Although only Walter’s name appeared on their entry in the competition to design a federal capital for Australia, we know that Marion contributed to the design – significantly, as far as Walter was concerned:

A Woman of Genius – A woman has designed the Federal capital of Australia. Mr. Griffin, the architect of Canberra, has declared in public that his wife is practically the planner and designer of all the works which have emanated [?] from their house. “My wife is the genius, I am only the businessman,” said Mr. Griffin, who is returning shortly to America to bring out to Australia his genius.

From the ‘News and Notes’ section of The West Australian newspaper, November 28, 1913.

Marion graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1894, one of only three female graduates that year. She passed the inaugural licencing exam for architects held in Illinois, in 1898, achieving one of the highest scores. Her first built project was the Unitarian Church of All Souls in Evanston, Illinois. She had to compromise on the building itself, under pressure from church elders. However, she fitted out the interior to her original design, including stained glass windows, skylights and planters. She was already a known architect, with several commissions to her name, when she joined Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice, as his first official employee. Some writers suggest her university thesis design ‘The House and Studio of a Painter’ inspired the design of Oak Park – Wright’s home and studio. What is certain is that many of the illustrations of Wright’s designs that were included in his Wasmuth Portfolio were Marion’s work. Working with Wright she developed a Japanese inspired style of illustrating commissions that became her signature.

Alongside her innovative rendering techniques for architectural and interior design, she also loved painting nature. Her illustrative style revealed great imagination and design whimsy. Many of Marion’s commissions included original artworks. For the Australia Cafe, in Melbourne, she and Walter commissioned Bertha Merfield to paint a large-scale mural, Dawn in the Australian Bush, as one of several methods of bringing the natural world indoors. A friendship developed and in 1918 Bertha invited Marion to join her on a sketching trip to Tasmania. Marion had already begun developing a style of botanical illustration she called ‘Forest Portraits’. Some of her most well-known and beautiful Australian forest portraits were a result of that trip.  

Both Griffins were naturalists, studying and being inspired by the natural world. Landscaping with native plants was typical of all the Griffins’ work in Australia. This interest began growing up on the north western outskirts of Chicago, where Marion had a rare freedom to roam the local woodlands. She enjoyed the outdoors, hiking, canoeing and camping out with Walter as their friendship and romance progressed. They got married in Michigan City, on the shores of Lake Michigan, during a canoe trip. Their design for the Australian capital included more green space than was usual in a city at the time. They believed that, for benefit of both residents and visitors, the natural landscape should have the same importance as the built landscape.

Marion and Walter were life partners and professional partners, with architectural practices in Chicago, then Sydney and Melbourne, and later, India. After Walter passed away Marion returned to the United States, where she discovered Walter was virtually unknown. Frank Lloyd Wright’s fame continued to increase but few were aware of Walter’s achievements, his vision, and his ideals. Therefore, she started work on a manuscript detailing Walter’s projects in America, India, and Australia. She defined his life as a series of struggles, or battles, and perhaps in order to laud his talent, placed her own work in shadow. This work, titled The Magic of America, was never published.

By Roslyn Hull

Further reading:

  • Making Magic: The Marion Mahony Griffin Story. Glenda Korporaal, Oranje Media
  • Marion Mahony Reconsidered. David Van Zanten, University of Chicago Press
  • Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature. Deborah Wood, Block Museum Press