01.09.2012 Environment

Delineating Beauty

Natural beauty was a prime inspiration for the creation of Canberra, says Adrian Glamorgan

Who could have guessed that a young girl born in Chicago on St Valentine's Day, 1871, would shape our Australian national capital, as well as the Sydney harbourside suburb of Castlecrag, and Newman College and Capitol Theatre in Melbourne?

After the Great Chicago Fire, Marion Lucy Mahony's family moved north to a village on Lake Michigan. Young Marion was fascinated by the beauty of the environment, and the way people interacted with the living world. But she could also see the vanishing prairies, as suburban sprawl, industrialism and the railroad were destroying the natural world around her. She had found her calling. Thanks to the strong encouragement of her cousin Dwight, Marion Mahony blazed a trail when she studied at MIT and graduated in 1894 as one of the world's first women architects.

Marion went to work in her cousin's office and met two other remarkable men. Marion was spotted by fellow architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. When Wright set up his own firm, developing what has become known worldwide as the Prairie School, Marion was Wright's first employee. Marion worked on buildings and decorative panels, stained glass windows, murals, mosaics and furnishings for Wright. She showed especial flair as an architectural delineator by creating elegant renderings, influenced by Japanese woodblock art. Her watercolours were - and are - a thing of beauty. Frank Lloyd Wright was given credit for all of the designs that came out of his office, but we know he was not good at sharing credit and Marion, in the etiquette of the times, did not ask for it. When we think of many of Frank Lloyd Wright's renderings today, we are often thinking of Marion Mahony's pencil and brush strokes.

In walked a local lad, five years younger than Marion. Walter had grown up in Chicago. As a boy he had a passion for gardening and landscaping. Walter leaned towards becoming a landscape gardener, but a mentor in that profession, weary of low pay, pointed him to architecture. So Walter studied his Bachelor of Architecture at the local university, making sure he also studied horticulture and forestry too.

Coming together in the same office were two gentle souls, Walter and Marion, who both shared a passion for new ways for cities and households to commune with nature, designing buildings that fitted in well with the landscape. She was swept up by his achievements but it was not love at first sight. But at some point, love struck Marion like a madness. Hoping to encourage dependence through proximity, Marion suggested that she and Walter buy a canoe together to explore nearby streams. The wooing worked. On the strength of their adventures, they married, yes, but unexpectedly Walter found "worlds to conquer" and turned their whole life into an adventure.

Marion's lifelong devotion and admiration shows that her love was deep, and perhaps her surrender great. But later she equally referred to herself as Xanthippi, Socrates' uppity wife. Borrowing from Rudolf Steiner, she was convinced that in "real love", antipathy must play a key role, and that "one should not choose a mate as a friend, but as an opponent."

It was Marion who challenged amiable Walter, soon after marrying, to finally get down to an international competition that involved the drafting of a new capital city for the Commonwealth of Australia. In fact, Marion refused to cooperate on any other project until he got going. So Walter started, and Marion sat down to work delineating a new Australian city.

Walter and Marion followed the lines of Surveyor Charles Scrivener, working with the scenic standpoints, instead of carving into them. This was no Southern land Versailles. Marion and Walter curved along with the bush. They linked democracy with lines of nature, from the tallest peak of the Australian Capital Territory, to Mount Ainslie, and created three connected lakes at different levels to make a gentle water axis. The people would be sovereign. They had never been here, but Marion's drawings were rich with sepia and gold, like the golden light at dusk on an outback wheat field.

First, there was light ink on linen tracing cloth. Then lithographing on window shade cloth. Then rendering with watercolour and photograph dyes. Lithographing again on satin dipped in sealant, and stretched. More rendering. Then soft cloth dusting, with the sealant removed enough to show satin.

Together, Marion and Walter were geomancers, influenced by progressive spiritual movements like Natural Religion, Emersonian sentiment, and theosophy. But they also had to contend with the real world. The beautiful drawings almost missed the closing date, but thanks to practical Marion, managed to be put aboard the very last ship available for Australia in time. And the Griffin design won.

When the Griffins came to Australia, they both became leading advocates for Australian native trees and flora. Not just in Canberra, but in Sydney and Melbourne too, and in regional Australia as well. In their spare time they designed Leeton and Griffith in the Riverina.

But frustrated by the bureaucrats who thwarted their vision for the national capital, sidelined because of Walter's open pacifism, they settled into commercial practice. Marion travelled to Tasmania, drawing what she saw. Walter photographed our unique trees. They fused community spirit with the ruggedness of Sydney's Middle Harbour, creating a Castlecrag vision, albeit puzzling locals by setting aside wild "reserves" and four miles of mostly open foreshore, and maintaining their unheeded enthusiasm for underground electric power. Marion dipped into anthroposophy and Aboriginal spiritual knowledge. They were passionate about the setting. Considering a new building, Marion would delineate, and then together she and Walter would sit and look, silently discerning how the house suited the site. Castlecrag still attracts international interest.

Australia shunned their creative talent. The Griffins became more interested in Rudolf Steiner's ideas and, through contacts in anthroposophy, Griffin gained a commission to design the library for the University of Lucknow, India, in 1935. He quickly attracted other commissions, settling into life in the subcontinent. But unexpectedly after gall bladder surgery in 1937, Walter died of peritonitis, a few days before Marion's 66th birthday. She lived on, back in Chicago, until 1961.

Marion Mahony Griffin said there were three functions for town planning. Firstly, and remarkably for her time: "to protect and preserve natural features, so that the Earth may not die." She also believed that town planning should facilitate community. And thirdly, to bring together humans and nature.

Together, the Griffins imagined a different Australia to the slums of the inner cities, and the drab perpendicular lines of our towns and the bureaucratic compromises and subterfuges. By the waters of Castlecrag, on the lake at the foot of our Parliament House, they promised we could be a generous people, connected to spirit, and the land we love, and the world beyond.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism