Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Newly arrived in Canberra a few weeks back, my first stop was tourist information at Regatta Point on the lake, looking for walking maps and concert leaflets. After pocketing the haul I went on through to a permanent exhibition on the creation of the city. It made a fascinating afternoon’s worth on the complicated politics and economics that decided the site, chose a name, and eventually set down the nation’s capital in a natural amphitheater of the Great Dividing Range. They still have original plans and visualizations to show, survey equipment, a watercolor diorama made before construction began, and a history told in before and after photos.
Invitations to design Australia’s new capital went out in 1911 and attracted the big names. What won the day were the proposals and visualizations of a young American, Walter Burley Griffin. Hardly surprising when they show the sun drenched site on the limestone plains so marvelously transformed. As part of the original design, central Canberra - its parliament, museums and business district - sits nowadays around a splendid lake created by a damming the Molonglo River. The city named it Lake Burley Griffin to honor its architect. His wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, went unnoticed.
The exhibition at Regatta Point had spotted the omission. And it’s a glaring one. In her husband’s estimation, she was more than half responsible for the winning designs, and therefore was due more than half the credit. That she didn’t get it would have been no surprise to her. Like many gifted women of her time, Marion Mahoney had understood early in her career that, in order to get to use her immense abilities, she would need to shelter them behind the name of a talented man.
Only the second woman to graduate MIT with a degree in architecture (in 1894) she was already better qualified than her first employer, Frank Lloyd Wright. The two sparked creativity in Wright’s Oak Park studio, designed houses for a host of wealthy Chicago clients and enjoyed some success. Nonetheless, it was always and only the Frank Lloyd Wright show. He was a lifelong and exclusive self-promoter. Even so, by 1909, when FLW abandoned his burgeoning family and thriving practice to take off for Europe with a client’s wife, it was Mahony who picked up the pieces and kept the designs flowing. Most of the other clients hardly noticed he’d gone.
Wright returned two years later, and Marion Mahony was in no mood to reconcile. Instead she packed her bags and went to join the studio of an architect she had already worked with at Oak Park. It was a winning combination. In Walter Burley Griffin she not only found someone whose work she admired and respected, but who also acknowledged and promoted her own staggering gifts. They were married the same year and lived and worked together until his death in 1937.
The serendipity of all this was discovering this amazing, unsung woman in the pages of a wonderful book of essays, lying on a table in a corner of the exhibition. It’s called Marion Mahony Reconsidered, and edited by David Van Zanten. I was hooked by the introduction. Chapter One flew by in an hour. And since nowhere in Canberra could sell me a copy (!) Amazon came to the rescue. It’s a wonderful account of a modest, super-talented and happily very determined woman.
There’s some more on the book in my Goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2973256920