Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Graphic title 
Menu with 7 items

oon after the commission in Mason City, Iowa, Griffin would take on the largest challenge of his career. On May 23, 1912, the Griffins received a telegram in their offices at the Monroe Building in downtown Chicago. It came from Melbourne Australia and read, "Your design awarded first prize." The telegram from Australia would prove to be the defining point in Griffin's career.

he Griffins' plan for the Federal Capital of Australia was the first test of their marriage. The call for designs occurred shortly after they were married. But it was only through Marion's insistence that Walter sat down at the drawing board three months before the deadline. His design allowed him to fully integrate his ideas on landscape, town planning and most importantly democracy.

arion's drawings of Walter's plans were immense in scope. Eight feet wide and thirty feet long, they unfolded like Japanese screens. Photo: Canberra CommissionThey were so beautiful and impressive that the judges had miniature copies made so as to not be swayed by their presence. Griffin's win made him an instant celebrity. He was asked to give lectures around the country. His design was hailed internationally for its creativity in layout, and its ability to incorporate the natural setting.

imultaneously with the announcement of the Griffin's win came a claim from Frank Lloyd Wright that Griffin was nothing but a draftsman. Wright and Griffin would never speak again after the Canberra competition was announced. For the next 45 years Wright made it his mission to disregard Griffin as an architect. He claimed that all his former employees including the Griffins were simply stealing his ideas, or as Wright put it, "sucking his eggs."

riffin was invited to visit the Canberra site in July of 1913. There, too, he became a celebrity. One press article swooned, "There resides under the fair billowing locks some of the finest ambitions that a person can cultivate for the service of his fellow creatures."

nknown to Marion, who was still in Chicago minding the store, Griffin was falling in love with the Australian landscape, and the Australian people were taken with him. He returned to Chicago after three months restless about his future. In short time, he received a letter from his alma mater, the University of Illinois, offering him the position as the head of the Department of Architecture. He would succeed his former teacher, Nathan Clifford Ricker. But the lure of Australia won Walter heart and soul.

riffin hurriedly made plans to move to Australia. with many projects still up in the air. The Mason City development was under construction, the Anna Library was incomplete, as well as his own house north of Chicago. Photo: Barry ByrneHe would have to find someone to manage the Chicago office and finish his commissions.Less than one week before their departure Griffin introduced Barry Byrne to his clients as his new American partner.

n the years ahead, Griffin would not only face criticism in Australia, but he would be discredited in America as well. Unbeknownst to Griffin, Byrne began changing his designs. Plans were altered at Mason City and also for an important commission for the University of New Mexico. When Griffin sent plans from Australia, Byrne would substitute his own drawings of that project, then write back to Griffin that all was well. It took Griffin three years before he realized what Byrne was doing in his absence, and before they parted company.

hile his Chicago practice was slipping from his grasp, Griffin's experience in Australia was proving to be no less frustrating. He spent years battling to see his ideas executed in Canberra. But city planners who had no intention of actually building his design. The outbreak of World War I was the final nail in coffin of both the Canberra project and Griffin's American practice.

riffin's constant battles with politicians and finally his public outcry of Australia's involvement in the war caused him to be removed from the Canberra project.

he next time Americans heard any news of Walter Burley Griffin it was the announcement of his death. Photo: Griffin in chairIn 1937 Griffin died of peritonitis in Lucknow, India. He was barely 60 years old. By comparison, when Wright was 60, he had a full 30 years of his career ahead of him. Most of the buildings that he is famous for were not designed at that point. There would be no Fallingwater if Wright had died when Griffin died, nor would there be a Guggenheim Museum.

fter Walters's death, Marion returned to America to visit her family. She intended to return to Australia but the outbreak of World War II prevented a trip to the south Pacific. Marion Griffin died in Chicago in 1961. Her ashes remained in an unmarked grave in Graceland Cemetery before they were re-interred there in 1997. Instead of lying beside her husband who is two continents away, she rests alongside some of America's greatest architects. In death, Marion has finally carved a place for herself and her husband in architectural history.

 


 

Home | The Griffins | Architecture | Interviews | Producer's Notes | Learn More | Shop

WILL Home | PBS Online | Feedback