|Mark L. Peisch is a professor emeritus of Columbia University. His interest in architectural history led him to extensive research on America's first original architectural style that developed in Chicago at the turn of the century. He conducted extensive interviews with Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony Griffin and Griffin's Australian partner, Eric Nichols, in writing his dissertation. This was published in 1964 as The Chicago School of Architecture; Early Followers of Sullivan and Wright.|
QUESTION: You met Frank Lloyd Wright. Did you talk with him about the Griffins?
MARK PEISCH: He repeated what he had written to me in the letter but he would not really give Walter any characterization except that he was a very helpful person but one who followed orders, not one who created. The same for Marion; not one who created. Simply said that they were there, in the Oak Park Studio; that Marion was there for certain dates, and Walter. And he gave them the training they needed. So I probably wasn't able to illicit comments. Although I certainly tried. I did interview him twice. The longest interview was at the Plaza Hotel where he had a great suite, and he was a sitting on a very high stool. He was getting ready for a TV interview so that he was a lordly personality in a way. And he was looking down at me, and I suppose I didn't feel that I could ask him too many questions. But I did try to ask him leading questions which he really ignored and just went on with what he was interested in saying. He was interviewed throughout his career, and sometimes quite successfully. One interview that I liked particularly, where he talked about the response to his work, what did people really think of his work,you know. He was so completely confident in what he was doing; that he really didn't need much criticism. (Laughs slightly) He was his own critic. I guess that's what I would say. I think anyone at that time, when I was trying to write about the Griffins and some of their colleagues, I was somewhat stymied by Wright. I don't think he was entirely comfortable. Don't forget, the Oak Park Studio days were fraught with the emotional tension. Wright was getting ready to leave his wife and go to Europe with a client's wife. So he may not have wanted to go back to that particular time in his career.
QUESTION: You also met Marion.
MARK PEISCH: Yes, but I have to be very careful, because I don't want to do her any discredit at all. She was not well. She had lived a life twenty years without her husband, more than that. And it had been a life of unhappiness. The shock of going to India and having tremendous success, and then just suddenly having her husband eliminated. He appear to be getting well, appear to be recovering from surgery in a strange country, in Locknow, India, and then to be swept off the face of the earth by death.
QUESTION: Did she work again after she returned to Chicago?
MARK PEISCH: She did. She had some projects. They were involved with the anthroposophical movement, I believe. There was a project in New Hampshire with some kind of center, lets say. But she was not terribly active. But she would say things. First of all she didn't want to mention Wright's name, which was significant. She wouldn't really refer to him as Frank Lloyd Wright. She would just say Wright or that person. She very very obviously felt she had been badly treated by Wright. Didn't trust him. I can't remember all of the things she had attributed to him but I felt like I really couldn't put them in writing because there wasn't enough proof. I mean, one suspected she might have been romantically involved with him and that he had somehow spurned her, but there is no proof of that. So I, of course, didn't mention it. I had no basis for that. But that was the kind of mood that I had sensed when I had spoken to her. I wish I had seen her much earlier.
QUESTION: What is your impression of Griffin?
MARK PEISCH: Well, he said right from the beginning, you know, architecture is about people and people have to be at the center of your work, of your energy. And this, I think, is very much a part of what I call the Emersonian theosophical, anthroposophical approach. He's man-centered. And that he thinks of his clients and how they will be comfortable in his houses. And I think that was his hallmark. I think that his sense of space was excellent. I think that his sense of comfort for the people was very much a part of his design. It certainly was part of Wrights' approach.
QUESTION: How would you compare Griffin to Wright?
MARK PEISCH: Well, I suppose I could answer that in a rather simplified manner and say that I have sat on the chairs designed by Walter Burly Griffin for the Neumann College in Melbourne. Now his wife may have helped design those. I've sat in those student chairs and they were extremely comfortable. I have sat in chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and I walked out of there with a sacroiliac problem because they were terribly uncomfortable. Does that answer your question? I don't think so but there are so many stories about how Wright responded to his leaky roofs. "Oh, your roof is leaking? Why don't you just move your chair?" This is what he advised. Oh you know, these may not be true but Wright seemed to be more interested in the spatial concepts of what he was doing than in the creature comfort. The creature comfort is important, you can't ignore it. And I don't think the Griffins ever did. All their houses in this country and in Australia have a charm about them which I think is based on the interest in the people that were going to occupy them, not just in displaying some kind of interesting ornamental effect.
QUESTION: How would you describe Marion?
MARK PEISCH: Professionally she was a registered architect. She had the training. She had the ability when she came to Frank Lloyd Wright. I just learned today that she talked to Wright a great deal about people like Victor Hugo, the Bible, plays, Sir Walter Scott. And at least one person feels that she helped with Wright's education by discussing these intellectual things with him. And she provided a very lively background for the drafting room. Don't forget that Frank Lloyd Wright was a special student at the University of Wisconsin. He didn't have a great deal of training formally. Could anyone have trained him? I don't know. Did anyone know enough to give him a final exam? He probably say, "I don't think so." But she was his intellectual equal, there's no question about that.
QUESTION: Do you think Marion took a backseat when she worked for Wright?
MARK PEISCH: Did she take a backseat? I don't think anyone could have taken a backseat to Frank Lloyd Wright. He was in charge. He was in charge. I mean he did go to Europe; he did go to Japan. He did leave projects that were not completed. He left the responsibility to other people. But even then I think the ultimate responsibility had to be his because he was not that kind of person. He could delegate in a way, but not very successfully.
QUESTION: How about Walter and Marion?
MARK PEISCH: It was difficult to distinguish between them.They seem to be a wonderful, sympathetic unit. And they were in total harmony with each other. I can't think of an occasion that Marion insisted on something and demanded that it be done her way. She was not subservient to her husband, but was absolutely genuine in her devotion to him. At times in Australia, he was under terrible pressure from the political forces that opposed his plan. And that if you look into the design of Neumann College, which is one of his very fine and successful designs, he was under terrible criticism by one of the principle donors to Neumann College. But Melbourne had a remarkable archbishop named Daniel Mannox who died when he was 99. I think he set a record for the Catholic hierarchy in that respect. He supported Griffin. Here he was, a Catholic prince of the church, supporting a man who believes that Emerson and others were the spiritual forces and had the spiritual values that he admired But the archbishop stuck with Griffin as an architect. So I think the Griffins really didn't have time to argue; they were defending themselves, and they were helping each other, supporting each other.
QUESTION: Do you think they ever regretted moving to Australia?
MARK PEISCH: I don't believe so, because I think they felt it was a great challenge. And the energy and imagination which they showed in their life together there, they didn't just practice town planning, architecture, design, they were citizens of the community. They were very interested in the politics of Australia. And I think Walter Burly Griffin was what you might have called a LaFollett progressive. And he enjoyed Australia because of it's socialistic reforms; many of which are still being adopted around the world. And he felt quite comfortable. Of course, I never really discussed that with Marion. But I don't recall that she did anything that would war against that idea that they were happy and comfortable in their new environment and contributed to it. Some people properly say, they introduced modern architecture to Australia, and I think they did. And to India too. And that's a big job.
QUESTION: What should their place in American history be?
MARK PEISCH: I think their place in America's history and architectural development is one of two people who believed in what they were doing. They truly believed they were making a contribution when they put pencil to drafting paper. Griffin was interested not just in great projects, he was interested in working for -- to use a hackney phrase -- a little man. Making it possible for him to have a decent domicile. This is very much a part of the reform movements in the United States at that time. So I think that they were in the forefront of providing a changing society with the housing and the buildings, and with the building materials and the ideas that were needed. They were innovators. They were unshackled by any historical alliances to the past. They were not eclectics. They believed in building on the past, they had great respect for all kinds of architecture which can be found in their training. Don't forget that Marion was trained by many Beaux Arts people at MIT. Some of the prominent teachers there were graduates of the Beaux Arts. And the same thing with Griffin at Illinois. Ricker had made sure that his students knew a great deal of architectural history. But the Griffins used that as a launching platform, you could say, for their careers. And they wanted to do something that was their own. And they developed their own style and ways of doing things. I mean, how many people have taken the cinema in the 1920's and really turned it into a visual experience that was worth something? Not just the screen, hopefully there would be something interesting that was on the movies, but that ceiling at the capital theater! There's never been anything like it as far as I know.