Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin

Exhibition
21 July 1998 - 2 May 1999 Powerhouse Museum

Four years in the making, this exhibition borrowed extensively from public and private collections in the United States and Australia and included material relating to the lives and careers of the Griffins that has never before been displayed. Both the exhibition and the associated book of the same title also draw on the latest Griffin research and interpretation to present many new and exciting perspectives on the work of these two remarkable architects.

In the four decades of their architectural practice in three continents Marion Mahony (1871-1961) and Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937), individually and in partnership after their marriage in 1911, embarked on over 350 architectural, landscape or urban design projects. The exhibition covered the full range of the Griffins’ work, from their years with Frank Lloyd Wright at the turn of the century, to successful independent practice in Chicago, to their frustrating struggle over the implementation of their winning plans for Canberra during World War I. It surveyed their many projects – large and small, completed and unrealised – in Melbourne and Sydney, their grand vision for a community living in harmony with its environment at Castlecrag and, finally, the significance of their revitalised practice in India, cut short by Walter’s untimely death in 1937.

Content for the exhibition included not only drawings, plans, photographs, models and architectural elements relating to the Griffins’ projects, but also furniture, lighting and other interior detailing they designed as part of the integrated architectural ensemble. Access to archives that can be provenanced to the Griffin practice in Australia has provided a rich and unique source of objects and documents relating directly to the Griffins’ lives and work. The exhibition showed the 1920s Castlecrag promotion film Beautiful Middle Harbour – with footage of Marion and Walter in their beloved bushland – and includes audio-visual programs on Castlecrag and the Pyrmont incinerator.

In her memoirs, ‘The magic of America’, Marion stated that ‘no other language speaks so clearly and truly as architecture’. Importantly, the exhibition explored for the first time the significance of Marion’s role in the Frank Lloyd Wright office and the extent of her collaboration with Walter. The first female licensed as an architect in the world, and one of the few to practise in a male-dominated profession, Marion’s extraordinary artistic gifts are shown through the inclusion of many of her superb architectural renderings and the tree studies that survive as an enduring record of her and Walter’s passion for the Australian landscape and its preservation.

But the Griffins’ contribution went beyond architecture. Theirs was not only one of introducing new architectural and planning concepts. By challenging accepted opinion, by their uncompromising vision of a democratic society living compatibly with nature, they also articulated and anticipated many social and environmental issues of our own time. In locating the Griffins’ architecture within the immediate context of their aesthetic and ideological beliefs, the exhibition presented fresh insights into their contribution and enhances the experience of visitors without an architectural background.

Sadly, the exhibition’s genesis began with the demolition of the Griffin-designed Pyrmont incinerator in 1992 – and the subsequent provision of funding by the Council of the City of Sydney towards an exhibition and other projects. It is to be hoped that the important place of the Griffins in Australia’s architectural and social history, revealed through the exhibition and its accompanying Powerhouse publication, will encourage the preservation of the Griffin legacy in the future.

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