The Visionary Imagination and Marion Mahoney Griffin
In Chapter 3 of book 9 in the series on risk (Envisioning Risk, Seeing, Vision and Meaning in Risk) I present a review of select visionaries, people who envision, know all about risk. The last thing visionaries want is stasis and zero. One such visionary is Marion Mahoney Griffin, the architect who designed the city I live in, Canberra.
The following is an except from Chapter 3 of the book.
Marion Mahony Griffin
The city I live in Canberra, is a designed city, the vision of Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin. The story of that vision is often attributed to Walter but even a casual reading of their relationship will show that the design of Canberra was perhaps more Her-story than his-story. Walter in his letters attributes much to Marion’s work as more significant than his own and it seems when investigating Her-story much of the humility attributed to her speaks more of the patriarchy of History than the reality of her significance and influence. Unfortunately too, some historians tend to dismiss the work of Marion because of her Spirituality and views on Transcendence.
Marion Mahony Griffin was one of the first licensed architects in the world. Both she and Walter were idealists, philosophers, writers, dramatists, artists, graphic semioticians, thinkers, architects and devoted to poetics .
The story of Canberra is not just about two architects who won a global competition to design a city. The Griffins had a vision not just for the ideal city but also for an ideal way of living in community.
Although Marion ‘played’ the role of helper, it is clear that her vision and energy, her spirituality, philosophy, naturalism and vision were the reason why Walter was both successful but also a failure.
Wherever the Griffins went they encountered the games of petty politics, power brokers, orthodoxies and conservativism. The way both were treated from the day they arrived in Australia in 1914 to guide their vision for Canberra is simply atrocious. It is perhaps another story to tell how Department Mandarins sought to consciously sideline and isolate Walter from the building of Canberra under the guise of conservativism. There was also the nature of petty inter-party and intra-party politics that virtually guaranteed that nothing Walter and Marion envisioned would be achieved. When Walter was finally terminated as the Director of Design and Construction of Canberra in December 1920, he and Marion turned their sights to other visions. Like many visionaries, they realized that fighting the non-vision of conservativism is a lost cause and one not worth fighting.
Marion was controversial and visionary in many ways, Walter less radical having been raised in a middle-class family and also with a shy retiring temperament. Marion was 5 years older and 5 inches taller than Walter but also towered over him in her visionary ideas and philosophy. It is said that Marion proposed to Walter and was also instrumental in him entering the competition to design Canberra (Korporaal). They were married in 1911.
In 1895, Mahony, the first employee hired by Frank Lloyd Wright (https://www.curbed. com/2017/6/8/15755858/marion-mahony-walter-burley-griffin-wright-drawings ). her drawing skills are legendary and she would often use her initials MLM in drawings ascribed to Wright in a subtle and squiggle in the corner, looking more like a knot in tree or spider on the bark of a tree. Marion was instrumental in Wright’s success and was critical to the work of the Prairie School and Oak Park Studio. She worked for Wright for 15 years before Walter joined the studio.
It was Marion’s drawings, perseverance and insight that won the competition for the plan for Canberra. It was her view of the Celestial City, her cosmology and spirituality that created the vision for a city that would humanise persons. Marion’s understanding of spirituality started at a tender age, brought up in Hubbard Woods she always was convinced she could see fairies, undines, gnomes and mystical creatures. As a young girl Marion was raised by a feminist mother (her father died young), part of the radical Chicago Woman’s Club. Marion was educated in an environment of female activists, labour reform and women’s rights. Abraham Lincoln was a friend of the family and would drop by sometimes.
Marion understood herself as a being within nature and later when she discovered Anthroposphy was able to integrate many of her spiritual ideas into her architecture, drawings and dramatic enactments. Marion’s part in the dream for Canberra is documented here: https://www.hamessharley.com.au/knowledge/marion-mahony- griffin . Korporal’s excellent study Making Magic, The Marion Mahony Story. (2015) Oranje Media. Sydney. Is an excellent capture of Her-story.
In everything Marion did she demonstrated the Love-Hope-Faith-Justice dialectic and this often brought her in direct conflict with orthodoxy, authority and the forces of Technique. When she first arrived in Sydney in less than a few months she was arrested for demonstrating against the World War One. The USA was not committed to the war and as a pacifist she was therefore identified as an enemy of the state. Meanwhile Walter was experiencing the petty politics of public servants and political parties and inter-city rivalry.
The Capital of Australia at the time was Melbourne and this is where the offices for the Design and Construction of Canberra were administered. Situated against this was the influential and powerful demands of Sydney and its growing competition against Melbourne which had long since lost its power after the decline of the gold boom in 1895. The location of Canberra between both cities was intended to appease the factionous bitterness between the cities.
Once Walter was terminated from direct supervision of the design and building of Canberra the Griffins moved to Sydney and commenced their vision and social experiment for the development of the ideal town of Castlecrag. It was here too they met with the backwardness and resistance to vision by local councils and various conservative voices. It was here Marion was able to create her vision for a unique community. Their ‘cliplock’ houses, flat roofs and the Haven Scenic Theatre where many plays and festivals were performed, brought the community together in a flair for the arts, imagination and Poetics. It was at Castlecrag where the Griffins gathered around them an amazing collection of visionaries, artists and free spirited people with unconventional ideas. Marion was sure that ‘dark forces’ were behind those who opposed her.
At every turn the Griffins were met by the power- centric forces of Technique and Propaganda. This is because Marion was an exemplar of vision. Visionaries are most often demonized by the powers of tradition and rarely celebrated in their life times. A friend Miles Franklin, wrote in 1928 about the Griffins persecution as ‘shameful and terrible’ but typical of Australia. Marion herself wrote in a letter back home that Australia was ‘a nation of pessimists full of fears, ideals are rarely to be found in this country. All policies are based on fear’. We see this evident today in the marshaling of forces against climate change, the power of Technique.
It is demonstrable that Marion’s drawings and vision for Canberra were the reason for the Griffin’s success. It was the particular drawing Canberra Elevations that clinched the Griffin’s success. The drawing is one of pure imagination with four drawings joined together drawn in ink and gold leaf and 6 metres long. All of her work is on display in the Canberra Regional Visitors Centre.
The Griffins believed that cities should be carefully designed to fit into the landscape, following the contours of the topography, with as little damage to the natural surroundings as possible. The site, with its wide river floodplain surrounded by hills, was a natural amphitheater. As they began to imagine a new capital, it was not hard to see that Marion thought of the seven hills which surrounded Canberra were same as the ancient city of Rome.
(Proudfoot The Secret Plan of Canberra https://pubhtml5.com/rukq/auqx/basic)
Proudfoot truly captures the mystical and semiotic fascination about Canberra and Marion’s vision. Proudfoot draws out the unique vision of the Griffins and particularly the way Marion and Walter built into the design many spiritual symbols.
Today Canberra is very much like that city of Rome designed by Michelangelo. The mountains and hills of Canberra cannot be built on by regulation and so create the mood of the ‘bush capital’. What this does, along with the seven lakes, is emphasize a city that circles. Occultic shapes of the rhombus, triangles, vestias and octagons make for a city that is hard to navigate. What this does is slow people down, it is a city that makes one think. No straight lines anywhere, if you get lost you can’t just go around the block.
Despite opposition to the Griffins many critical aspects of their city design and vision for a humanising city, where money and power give way for people, still characterize the place. On weekends it is a delight to experience their plan in the many parks, cycle paths, walking around lakes and the open spaces.
Canberra is a marvelous semiotic haven. Those who visit to learn about the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) are often treated to days of unique excursions into the connection between biosemiotic signs and the semiotics Marion Mahoney Griffin created in a collective unconscious in a city.
You can read the first few chapters of Envisioning Risk here: https://safetyrisk.net/free-download-envisioning-risk-seeing-vision-and-meaning-in-risk/
You can purchase the ebook here: https://www.humandymensions.com/product/envisioning-risk-seeing-vision-and-meaning-in-risk/