10 May 2016

Architects Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin

The connection between like-minded architects, often across a period of time and sometimes in different continents, continues to impress. Consider Australian architect Best Overend, who had worked with Canadian architect Wells Coates in London;  Overend returned to Melbourne with radical Wells Coates ideas on inner city bachelor pads. Or Viennese lad Harry Seidler who studied at Harvard where he was taught by the great names of Bauhaus architecture, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Later Seidler dotted the Sydney landscape with Bauhaus architecture. One of my students suggested I should examine another architectural connection i.e between Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin, the designer of Australia’s capital city.

Let us start with 1] Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) who was an influential architect and critic of the Chicago School, a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, and an inspiration to the Chicago group of architects who became known as the Prairie School.

2] Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) was born in Maywood near Chicago. In 1900, as a recent graduate and inspired by the said architect Louis Sullivan, Walter Burley Griffin wanted to create his own kind of contemporary architecture.

After graduation, Burley Griffin worked for 3] Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), leaving the older man’s arch­it­ectural practice in late 1905 to set up his own private practice at Steinway Hall.

4] Marion Mahony (1871-1961) was born in Chicago and became only the second woman ever to graduate in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1894. After graduation, Mahony worked in an architecture firm that was located in Steinway Hall. The space was shared with many other architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.

Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright ran away to Europe with the wife of a client in September 1909. He left his practice to Hermann Von Holst who imm­ed­iately engaged Marion Mahony to design their more complex projects. And note another connection! It was Mahony who recommended Walter Burley Griffin to von Holst, to develop landscaping for the three houses commissioned from Wright in Decatur Illinois!

Lloyd Wright
Henderson House, 1901
Elmhurst Illinois

Bradley House, 1909
Madison Wisconsin

Burly Griffin
Carter House, 1910
Evanston, Illinois

Glenda Korporaal tells of an Iowan connection between the architects. Thanks to the work of Mahony and others in Wright’s studio, the Park Inn Hotel in Iowa opened in September 1910. More than a century later, Wright’s Park Inn has been lovingly restored by local citizens and is the only remaining hotel designed by Wright. Now called the Historic Park Inn with its elegant 1910 Grille restaurant, this small place has been lovingly restored with a touch of Arts and Crafts style. For Australians, it is a unique chance to stay in an original Wright building and a great base from which to tour the last group of houses designed by Griffin and his wife Marion before they left the USA for Australia in 1914.

Appropriately The Park Inn was the site of the last meeting of the Walter Burley Griffin Society of America.

Five Griffin houses cluster around Willow Creek, in walking distance of the hotel. Looking at these houses it is not hard to believe that Griffin might have become one of the leading Prairie School architects of America, had he not decide to move to Australia to build his ideal city in Canberra.

Korporaal also recommended that visitors stop at the town of Owatonna to see one of Louis Sullivan’s famous jewel box banks. Designed by the Chicago architect who inspired both Wright and Griffin, this bank still has its spectacular, high-ceilinged building with its historic murals and Arts and Crafts-inspired décor. The links between Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony are not difficult to find.

Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony married in 1911. This was just two months after the international competition for the design of the new Federal capital of Australia was announced. They must have worked up a feverish sweat on their honeymoon, to prepare the plans in time for the Australian government’s deadline.

Assisted by others in Steinway Hall, all of whom joined the Griffins in Australia in 1914, SHE produced the elegant set of drawings illustrating Griffin's ideas. HE won the competition in May 1912 with a grandly conceived arrangement for a national capital of 75,000. Taking advantage of the impressive landscape around Canberra, the plan was loosely based on the design ideas which Griffin had observed in the Chicago World Fair (1893) and the Burnham and Bennett architectural plan for Chicago (1909).

Walter and Marion spent twenty years in Australia (1914-1935). Marion managed the Sydney office and was responsible for the design of their private commissions. When Canberra finally got its central lake years later, Prime Minister Robert Menzies named it Lake Burley Griffin. Today the population of this elegant city is 400,000.

Preliminary plan for the development of Canberra 
by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney, 1914.
The design was based on circles and rectangles, joined by long avenues. The city had to fit in with the natural landscape of the valley.

Alasdair McGregor’s book
Grand Obsessions

When the couple moved to India in 1935, Mahony oversaw the design of 100+ Prairie School buildings there. Sadly Burley Griffin died in India unexpectedly in 1937, so Mahony completed their work and returned to Australia for 2 years.

Mahony and Griffin had definitely spread the Prairie Style to two large countries (Australia and India), far from its Chicago origins. But she credited Louis Sullivan as the inspiration for the Prairie School philosophy rather than Frank Lloyd Wright, as we might have expected. As Neil6 has so clearly shown, the relationship between Burley Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright had gone cold following Griffin's departure from Wright's firm, way back in 1906. Thirty years later, Mahony still had not forgiven her old boss.

Readers might like to locate photographer-architect Alasdair McGregor’s book Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Published by Penguin in 2014, the book charts their lives, from their university years and meeting in Chicago under Frank Lloyd Wright, to their projects in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, and their years in India.


Ex-pat said...

What made Canberra look specifically Griffen-ish?

Hels said...


I have added the 1914 plan submitted by Burley Griffin. Expand the design to see that it was based on circles and rectangles, joined by long avenues. And note the amazing, unimpeded views from the Capital to the Houses of Parliament then to the Civic Centre.

Andrew said...

The Burley Griffin house is very similar to the Sullivan house, too much so to be a coincidence.

mem said...

I have always wondered whether the picture cinema in Westgarth Northcote was designed by WBG as I had been told . Do you know Hels . ??

Hels said...


Agreed. I think the words and practices of the first teacher and mentor stays in young person's ear for the rest of his professional career. Young Walter Burley Griffin totally admired the older Louis Sullivan and took him as a model and inspiration for Prairie School philosophy.

What are the main elements of Sullivan's Prairie School? - horizontal lines, low-pitched roof, central chimney, overhanging eaves and open floor plan. No wonder the architectural styles of the houses are so similar.

Hels said...


Heritage Council of Victoria has recorded MANY domestic and public architectural sites in Melbourne and regional Victoria designed by either Walter Burley Griffin or Marion Mahony or both. But their list does not mention Walter or Marion in relation to Westgarth Cinema in Northcote.


Hels said...

In "Chicago or the Bush", Neil Killion wrote that Griffin loved the site where Canberra was to be built. He took to bush walking and exploring the local flora and fauna. Construction commenced in 1913. American ex-pat KING O'MALLEY, the Minister for Home Affairs, oversaw the competition proceedings and appointed a departmental board to oversee the construction of Canberra. Some members of the departmental board had their own design ideas for Canberra. Without consulting Griffin, some changes were made to his original designs!

When Griffin learned of the changes he was facing he was furious and demanded that he be allowed to personally oversee the construction without interference. So in October 1913, the board was removed and Griffin was appointed as the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. This allowed Griffin to include all the features that he had originally envisaged for Canberra. A grateful, fledgling Australian Government wanted to appease the genius of Griffin!


Hels said...

‘Marion Mahony Reconsidered’ by David Van Zanten (ed.) was reviewed in The Resident Judge of Port Phillip. The four essays in this book are extended versions of six presentations delivered at a symposium conducted alongside an exhibition at the Block Museum ‘Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature’ in 2005. The other two presentations made at the symposium were published in the exhibition catalogue.

Read Janine's review at https://residentjudge.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/marion-mahony-reconsidered-by-david-van-zanten-ed/