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Exhibition Traces Designers’ Dreams for Australia’s “Ideal City”

Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin in their garden at Melbourne, ca 1918

Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin in their garden at Melbourne, ca 1918. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

A decade after Australia’s official federation in 1901, the government launched an international competition for the design of its new capital, Canberra—an “ideal city” that would reflect the new country’s aspirations. In 1912, the government declared a winner: Walter Burley Griffin, a Chicago-based architect and landscape architect. Griffin had submitted the winning design with his wife and business partner, Marion Mahony Griffin. The couple, who had met while working in the office of Frank Lloyd Wright, moved to Australia in 1914 to oversee the city’s construction and lived in the country until the mid-1930s.

In Canberra’s centennial year, a new exhibition, The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital, chronicles the city’s development and explores the Griffins’ design partnership. Curator Christopher Vernon, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Western Australia, is an American who formerly lived and worked in Chicago, where he first encountered the Griffins’ work.

LALH author Christopher Vernon

LALH author Christopher Vernon.

After emigrating to Australia in 1995, Vernon catalogued the collection of Griffin documents and facilitated its acquisition by the National Library. Author of Graceland Cemetery: A Design History (LALH and University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), Vernon is now completing a book on the Griffins for the LALH series Critical Studies in the History of Environmental Design.

“View from Summit of Mount Ainslie,” one of the fourteen exquisite renderings Marion Griffin prepared for the Canberra competition, 1911.

Detail from View from Summit of Mount Ainslie, one of the fourteen exquisite renderings Marion Griffin prepared for the Canberra competition, 1911. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

Conflict dogged the Canberra project for decades, but Vernon says the exhibition presents a counterpoint to the widely held view that the project ended in the designers’ disillusionment and defeat by bureaucrats. As he recently told the Canberra Times, “At the end of the day I think they both realized they did something important.” The Dream of a Century: the Griffins in Australia’s Capital is on display through June 9 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

View of Canberra today from Mount Ainslie, down the Land Axis, and across Lake Burley Griffin to Parliament House.

View of Canberra today from Mount Ainslie, down the Land Axis, and across Lake Burley Griffin to Parliament House. Courtesy of the National Capital Authority.

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