Walter Burley Griffin and the design of Canberra – Fact sheet 95

Walter Burley Griffin
Walter Burley Griffin (A1200, L36691)

Walter Burley Griffin was the original designer of Canberra. He won the Federal Capital Design Competition, launched by King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, in May 1911.

Burley Griffin had developed in a professional environment of radical European and North American architects. He was greatly influenced by the City Beautiful and Garden City movements which dominated town planning in the late 19th and early 20th century. Scholars have also detected a strong classical influence permeating Burley Griffin’s design of Canberra.

Burley Griffin’s wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, also an architect, collaborated with him on the design competition entry, and is known to have prepared the design drawings that accompanied the Burley Griffin entry.

The design for Canberra

Burley Griffin (entrant 29) was one of 137 entrants in the Federal Capital Design Competition. His original design drawings (on cotton cloth) as well as those of three other entrants noted by the judges – D Alf Agache (rated third); Griffiths Coulter and Caswell, an Australian firm (rated first in a minority report of the chairman); and Eliel Saarinen (rated second) – are held by the Archives in record series A710. Photographic copies of some of the other unsuccessful competition entries received are also held in series A763.

Images of Burley Griffin's design and those of shortlisted competition entrants can be seen at An Ideal City? – The 1912 Competition to Design Canberra.

Director of Design and Construction

King O’Malley, as Minister, appointed a Departmental Board to oversee construction of the National Capital, based on the winning design. Disapproving of adaptations made to his design, Burley Griffin lobbied for his engagement to personally oversee construction. He was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in October 1913 and the Departmental Board disbanded.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, which first met in 1915, had regular references to examine aspects of the early construction of Canberra, and Burley Griffin frequently appeared as a witness. Committee reports and transcripts of evidence of hearings for the 1915–20 period are in the bound volumes of Parliamentary Papers. A typed transcript of evidence given by Burley Griffin to the Committee hearings on Grading and Survey of Canberra Streets (which is annotated, probably in his hand) is held by the Archives in series AA1964/71.

Opposition to Burley Griffin

Burley Griffin’s position as Director of Design and Construction was challenged by his critics. Accusations of poor administration and delays in construction led to the Royal Commission on the Federal Capital Territory. The Royal Commission, which reported in February 1917, confirmed Burley Griffin’s appointment.

With the decline in wartime spending, work on the capital slowed. Burley Griffin’s contract was due to expire in December 1919, however it was extended monthly until December 1920. Changes in government administration led to the establishment of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, from which Burley Griffin was excluded because he rejected the conditions of appointment.

Records held in Canberra

Federal Capital Design Competition


Appointment as Director of Design and Construction


Design maps and plans

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
SeriesWalter Burley Griffin's plan of an arboretum1915AA1966/33
SeriesPlan of city and environs1918A9332
SeriesContour map of Canberra, dated and signed by Burley Griffin1919AA1964/66

Administrative records from Burley Griffin's period

Appearances before Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works

Royal Commission on Federal Capital Administration

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemRoyal Commission on Federal Capital Territory1902–17A1, 1917/13695
ItemFederal Capital Administration – report of Royal Commission1917–20A192, FCL1922/736

Creation of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016