Anonymous on Paper: How Marion Mahoney Griffin Influenced Australian Architecture

First job and stolen coatings

Marion Mahoney was born in Chicago on February 14, 1871. Her father, an American of Irish descent, was first a teacher and then took over as principal. Marion loved to remember the house where she grew up, but in 1881 it was destroyed by fire.

In 1894, she graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in architecture, becoming the second female certified architect in the history of the foundation. Mahoney also became the first woman to be licensed as an architect in Illinois and possibly the United States in general.

A year after graduating, Marion took a job in the office of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. Mahoney worked there until 1909. At Wright he designed mainly furniture and stained glass.

Mahoney contributed as a designer to the development of the Prairie School, an innovative movement that revolutionized American architecture. She developed her visual style inspired by Japanese wood patterns. In Marion’s designs, the houses were buried in a lush landscape and were gracefully inscribed in the landscape.

Wright ran occasional in-house design contests among his employees, recalls Mahoney’s colleague Barry Byrne, and most of the contests were won by Marion. Wright kept her plans to himself and kept them for future use. Anyone who said that their author was “Miss Mahoney” was punished.

Marion Ink drawings formed the bulk of the so-called Wasmuth portfolio, a voluminous two-volume sheet of Wright’s work published in Germany in 1910. These works influenced European modernists, including the legendary Le Corbusier.

Deborah Wood, who organized an exhibition of Mahoney’s work in 2005, remarked: “She made the very designs that people think of when they think of Frank Lloyd Wright.” Paul Kruty, an architectural historian at the University of Illinois, confirms: “It is generally accepted that performance style (visualization, Forbes woman), for which Frank Lloyd Wright became famous, belonged to Marion Mahoney “. At the same time, Wright never acknowledged his employee’s strengths and considered her an imitator.

“I did not want to acknowledge my contribution”

In 1909, Wright left for Europe unexpectedly: he began a relationship with a client’s wife. The architect left all businesses in the United States, including completed projects – some of which were completed by Marion. Specifically, he undertook the construction of three houses in Decatur, Illinois. In the process of processing it, Mahoney turned to former Wright employee Walter Burley Griffin for help.

Mahoney and Griffin had similar ideals and perspectives on life. They were both in love with wildlife and were inspired by it in their work. Marion and Walter were married in 1911. It was not just a wedding, but a union of two artists – the Griffins began working together.

Shortly after their wedding, Marion persuaded her husband to take part in a competition to design Australia’s new federal capital, Canberra. She designed 16 ink drawings for him. Marion highlighted the rugged Australian landscape, which, according to journalist Fred Bernstein, seemed to “embrace the buildings”. Canberra in the project looked like a very green city: Griffins believed that the natural landscape was as important as the buildings.

Marion’s work largely secured Walter’s victory in the competition. According to the New York Times, the designs, which seemed to capture the essence of Australia – a place Griffin herself was never found – played an important role in the judges’ choice. However, her name did not appear in any of the works.

There are cases in history where husbands took ownership of their husbands’ jobs and passed them on as their own, but in the case of the Griffins, that did not happen – Walter did not hide his wife’s significant contribution to project development. For example, he told a reporter that the victory in the competition belonged to Marion to a much greater degree than to him. “My wife is a genius and I’re just a businessman,” Walter said.

Ann Watson, MA and PhD in Architecture from the University of Sydney, wrote: “Mahoney was clearly a key support in the office [мужа]but did not seem to want to acknowledge her contribution. Perhaps, at a time when women were generally confined to domestic life, the very possibility of pursuing an architectural career with a loved one, a kinship spirit, brought Mahone considerable satisfaction.

In addition, there could be another reason behind the couple’s reluctance to name Marion in the visuals. Mahoney Griffin was one of the few women architects in the world. In the early 20th century, women in traditional male occupations were often treated with prejudice, believing that they could not be as talented as men. Maybe Walter and Marion decided it would be easier for them to win the competition if they only gave one, male name.

Build Paradise on Earth

In 1914, Family Guy moved to Australia and Marion was steadily immersed in project work. She wrote: “The only thing I am interested in is work and I do it for a long time after my spine starts to hurt.”

David M. Amberg House, 2009 (Photo by Jaydec·CC BY-SA 3.0·

In 1920, Marion and Walter bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Sydney. This place called Castlecrag was to become, in their words, a “model residential area”. Since the land belonged to the Griffins, they could do whatever they wanted here. He dreamed that the houses here would “harmonize aesthetically with the environment and obey the natural beauty of the earth.” In 1925 they settled here.

In 1935, Walter was invited to India: he was asked to design the Lucknow University Library. Marion followed him in 1936, but as early as 1937, Walter died unexpectedly after surgery. For Marion, his death was a blow. In 1938, he left Castlecrag for good. “I left Castlecrag, a real piece of paradise on Earth, to go on my next adventure,” Mahoney Griffin recalls.

Return to America

After returning to Chicago in 1938, Marion continued to work as an architect and also lectured on anthropology, the spiritual teachings of the then modern philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In addition, Griffin began writing memoirs. In them she expressed her vision for the profession and the place of man in the world: “Nature is so full of magic that you wonder how people can be so boring.”

Thinking about nature, Marion also thought about environmental issues. She was convinced: “the need to preserve life on Earth is a primary task in every field, in every profession.”

Griffin died in poverty in 1961 at the age of 90. Her death certificate incorrectly stated that she was a public school teacher. After Marion’s departure, architectural historians referred to her more often in relation to her relationships with various famous men. Brendan Gill, author of Frank Lloyd Wright’s biography Many Masks, called it “a troubled, big-nosed beauty.”

Gradually, however, the situation began to change. Today, Marion Mahoney Griffin is increasingly remembered as a person who contributed significantly to the development of architecture. In 2021, the Australian National Capital Authority (NCA) held a series of events and an exhibition in her honor. “I want people to know her name,” said NCA curator Roslyn Hull. “We just knew she was and was a fantastic architect, designer, artist and environmentalist.”

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