Born: Chicago February 14 1871
Died: Cook County Hospital August 10 1961, ashes at Graceland Cemetery
Architect, community planner, delineator
Born and raised in Chicago Marion Lucy Mahony Griffin (1871–1961) worked as an architect in the United States, Australia and India. Her active professional career spanned 50 years: the early years as a young architect in turn of the century Chicago (1894–1914), the middle years in Australia and India (1914–1938) and the later years in Chicago (1938–c1944). As the second woman to graduate in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (1894), and the first registered woman architect in Illinois, she helped pioneer women’s participation in architecture in the United States. She contributed as a designer to the development of the Prairie School which revolutionised American architecture, and to the dissemination of its ideas through her drawings. Her pursuit of democratic ideals in architecture and community planning in Australia, especially Canberra and Castlecrag and the United States, is significant, and throughout her life she maintained an outspoken position on environmental and planning matters.
Mahony Griffin’s professional life needs to be read against the backdrop of her working and personal relationships, especially with Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), the pre-eminent Prairie School architect, and her architect husband Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937), and in relation to late nineteenth century Chicago. Social conditions and social reform, and the search for spiritual alternatives to Christianity and materialism by artistic communities in Chicago (and elsewhere), bear on an understanding of Mahony’s personal and professional development.
United States (1894–1914)
On her return to Chicago from Boston her first job was with her cousin, MIT graduate Dwight Perkins (1867–1941), a reform minded architect who saw the potential of architecture to address social issues. Mahony worked on the twelve-storey Steinway Hall (now demolished) at 64 East Van Buren in Chicago. From 1895 the loft space in Steinway Hall was home to progressive architects Perkins, Wright, Griffin, Mahony, Spencer, the Pond brothers, Hunt, Tomlinson and others. There they developed and debated ideas, reading Henry George (1839–1897), the advocate of single tax, and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) the English sociologist and philosopher. They also encountered Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) the so-called spiritual father of the Prairie School, and the ideas of Emerson, Whitman, Greenough and Semper.
By 1895 Perkins did not have enough work to keep Mahony on. She began a long if intermittent employment with Frank Lloyd Wright. From these years she is best known for her renderings of Wright’s designs. Her style was inspired by Japanese printmaking, an interest she and Wright shared. In 1910 Ausgefuhrte Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright) was published in Germany. It became one of the most influential architectural publications in the twentieth century. Of the 100 plates in the Wasmuth Folio, as it is often referred to, Mahony prepared more than half the underlays. Her best-known private commission in the Wright years was her 1902 All Souls Church in Evanston, demolished in 1961 to make way for a carpark. In 1909 Mahony joined Herman von Holst as head designer when he took over Wright’s practice. She is credited with the David Amberg house, Grand Rapids, Michigan (1909–1911) and the Adolph Mueller house, Decatur, Illinois (1910). She prepared drawings for the Henry Ford house in Detroit but this did not proceed.
Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin married on June 29 1911 in Michigan City, Indiana. The Griffins had a long and productive artistic partnership (1911–1937). Working together, but always as second fiddle by her choice, she made the drawings for a number of Walter Griffin’s Chicago commissions. In 1911 the Griffins collaborated on a competition entry for the design of Australia’s proposed federal capital in Canberra, helped by Roy Lippincott and George Elge. Marion Mahony prepared the exquisitely rendered drawings and in 1912 their entry was awarded first prize.
Australia and India (1914–1938)
In 1914 Marion Mahony and Walter Griffin moved to Australia where they lived for over 20 years. Shortly after arriving in Sydney Marion Mahony published two articles on ‘Democratic Architecture’ in Sydney’s foremost architectural magazine Building (June, August 1914). They moved to Melbourne in 1916 where they had some major commissions: Newman College at Melbourne University (1915–1917), Café Australia (1915, now demolished), Capitol House, an office building with theatre (1921), and the Eaglemont community plan (1916–1923). In 1919, working at weekends, they built themselves a small house in the yard of the Lippincott’s Eaglemont house using the prefabricated Knitlock building system designed and patented by Griffin in 1918. They outwitted the local council by calling it a doll’s house.
Griffin resigned as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in 1920 and in 1921 they secured an option on 650 acres (263 hectares) in Castlecrag, Sydney. Griffin formed the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA) to purchase and develop the site as a model community.
In 1935, through theosophical connections, Griffin was invited to India to design a library for Lucknow University. Marion Mahony followed in 1936 to help with this and other projects, which included residences, University buildings, a building for the Pioneer Press and the entire United Provinces Industrial & Agricultural Exhibition. But when Walter Griffin died suddenly in 1937, Marion Mahony returned to Australia.
United States (1938–c1944)
Marion Mahony returned to Chicago in 1939, aged 68. Peace activist and founder of the Campaign for World Government, Lola Lloyd (1875–1944), gave Mahony two commissions: a World Fellowship Center in Conway, New Hampshire (1942) and the Hills and Rosary Crystals subdivision near Boerne, Texas for the maverick Lloyd family (1943). The Texas plan for the Hills and Rosary Crystals subdivision revived earlier approaches to community planning. The 388-acre site for the World Fellowship Center offered Mahony the opportunity to explore once again ideas about community planning and democracy. Neither proceeded following Lloyd’s death. A third project, a plan for South Chicago (1944), did not proceed either. During this time she wrote The Magic of America, a memorial to her life with Griffin and his life’s work. This lengthy manuscript (over 1000 pages) is organized into four sections or ‘battles’: Empirial (sic) Battle (India), Federal Battle (Canberra), Municipal Battle (Castlecrag) and Individual Battle (the Griffins’ relationship). She finished it in 1949.
In addition to her professional architectural work, Marion Mahony was a keen horticulturist, graphic designer and painter. Her artwork includes portrait miniatures, a large mural, ‘Fairies Feeding the Herons’ in a Rogers Park school (1931) and portraits of Australian trees on silk. In Castlecrag, Sydney she revived her MIT interest in theatre and was involved in production, set and costume design for more than 12 plays in the Haven Scenic Theatre. From 1930 when Marion Mahony joined the Sydney Anthroposophical Society (Walter Griffin joined in 1931) the teachings of founder Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) were a guiding force in her life.
Separating out Marion Mahony Griffin’s individual contribution to architecture is a difficult task, working as she did in a collaborative way and with extraordinary men in a male dominated profession. The joint life work of Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin amounts to some 280 architectural, planning and landscape projects of which approximately 180 were built. In the United States around 76 out of 114 projects were realized; in Australia 95 out of 130; and in India seven out of 37. Houses and planned communities made up the bulk of the American commissions. In their 21 years in Australia (1914–1935) the range of work was greater and included Canberra, five new towns, several suburban communities, three campus plans, houses, industrial buildings (primarily incinerators) and some commercial buildings.
Dr Anna Rubbo is Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney. She is a founding editor of the journal Architectural Theory Review, publishes on architect Marion Mahony Griffin and was a member of the National Capital Authority Griffin Legacy Advisory Panel (2003–04). A member of the UN Millennium Project task Force on Improving the Lives Slum Dwellers (2002–04) she convened Global Studio Istanbul 2005, and is developing Global Studio Vancouver, to be held in conjunction with the June 2006 UN World Urban Forum. She is recipient of a 2005 RAIA Neville Quarry Education Prize.
Griffin, Marion Mahony, The Magic of America: Electronic Edition, Art Institute of Chicago, published online only, August 2007, http://www.artic.edu/magicofamerica/
Rubbo, Anna, ‘Marion Mahony: a larger than life presence’, in Anne Watson (ed), Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin: America, Australia, India. Sydney, Powerhouse Publishing, 1998: 40–55.
Wood, Debora (ed), Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature. Illinois, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University Press, 2005.