The Magic of Marion: A Pioneer Woman Architect in the Shadow of the Prairie School

Biographical, Built Environment, Social History

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),]

MLM soon after graduating from MIT
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”,]. 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)].

Plans, KC DeRhodes Hse. (Sth Bend)
Plans, KC DeRhodes Hse. (Sth Bend)

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.].

Light fitting, Capitol Theatre Melbourne (MMG)
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].

David Amberg House (1910). MMG.
David Amberg House (1910). MMG.

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),]. 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”. image

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.

Tasmanian Forest portrait
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,]. 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), ].

imageWalter 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.

MMG rendering of Library & Museum plan, Lucknow.
MMG rendering of Library & Museum plan, Lucknow.

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”,]. 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, ].

The MMG monogram
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),]. 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)].

WB & MLM Griffin and the Canberra Federal Capital Project: A Democratic City Lost?

Biographical, Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

Mention the name Walter Burley Griffin and people in Australia will think, especially since last year’s lavish Capital Centenary celebrations, of Canberra. In the Australian psyche the American architect is largely associated with the planning of the capital in Canberra 100 years ago. There was a lot more to the Australian story of Walter Burley Griffin (WBG) than his seven frustrating years in Canberra, but I will concentrate on this chapter of his life (and that of his wife) in this blog.

imageIn 1911 Griffin was a young Midwestern architect from Chicago, working within the modernist style of the Prairie School, establishing himself in his own practice and adding to his important commissions in America. Walter’s wife and architectural partner, Marion Mahony Griffin (MMG), badgered him into completing the plans for Australia’s Federal Capital Design Competition (they only just made the extended deadline for entry submission by the tightest of margins!). WBG’s design for the capital-to-be was selected in 1912 as the winning entry. No small part in Griffin’s success was due to the the exemplary quality of the plan and perspective presentations, superbly rendered by Marion. They comprised 14 immense ink on satin drawings, the standard size was five feet wide by two-and-a-half feet (some even were a staggering eight feet by up to 30 feet long!). Some of the amazing drawings and paintings were done in triptych fashion, opening out into three-hinged panels in the style of Japanese woodcut prints [National Archives of Australia (Your Momento To), “Unearthed Griffin treasure returned to the Archives”, Issue (July 2011)]. Fred Bernstein has described the effect of MMG’s beautiful drawings thus, “the rugged Australian landscape seemed to embrace Griffin’s buildings”… and this was despite the fact that MMG had never set eyes on the country [F A Bernstein, “Rediscovering a Heroine of Chicago Architecture”, New York Times, 20 January 2008].

A second factor that worked to the Griffins’ advantage was that whilst other competitors in the national capital design competition (there were 137 entries in all!) failed to take into account the topography of the site in their presentations, the Griffins’ submission managed to harmonise with the site’s landform and natural features [National Archives of Australia, “A vision for a democratic capital”,

MMG ink on satin painting: the city from across the valley

Marion Mahony Griffin, Ink on Satin painting of planned city (Canberra)
Ultimately, the support of the Australian Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, was decisive. The colourful O’Malley, himself an erstwhile American like the Griffins, as the minister with overall responsibility for bringing the new national capital to fruition, made the final decision in favour of WBG’s submission against concerted opposition from within the Australian community [Alasdair McGregor, “Rebels & Gilt-spurred Roosters: Politics, Bureaucracy & the Democratic Ideal in the Griffins’ Capital”, a paper delivered in A Cultivated City, (Seminar, 2 May 2013)]. Unfortunately for Griffin, O’Malley’s support for WGB’s plans for the capital was not sustained beyond the original decision. It transpired that O’Malley was in reality prepared to use a hotchpotch of the three leading designs for the purpose of implementation (the Griffins, the second place-getter from Helsinki and the third from Paris) [“An Ideal City? The 1912 competition to design Canberra”,]. My hunch is that the manoeuvrable O’Malley probably considered Griffin’s city plan of no greater merit than the Finnish and French bids, but it was the sublime quality of Marion’s artwork presentation that tipped the scales in the Americans’ favour.

Over a year passed after the contest victory before WBG received an invitation to come to Australia. During this interval the Department Board set up by O’Malley had persuaded the minister into allowing them to rework the Griffin plan. Only after an outcry from the architectural community at this amateur effort at town planning, did the Government reverse this and reinstate the Griffins’ winning plan [‘City of Dreams – Designing Canberra’ (2000 documentary)]. Upon his arrival in 1913 Griffin initially received a warm reception from the Australian press, Advance Australia introduced him to the public as “Walter Burley Griffin – Architect and Democrat”. Walter’s optimism at the outset was pronounced, saying “I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept.” Unfortunately in the fullness of time this faith in Australian power-brokers was to prove sadly misplaced.

Griffin then returned to the US to put in place provisions for the maintenance of his Chicago practice during the Griffins’ absence from America. Meanwhile, WBG spent a long time waiting round for an invitation from the Australian Government to return and start work on Canberra. It was only after a change of government in Melbourne (then the interim national capital) in 1914, that the new Home Affairs Minister, William Kelly, finally invited the Griffins to return and paid for their passage [G. Korporaal, “Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin were drawn together on Canberra”, The Australian, 9 March 2013]. Marion and Walter established bases for their work in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Blueprint for a “Democratic Capital”
In accepting the Federal commission Walter had the highest hopes for his vision of what Canberra could become, the realisation of the idea of a democratic city. This political element of the Canberra project was important to Griffin in itself. Politically, the Griffins were idealistic liberal progressives, followers of radical political economist, Henry George, whose egalitarian single tax on land struck a resonant cord with his fellow Americans, especially his tenet that the value of land should be owned equally by all citizens. WBG attempted to put this tenet into practice when appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction, exerting his influence on the Government – when residential plots were first opened up in the ACT, land was not sold. Instead it was offered up for rent on 99-year leases [K Williams, “William Burley Griffin”,]. Having a chance at shaping the Canberra experiment was an overriding priority for WBG, so much so that when offered the chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Illinois shortly after winning the Australian prize, he declined it [“Walter Burley Griffin in his Own Right”, US PBS broadcast documentary, WBG’s blueprint envisaged the new Federal Capital as an “irregular” amphitheatre with a centrally located parliamentary triangle, surrounding artificial lake with a concentric pattern of residential streets moving away from the centre.

Griffin’s grand plan for the new capital city was however cynically undermined from the start. Even before WGB had set foot in Australia, a specially-appointed departmental board pressured O’Malley into making changes to WBG’s Canberra design [“Canberra – Australia’s Capital City”,]. Instead of making Mt Kurrajong a public space and placing Parliament House lakeside in the valley below, as Griffin wanted to do (part of WBG’s scheme for the democratisation of the capital), the bureaucrats positioned Parliament on the mountain (Capital Hill). In a spooky parallel with what was to happen to Jørn Utzon and his design for the Sydney Opera House half-a-century later, the Griffins met with continual bureaucratic interference and obfuscation, and eventually became disillusioned.

imageFor sure Griffin rubbed certain people in the government and the public service the wrong way, but there was clearly a coordinated attempt to sabotage the implementation of his “vision”. Some working on the Canberra project decried his plan as being vastly extravagant and incapable of ever being brought to fruition [Peter Harrison, “Walter Burley Griffin” in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 9 (1983)]. He was further criticised for “poor administration of the project”. The situation was further complicated by funding for Canberra starting to dry up due to the priorities of the war, and by injudicious comments by WBG himself in the middle of World War I opposing Australia’s participation in it. The progress of WBG’s work was also subject to the vicissitudes of alternating national governments during the war years, as he waxed in and out of favour with every new minister appointed. In the end WBG had had enough, the forces of dissent had won, and he resigned his post as Director of the Federal Capital program in 1920, removing himself from all further involvement in the Canberra project. Walter’s architect brother-in-law, Roy Lippincott (who accompanied the Griffins to Australia), described the experience as “seven years of struggle and slander” [McGregor, op.cit.]. Virtually none of WBG’s designed buildings for the Capital were ever completed (the only structure by erected by Griffin was a monument to a general killed in the Gallipoli Campaign), and both his extensive lakes scheme (only implemented after heavy modification nearly half-a-century later) and his railway proposals were not taken up.

GSDA Sydney Office, 35 Bligh St
In the late 1910s, as implementation of the plan for Canberra and construction of works stalled, the Griffins turned more to developing their private architectural commissions. Marion took charge of the couple’s New South Wales office in Bligh Street, Sydney, whilst Walter sought out new residential projects in Melbourne to shore up the couple’s finances.

Fly by Night Juliaca, Hot Deals by Day


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInsulated inside room 206, upstairs in Hotel El Promedio Anodino Casa, I didn’t really hear much noise during the night. But by the time I came down for El desayuno I realised that the wrecking gang had been at it all night demolishing the building across the road. This day, I had the relative luxury of not having to make my transfer until around 9 o’clock, so I loitered over breakfast. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was back down at pick up time, but had several minutes to kill as the driver hadn’t arrived by 9. I joined the lineup of Hotel staff milling around the front door who were absolutely entranced by the spectacle of the demolition job which was tearing up the street under the guise of levelling the doomed building. Fortunately the glass front door was closed, saving everyone in the foyer from being overcome by a myriad of dust diseases. Dust abounded all over the street, which was semi-obstructed for traffic before the work started and now was totally impassable as rubble had piled up and been strewn across the street. The young hotel workers were revelling in the “Whelan the Wrecker” show on display, which was undoubtedly more fun than trying to placate surly guests or cleaning up after messy ones.

Hotel street before it was totally consumed in rubble & dust
Hotel street before it was totally consumed in rubble & dust

By this time my Puno driver had turned up, suddenly materialising from out of the cloud of dusty particles. After staring at the swirling man-made dust bowl at the front of the hotel I asked the girls at reception if there was a back way out of the building. They think I’m making a joke and laugh slightly nervously whilst shaking their heads. I follow the driver outside where his characteristically languid movements desert him and he hares off at great speed through the veil of dust to the taxi parked around the corner. After a momentary hesitation I too run, trying to cover my face so as not inhale any of the dust fibres floating uncontrolled in the air.

We drive out of Puno, I grab my last glimpse of Lago Titikaka and we wind our way up the hills north towards Juliaca. The same recurring features on the sides of the road that I had seen during the last 100km of the journey to Puno reappear. At random intervals, there is the presence of stray dogs on the side of the highway, kilometres from anything or anyone else, as if they had been mysteriously dropped there by some secret canine transit service. The driver tells me that people do occasionally stop and dump scraps of food for the highway for them, that’s why they hang around in the middle of nowhere with the semblance of an expectant look on their faces. image

The other discernible motif on Route 3S is the regular scattering of tiny tombstone-shaped markers on the highway. I assume that these were memorial markers rather than being actual burial places for the dead, but I don’t really know for certain. If they are, I suppose the closest, analogous thing in Australia is the cross and flower markers on roads where fatalities have occurred. The sign on the highway says Bienvenidos a Juliaca, Capital de la Integracion Andina, Ciudad de los Vientos. Juliaca, city of the wind? Wind, well that would help to explain all of the dust and dirt that flies around all over the main street! We pass the local technological university, the driver draws my attention to it. I remark how new and impressively modern it looks. He quickly tells me it is a state university only, whereas Puno (where he comes from) is a national university. He is indulging in a bit of rival city points-scoring, it seems to me. image

I get the sense that my driver is not impressed by Puno’s wealthier and bigger northern neighbour. The reality is that Juliaca is wealthier, albeit as a result mainly of its ill-gotten gain. The city functions as a conduit for contraband, stolen petrol, etc smuggled into Peru via Bolivia. We drive into the airport precinct, my curiosity is aroused by a street name I chance to spot, Paseo New Zealandia, I wondered what the connection was? image

Inca Manco Capác Aeropuerto reflects the recently acquired affluence of Juliaca. It is a snazzy new modern airport. The sleek control tower caught my eye, it looks like it was built by IKEA with its colourful plastic appearance. All around the airport you can see new Chinese-financed building projects underway, with signs such as the one advertising “LiuGong – Gigante de Asia”. Whilst inside the terminal I notice that the interior is not so grand as the exterior, amenities are fairly spartan really. I sit & watch the passing traffic. An adolescent comes into the departure lounge heading back to Lima. He is carrying the latest LCD Slimline television which he purchased in Juliaca at a, I’m sure, special price. People come to this mafia-controlled city from the capital & all other parts of Peru for the bargain deals. The ciudad’s market in all types of stolen goods make it a super-attractive destination for financially-strapped Peruvians to do their significant purchases in.

The Inka Trio
The Inka Trio

As I went through the electronic barrier a three-piece Peruvian native band in front of me were putting their musical equipment through the x-ray belt, doing the body checks and passing through with all the other passengers. I assumed that they were travelling on to Lima, but once inside, they immediately set up their drums, flutes and other instruments and started playing in the lounge. They did their busking routine including … yet again (groan!) that old Peruvian classic, “El Condor Pasa” (I make a mental note never to listen to Simon and Garfunkle again!) The plane arrives, the Indian buskers pass the hat round as passengers depart, and then they pack their set up and leave the airport. Performances at the Manco Capác Airport I gather are this band’s regular gig!

Once on board, a conspicuous feature of Flight LA2096 was an absolute dearth of space in the overhead lockers. All available space was crammed full of wrapped parcels, bulky items in brand-named bags. This was another sign of Juliaca’s role as the centre for cheap domestic goods, where ordinary Peruvians flock to this sales Mecca for ofertas that they feel are too good to refuse.

imageA pretty smooth, short flight and I was back at Jorge Chávez. By-passing the money-exchangers who had wanted to shortchange me the first time round, I found my transfer straight away. In the vehicle the driver had his wife and tiny child along for the ride. They were a pleasant couple and I shared some of my special Cusco dark chocolate with them. Although Miraflores looked quite close to the Airport on the map, it still seemed like a long trip in the car (traffic full-on as last time). As we get close to Miraflores, the calibre of houses and neighbourhoods went decidedly upmarket.

Port Phillip Bay, August 1914: The Great War’s First Shot in Anger

Social History

One hundred years ago tomorrow, 5 August 1914, at 12.39pm (EST), the first hostile action of World War I took place, not in Europe but in the eastern entrance to Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne. Refer also to my earlier blog of 27 February 2014, First engagement of hostilities? Very odd angry shots indeed!, for more details of the circumstances.

The first shot came from the Australian military gun emplacements stationed at Fort Nepean on the extremity of Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula overlooking the stretch of open water which separates Port Phillip Bay from the Bass Strait. The target was a German steamer, the SS Pfalz, (the name a reference to the German Rhineland-Palatinate region), was carrying 200 tons of coal intended to supply the nearby warships of the Pacific Squadron of the Imperial German Navy.

The incident that followed is now reasonably widely known – Britain (and by necessity, the British Empire) was expected to declare war on Germany that day. As soon as the news was cabled through from London that this had happened, on instructions from the naval command at nearby Fort Queenscliff, the Fort Nepean battery was given a command to stop the (now enemy) vessel from leaving Australian waters. Two warning volleys were fired from the Fort battery before the German captain surrendered (it seems scarcely credible to believe but the first hostile shot launched by the Allied side in the Second World War 25 years later was also fired from the same gun at Fort Nepean!)

The not-so-certain element of this story is the intriguing question of who actually fired on the SS Pfalz, effectively the first shots of World War I. Among the numerous news items currently circulating in the Australian press, the Age identifies Sergeant John Purdue as the individual who fired that first momentous shot 100 years ago [“Fort Nepean’s Sergeant John Purdue fired first shot of World War I”, The Age, 4 August 2014]. Concurrently with this, some papers are running articles on the role of Corporal William Carlin, which suggest that it was Carlin who fired the first shot [“Historic shot echoes a day later”, The Standard (Warrnbl. Vic.) 4 August 2014; “Marshall’s First Shot Connection”, The Surf Coast News (Bell. Pen. Vic.) 31 July 2014]. Both servicemen are now long deceased, and interviews with members of their families reveal their great pride in the part played by their respective kinsman.

Ft Nepean today
The apparent contradiction can be possibly explained as Sgt. Purdue issuing the on-the-ground command to fire, and Corp. Carlin, or another gunner, launching the shells. Given that the gun emplacement crew at Fort Nepean consisted of five or six men, the reality is that we will probably never know in any definitive sense which gunner fired the first shots across the bow of the German coal steamer. At the very least, we do know that both Sgt. Purdue and Corp. Carlin played key roles in the exact operation which symbolically marked the onset of the World War’s hostilities.

◖◗ See also the earlier, related article on this blogsite – “First engagement of hostilities? Very odd angry shots indeed!”

Seeking Paraíso in 19th Century Paraguay: The Utopian Societies of Nueva Germania and Nueva Australia

Racial politics, Regional History, Social History

Owen’s imagined ‘New Harmony’
Visionary thinkers in the 19th Century such as Robert Owen, Comte de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, provided the impetus for a whole host of attempts to create new communities which aspired to an ideal or utopian existence. Old Europe looked towards to the ‘New World’, the Americas, as the optimal location for the realisation of an ideal society. Many transplanted “would-be” utopian communities ended up in the United States (with names like New Harmony, Icaria, Fountain Grove and Altruria), but increasingly, many seekers of a better life looked optimistically to the less developed reaches of South America as fertile ground for a model community (the US National Parks Service on its website identifies 100s of communal utopian experiments in the early US period – article “The Amana Colonies: Utopias in America”).

In this piece I want to focus on two late 19th Century Paraguayan utopian experiments, the colonies of Nueva Germania and Nueva Australia. The German and the Australian colonies were both spectacularly unsuccessful in their aims, hardly surprising perhaps considering how unrealistically high they had set the bar, and how incredibly idealistic were their aims. On the surface the German and the Australian utopian experiments seem very different beasts, one a haven for Nordic exclusionists and the other for disillusioned Antipodean agrarian labourers, ideologically though, as I will attempt to show below, the two colonies had much in common in their character and aspirations.


New Germany in Paraguay was the brainchild of Elizabeth Nietzsche and Bernhard Förster, the sister and brother-in-law of the great German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche. Förster had been prominent in the far right German People’s League, known for its extreme anti-Semitic nationalism. His big idea, supported by his wife, Elizabeth, was to create a model German community in the Americas which embodied Aryan racial purity, free from what the Försters believed to be the “virulent contamination of Europe” by Jews. In the minds of the anti-Semitic couple, the virgin ground of depopulated rural Paraguay neatly matched the desired criteria.

In 1886 Förster and Nietzsche organised the emigration of a small number of select families from Saxony (who were characteristically Nordic in appearance) to South America. The scheme of the Försters was to build the foundations of a supreme Aryan ‘New World’ colony in the Paraguayan jungle. Förster’s hopes initially were high for Nueva Germania, envisaging an “idyllic Naumburg on the Aguarya-umi” River [Ben MacIntyre, Forgotten Fatherland]. In addition to the racial dimension, Förster and Frau Nietzsche’s Aryan utopia was based on the pillars of German nationalism, Lutheranism and vegetarianism [JF Williams, Daniela Krause & Harry Knowles “Flights from Modernity: German and Australian Utopian Colonies in Paraguay 1886-1896?”, Journal of Australian Studies (1 Sept 2001)].

The dreams of a German South American Paráiso en Tierra very soon came to dust as the colony abjectly failed to establish any cohesion or viability. A combination of factors contributed to this including disease affecting the colonists, crop failure and infighting among the migrants from Saxony [Simon Romero, “German Outpost Born of Racism in 1887 Blends into Paraguay”, New York Times, 6 May 2013]. The fact that only a small proportion of the settlers were actually farmers was a factor in the colony’s inability to yield sufficient crops on their land [James Brooke, “Nueva Germania Journal; from a Bigot’s Planting, a Garden Assimilation”, NYT, 18 March 1991].

Location of ‘New Germany’ within Paraguay
The elitist personal behaviour of the Försters in Nueva Germania affected the colony’s cohesion and disaffected its members. This manifested itself in displays of megalomania by Förster and the Försters’ demonstrably obvious social and economic advantage which markedly set them apart from the other colonists who were for the large part fairly impoverished families. For example, the Försters built themselves an elegant mansion in the San Pedro wilderness called ‘Försterhof‘, in stark contrast to the meagre and pitiful living conditions of the other settlers; the commune’s farmers in the fields were forced to stop work and submissively bow to Förster every time the overbearing leader rode past! [Romero, op.cit].

Other factors undermined any prospect Nueva Germania had of ever flourishing. A community of only 14 families (as it was originally) would almost inevitably be vulnerable to the likelihood of some degree of inbreeding, especially given the racial homogeneity doctrine on which the commune was based [MacIntyre, op.cit.]. This only served to undermine harmony in the commune and exacerbated tensions among the settlers.

Commune leader Förster, in heavy debt, facing the spectre of bankruptcy and in despair at the utopian disaster, committed suicide in 1889. Nueva Germania struggled on without its main spearhead, now led by Elizabeth Nietzsche who made an attempt to recruit more members from the Fatherland – with little return for her efforts. However in 1893 Frau Nietzsche abandoned the Aryan Paradies and it’s settlers, returning to Germany to take charge of her famous brother’s affairs and care for him (Nietzsche had fallen into a state of insanity). In the years after the philosopher’s death in 1900 the warped Elizabeth proceeded to convert him into a kind of intellectual “pin-up boy” on behalf of the emerging Fascist and Nazi movements of Italy and Germany. Nietzsche when still in full control of his faculties had been on record as expressing his complete disapproval of anti-Semitism and of the Försters’ plans for establishing an Aryan colony. Elizabeth, who later became a wholehearted supporter of Hitler, criminally and comprehensively traduced her brother’s reputation by falsely resurrecting Nietzsche as a prophet of the German “master race” to come. [J. Golumb & RS Wistrich (Eds), Nietzsche, Godfather of Nazism? On the Uses & Abuses of a Philosophy.]

Cassava, stable crop of NG
Following Elizabeth’s departure from Paraguay, the San Pedro-based colony of German farmers did not disappear altogether but limped on, surviving by scrimping together a bit of income from the growth of yerba mate and other subsistence crops. Nueva Germania still exists today – as far as ever from being remotely anything like a utopian community. With the bursting of the racial purity myth, the small group of German settlers intermarried with the local MestizoGuaraní-Spanish people, and as a result are not conspicuous from the rest of the Paraguayan population. They tend to speak Guaraní, the widely-spoken native language, in preference to German, and are set apart from other Paraguayans only by the retention of German family names (Fischer, Küch, Haudenschild, Stern, and so on).


The colony of ‘New Australia’ had its origins in the economic conditions and labour relations in pre-Federation Australia, especially in eastern Australia. In the early 1890s the onset of a crippling financial depression and a series of shearers’ and dock strikes in Queensland suppressed heavy-handedly by British troops fostered widespread disillusionment among bush workers. An idealistic English socialist journalist, William Lane, a maverick of the Australian labour movement, formed the New Australia Cooperation Settlement Association (NACSA) with the aim of establishing a “workers’ paradise” in South America.

The Association looked initially in Argentina for land to settle, but when this proved fruitless, Lane turned to neighbouring Paraguay where they found a government much more amenable. Lane’s scheme to export Australian workers suited the Paraguayan Government which was desperate to replenish the loss of manpower in the 1860s suffered in a disastrous war against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Paraguay, hopelessly outmatched, by war’s end, lost its territorial access to the sea and somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent of its male population during the war, leaving the country with an estimated total of only 28,000 adult males [Thomas Whigham, “The Paraguayan Rosetta Stone”, Latin American Research Review (1999)].

Consequently the Paraguayan Government freely granted NACSA an ample tract of grasslands near Villarica (in the modern-day Caaguazú Department),south-east of the capital, Asuncíon, to the new settlers. Lane brought over 200 colonists to Paraguay including the famous Australian socialist poet, Mary Gilmore, who was the colony’s schoolteacher. The settlement which became known as Colonia Nueva Australia met with formidable obstacles right from the outset.

Benign dictator of Nueva Australia?
A big part of the problem was the leadership itself. William Lane imposed strict rules on the community which alienated many who had followed him on the venture. Members of the colony were forbidden to drink, which given the combination of the oppressive heat and the plentiful supply of cheap caña (sugar cane rum) in Paraguay, was not a realistic proposition. Lane banned the male colonists from having sexual liaisons with the local Guaraní women, who given that they were 80 per cent of the population, was also an impractical notion. He also displayed a puritan streak by insisting that all members of the commune marry for life. In Lane’s own words, the colony was “a commonhold of English speaking whites, who accept among their principles, Life marriages, Teetotalism and the Colour Line.” [Cosme Monthly, Sept 1896].

William Lane was by nature “autocratic, under pressure his simplistic communism and mateship developed a non-denominational but distinctly religious tinge” [Gavin Souter, ‘William Lane’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983]. Lane’s leadership style, like Föster’s, clearly inclined towards millenarianism and the messianic [John Kellett, “William Lane and ‘New Australia’, Labour History, 72 (May 1997)]

Racism was always a key feature of Lane’s credo of utopian socialism and his overall philosophy. Back in Australia, this had already shown itself in his race novel, White or Yellow? and in his strident opposition to the introduction of Polynesian labour in Australia. Lane’s vision of utopian socialism put great store on the exalted nature of ‘mateship‘, but as the South Australian Register reported on 1 January 1895, many of the settlers thought the leader impractical, “there was too much talk about mateship and not enough of crops and cattle” [Kellett, ibid.].

Added to this, the conditions under which the Nueva Australinos found themselves were very harsh, the climate was inhospitable, the land was not as arable as had been hoped (less like outback Queensland than initially thought); mosquito and parasite infestation plagued them, Tigrés (jaguars) prowled around the camps at night [Ben Stubbs, “The New Australians of South America”,]

Nueva Australia was established on the basis of a socialist cooperative enterprise, the colonists were compelled to commit all of their personal savings to a communal fund. Once underway, all cash in the colony was held collectively. Inevitably, this lead to bickering which was ongoing. Some members were accused of withholding money from the collective ‘kitty'[The West Australian, 29 December 1893, The Brisbane Courier, 9 July 1894]. Harmony within the colony by now was already strained.

Colonia Cosme, Lane's new start project!
Colonia Cosme, Lane’s new start project!

Things only deteriorated, an anti-Lane faction developed and Lane expelled some of these dissenters from the commune. At the same time Lane was accused of favouring a friend of his who had transgressed the colony rules [JB Henderson, William Lane, the prophet of Socialism”, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 8(3) 1968]. Inevitably there was a backlash against Lane’s ‘Law’ by the majority of the settlers. Ideological disputes and personality clashes intensified to the point where Lane was forced to break away from the original settlement and start a new community (he called Colonia Cosme) which adhered to his over-the-top brand of puritanism. The rebels under trade unionist Gilbert Casey maintained the original settlement, Nueva Australia, but disbanded the communistic methods in favour of a more individual approach to financial arrangements.

Both colonies continued to struggle for viability. The Australian newspapers of the day regularly reported entreaties to the authorities from individual families for assisted passage back to Australia owing to their destitution [Brisbane Courier, 12 February 1896, Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 20 January 1897]. Lane tried to recruit new members to Cosme from England but was only at best marginally successfully. By 1899 Lane himself had abandoned his own utopian project and returned to Australasia, eventually to do a political volte-face, becoming a conservative journalist in New Zealand.

By the end of the 1890s it was transparent to all that both utopian experiments were abject failures and the Paraguayan Government stepped in and ended the communal nature of the colonies, offering the remaining members (such as there were) individual plots of land to work. In this transformed fashion the settlements stumbled on, sans communism. Today the remnants of Lane’s idealist vision remain in two townships, one called Nueva Australia and the other, (curiously) Nueva Londres.



One of the most pervasive and influential ideas in Western thinking in the late 19th Century was the notion of eugenics. This pseudo-scientific belief underpinned the theoretical framework of both Paraguayan utopian societies. The practice of strict racial separation, whether that be white/native American or German/Jew, was an essential tenet of Nuevo Germania and New Australia, based on the supposed inherent superiority of people of English/German stock. The widespread acceptance of Social Darwinism at that time fed into that self-perception of superiority. Lane envisaged that in the Nueva Australian wilderness there would be forged a type of Australian man of pure English (Anglo-Saxon) stock that would prevent racial decay of the white man, just as Förster saw Nueva Germania in the jungle as the breeding ground for a new, higher and purer ‘race’ (sic) of Saxon stock [MacIntyre, op.cit; Williams, Krause & Knowles, op.cit.].

As indicated above, there were a number of distinct similarities between the leaders of the German and the Australian aspirational utopian colonies in their beliefs and prejudices. Both were religious fanatics imbued with peculiar forms of agrarian Christian socialism. Both were wowsers and racists harbouring a deep fear of miscegenation [Williams, Krause & Knowles, op.cit.].

Remnants of Nueva Australia
The Australian and German colonies in Paraguay were neither utopian or viable. They failed, partly because there was a sense of unreality about the entire project. Poor leadership retarded the communes’ development. Lane and Förster’s fantastically dreamy visions were not rooted in anything concrete. “Authoritarianism for authoritarianism’s sake” succeeded only in alienating the settlement members. Both leaders were unrealistic in expecting them to blithely accept unreasonable demands that they abstain from drink, from meat, from physical contact with the local women, forgo money, and so on. In addition to all of this, the harshness of conditions in the jungle and wilderness of Paraguay tested the new settlers and repeated crop failures prevented them from making a decent economic livelihood from the land, condemning those that remained to a life of subsistence agriculture.