BY Marina Warner in Features | 14 JAN 19
Featured in
Issue 200

Marina Warner on Marion Mahony Griffin

Once eclipsed by the men in her life, the architect’s supreme originality and energy are slowly being recognized

BY Marina Warner in Features | 14 JAN 19

In 1986, when I was living in Los Angeles for a year as a scholar at the Getty Institute, friends took me to see some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses. Several of them were mysteriously tucked away and, at that time, one or two of them were dilapidated and overgrown; they looked like Mayan ruins disappearing under the advancing jungle. Wanting to discover more about the genesis of these strange and marvellous buildings, I came across Marion Mahony Griffin: in 1895, she was Wright’s first employee and the principal ‘delineator’ in his studio – her sumptuous drawings created its signature style. The flourish and poise of her pen and her brush convey the very essence of prairie architecture, with its combination of colours and texture – stained glass, tiling, stone, brick – and its insistence on natural forms and the vitality of vegetation. Mahony would sometimes paint these magnificent renderings on long, vertical banners of silk or satin, and cadence the scene with a flowering branch here, leaves lifting in a breeze there, as on a Japanese scroll. Her visionary perspectives, often steeply raked, and her sheer skill and eloquence at drawing are harbingers of Zaha Hadid’s grandiloquent style; like Hadid, Mahony (she later signed with the monogram MMG) was a pioneering visionary architect in her own right. She’d graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1894 (its second female student in architecture) and was the first woman in the US to be licensed to practise. When Wright left the US – personal troubles – Mahony collaborated with his successor, Hermann von Holst, who gave her ‘complete control over design’; her interests included plants and landscaping, furniture and fittings, wallpaper and textiles and even bed linen. She was a true original, a forceful, witty and dynamic woman, striking-looking, very thin and bony, with a colourful style of dress, and she generated ideas indefatigably and joyously. 

In 1911, she eloped with the younger architect Walter Burley Griffin, later recalling: ‘It was by no means love at first sight, but it was madness when it struck.’ Their union set alight a time of dazzling creative inspiration for them both: in 1912, they won the competition to design Australia’s capital, Canberra. They moved there to develop their ambitious scheme but continued to build in the US – private houses, infrastructure and institutions (a waste disposal centre, schools, libraries). They were fired up by ideas about US democracy and its best ideals of equality and fellowship and they wanted architecture to play a central role in fostering its growth. 

The Griffins had strong Protestant backgrounds, mixed in with Transcendental mysticism and Whitmanesque dreams; Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy was another catalyst to their commitment to habitat as the foundation of wellbeing. In 1921, they named and designed Castlecrag (then outside the city but now a harbour suburb of Sydney), and created a utopian community, complete with a Greek theatre carved out of the rock; they also pioneered appreciation of native species. While the rest of the city was devoted to suburban privet and laurel, they welcomed the bush, let bottle brush and eucalyptus flourish, spanned the natural gullies with bridges and walkways, and left the rocky outcrops bulging under the terraces and decking.

Marion Mahony Griffin, Sketch of Unity Temple, 1905. Courtesy: National Archives of Australia

In Canberra, the realization of their winning blueprint was halted by World War I and, in subsequent decades, was only partly followed. Now, elements of their vision are arousing new interest. The city’s unique concentric plan radiates from a huge lake in mandorla-like whorls and owes a great deal to Steiner’s principles and his rejection of rectilinearity. For the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne (which opened in 1924), Mahony studded the muqarnas-like interior with hundreds of crystals, lit by coloured bulbs and shooting rainbow scintillae; such crystals figure in Steiner’s thought as prime vehicles of nature’s healthy energies. But Mahony’s architecture is far less ponderous and didactic than Steiner’s and her creations have a musical quality, an endless, exuberant counterpoint of forms and textures. Esoteric knowledge was another element in her profound originality and such systems have also been more productive of aesthetic breakthroughs than it is perhaps comfortable to accept. 

In 1935, Griffin left Australia for India; Mahony followed him a year later. They were working on various modernist, utopian schemes when, in 1937, Griffin died suddenly of a ruptured gall bladder. In 1938, Mahony moved back to Chicago, where she spent the last decades of her life mostly writing a vast, unpublished book about their life and work, titled The Magic of America. (It is now available online.) She died in poverty, mainly forgotten, in 1961.  

During her lifetime, the towering figures of the men in her life eclipsed Mahony’s supreme originality and energy and it is only in recent years that the scale and range of her achievements are slowly being recognized. For this reason, it seems right to include her in this issue of frieze devoted to key people and works since 1991; like many women artists, who are now being retrieved from oblivion, she was so nearly lost to view before that date. 

The National Library of Australia and the Art Institute of Chicago conserve the largest archives of Mahony’s work. The major exhibition ‘Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin’ was held at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in 1998–99 but it did not travel. The moment has definitely come to explore her vision – her life, her art, her thought – in greater depth.

Main Image: Marion Mahony Griffin, Federal Capital Competition View from Summit of Mount Ainslie, 1912. Courtesy: National Archives of Australia

Marina Warner is a writer based in London, UK. Her most recent book is Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists (2018). She is currently writing an unreliable memoir, Inventory of a Life Mislaid.