The seeds of Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin’s prolific partnership as designers and planners contain an ironic provenance. The individual who inadvertently brought them together was Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW), destined to become the Griffins’ lifelong bête noire. The future couple met as a result of Walter Burley Griffin (WBG) joining Wright’s architectural firm at Oak Park, Illinois, in 1901, where Marion Mahony (MMG) was already employed. WBG was a recent graduate of Illinois University and MMG was, in a de facto sense if not actually given the title by Wright, head draughtsman. Both were qualified architects, Marion had been the second female graduate in architecture from MIT in Boston, and if not the first, one of the very first licensed female architects in the world)[“Marion Mahony Griffin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s First Employee,” Jackie Craven, (Thought Co), (2014, updated 13-Dec-2016), www.thoughtco.com]
It can be said that MMG’s role in the architectural and town planning projects that she was involved in, indeed her whole career up until WBG died, revolved around her personal relationships with male architects in which her place was always the subservient one (willingly so as far as she was concerned) – perhaps hardly surprising given the period. As Lynn Becker put it, Marion Mahony was “one of a series of pioneering women architects and designers who have disappeared into the deep shadow of their male associates” [L Becker, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Right-Hand Woman”, www.lynnbecker.com]. In her case, the men venerated by Mahony were in sequence her cousin Dwight Perkins, Wright and Griffin. Her first job in the field after graduating was working for Perkins, which was short-lived as Dwight, still trying to build up his business, didn’t have enough work for Marion and had to let her go in 1895. From that year many of the progressive young architects practicing in that period (including Wright, Griffin, Mahony, Spencer, Perkins, the Pond brothers, Myron Hunt, etc) coalesced in Steinway Hall (a building itself which MMG had contributed to its design). The loft in Steinway Hall became a kind of incubator for new ideas for these young forward-looking architects seeking to extend the boundaries of the profession. Becker described it aptly … “it could be said that this (Steinway Hall) was an aviary where the Prairie School of Architecture was hatched” [Becker, ibid.].
Marion’s relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright was a complicated one which underwent change over time. She was with him many years, apparently enjoyed working for him and being in his company, perhaps there was an element of hero-worship involved. For his part, Wright clearly found her indispensable as a highly valued draughtswoman and as an administrator [Becker, ibid.], in FLW’s words, she was his “most capable assistant” (high praise indeed from one not usually given to positive affirmations of others!). That Mahony was even closer to FLW’s wife, Catherine, strengthened the bond with the Wrights. Many of the male staff in FLW’s office publicly pronounced on the sublime quality of Mahony’s drawing board work and its preeminence to that of anyone else in the studio, even Wright wasn’t prepared to dispute this consensus of views. One of the studio’s architects, Barry Byrne (later for a time Walter’s partner in the US before an acrimonious split) in his reminiscences wrote that the informal design competitions held between the employees in FLW’s studio were mostly won by Mahony, and that Wright filed away her drawings for future use and rebuked anyone who described them as “Miss Mahony’s designs” [F A Bernstein, “Rediscovering a Heroine of Chicago Architecture”, New York Times, 1 January 2008].
The Mahony/Wright relationship proved very advantageous to FLW in the advancement of his business – to put it mildly. In his immensely influential two volume folio of lithographs, the Wasmuth Portfolio published in Germany during his European elopement, Wright liberally used Marion’s drawings, over half of which comprised the folio, without acknowledgement. Consequently, FLW’s fame in the architecture world, at the expense of Mahony’s anonymity, spread exponentially after the Wasmuth publication. Architectural historian Vincent Scully described Wasmuth as “one of the three most influential treatises of the twentieth century” [Janice Pregliasco, “Life and Work of Marion Mahony Griffin”, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol 21, No 2 (1995)].
MMG’s contribution to Wright’s architecture is spectacularly seen in the planning of two of the Wisconsinite’s most celebrated early Midwest buildings, K C DeRhodes House and Unity Temple. In the design for both works, Mahony’s drawing technique, heavily inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, led her to create a new style of architectural rendering, one that emphasised depth, light and landscape in her drawings, and characterised by richly detailed foliage giving a frame and focus for the house itself, a technique that according to Paul Kruty became the gold standard for later Prairie School designs [Kruty cited in Becker, op.cit. (“FLW … Woman”).]. Marion’s exceptional renderings were an important part of the promotion of Wright’s early work through various publications and exhibitions [Pregliasco, op.cit.].
The excellence of Marion’s design work extended to home and furnishing designs. She had a real flair for interior design, creating designs for panels, coloured and leaded glass windows, mosaics, murals, light fittings, furnishings, drawings and illustrations, that not only added value to the projects and commissions of FLW (and WBG), but contributed in their distinctiveness to the development of Prairie School interior features [Craven, op.cit. ; [Anna Rubbo, “Marion Mahony Griffin: A larger than life presence in early 20th century architecture”, in A. Watson (Ed), Beyond Architecture].
The lofty regard Marion held for Wright eroded to some extent as she became more comfortable with Walter, resulting in a transference to WBG of her habitual adulation of a strong male figure. But what really offended and disenchanted Marion in respect of FLW was his scandalous behaviour in 1909 in abruptly eloping to Europe with the wife of a client, in so doing deserting his wife and children (MMG was best friends with Wright’s wife). FLW offered Marion charge of his office, which she declined, however in her characteristically conscientious manner she picked up the pieces of Wright’s unfinished commissions which he had abandoned (along with his family!) in such a startlingly unprofessionally way, and worked with another architect to finalise FLW’s outstanding projects. One of these completed homes, Amberg House in Michigan, designed by Mahony, was so widely admired that later both Wright and the collaborating architect von Holst claimed it as their own [Pregliasco, op.cit.].
After Mahony and Griffin severed all links with Wright and started to be noticed in architectural circles for the work they were doing on their own, the scurrilous Wright hardened his views on the Chicago couple. Whenever anyone would mention Marion and Walter and their latest projects, FLW would decry their achievements and write them off as hack designers (“Griffin was merely a draughtsman”) [“Walter Burley Griffin”, (Sydneyarchitecture), http://sydneyarchitecture.com/ARCH/ARCH-Griffin%20.htm]. In her memoirs MMG railed against the poisonous words of Wright but never once mentioning him by name, referring to him simply as the “cancer sore”.
Marion’s critical role in Walter’s success in winning the Canberra Capital City project has been well canvassed (see my previous blog, “WB & MLM Griffin and the Canberra Federal Capital Project: A Democratic City Lost?”), but in her time in Australia her work continued in a flourishing artistic vein. Her architectural work in so far as designing buildings however was subordinated to her other creative impulses. A lot of her finest achievements occurred in Australia, from her magnificent crystalline lighting ceiling of the Capitol Theatre in Swanston Street, Melbourne, to the superb tree paintings and drawings she did of the Tasmanian forest.
In their building and design work Walter and Marion brought very different but complementary strengths and qualities to their professional partnership – Griffin the architect, the landscaper, the town planner, Mahony the artist/illustrator, the delineator of perspective and design, the bush garden planner. Alasdair McGregor said of the Griffin partnership: “Walter had wonderful three-dimensional imaginings … yet as a draftsman he was stillborn … by contrast Marion was probably the most gifted draftsperson–renderer of her times” [quoted in “Unearthed Griffin treasure returned to the Archives”, NAA, Issue 3, July 2011, www.yourmomento.naa.gov.au]. Where he was deficient or lacking in some part of the process, Mahony was there to fill the void and raise the finished product up a notch or two, giving it that special, added lustre. No more was this more apparent than in the Griffins’ winning submission for the Federal Capital Project in Canberra.
MMG was a complex personality, despite her exceptional talents, she did not push herself forward at all (the antithesis of the egotistical Wright). Whether this was due to an innate insecurity she felt as a woman in a staunchly male profession or something else, her inclination was to avoid the limelight, to stay busy, beavering away behind the scene. Interestingly, MMG maintained a keen side-interest in acting, whilst at MIT and later again in Castlecrag. The theatre was perhaps a vehicle for her to express herself individually whilst under the cover of it being only play-acting. As Alice Friedman described Marion, she was an architect but a particular sort of architect, “a collaborator in a field of individualists, a builder of communities and connections in an increasingly fragmented and competitive professional world” [A T Friedman, “Girl Talk: Marion Mahony Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright and the Oak Park Studio”, (Design Observer Group), www.places.designobserver.com ].
Walter Burley Griffin’s star was on the rise when he and Marion married, he was becoming famous and starting to get more prestigious commissions in the US. Mahony was very content from that point on to devote herself wholly to the betterment of his career, to derive some measure of vicarious satisfaction from contributing to his achievements in architecture and planning. MMG, in her unpublished 1940s memoir, “The Magic of America”, described herself as having been “a very useful slave” to Griffin (the 1400-plus page manuscript in itself was Marion’s attempt to elevate and preserve the reputation and status of WBG as a first-rank American architect and town planner). So often, when WBG had to shift projects, MMG was there to fill the void, when Griffin went to Canberra the first time, Mahony was left to mind the shop in Chicago. When Griffin journeyed to India in search of more lucrative commissions, she was there, again, to keep the Castlecrag business going.
Marion’s anthroposophical contacts helped Walter gain new sources of work in India. in 1936 MMG joined her husband in Lucknow with her creative energies renewed, prompting Griffin to remark that Marion was “back at the drawing board” for the first time in 14 years [L Becker, “Marion Mahony Griffin – in Australia and beyond”, www.lynn.becker.com]. MMG collaborated with Griffin on the design of over 100 Prairie School-influenced buildings which were a departure from the prevailing British Raj style in India. The standout example of Mahony’s rendering of Griffin’s designs in the Sub-continent was the library and museum for the Raja of Mahmudabad [ibid.].
After Walter’s sudden death in 1937, Marion finalised Griffin’s outstanding Indian commissions before returning to Australia. Eventually after leaving the Australian business in the hands of WBG’s partner, Eric Nicholls, she left Sydney to return to her native Chicago. In the 1940s Mahony turned her hand to community planning, securing commissions from a prominent US peace activist, Lola Maverick Lloyd, to plan townships in New Hampshire and Texas. Lloyd, Unfortunately, died at this time and the plans were never carried through. A further town plan Mahony did for South Chicago also did not eventuate. Notwithstanding that the projects in Texas and New Hampshire did not materialise, they reinforce MMG’s role as a pioneering woman in architectural planning, representing as they do, “the first communities in the world designed entirely by a woman”[Pregliasco, op.cit.].
Whatever disappointments there were for the Griffins and for WBG especially (the setbacks of the Federal Capital project in particular), the relevant statistics, as calculated by Anna Rubbo, point to an output that was very productive and overall quite impressive. In 26 years together, in the US, Australia and India, Walter and Marion, together as “Team Griffin”, collaborated in around 280 architectural, town planning and landscape projects, of which nearly 180 were completed [A Rubbo, in Watson, op.cit.]. Whilst history has in recent times addressed an oversight in relation to Griffin and finally afforded him something akin to his rightful place amongst the 20th century practitioners of architecture, Marion’s contribution to modern architecture has tended to be overlooked or as least obscured under the focus on her husband. During the last decade several architectural writers have drawn attention to the neglect of Mahony, eg, D Van Zanten (Ed), Marion Mahony Reconsidered; D Wood (Ed), Marion Mahoney Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature; “Marion Mahoney Griffin”, Mass. Institute of Technology, http://web.mit.edu/museum/chicago/griffin.html ].
PostScript: Marion’s self-appointed role
The number of houses MMG designed in her own right was small, in Australia for instance only one (in suburban Melbourne), and a handful in America (some wrongly attributed to Wright – see Amberg House above) [P Kruty, “Marion Lucy Mahoney Griffin”, (Walter Burley Griffin Society of America), www.wbgriffinsociety.org]. Lack of opportunities afforded to a woman in the profession in that era, goes a good way to explaining this, but so does her willingness to ever be the collaborating “assistant”. It was in her work as a artist and draughtsman that Marion really came into her own. Influential architectural critic Reyner Banham described her as “the greatest architectural delineator of her generation” – male or female [Architectural Review (1973)].