Rebuilding an Architect | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Rebuilding an Architect

In 1912, Walter Burley Griffin was a rising star of the prairie school who had just won the plum job of designing Canberra, the capital of Australia. What happened next was a debacle: it took a half century for the world to realize its loss.

by

comment

By Sarah Downey

In Canberra, the capital of Australia, there's only one building by Walter Burley Griffin.

It's best reached by golf cart, preferably with Peter Martini at the wheel. The general manager of the Royal Canberra Golf Club, Martini has a gracious knack for ditching the work on his desk to summarily speed down a carpet of green, the wind barely ruffling his starched white shirt.

It's a quarter-mile ride to the tenth hole. Park the cart, and a few steps later an incinerator that looks like a cathedral emerges from a grove of eucalyptus trees. Martini pauses, squints at the high-noon sun, and turns to his guests, who are speechless.

"Yes, quite close to perfect, isn't it?" Martini muses as he strides ahead. "And you can see that it's a bit beyond the range, so it's never been an issue for our golfers."

The structure grew out of the Prairie style Griffin had learned in the early 1900s, when he was Frank Lloyd Wright's most promising protege. Griffin had left a growing practice in Chicago after winning an international competition to design the Australian capital in 1912.

The Canberra incinerator isn't considered Griffin's masterpiece. Completed by underlings in 1938, it was one of his final projects. Different shades of brown brick dot the exterior, creating an elegantly patterned cube. There's a wraparound veranda, and tiny bricks form geometric shapes above the steel doors.

"Perhaps you'd expect something other than an incinerator from the man who designed the national capital," Martini tells the visitors, who had dropped by and asked for a tour. He's happily obliged, though the club is technically private.

"Would you look at the quality of that brickwork," marvels Ric Butt. "It's not an incinerator--it's a work of art."

Butt runs a top-drawer design firm in Canberra that specializes in solar-powered homes. A member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, he points out that Griffin's successes owe much to a strong work ethic: "He slogged it on. He struggled and he didn't allow mediocrity to rule. He didn't become mediocre. He understood all the technicalities of how these industrial buildings worked, and then he's got the function and the beauty of it. That's all the mark of a great architect."

Martini nearly blushes as he fumbles with the keys to the door. "I still need to read up on how it all works, but it did look a whole lot worse a year ago," he says, ducking inside and coming upon an unexpected sight. "Oh no, I see a wall's been taken out there. God knows why they've taken that wall out." He leads the way downstairs to the quenching room, then back up to show off the garbage hopper and the firing floor.

The club and its 27-hole course were built on this former factory site in 1960. Griffin's incinerator was no longer active and was almost torn down; it was saved for use as a storage facility. In 1984 the incinerator made it onto Australia's Register of Significant 20th Century Architecture, but precautions against water damage had been slack. When Martini came to the club four years ago, he saw the meticulously placed bricks in a state of corrosion and the terra-cotta tile roof close to collapsing. It was "concrete cancer"--an acute case.

"So it's not a particularly safe building--I still see it as an enormous asset," Martini says. "This incinerator is the only building in Canberra that came out of Griffin's office, and it's never been fully appreciated."

Much like the man himself. In Chicago Griffin was a rising star of the Prairie School. Winning the contest to create Canberra gave him unequivocal clout, but that clout was fleeting. In the twilight of his career, Griffin was surviving on municipal-building designs. His 18 incinerators provided a stream of paychecks in 1930s Australia, where the torching of refuse had come to replace dumping at sea.

Griffin had built homes along Lake Michigan. Many of them remain addresses with cachet today, including the Bovee House in Evanston and the Orth houses in Kenilworth. Nearby in Winnetka, Griffin designed the Trier Center neighborhood on nine acres just west of New Trier High School.

In 1910 banker Russell Blount commissioned Griffin to design a string of homes on the far southwest side, in what's now Beverly. They received little notice until the late 1960s, when Thomas Yanul, a local writer and architecture buff, met Blount's son, Lauren, and cited the homes as Griffin creations in a circa-1970 newsletter. Yanul also paid just over $15,000 to buy one, the Salmon House at 1736 W. 104th Pl. "I grabbed it," he says. "I thought it would be great to own a Prairie-style house. There were three small bedrooms; it was a workingman's house. It wasn't quite like Frank Lloyd Wright, but after a while people were dropping by, knocking on the door, asking to come in and take a look." Soon people packed the Beverly Bank for a photo exhibit on the newfound bounty on 104th Place. Now known as Walter Burley Griffin Place, it's been a Chicago landmark district since 1981.

While growing up in Maywood and Elmhurst, Griffin practiced landscaping on his family's backyards. By the time he graduated from Oak Park High School, he had shown an aptitude for creating varied botanical schemes and considered a landscape-design degree at the University of Illinois. But the prospect of a greater profile lured him to the university's architecture school, where he learned to balance the aesthetic and technical aspects of design from Nathan Clifford Ricker, who had founded the department 22 years before. Griffin graduated in 1899, as Chicago was solidifying its place at the center of modern architecture.

He was soon tapped to join a group of architects at Steinway Hall. The building on East Van Buren is gone now but it was an incubator for innovators in the city's architectural heyday before World War I. Dwight Perkins and Myron Hunt worked there, and so did Webster Tomlinson, who went on to become a partner of Frank Lloyd Wright. Tomlinson occasionally scouted for talent there, and at age 24 Griffin landed a job at Wright's Oak Park studio.

Wright was already well-known, though his practice was still young. Griffin was among a handful of employees eager for exposure and willing to help ferry along Wright's projects. He was also romancing Wright's youngest sister, Maginel.

Griffin was developing his own take on the Prairie style. In 1902 he beat out his boss in his first try for a solo commission, the William Emery House in Elmhurst. "Wright was rejected because he was considered too uncompromising," H. Allen Brooks writes in his 1972 book, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries.

Griffin was soon landing as many jobs as Wright, though he still trailed in prestige. Their friendly rivalry was over by 1905, when Wright borrowed money from Griffin for an extended trip to Tokyo and left his subordinate in charge of the studio. Griffin was insulted when Wright returned with Japanese prints as repayment and then huffed about the liberties taken during his absence. Griffin had apparently finished off some commissions, including the Beachy House in Oak Park, in the five months Wright was away.

Within a year, Griffin had resigned to begin his own practice. He quickly picked up the landscape design commission for Northern Illinois University. And he broke new ground in his homes, using reinforced concrete and split-level construction. Some scholars assert that Griffin also created the open L-shaped floor plan in 1906, though Wright often gets full credit for that hallmark interior.

While Griffin was known for his modesty, he continued to clash with Wright. Tensions grew when Griffin began to court Marion Mahony. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mahony was one of the few licensed female architects in the country--and the only one working for Wright. Mahony and Griffin wed in 1911.

Wright was vexed to see Mahony putting her husband's projects before his. She helped Griffin secure large commissions, like the Rock Crest-Rock Glen subdivision in Mason City, Iowa. The 18-acre spread of Prairie-style homes began as Wright's project, but talk of his unorthodox personal life had alienated some of his more conservative clients. "Inevitably this caused Wright to become increasingly bitter and antagonistic toward his erstwhile friends," Brooks writes.

More artist than architect, Mahony had been a regular at the Oak Park studio since 1895. She designed some buildings of her own--most notably, the 1903 All Souls Church in Evanston (now demolished)--but her primary task was sketching Wright's most prominent commissions. These included Henry Ford's home in Dearborn, Michigan, and the Mueller houses in Decatur. She dabbled in stained glass, furniture, and mosaics. But drawing was her singular talent--even Wright conceded Mahony was his better at the drafting table.

The newlyweds had just completed the blueprint for their own dream house, on Bertling Lane in the Trier neighborhood, when the news came from Australia--Griffin had beat out 136 architects vying for the coveted Canberra commission. The story made page one of the New York Times.

Australia was still a new nation, having federated and adopted its constitution only ten years before. The contest judges wanted to reflect a sense of possibility in the nation's capital, envisioning a city unlike any in Britain. With the mother country's tastes out of favor, most Australian designers were out of contention, schooled as they were in colonial styles.

The commission carried a $10,000 prize, but Griffin was more interested in seeing his plans come to fruition. "I entered this Australian event to be my first and last competition, solely because I have for many years greatly admired the bold radical steps in politics and economics which your country has dared to take, and which must for a long time set ideals for Europe and America," he wrote to King O'Malley, the Australian minister for home affairs.

Hearing the news of Griffin's good fortune, Wright told reporters the architect was nothing more than "a draftsman" while Mahony was "a capable assistant." Wright and the Griffins never spoke again.

The name Canberra comes from the aboriginal term for meeting place. The town began as a sheep station at the foot of Mugga Mugga Mountain, midway between Sydney and Melbourne, and became the Australian capital by compromise.

Griffin saw Australia as a younger, purer version of American democracy. "In Canberra, the Parliamentary Triangle reveals influences from the 1901 modifications to the plan of Washington, D.C., and the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition," Peter Proudfoot writes in 1994's The Secret Plan of Canberra. Daniel Burnham's influence "reinforced the City Beautiful ideals."

Griffin took a 19-day sail to collect his prize. The Melbourne Punch covered his arrival in Sydney in August 1913: "Mr. Griffin is an American. His appearance, his manner, his speech all proclaim it. He is a clever American. He was in Sydney only a few hours, yet he contrived to get the Lord Mayor and the city generally at his feet before he left. He praised the Harbour (somebody must have put him wise to that), rolling out mellifluous adjectives with a convincing Chicago rhythm to them. He said that Sydney ought to be the most beautiful garden city...or words to that effect. Of course, Sydney was hypnotised. It is waiting for Mr. Griffin to come back."

As Griffin was charming the masses in Sydney, politicians in Canberra were looking askance at his plans, proclaiming them too expensive to implement. Technically the contest had called only for a blueprint of the city. Still, Griffin never anticipated the major alterations afoot.

His pleasant introduction to Australia soon evolved into a political stalemate. Six weeks into it, Griffin managed to get contracted as the director of federal capital design and construction. He hastened back to Chicago and told Marion they were moving to Australia. He'd grown fond of the blue mountains, unusual flora, and vast untouched landscape.

Selling their design business and wrapping up affairs took a few months, during which Griffin turned down an offer to head the architecture school at the University of Illinois. Meanwhile the Canberra bureaucrats continued to tinker.

James Weirick first learned about Griffin from his uncle Colin Day, a pupil of the architect during his incinerator years. In 1988 Weirick, now head of landscape architecture at the University of New South Wales, delivered a speech of some passion as the annual Walter Burley Griffin Memorial Lecture in Canberra. "As conceived in Chicago, the Griffin entry in the Australian Federal Capital competition was a classical utopia: an icon in which, Griffin undoubtedly believed, Australia would see its own tendencies perfected," he told the crowd of academics, politicians, and city planners. "When he gained first prize, Griffin concluded that his plan had been understood. Alas, he was wrong. No one in official circles in Australia has ever understood the symbolism of the Griffin plan."

Griffin had aimed to express "the will of the people" with a park, cultural institutions, and civic buildings at the base of his Parliamentary Triangle: the prime minister's residence, parliament house, and the high court occupied its three points.

Louis Sullivan had sought to ennoble democratic expression in his buildings; Griffin attempted to do the same for the city. This impressed the international panel of judges yet flummoxed those expected to execute it. "Griffin was considered the practical man in Wright's office," Weirick now notes. "In Australia he was considered totally impractical, because he always tried to experiment and he didn't end up with the support to carry out the work."

He had a powerful advocate in King O'Malley, a former insurance salesman from New York who had immigrated to Australia in 1888; it was later rumored that O'Malley was fleeing financial scandal. Passing himself off as a British subject, O'Malley was elected to Australia's first House of Representatives. He pushed for federation and rose to the post of minister for home affairs, giving him final say in who won the Canberra job.

The competition was fierce. Second place went to Eliel Saarinen, known at the time for the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, the Helsinki railway station, and consulting on the town plans for Budapest. Parisian Alfred Agache, who went on to redesign Rio de Janeiro in 1926, took third.

O'Malley's choice wasn't necessarily the popular one. Critics seized on potential problems with storm-water drainage, a costly mistake in Canberra's valley setting. When O'Malley buckled to his opponents, agreeing to incorporate parts of the Saarinen and Agache plans into Griffin's design, the editor of the Sydney journal Building was moved to write: "The Minister is not an Australian, and is not inspired by any patriotic fervour but the cheap-jack Yankee impulses of a mercenary mind."

Setbacks piled up. The political infighting culminated in O'Malley's ouster after 17 years in public office. He'd taken to ranting against World War I, which didn't help Griffin's cause. With the outbreak of war, Australia was keen on national pride--Griffin was soon being derided as a "Yankee bounder" by his detractors in government. "It seems the politicians who were treating him badly were very jealous of his talents," Weirick says.

Construction delays, exacerbated by constant quibbling, prompted a hearing by Australia's Royal Commission of Inquiry in 1916. It ruled in Griffin's favor, finding that "necessary information and assistance had been withheld from him and his powers usurped by certain departmental officers." This vindication proved to be in word only--by then money meant for construction was going to the war effort. Griffin patiently began to oversee the layout and paving of roads. The shape of the Parliamentary Triangle is still intact, but in the juggling that ensued only the high court ended up where Griffin intended. When his contract expired in 1920, it was not renewed.

Griffin told the Canberra press he had accepted his termination only "under protest and with great regret." He and Marion went to Melbourne, where they built a 2,000-seat cinema and called it the Capitol Theatre.

Ric Butt says he grew up reading headlines like "Griffin--an Architect Who Was Persecuted" (Sydney Morning Herald, 1968) and "Young Yank Shocked Our City Planners" (Canberra Advertiser, 1975). "Walter Burley Griffin suffered from the fact that Australia was so young when he came here, they didn't understand what he was doing," Butt says. "Griffin wasn't a decade ahead, he was a century ahead of his time.

"Ninety percent of this country is pretty formidable territory. Griffin was one of the first people to show Australians the value of their native landscape. He had incredibly innovative ideas, but I think he was subject to the tall poppy syndrome--he ran into bureaucracy and they were terribly conservative types."

Griffin did not attend Canberra's official unveiling in 1927. He was not invited. By then he and Marion had started anew in Sydney, where he was fulfilling the promise of the Prairie School--albeit in a more dramatic setting--integrating landscape and design on an untamed hillside overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Griffin founded the Greater Sydney Development Association in 1920, making him sovereign of the 650-acre plot that he christened the town of Castlecrag. King O'Malley put up much of the money.

Writer Lula Connall described the community in the May 21, 1927, Brisbane Courier: "Castlecrag! This sun-kissed, water-dimpled, sapphire gold and jade fairyland, whose natural beauties have been tangibly imprisoned by the wizard of imagination and elfin artistry of one Walter Burley Griffin--an architect and scenic enthusiast who is 'different.'" In those days, some locals remarked, Griffin favored collarless shirts, ate nothing but vegetables and nuts, and rarely went anywhere without his trowel.

Prospective buyers in Castlecrag were encouraged to share the Griffins' reverence for the wild setting. The town came to include nearly two dozen homes made from concrete and sandstone, a commercial district, and the signature Haven Amphitheatre. It's like an Australian version of Oak Park but with a lot more foliage.

"Griffin was the first one to show how you could live in the bush without destroying the environment," Adrienne Kabos says from the dining room of her home, a Griffin creation that dates from 1922.

Kabos first saw her house in 1976, at the initial Castlecrag Heritage Festival. While waiting in a long queue, she spotted a handmade For Sale sign tied to a gum tree. Her family soon moved into the Moon House, which Griffin built on a street called "The Parapet" for Chin Wah Moon, a Chinese herbalist he'd met in Melbourne.

Jan Roberts, an architectural historian and author in Sydney, has unabashed praise for Kabos, who keeps the house looking gorgeous. "The Griffins would be thrilled to see it, just thrilled," Roberts declares. After a tour that includes much rhapsodizing about the freestanding fireplace--a Prairie School trademark--the women are off to the amphitheater for a picnic lunch.

Traipsing down the steep, winding road, Kabos balances a plate of finger sandwiches she made for the occasion while recounting the history of the houses en route. She coauthored a 1994 book with Weirick, Building for Nature: Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag. The living room and porch in the Wilson House, she says, nearly matches those in Wright's Oak Park studio. The Fishwick House, the grandest in all of Castlecrag, had a glass-bottomed fish tank built into the dining room ceiling. If any fireplace ever acted up, Kabos adds, Griffin himself would climb into the chimney to fix it.

Not everything in Castlecrag has proven so durable. The post-World War II housing crunch brought in new families who tacked additions onto Griffin's houses. King O'Malley's place became a hospital. Kabos says new "heritage controls" have been introduced to protect what's left.

The battle to save Griffin's last designs in Castlecrag led Kabos to establish the Walter Burley Griffin Society in 1988. They raised money in an attempt to buy the Duncan House, which was being vacated by the 89-year-old widower for whom Griffin built it in 1934. "It was incredible," Kabos recalls. "You couldn't believe that there wasn't more appreciation for his work here."

The fledgling society couldn't outbid the new owners, who have since gone ahead with major renovations. Still, the ruckus went a long way in raising awareness and capitalized on a gradual shift in Griffin's image from that of an eccentric foreigner to the father of modern architecture in Australia.

During the Depression, with few resources to further his residential projects in Sydney and Melbourne, Griffin took to industrial designs. If he felt disdain for such commissions, it didn't show in the finished products. Today Griffin's surviving incinerators are held in high esteem, comparable to Wright's houses.

"With very strong cubic forms and a simple yet effective use of brick, these incinerators became buildings of incredible presence and proportions," Weirick says. "It's a great shame that Griffin wasn't able to build more in Canberra--but he was never asked to."

As Australia's aged, it's come to appreciate Griffin's contributions. Next year the country will mark the centennial anniversary of its federation, and Canberra will host many of the celebrations along the shores of Lake Burley Griffin--in 1963, five decades after he arrived in Australia, the man-made body of water Griffin fought to build was named in tribute to him. He got his face on a postage stamp a few months later, the first American so honored. The annual Walter Burley Griffin Memorial Lecture started in the 1960s; a hilltop monument came in the '70s. And when a new parliament house was built in 1988, it landed close to the apex of the Parliamentary Triangle, atop Capital Hill, as Griffin had specified. Weirick calls the siting "a clever reinterpretation," adding, "Now if you ask any Australian who designed the capital, they'll tell you 'Walter Burley Griffin.'"

On the other side of the Pacific, Griffin's achievements have languished in Wright's shadow. Architecture professors Paul Sprague and Paul Kruty have been working to change that. Their latest project: documenting in one catalog 130 American works attributed to Griffin. "Griffin was a rare talent who could do all three--architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning," says Sprague, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Wright would never admit it, but Griffin deserves recognition right alongside him and Sullivan."

Peter Burley Griffin was unaware of his great-uncle's icon status until he took his first trip to Australia in 1998. The University of Melbourne was that year's host of the Griffin Exchange Project, a joint effort with the University of Illinois.

"It was a huge awakening for me," says Griffin, 50, a former banker and grandson to the architect's younger brother, Ralph. "The Australians' enthusiasm for my great-uncle far surpassed any idea I had about his popularity. People wanted to get my autograph and get their picture taken with me," including Australian prime minister John Howard.

Returning home to Saint Louis, he was quick to establish the Walter Burley Griffin Society of America. The group held its first annual meeting at Elmhurst's Emery House this past June, and it now has 93 members. "Walter's disappointment with the political environment in Canberra arose only because he was so passionate about the project," Peter Burley Griffin says. "He wasn't into wealth and fame. In some ways, I think Australia was the happiest time of Walter's life--because he got the chance to pursue his dream."

In 1935, with financial woes closing in, Walter Burley Griffin was compelled to leave his adopted country. He and Marion moved to India, where a commission to design a building for the Pioneer Press--a newspaper that counted Rudyard Kipling among its contributors--got them out of hock.

With the new setting came a burst of creativity. The commission that paid for his passage--the library at Lucknow University--was awash in red tape when he arrived. Marion sailed back to Sydney to tend to things in Castlecrag but soon returned to assist in what became her husband's most prolific period. He built homes in Calcutta and Banaras (later Varanasi), the town hall in Ahmadabad, a bank in Jhansi, and a few palaces for maharajas. All told, Griffin designed 95 works in 18 months.

He produced the site plan and pavilions for the 1937 United Provinces Exhibition in Lucknow, a showcase of agricultural, industrial, and artistic goods. Nearly 45 Griffin works--including exhibition halls, towers, gateways, and arcades--were temporary structures made of bamboo and plaster. (The only surviving building is a pumping station.) Britain was just granting a degree of autonomy to regions of India, and the event coincided with the first-ever elections for provincial assemblies. "Somehow Griffin always ended up being involved in quite interesting historical events," Weirick says.

Yet Griffin would never see his exhibition open. Lucknow University finally approved his changes to the library plan, and during construction he fell from a scaffold, rupturing his gallbladder, already tender from a previous fall fighting a midnight fire on the rocks of Castlecrag.

In Australia the Griffins have been memorialized onstage, in museums, and most recently in the documentary film City of Dreams, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. Director Belinda Mason hopes to screen it here as part of the Women in the Director's Chair festival in March.

There has never been a publisher for The Magic of America, Marion's memoir about life with Walter. It runs more than a thousand pages--she began typing after she returned to Chicago in the 1940s, settling on Estes Avenue in Rogers Park, and continued until her death in 1962. Now stored in seven boxes at the Art Institute's Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, the unbound, unedited manuscript includes Marion's account of her husband's final hours at the hospital in Lucknow:

"Toward the end his mind wandered and he talked swiftly but all about his work, calculations, demanding answers and when I gave him figures he heard me for he took them up and went on from there. And then quiet again. As the end drew near I talked to him telling him what a wonderful life I had had with him, how he was beloved by everybody, and suddenly he turned as if with a great effort and looked straight in my eyes, his own wide, round, startled as if it had never occurred to him that he could die. His eyes never left mine till he drew his last breath and I closed them."

Eric Martin was part of the 1987 crusade to save Griffin's unmarked grave. Fifty years after his fatal fall, the cemetery in Lucknow was overrun by squatters. Martin, Ric Butt, and others in the Royal Australian Institute of Architects raised more than $5,000 for the headstone and fence that now stand at Griffin's burial place.

A conservation architect for almost 20 years, Martin recently wrote a grant application to renovate Griffin's sole structure in Canberra: "The incinerator is valued by the community for its aesthetic qualities and its association with Griffin's style of architecture, which was derived from the Prairie School style. It is useful as a research, teaching or benchmark site which will contribute to an understanding of Australia's cultural history....It was a feature in a recent tour by the Walter Burley Griffin Society."

Martin was still finishing the application when the golf club's trustees donated $3,600 to the cause.

To eliminate the "concrete cancer" and otherwise stabilize the building will cost $30,000. Martin figures that's hardly steep when measured against Griffin's contributions to Canberra. "I am keen to see that his buildings are protected, particularly this one because so many of his incinerators have been lost, which is a sad and sorry state of affairs," Martin says. "This is probably the only Griffin incinerator in its original state, the only one that hasn't been torn down or turned into something else. We want to have it here for others to enjoy in the future.

"Given how instrumental Griffin was to the basic principles of planning the city, it is totally ironic and a bit sad that this is his only building in all of Canberra."

The Australian Capital Territory Heritage Council has agreed. The project received $8,000 late last year, among the largest sums awarded. It's paying for the deep, top-to-bottom scrubbing now under way.

A second grant, for $12,000, came through in late September. That should cover most of the structural reinforcements, says Martin, who's now shopping for roofers, carpenters, and engineers as he sketches out the restoration plan.

Peter Martini sees progress whenever he takes the golf cart by. "We have commenced with a good cleanup of Griffin's incinerator, and when it's done it will be pretty as a picture," Martini says. "That magical mosaic brickwork is already looking splendid."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Library of New South Wales/courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Corbis Images/Mati Maldre.

Add a comment