Creating a new nation's capital: The Griffins' vision for Canberra

The following paper was presented by Senator Kate Lundy at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 20 September 2009.


Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the National Archives of Australia. My name is Anne Lyons and I’m the Assistant Director-General here at the National Archives. Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today. It’s my pleasure to welcome Kate Lundy, Senator for the Australian Capital Territory and member of the National Archives Advisory Council to deliver today’s Speakers Corner: ‘Creating a new Nation’s Capital’.

Senator Lundy has represented the Australian Capital Territory in the Australian Federal Parliament as a member of the Australian Labor Party since 1996. She’s held many portfolios in opposition, including information technology, manufacturing, consumer affairs, local government, sport and health promotion. Elected for the fifth time as part of the Rudd Labor Government, Senator Lundy is currently the chair of the Joint Standing Committee for the National Capital and External Territories, and is a longstanding active member of the Senate Environment, Communications and Arts Committee.

Senator Lundy’s passion for Canberra is reflected in her interest in the National Capital Plan’s (NCP) origins, and its ongoing relevance to a vibrant 21st century national capital for all Australians to share and enjoy.

Being an enthusiastic rower, Senator Lundy has the opportunity to regularly enjoy Lake Burley Griffin and the surrounding inspiring landscape design, and the remarkable geometry that makes – by virtue of the Griffin plan – Canberra itself a work of art. Today we’re delighted that Senator Lundy is presenting a personal perspective on Canberra’s design. She’ll focus on the creation of the nation’s capital, with reference to Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin: their background and influences, their roots in Chicago, and the implications of these international links.

To complement this lecture we’re delighted to have on display a selection of the Griffins’ original renderings. The items are a treasured part of the National Archives collection, and we’re especially thrilled to be able to present a rare viewing of the largest of these plans. The triptych of the view from Mount Ainslie. I encourage you to view them after the presentation if you haven’t already done so, and after the presentation we’ll direct you down to where those drawings are.

So without any further words from me, I’d like to introduce Senator Kate Lundy.

Senator Kate Lundy

I want to begin my presentation today in New York, 2009. The Guggenheim Museum has, for many months, been host to a remarkable retrospective exhibition in honour of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

I had the privilege to view this exhibition whilst on a family holiday early in the northern hemisphere summer and it inspired me to explore further the relationship between the famous, if not notorious, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporary, the renowned – certainly in this city the renowned – Walter Burley Griffin.

What I saw at this exhibition were vast renderings of future cities envisaged but never built – and they all impacted with a real feeling of familiarity, of recognition of century-old, lofty ideals expressed through these imposing works of art and their accompanying interpretations. Why? Because there, in the middle of the museum mile in New York City, I was seeing and hearing a version, an interpretation of the ideas that sit at the heart of Canberra. The forces which inspired the Griffins to produce their visionary design of Canberra were also an inspiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, with his ‘living city’, or so-called ‘Broadacre City’, Wright’s city in the landscape.

This wonderful New York moment got me thinking, speculating on the nature of the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin and his life partner, Marion Mahony [Griffin] – and how it was that we were living the vision, seemingly expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright later in his career, right here in our national capital in Australia. But in this room, we all know that the Griffin design came well before the Wright designs I was looking at in the Guggenheim. Indeed, the Griffins produced their masterwork heaps before the world knew anything much at all about Wright.

So my journey was one of delving into the source of this inspiration that, by circumstance and serendipity, meant that I found myself gazing at stylish renderings of Wright’s vision for an organic Baghdad at one with the landscape – his Broadacre City – but I felt I was seeing a blood relation of Canberra!

Clearly I needed to educate myself into the not widely known professional relationship between Griffin, Mahony, Wright and the rest of the illustrious Chicago (or Prairie) School of architects at the turn of the last century, about the time of Australian Federation.

I confess to being not particularly well read in the subject, unlike many of you in this room – more like enthused and excited about what I might find on a personal journey of discovery about my favourite city!

Before I start I also want to reflect on my luck being a Senator for the ACT. Why? I get to live in this city which, by virtue of its design, is a unique work of art. It is also my luck because it is the national capital and the custodian of the nation’s treasures and its larger cultural history.

And what better place to be, to reflect on this good fortune, than the National Archives of Australia, in the company of genuine treasure – the original MMG [Marion Mahony Griffin] renderings that so inspired a young nation to build a capital able to express the aspirations, ideals and dreams of a new nation.

But most importantly, I want to acknowledge the wonderful people I meet every day, who inspire me through their dedication and expertise in the custodianship of a national cultural heritage. One of these people is national capital historian and very good bloke, David Headon – with whom I have shared many an animated conversation regarding this extraordinary place. I am grateful for his encouragement, not to mention his guiding hand in my presentation today.

In June 1900, close to 110 years ago, a young man sat in the audience in Chicago’s celebrated Auditorium Building as Louis Sullivan, arguably the founder of a distinctively American architectural tradition, as Sullivan delivered his best-known speech: ‘The Young Man in Architecture’, to an audience of young American architects. The man in question, WBG [Walter Burley Griffin], would later in life acknowledge this moment as a turning point for him. MMG and FLW [Frank Lloyd Wright] may also have been present. We don’t know. We do know that all three would be influenced deeply by the subject matter of the lecture.

From the lectern in his own auditorium building, Sullivan spoke of the primacy of the relationship between form and function, the superior inspiration offered by nature in design, and the stultifying effects of an architectural profession in palpable decline! Sullivan’s speech was a call to arms for original thought, and design, and he laid at the feet of his audience a challenge: young architects of America, it was time to get properly, meaningfully educated. Sullivan’s concluding paragraphs are poetic so forgive me for the length of this quote:

Do you intend, or do you not intend, do you wish or do you not wish, to become architects in whose care an unfolding democracy may entrust the interpretation of its material wants, its psychic aspirations?
In due time doubtless you will answer in your own way. But I warn you the time you have left for an answer in the right way is acutely brief. For young as you are, you are not as young as you were yesterday – And tomorrow? Tomorrow! [1]

You can sense the fervour and passion in these words. Sullivan exhorted a new generation of his architectural colleagues, men and women, to begin afresh. Begin anew, independent of the baleful influence of Old World techniques and practices.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s development of so-called ‘organic architecture’ embodied the care he took when siting a building, the sensitivity to and relationship with surrounding landscape and the incorporation of the natural environment — be it materially or spatially – into his designs. This idea of harmony between the natural setting and the built form became a touchstone of his career.

Sullivan, we know, impacted on Wright’s thinking. But we know also that he had a marked impact, individually and in tandem, on the Griffins. Sullivan was their spiritual mentor. His words, rather than his work, entranced a younger generation of architects.

Wright had previously worked with Sullivan, but broke away in 1893 to set up office in one of Sullivan’s Chicago buildings, the Schiller Building. His association with Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony began soon after.

Griffin emerged as a central figure in Wright’s studio – which, according to Roy Lippincott, Walter’s brother-in-law and a Prairie School architect in his own right, often meant Griffin’s original ideas were co-opted by Wright. In the end, after several years, the two parted company, but not as friends.

The dispute, it seems, revolved around a loan from Griffin to Wright that was not paid back in a satisfactory manner (along with salary issues). Griffin and Wright spent the rest of their years criticising each other at every opportunity. Wright wrote awful things about Griffin, accusing him of stealing ideas, but Wright did that with a lot of people.

Interestingly, it was Marion Mahony, Griffin’s wife and professional partner from 1911, the year of the Australian capital competition, who hit back in her unpublished magnum opus, The Magic of America: ‘Throughout Wright’s practice it was he who followed others not they him’. As she makes clear elsewhere, she was talking about her husband as primary victim.

Marion Mahony fell in love with Walter. She describes being ‘swept off her feet’ and ‘while no means a case of love at first sight... it was madness when it struck’. Their partnership has been described as a holistic one – personal, professional, passionate and creative.

We should step back for a moment. When Marion first started working with Wright she had an office manager’s role and, while the detail of her early work is unclear, she was designing furniture, leaded glass and ornamental lighting. Soon, she was an important contributor to the artistic output of the team. In 1903, at the Oak Park studio, Marion was given greater freedom to develop her graphic presentation skills. Her Japanese print-inspired drawings were used to woo and captivate clients, but the primary purpose was for exhibition or publication.

Wright understood the suitability (and significance) of Marion’s work to his designs. Her work reinforced the association of the building in nature – organic design.

The Griffins’ biographer, Alasdair McGregor, who I believe is here today, describes it like this:

Marion wove an illusion of space, light and air with a frugal but stylish economy. She kept shading, shadows and coloured washes to a minimum and left flat surfaces – walls, roofs and hard landscaping – plain or only sparingly hatched. But a wondrous counterpoint of continuous line work, and exuberance of trees, flowers and sometimes even birds framed and grounded the illustrated building, creating the impression that the structure was indivisible from the landscape. [2]

Roy Lippincott, who worked closely with both Marion and Walter, made the observation that their ‘two minds seemed to give inspiration to each other in certain ways’. As their experience grew and their outlook matured, they lost none of the freshness that Sullivan had pleaded for a decade before. Their ongoing intellectual commitment to the primacy of function driving form and allowing nature to guide the aesthetic, was to play a central role in their entry to a design competition for a national capital city for a newly formed democratic nation, Australia.

In 1911 the Griffin practice had become a vibrant bustling place. The excitement regarding the competition to design a national capital city in far-off Australia hung like a promise over the office as the deadline for lodgement drew closer.

The relative merits of Wright and the Griffins is bound to be vigorously debated in the coming years and decades, but one point is certain. At a key moment in the careers of all three, in late 1911, the Griffins chose to accept a momentous challenge, as Walter put it so well, to design the capital city of a nation of ‘bold democrats’.

They bravely grasped the opportunity to enter an international competition and, one of 137 entries, their entry number 29 won. Here was the chance to implement not just the ideas for a city in the landscape (City Beautiful/Garden City), but a city designed to represent and enhance democracy: Canberra.

Here are the other three winning entries: number 2: Eliel Saarinen for Finland, number 3: Alfred Agache from France, and the controversial number 4: Griffiths, Coulter and Caswell. There was not supposed to be a fourth prize but one was awarded in the end.

While there is not much evidence that the Griffins had been involved in town planning up to this point, the entry is astonishing in concept and detail – a comprehensive physical design, with a carefully rendered hierarchy of civic, municipal and democratic functions.

The geometry: the axes, the triangle, the lake. The defining proportions: the building height restrictions, the open space system defined by the hills, ridges and buffers, and the magnificent backdrop of the Brindabella ranges. Walter would call it an amphitheatre, and if you head up to Mount Ainslie later on today, you will see proof positive, that’s exactly what it is.

At the heart is a triangle intersected by a land axis (emanating from the pinnacle of Mount Ainslie), which defines the memorial and avenue dedicated to those who have fought for our democratic freedom – before bisecting the base of the triangle, leading across the lake directly to the apex of the triangle, where sits the Federal Parliament of the nation! Beyond that, it culminates at the pinnacle of Mount Bimberi in the distances, the highest peak visible from the plain.

The water axis bisects the land axis emanating from the pinnacle of Black Mountain, defining the straight edge of the southern shore of the lake. To be truly accurate, this intersection sits a stone’s throw out from the shore. I know the spot well as I am inclined to catch my breath there while rowing east, just to absorb the ambience.

In David Headon’s inspiring book, The Symbolic Role of the National Capital, a whole chapter is devoted to Griffin and his idea of the democratic city. David quotes Walter Burley Griffin extensively for good reason and I will do the same because it gives you a sense of the motivation behind the Griffin competition entry:

Australia, of most democratic tendencies and bold radical government, may well be expected to look upon her great future, and with it her Federal capital, with characteristic big vision. Australia has in fact, so well learned some of the lessons taught through modern civilisation, as seen in broad perspective from her isolated vantage point, that we may be justified in believing that she will fully express the possibilities for individual freedom, comfort and convenience for public spirit, wealth and splendour of the great democratic city ideal for which her capital offers the best opportunity so far. [3]

In a handwritten document, Griffin lays out the hierarchy of public buildings and their function. Note the placement of the casino. Now before you jump to conclusions, this is an 1890’s casino, a place for people to meet and have fun. No pokies there!

What the Griffins offered is a range of materials to describe his scheme: plans, maps, panoramas, descriptions and diagrams of the hierarchy of function; a democratic hierarchy, articulated in schematic, visible form. The complexity and depth is startling. Professor James Weirick helps me do justice to the thoughtful symbolic intention of the plan:

The park and the street, freedom and enterprise, would form the base of the triangle. In Griffin’s scheme the base of the triangle [was] the People. Looking across the lake to the Government Centre, the completion of the triangle... would express in compelling physical form the will of the people. [4]

It was nothing less than a masterwork, despite the intense competition from some of the world’s leading planners. The intellectual care with which it was prepared no doubt appealed to Australia’s political leaders, who at the time had been painstakingly debating the location of the capital city for over a decade!

In winning, the Griffins achieved something Frank Lloyd Wright never could: to see their philosophy of organic architecture applied to the largest of canvasses. Their dream of the city in the landscape could become a reality. And, better still, for a new nation which the Griffins had taken a close interest in.

It is important to note the date of this. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City concepts were developed almost half a century later! What I had seen in New York actually post-dated the original, visionary Griffin work by some half a century!

The premise upon which I began this journey is thus completely turned on its head: It is Canberra, and the Griffins, that inspired the renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, not the other way around! How is it that the renown of this city is not greater?

While the intellectual rigour relating to hierarchy of function appeals enormously at one level in any era, it was the exquisite presentation of the winning entry that captured the imagination of the judging panel and the nation at the time. The range of panels is a work of art, surely one of Australia’s most significant.

Marion Mahony’s skill and sensitivity brilliantly captured the essence of their shared vision for Canberra in a way that words never could. The geometric elegance of the design embedded in the features of the landscape, the use of a land and water axis to determine structure and placement of the all-important triangle that both symbolised, and organised, the functional hierarchy of buildings.

These elements formed the basis of a plan unrivalled in its originality, created with all the charm and talent of a woman at the forefront of her profession.

Two of these original works of art we are able to view here today. I am moved by their presence.

From the definitive Writings of Walter Burley Griffin, edited by his grand nephew, Dustin Griffin, I was able to review the full list of panels that formed the submission:

  • Plan of City Central District
  • Plan of City and Environs
  • Sections through City
  • Axis AB Black Mountain to Upper Lake
  • Axis BA Central Basin Government Group
  • Axis CD Ainslie to Red Hill
  • Perspective Intersection of Axes AB and CD;
  • View from Summit of Ainslie

These were gathered on muslin sheets mounted on 13 stretchers. Roy Lippincott describes the meticulous method of Marion Mahony’s graphic technique:

[The] Federal Capital drawings were drawn on linen tracing cloth, lithographed on window shade holland, and rendered in watercolour and photograph dyes. The next step was to lithograph them on satin, dip the satin in thin glue size and stretch it smooth on a board. When dry, the rendering was done with the dyes, and when stripped from the board and lightly dusted with a soft cloth enough of the size was removed to show the practically unchanged satin surface. Renderings so made are practicably indestructable [sic] with ordinary care and be ironed if they become mussed.

Such a dense and eloquent passage offers reassurance for the perpetuity of these treasures in the custodianship of the Archives, not that I can ever see staff allowing them to become ‘mussed’!

Many of you will be familiar with the replicas on permanent display here at the Archives. One of my favourite renderings is the panorama containing the original pagoda-shaped roof of the Griffins’ Capitol building. Some of you will be familiar with the controversy the construction of new parliament house on Capital Hill.

The Griffin’s Capitol building was not envisaged as the parliament, rather a building where the people could gather share ideas and recognise their high achievers, overlooking the parliament, which was a little further down the hill! The symbolism here being that ‘the people’ were there to hold the parliament to account!

It was architects Romaldo Giurgola’s inspiration therefore to design a new parliament house that would still provide for this symbolism by allowing the people to walk right over the top of the politicians! Aldo has been quoted as saying that he felt Marion and Walter on his shoulder as he worked.

Until the overlay picture on the cover of David Headon’s book, The Symbolic Role of the National Capital, only an informed few understood the relationship of the modern aluminium flagpole, designed by Giurgola for Parliament House, with the original rendering by Marion. This original drawing is also held by the National Archives.

The relationship between the Griffins and some key Australian politicians and bureaucrats was never a particularly auspicious one, once the Griffins actually arrived in Australia. There is plenty of evidence of harsh and perhaps dishonest treatment of the earnest young architects as ‘the bean counters’ almost immediately took over the implementation of the vision.

This picture is of Colonel Miller and King O’Malley, a key figure in the selection and later interpretation of the Griffin plan in the early days.

Further complicating matters has been the at best fitful implementation of the design across a whole century, and dozens of different governments, two world wars, and a depression. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, some critical principles of the plan have prevailed and found new strength in the 21st century, and some have been lost.

For those interested in what has stayed and what has gone, the publication on the Griffin Legacy [Review of the Griffin Legacy Amendments] provides a good overview. For example, the Griffins’ proposal for an arboretum to the west of the lake is being pursued by the current Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope with the arboretum now established on the three hills to the west of Yarramundi Reach. While the only planting made in direct reference to the Griffins’ arboretum as we can see here on this first ever public viewing, was the cork plantation It is located between the representational continents of Africa and Europe in the Griffin scheme.

The design permits, indeed encourages, the embodiment of major socio-political trends in our democracy, regardless of the discomfort such emphases have on occasion caused, and will continue to cause. This seems to me to be consistent with the primacy of the crucial democratic function contained within Griffin’s hierarchy of function principles. In this way, the design will always be relevant to the changing trends, values and ideals of current and future generations.

Indeed, it is the hierarchy of function that permits the democratic ebbs and flows of government priorities of the day to be reflected in form and function within the original triangular scheme provided.

All these principles inform how the plan has evolved over the years. I am perhaps more familiar than most with the controversy generated with the larger increments in evolution of the plan, such as the recent and controversial Griffin Legacy amendments.

In my role as member and now Chair of the Joint Standing Committee of the National Capital External Territories of the Federal Parliament, I have witnessed the passions the plan evokes at first hand.

Importantly, the report from the Inquiry into the Role of the National Capital Authority, entitled The Way Forward, reasserted the Commonwealth’s custodianship of the National Capital Plan [NCP] on behalf of all Australians. This report also sought to provide a process for reform to smooth the raw edges and clarify the complex and confusing demarcation between Territory and Commonwealth planning functions.

There were hundreds of submissions from all perspectives, but everyone agreed that the Griffin plan was a unique treasure to be revered, celebrated and nurtured for future generations.

The Government responded favourably to the majority of the recommendations of this report and the intergovernmental committee, I am pleased to say, is progressing this task. You can be assured that a mandatory requirement is to enshrine the design principles within both jurisdictions.

In this endeavour, the ACT Government is a true and critical partner. The people of the ACT have an added duty to progress such important policy agendas, including investing in the water infrastructure and sources of renewable energy. They are a vital part of the planning process.

The report raised the issue of environmental sustainability, which is inextricably linked to smart planning across housing densities, transport, water availability and lifestyle.

Again the original plan’s relevance, with its living, organic city concept, comes to the fore in relation to current economic, social and political issues such as climate change and lightening our carbon footprint.

Living ‘at one with nature’, as described by WBG and MMG, has never been more apt. Fortunately, the philosophical core of the NCP (and its recognition of the Griffin vision) has survived long enough to embrace a raft of 21st century environmental imperatives.

Just as WBG and MMG had to fight for their plan, so we have been arguing about it’s modern interpretation ever since. By definition, we will all interpret the Griffin/Mahony legacy in our own era, informed by our own preferences.

For example, I don’t always agree with the Walter Burley Griffin Society but I will fight for their right to express it and be a part of the decision-making process through rigorous and meaningful consultation. I will always agree with their raison d’etre – that is to honour the work of this city’s treasured designers, the Griffin-Mahony partnership.

The more open the conversation, the more engaging the consultation process, the higher quality the outcomes will be. Canberra is fortunate to have an intelligent, engaged and wonderfully articulate population. This enhances the quality of public discourse and, I can assure you, it keeps me and my colleagues on our toes.

That’s why I have worked hard for a process of evolution of the National Capital Plan that is clear and characterised by open engagement and transparent decision making.

We have here the legacy of a great landscape architectural partnership whose achievement in the realisation of this city captures the very essence of our democratic beginnings as a federated nation.

Perhaps no other city is borne out of such thoughtful consideration of the meaning of democracy and how it is interpreted into function and form.

But, and it needs reiteration, I have no doubt that this broad vision would not have been realised, the competition not won, without the artistic visual presentation by Marion Mahony that so effectively captured the essence of the scheme in ways that words couldn’t.

It is her work that, thanks to the National Archives staff, we see up close and personal here today. In fact, as I am sure all of you know, Archives conservator Ian Batterham will be sticking around for 2–3 hours, to answer all of your questions.

I lament the fact that the compelling uniqueness of Canberra’s design that I have discussed in some detail today is not more widely recognised, nationally and internationally.

The 2013 Centenary provides us with a perfect opportunity to change this. I can assure you I will be working to ensure due regard is paid to this in our centenary year.

It is also worth noting as well that applications have been made to the federal Government to give Canberra national heritage status. If this is successful, we will know in the coming months.

Often the affection and awe the city evokes in first-time visitors is expressed with surprise, as if counter to expectation.

I have heard it is often the younger generation through the impressive National Capital Education Tourism Project school visits program who become the best advocates for the national capital. Their sense of pride and belonging is translated into a socially responsible form of ‘pester power’ to get their parents to make the trip. In this way, it is the next generation taking the lead.

But for those who have educated themselves about the provenance of the design, there is an added layer of appreciation that informs and enhances our experience of Canberra.

We need to help this story take root, as it is undoubtedly one of our grand, national narratives. No better opportunity exists than 2013 to make this a part of every citizen’s understanding of their, of our, national capital, Canberra!

In closing, may I extend my thanks to the staff and leadership of the National Archives for making this talk possible and these treasures available for viewing. May I take this opportunity to acknowledge the advocates, the authors, the passionate Australians, who know this history well – we need your voice now more than ever, as we always have.

It is my hope that all Australians become as familiar with these artistic visions (of the national capital) in the coming years as they are with the great artworks down the road. These images are destined to become equally iconic.

Let me finish by adding my own epitaph to the graves of WBG and MMG: May the purity and grandeur of their democratic vision for Australia’s national capital be discovered, re-discovered and celebrated in the forthcoming Centenary years.


1. Louis Sullivan, ‘The Young Man in Architecture’, Auditorium Building, Chicago, June 1900.

2. Alasdair McGregor, Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Lantern (Penguin Books), Camberwell, Victoria, 2009, p. 48.

3. David Headon, The Symbolic Role of the National Capital, NCA, Canberra, 2003, p. 42.

4. James Weirick, quoted in McGregor, p. 132.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019