily Google an image, and that’s what I did, only to find not only the images I was looking for but also, disconcertingly, a classic example of why Korporaal might have felt her book needed to be written.  At the Newman College website, Jeff Turnbull, PhD has not a word to say about Marion’s collaboration with Walter.  Not a word.)

Early in the book, Korporaal quotes Marion as acknowledging that her architectural practice when working with Frank Lloyd Wright was primarily painting.

In entering my second office, I was graduated from pure drafting to experience and began to function, in my first stage of design, in a realm fairly natural to me, that of the art of the painter… We were, to be sure, practicing [sic] as architects but were really functioning as artists, as painters. (p.36)

Now, if you’ve ever had the good fortune to have an architect design your home, you know how important these drawings and paintings are.  When our architect showed us his design for the reinvention of our 1950s weatherboard, I couldn’t imagine what it might look like.  I can’t translate a 2D image to 3D.  And anyway, we had only asked him to redesign the kitchen and bathroom, not the whole house.  But once I saw his beautiful coloured drawing (cunningly complete with a landscaped front garden that we didn’t have!) I was entranced and we agreed to Plan B on the spot! (The other thing that helped, *chuckle*, was that he had twigged from the bookcases all over the house that a library needed to be included in the design). (But he failed to make it big enough.  He should have envisaged a second storey with a branch library above. Yes, sorry, I digress…)

#BackToTheBook: There are examples of buildings that Marion designed entirely on her own, but not very many of them.  And it does seem – especially during the years of the separation – that MMG had a yearning to focus on her art rather than architecture.  But the fact is that she spent most of her professional life, unbroken by childbearing, working in collaboration with Walter, and as Korporaal says, it beggars belief that a talented professional career woman merely created the artist’s impressions of Walter’s buildings without any input of her own.  Most significantly, the one person who really knew what her contribution had been, was Walter, and he clearly acknowledged it.

This is what I call a sturdy biography – it’s written in straightforward workmanlike prose and there is little authorial presence in its chronological pursuit of the author’s life.  But Korporaal’s affection for her subject shines through in the final chapter summarising MMG’s legacy, and although I don’t quite think it’s ‘mission accomplished’ in terms of establishing MMG’s place in the architectural pantheon, it is a book long overdue and one well worth reading.

Glenda Korporaal is on Twitter @GlendaKorporaal but she’s there as Senior Financial Journalist for The Australian (who did review this book but of course it’s paywalled.  I find this really annoying because despite its overt political bias we get The Oz delivered, but I don’t keep its review pages – they go out in the recycling bin!)

©Lisa Hill

Author: Glenda Korporaal
Title: Making Magic, The Marion Mahony Griffin Story
Publisher: BookPod, 2015
ISBN: 9780992476908
Source: Kingston Library

You can buy the book via Fishpond, I think it’s print on demand: Making Magic: The Marion Mahony Griffin Story


  1. I would really like to know if Miles Franklin, who grew up in the Canberra region and who was in Chicago from 1907-1915 with significant feminist and union connections, met Walter and Marion before they went off to design the new Australian capital.
    As for Newman, it is after all a Catholic Men’s College.


    • Yes, this bio says they did. They seem to have got on well. You’re lucky you asked today, the book was about to go back to the library this morning. MF and a friend called Alice Henry were in Chicago when they heard the news about the Griffins winning the competition, and they paid a visit, writing a joint article about it for a Sydney newspaper afterwards. It says MMG & WBG soon realised “they had much in common” because they were both associated with Jane Addams’ Hull House, a centre for people interested in social activism. This was when MF & AH were working in the Chicago office of the National Women’s Trade Union League. MF gets a mention on 9 pages altogether, so it might be worth your while to dig up this bio if you can.


      • Thank you for that. Alice Henry, another Australian, was effectively MF’s boss – they were Editor and deputy Ed of the women’s union newspaper. I’ve just checked Roe and there are maybe 20 entries in the index for the two Griffins, so this all might the germ for another post.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As a Planning graduate (which means instant love for Canberra, the most ‘planned’ city), I’ll be certainly hunting this one down. I’ve also read a fair bit about Frank Lloyd Wright (who is never portrayed very positively!) so will be interested to see his role from another perspective.


    • I’m fond of Canberra. It’s an awful place to visit if you don’t have a car because the PT and taxi service is so bad, but that’s not the Griffins’ fault, they planned for a rail link and never got it.


  3. […] week or so ago Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed Making Magic, The Marion Mahony Griffin Story, by Glenda Korporaal. In 1912 when Marion’s husband Walter Burley Griffin won the competition to design Australia’s […]


  4. […] Hill has written a review of Making Magic: the Marion Mahony Griffin Story by Glenda […]


  5. […] Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney Griffin Story (see my review).  It’s a difficult task for an author to undertake because, by definition, these women […]


  6. […] I’ve read quite a few books attempting to rescue various women from oblivion: women who were married to famous men and never had their contributions acknowledged.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney Griffin Story (see my review). […]


  7. […] Hill has written a review of Making Magic: the Marion Mahony Griffin Story by Glenda […]


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