Walter Burley Griffin

Walter Burley Griffin November 24, 1876–February 11, 1937) was a US architect and landscape architect, who is best known for his role in designing Canberra, Australia's capital city. He has also been credited with the development of the L-shaped floor plan, the carport and the first use of reinforced concrete.

Influenced by the Chicago-based Prairie School, Griffin went on to develop a unique modern style. For much of his career Griffin worked in partnership with his wife Marion Mahony Griffin. In the 28 years of their architectural partnership, the Griffins designed over 350 building, landscape and urban-design projects as well as designing construction materials, interiors, furniture and other household items.

Early life

Griffin was born in 1876 in Maywood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the eldest of the four children of George Walter Griffin, an insurance agent, and Estelle Griffin. His family moved to Oak Park and later to Elmhurst during his childhood. As a boy he had an interest in landscape design and gardening, his parents allowed him to landscape the yard at their new home in Elmhurst. Griffin completed high school at Oak Park High School. He considered studying landscape design but was advised by landscape gardener O. C. Simonds to pursue a more lucrative profession.

He chose to study architecture and in 1899 Griffin received a bachelor's degree from the architecture program at the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois program was run by Nathan Clifford Ricker, a German-educated architect, whose teaching emphasized the technical aspects of architecture. During his studies he also took courses in horticulture and forestry.He received his degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1899.

Chicago career

Following the completion of his studies Griffin relocated to Chicago and was employed as a draftsman for two years in the offices of progressive architects Dwight H. Perkins, Robert C. Spencer, Jr., and H. Webster Tomlinson in Steinway Hall. Griffin's employers worked in the distinctive Prairie School style; the school's style is marked by horizontal lines, flat roofs with broad overhanging eaves, solid construction, craftsmanship, and discipline in the use of ornament. Louis Sullivan was highly influential amongst Prairie School and Griffin was a great admirer of his work, and also of his philosophy of architecture which stressed that design should be free of historical precedent.

In July 1901 Griffin passed the new Illinois architect licensing examination, which would enable him to enter private practice as an architect. He began to work in Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Oak Park studio. Although he was never made a partner, Griffin oversaw the construction on many of Lloyd Wright's renowned homes including the Willits House in 1902 and the Larkin Administration Building built in 1904. From 1905 he also began to supply landscape plans for Wright’s buildings. Wright allowed Griffin and his other staff to undertake small commissions of their own. The William Emery house, built in Elmhurst in 1903 was such a commission. While working for Wright, Griffin fell in love with Wright's sister, Maginel Wright. He proposed marriage to her, but his affections were not returned.

Early in 1906 Griffin resigned his position at Wright's studio and established his own practice at Steinway Hall. Griffin and Wright had fallen out over events following Wright's 1905 trip to Japan. While Wright was away for five months, Griffin ran the practice. When Wright returned, he told Griffin that he had overstepped his responsibilities as Griffin had completed several commissions and even substituted his own designs. Wright had borrowed money from Griffin to travel and tried to pay his financial debt to Griffin in Japanese prints. It became clear to Griffin that Wright would not make Griffin a partner in his practice.

Griffin's first independent commission was a landscape design for the State Normal School at Charleston, Illinois, now known as Eastern Illinois University. In the autumn of that year, 1906, he received his first residential commission from Harry Peters. The Peters' House was the first house designed with an L-shaped or open floor plan. The L-shape was an economical design and easily constructed. From 1907, 13 houses in this style were built in the Chicago neighborhood now known as Beverly-Morgan Park. Seven of these houses are on W. 104th Place in Beverly, the street is now known as Walter Burley Griffin Place, and forms a municipal historical district within the national Ridge Historic District, as this block conains the largest collection of small scale Griffin designs in existence.

In 1911 Griffin married Marion Lucy Mahony. She had been employed in Wright's office and subsequently by architect Herman von Holst, who had taken on Wright's commissions when Wright abruptly left for Europe in 1909. Mahony recommended to Von Holst that he hire Griffin to develop a landscape plan for the area surrounding the three houses initially commissioned from Wright in Decatur, Illinois. Mahony and Griffin worked closely on the Decatur project immediately preceding their marriage. After their marriage, Mahony went to work in Griffin's practice. [ [ Marion Mahony ] at] A Walter Burley Griffin/Marion Mahony designed development with several homes, Rock Crest Rock Glen in Mason City, Iowa, is seen as their most dramatic American design development of the decade and remains the largest collection of Prairie Style homes surrounding a natural setting. [ [ Walter Burley Griffin - Mason City ] at]

From 1899 to 1914, Griffin created more than 130 designs in his Chicago office for buildings, urban plans and landscapes; half of these were built in mid-western states of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The relationship between Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright cooled in the years following Griffin's departure from Wright's firm in 1906. With Walter and Marion's wedding Wright started to feel they were "against him". After Griffin's win in the Canberra design and resultant front page coverage in the 'New York Times', Wright and Griffin never spoke again. In later years whenever Griffin was brought up in conversation Wright would downplay his achievements and refer to him as a draughtsman. [ [ Paul kruty ] at]

Mason City, Iowa homes


In April 1911, the Australian Government held an international competition to produce a design for its new capital city. Griffin produced a design with impressive renderings of the plan produced by his wife. They had only heard about the plan in July, while on honeymoon, and worked feverishly to prepare the plans. On May 23, 1912 Griffin's design was selected as the winner from among 137 entries. The win created significant press coverage at the time and brought him professional and public recognition. Of his plan, he famously remarked:

"I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city - a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future."
In 1913, he was invited to Australia to inspect the site. He initally left Marion in charge of the practice and travelled to Australia in July. (His Chicago practice was soon taken over by Barry Byrne.) His letters home reveal his appreciation for the Australian landscape. While in Australia, Griffin was offered the position of head of the department of architecture at the University of Illinois. At the same time he was negotiating a three-year contract with the Australian Government to remain in Australia and oversee the implementation of his plan, which to his dismay he felt had already been compromised. He was appointed the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. In this role, Griffin oversaw the design of North and South Canberra, though he struggled with political and bureaucratic obstacles. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Griffin was under pressure to reduce the scope and scale of his plans due to the Government diverting funds towards the war effort. Several parts of his basic design underwent change. For instance, plans to create a Westbourne, Southbourne and Eastbourne Avenue to complement Canberra's Northbourne Avenue came to nothing, as did a proposed railway that would have gone from South Canberra to North Canberra, and then in a northwesterly direction to Yass. A market area that would have been at Russell Hill in North Canberra was moved southwards to what is now Fyshwick, next to South Canberra.

The pace of building was slower than expected, partly because of a lack of funds and partly because of a dispute between Griffin and Federal government bureaucrats. During this time many of Griffin's design ideas were attacked by both the architectural profession and the press. In 1917, a Royal Commission determined that they had undermined Griffin's authority by supplying him with false data which he had used to carry out his work. Ultimately, Griffin resigned from the Canberra design project in December 1920 when he discovered that several of these bureaucrats had been appointed to an agency that would oversee Canberra's construction. The Commonwealth Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Hughes had removed Griffin as director of construction at Canberra after disagreements over his supervisory role, and in 1921 created the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, with John Sulman as chair. Griffin was offered membership, but declined and withdrew from further activity in Canberra. [ [ An Ideal City - Timeline ] at]

Griffin designed several buildings for Canberra, none of which were ever built. The grave of General Bridges on Mount Pleasant was the only permanent structure designed by Griffin to be built in Canberra.

Later career

The Griffins' office in Chicago had closed in 1917; however, they had successful practices in Melbourne and Sydney, which were a strong motivation for them continuing to live in Australia. The Griffins had received commissions for work outside Canberra since Walter first arrived in the country in 1913, designing town plans, subdivisions, and one of his highly regarded buildings, Newman College, the Catholic residential college of the University of Melbourne while employed in Canberra. While supervising activities in Canberra, Griffin spent much time in Melbourne and, in 1918, became a founder, with Royden Powell, of the Henry George Club, an organisation devoted to providing a home for the Single Tax movement. [ [ Henry George Club - Home Page ] at] The Griffins' first major commission after leaving Canberra was the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne; it opened on December 7, 1924. In 1964 architectural writer Robin Boyd described the Capitol as "the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built".

In 1916 and 1917 Griffin developed a patented modular concrete construction system known as “Knitlock” for use in the construction of Canberra. No Knitlock buildings were ever built in Canberra, although several were built in Australia. The first were built on Griffin's property in Frankston in 1922, where he constructed two holiday houses called "Gumnuts". The best examples of Knitlock include the S.R. Salter House in Toorak and the Paling House. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a similar system and used Griffin's design to support the arguments for his design.

In 1919 the Griffins founded the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA), and in 1921 purchased 259 ha of land in North Sydney. The GSDA's goal was the development of an idyllic community with a consistent architectural feel and bushland setting. Walter Burley Griffin as managing director of the GSDA designed all the buildings built in the area until 1935. Castlecrag was the first suburb to be developed by the GSDA. The Redding House and several others in Castelcrag were also built in Knitlock. Almost all the houses Griffin designed in Castlecrag were small and had flat roofs, and he included an internal courtyard in many of them. Griffin used what was at that time the novel concept of including native bushland in these designs.

Other work the Griffins did during this time included the Melbourne subdivisions of Glenard and Mont Eagle at Eaglemont. Prior to 1920 the Griffins also designed the New South Wales towns of Leeton and Griffith. In the 1920s they prepared plans for the Milleara Estate (also known as City View) at Avondale Heights, and the Ranelagh Estate at Mount Eliza, in conjunction with surveyors Tuxen and Miller. During the financial hardship of the Depression in the 1930s Griffin was commissioned to design incinerators; Willoughby Incinerator in the Sydney suburb of Willoughby is a good example of this work. Another example was built in the suburb of Pyrmont, not far from the centre of Sydney.


During their time at the GSDA, the Griffins became more involved in anthroposophy, and in 1935 through contacts in the movement Griffin won a commission to design the library at the University of Lucknow in Lucknow, India.

Although he had planned to only stay to complete the drawings for the library, he soon received more than 40 commissions, including University of Lucknow Student Union building; a museum and library for the Raja of Mahmudabad; a zenana (women’s quarters) for the Raja of Jahangirabad; Pioneer Press building, a bank, municipal offices, many private houses, and a memorial to King George V. He also won complete design responsibility for the 1936–1937 United Provinces Exhibition of Industry and Agriculture. His 53 projects for the 160 acre site featured a stadium, arena, mosque, imambara, art gallery, restaurant, bazaar, pavilions, rotundas, arcades, and towers, [ [ National Library of Australia Digital Collections Pictures: nla.pic-vn3674084] ] [ [ Walter Burley Griffin Society, Inc., "Walter Burley Griffin"] ] however, only part of his elaborate plans were fully executed. [ [ Australian Dictionary of Biography, "Griffin, Walter Burley (1876-1937)"] ] Griffin was inspired by the architecture and culture of India, modifying forms as "he sought to create a modern Indian architecture... Griffin was able to expand his aesthetic vocabulary to create an exuberant, expressive architecture reflecting both the 'stamp of the place' and the 'spirit of the times'". [Kruty, Paul & Maldre, Mati, "Walter Burley Griffin in America", Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996, pp. 76-81] While in India, Griffin also published numerous articles for the "Pioneer", writing about architecture, in particular about ventilation design improvements. His wife Marion traveled to Lucknow in April 1936 to assist and contributed to several projects.

Griffin died in early 1937 from peritonitis five days after gall bladder surgery at King George’s Hospital in Lucknow, and was buried in Christian Cemetery in Lucknow. Marion oversaw the completion of the Pioneer Building that he had been working on at the time of his death. She closed the Indian office, left the Australian practice in the hands of Griffin's partner, Eric Nicholls, and returned to Chicago. [ [ Walter Burley Griffin Society, Inc., "Walter Burley Griffin"] ]


Griffin was largely under-appreciated during his time in Australia, but since his death there has been a growing recognition of his work. In 1964 when Canberra finally got its central lake (as Griffin had intended), Prime Minister Robert Menzies declined to have the lake named after himself and it was instead named Lake Burley Griffin and became the first monument in Canberra dedicated to the city's designer ('Burley' was included in the name owing to the misconception that it was part of Griffin's surname). Architectural drawings and other archival materials by and about the Griffins are held by numerous institutions in the United States, including the Drawings and Archives Department of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University; the Block Gallery at Northwestern University; The Art Institute of Chicago; and the New York Historical Society, as well as in several repositories in Australia, including the National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia, and the Newman College Archives of the University of Melbourne.

In his own words

"...."I am what may be termed a naturalist in architecture. I do not believe in any school of architecture. I believe in architecture that is the logical outgrowth of the environment in which the building in mind is to be located"...."From The New York Times, Sunday, June 2, 1912 [ [ NEW YORK TIMES ON GRIFFIN & HIS PLAN ] at]

Major works

United States

*Alfred W. Hebert House Remodeling, 1902, Evanston, Illinois
*W.H. Emery House, 1903, Elmhurst, Illinois
*Adolph Mueller House, 1906
*Mary H. Bovee Apartment, 1907
*John Gauler House, 1908, Chicago, Illinois
*William S. Orth House, 1908, Winnetka, Illinois
*Edmund C. Garrity House, 1909
*Ralph Griffin House, 1909, Edwardsville, Illinois
*William B. Sloan House, 1910
*Joshua Melson House, 1912, Mason City, Iowa
*James Blyth House, Mason City, Iowa
*Stinson Memorial Library, Anna, Illinois


* Canberra plan, 1914 -1920
* Leeton town plan, 1914
* Griffith town plan, 1914
* Eaglemont town plan, 1915
* Newman College, University of Melbourne, 1916 - 1918
* Café Australia, Melbourne, 1916
* Capitol Theatre, Melbourne 1924
* Palais de danse, St Kilda 1925 (destroyed by fire)
* Leonard House, Elizabeth Street Melbourne 1925 (demolished)
* Castlecrag, suburb plan, 1925
* Willoughby Incinerator, 1932


* Birrell, James. 1964. "Walter Burley Griffin". University of Queensland Press
* Gebhard, David & Gerald Mansheim, "Buildings of Iowa", Oxford University Press, New York, 1993
* Kruty, Paul. 2000. Griffin, Walter Burley. "American National Biography Online". Oxford University Press
* "Mason City Iowa, An Architectural Heritage", Department of Community Development, City of Mason, Iowa, 1977
* Maldre, Mati and Paul Kruty, "Walter Burley Griffin in America", University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1996
* Wilson, Richard Guy and Sidney K. Robinson, "The Prairie School in Iowa", Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1977
* Walker, M., Kabos, A. and Weirick, J. (1994) Building for nature : Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag, Castlecrag, N.S.W. : Walter Burley Griffin Society (ISBN 646181335)
* Gebhard, David. “The Suburban House and the Automobile.” The Car and the City: The Automobile, the Built Environment and Daily Urban Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991: 106­ 123.

Further reading

* Griffin, Dustin (editor), "The Writings of Walter Burley Griffin", Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 2008; ISBN 9780521897136
* Brooks, H. Allen, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School", Braziller (in association with the Cooper-Hewitt Museum), New York 1984; ISBN 0807610844
* Brooks, H. Allen, "The Prairie School", W.W. Norton, New York 2006; ISBN 039373191X
* Brooks, H. Allen (editor), "Prairie School Architecture: Studies from "The Western Architect", University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo 1975; ISBN 0802021387
* Brooks, H. Allen, "The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries", University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1972; ISBN 0802052517

External links

* [ Walter Burley Griffin Society (Australia)]
* [ The Griffin Legacy] , National Capital Authority
* [ Imagining Canberra in Chicago] from the ABC
* [ Reading the past in the Walter Burley Griffin Incinerator and Fishwick House at Willoughby, NSW] (educational resources)
* [ Castlecrag Progress Association]
* [ Great Buildings Online: works of Walter Burley Griffin] (includes links to W.H.Emery House, 1903; Ralph Griffin House, 1909; Adolph Mueller House, 1906; Joshua Melson House, 1912; and Stinson Memorial Library, 1913)
* [ Walter Burley Giffiin] , The Prairie School Of Architecture
* [ Stinson Memorial Public Library] (includes history of Stinson Library construction)
* [ The Walter Burley Griffin Society of America]

National Library of Australia:
* [ Eric Milton Nicholls collection]
* [ Papers of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony collected by Eric Nicholls, 1900-1947]
* [ The Donald Leslie Johnson collection of Walter and Marion Griffin documents, 1901-1988]
* [ The work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Melbourne, 1975] a collection of photographs by Wolfgang Sievers of works by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin taken in 1975

Online exhibitions

* [ Walter Burley Griffin: in his own right] , Public Broadcasting Service
* [ An Ideal City? The 1912 Competition to Design Canberra] an online exhibition developed by the National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia and the National Capital Authority


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