James Weirick is a Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of New South Wales, Australia. Weirick began studying the Griffin's as a college student. He has spent his career tracing their paths on three continents and has published widely on their history. Weirick has a personal connection to the Griffins. His Uncle was one of the last students in Australia to study landscape architecture under Walter Burley Griffin.
QUESTION: What do you think attracted the Griffins to enter the Canberra competition?
JAMES WEIRICK: Well, I think from the 1890's Griffin was very interested in what was happening in Australia which was going through a process of redefining itself in a rerun of the American experience of the founding fathers. And it was that progressive era of the United States, the social and economic experiment that was undertaken in Australia, that seemed to be really quite inspirational. It seemed to be a younger and purer version of America's own democracy. And Griffin who was a devoted follower of the radical, political economist Henry George was gaining his knowledge through the single textbook literature which was looking at, I suppose, a more equitable society.
QUESTION: But they had never been to Australia, had they?
JAMES WEIRICK: Well, I don't know really how much Walter and Marion knew about Australia. They had extraordinary images for the site of the Australian federal capital and the material being supplied by the Australian authorities. In addition to that, while they were working on the competition entry they met an Australian woman who was working on the Australian Trade Women's League in Chicago, a really important woman in Australian history, Marlas Franklin, a distinguished novelist who came from that very district in Canberra. And I'm quite sure that it was talking to Marlas Franklin that gave the Griffins the grand sense of the Canberra site, particularly the perspective that Marion drew that looks across to the distant ranges were Franklin grew up. I think that having, literally someone who knew that path of the far corner of the earth, they were able to place themselves in the landscape very imaginatively.
QUESTION: How would you describe the relationship of the Griffins?
JAMES WEIRICK: Well, I think as a creative and professional partnership as distinct from their personal relationship there is no question that they perfectly balanced each other, that Griffin certainly was an ideas person who could come up with endless variations on any theme. But he lacked the capacity to draw it or realize it or represent his ideas. He really struggled to represent graphically the range of complex design solutions that his mind could generate. But Marion could draw anything. So she could visualize anything that Walter suggested. And I think that as they began to work together it reached the point where Marion's mode of representation began to inform Walter's way of thinking to the point where they became the perfect creative partnership.
QUESTION: How would you describe Marion?
JAMES WEIRICK: I think that there's a certain Irish dimension to her persona, which saw the world as friends and enemies. At times that may not have been the diplomatic approach but the real issue was one of principle. And Walter and Marion stood on principle and fought very hard for their ideas. And, of course, they were a hit to most people around them when they were trying to convince supporters to back them. And so I think that the nature of the task itself inspired them to be truly determined. And they did find people who believed in them and gave them wonderful support. And they did find people who worked very diligently against them.
QUESTION: Why did Griffin face so many profession problems when he left his Chicago practice?
JAMES WEIRICK: I think it's very difficult to look upon this without the benefit of hindsight. When they left America they really thought they were going for three years. And they had the right to devote about half their time to private practice in Australia. And Griffin already had commissions that he gathered when he made his first exploratory trip there in August 1913. And so opportunities were opening up. While at the same time he had entrusted his practice to Barry Byrne who worked in Wright's studio in Chicago. So he had every belief that Byrne would work very closely with him and follow through on the projects which were on the drawing boards in the Chicago office. But unfortunately, the fundamental connections between the Griffins and the client base, and the architectural ambitions and endeavors in the Midwest were severed and that made it very difficult for them to ever come back.
QUESTION: Why did Byrne not follow Griffin's directions?
JAMES WEIRICK: Byrne seems to have taken the approach that the commissions in the office were really opportunities for him to reexamine the fundamental principles of the design. So he redesigned the work and he didn't see himself as carrying out the Griffin aesthetic and he doesn't seem to have had a great deal of regard for the Griffin aesthetic and was more attuned, I suppose, at that stage in his career to Wright's work. Plus he was charged with this responsibility of finding himself as a creative personality and so used Griffin's clients without an end. And unfortunately really compromised the Griffins happiness in pursuit of his own development.
QUESTION: How are the Griffins viewed in Australia?
JAMES WEIRICK: Well, the very interesting thing about the Griffins in terms of their reputation is that in Australia, they're household names because they're associated with the design of our federal capital. They're significant cultural figures. But their executed work is problematic because there are some major conceptual flaws of the times in the work as it was built. In the United States this work which comes from this wonderful phase of creativity in and around Chicago is superb and stands to this day to a very large extent in very good condition. And yet the Griffins aren't known and so we have this paradox.
QUESTION: How would you describe them?
JAMES WEIRICK: Well, the Griffins were fundamentally artistic. They naturally gravitated to the artistic life of Melbourne. However, it's important to realize they had other important clients. Some of those to come from non-establishment backgrounds: recent immigrants from Russia, Greece and so on. And also not the established sources of capital or the established church, the Church of England. They, in fact, worked for the Catholic Church that was most unusual for Protestants from the Midwest. But nevertheless, the Griffins did actually gravitate to a bohemian world. They found a great deal of challenge and satisfaction from their circle of friends, most notably in Carson Craig where they were able to have a number of these people living around them.
QUESTION: How was news of Walter's death received?
JAMES WEIRICK: When news came to Australia that Griffin had died, there was quite the substantial commentary about it and a great deal of regard was demonstrated in the newspapers, obituaries, and in politicians and so forth. And I think also among Griffin's own supporters. And friends at Castlecrag, it was an enormous loss. And they organized to plan an avenue of honor in the main street of Castlecrag that is there to this day. At the same time, there were people who were very happy that Griffin was no longer around, and some of the shareholders in particular and the developing company in Castle Craig who were fighting with him for years over his management of quite substantial real estate assets were quite delighted that they no longer had to deal with him.
QUESTION: What happen to Marion after his death?
JAMES WEIRICK: Marion returned to Castle Craig and lived there. The practice was being run by Griffin's partner, Eric Nichols, and she was involved a little bit. I believe in the production of some of the perspectives at that stage. She was heavily involved in her interests in her anthroposophy society in Sydney. And then in 1938, she decided to return to Chicago to visit her family. And then, of course, the war broke out, and particularly when Japan entered the war in 1941, then it was impossible for Marion to return across the Pacific.