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Why Walter Burley Griffin’s other half was his equal

More than one century since Walter Burley Griffin won the prize of directing the design of Canberra, experts agree it is time to learn more about his colleague and wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, whose hand painted the first plans of our capital city.  

Shannon Battisson and Marion. Image: Kerrie Brewer.

Known for her resolute determination and talent for architectural drawing, Marion was one of the first registered female architects in the world when she married Walter in 1911. 

And it was only at Marion’s insistence that her husband entered the Australian Commonwealth Government competition to plan the national capital, according to Australian Institute of Architects ACT president Shannon Battisson.

“Walter thought it would be too hard to do from so far away,” Ms Battisson said.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s those incredible artworks that really helped win the competition for them.”

In 1914, Marion and Walter moved to Australia where they lived for over 20 years; however, Marion drew technical plans of Canberra long before she set foot on Australian soil.

“What I think is so incredible is her renderings are so accurate but she’d never seen the country,” Ms Battisson said.

“She had surveys and that’s all she had to go off – and yet they are magically like our city.”

Brought up to succeed in a man’s world

Marion Mahony Griffin. Image supplied by the Australian National Library.

In 1894, Marion Mahony was the second woman to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with an architecture degree, and she went on to become Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employee.

Chicago burned the year that Mahony was born, 1871, and her family moved north to a rural area now known as Winnetka, where she grew up with a love of the outdoors.

Following her father’s premature death, her mother became involved in female activism, focused on voting rights and educational and labour reform.

According to American writer Claire Zulkey, Marion’s university tuition was paid for by wealthy and influential society women.

As Marion had strong female role models, Ms Battisson said the talented American architect became one for many young women herself.

“It’s a really monumental achievement that she got her licence, and I think it goes on to explain a little bit about why we’re often quite surprised as to why she’s the lesser known – it was a husband-and-wife team that won the competition.”

Ms Battisson said it was also widely agreed that Marion chose to put herself in the background, allowing her husband to take centre stage – a decision indicative of the era during which she was alive.

“She was very much a woman in a man’s world.”

The last visit to Mount Ainslie lookout

When Marion returned to Canberra after Walter’s death in 1937, to take one last look at the place they created together, she examined the city’s symmetry from Mount Ainslie.

It’s unlikely she ever imagined that over 80 years later a bronze bust in her image would be transported up the mountain to stand before the vista she was instrumental in creating.

But that’s exactly what happened this week, ahead of what would have been her 150th birthday on Sunday, 14 January.

Ms Battisson stood alongside National Capital Authority chief executive Sally Barnes and Walter Burley Griffin Society ACT Chapter chair Peter Graves in the hot sun and reflected on Marion’s legacy.

Although Canberrans live alongside a lake named after her husband, Marion’s influence was everywhere she looked, Ms Battisson said.

“A lot of the character and nature of Canberra that we love, the bush, the fact that the mountains are used as part of the access, is really strongly linked, I would think, to her upbringing.

“Being part of the nature around her was a huge part of who she was.”

On her final visit to the Australian capital in 1937, Marion said she saw no reason why Canberra should not become one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Follow this link to read more about the Magic of Marion, a new program of celebrations planned in her honour this year.

NCA chief executive Sally Barnes, Australian Institute of Architects ACT president Shannon Battisson and Walter Burley Griffin Society ACT Chapter chair Peter Graves. Image: Kerrie Brewer.
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