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The Griffins Win

The Griffins’ entry in the design competition was informed by both history and nature. It was also beautifully rendered. This page showcases the Griffin plans, and links to a page on how they were prepared.

In May 1912, Walter Burley Griffin won the competition to design Australia’s capital city. Although submitted in Walter’s name, the plan was formulated in collaboration with Marion Mahony Griffin.

As landscape architects, the Griffins designed buildings, gardens, landscapes, suburban communities and cities. They aimed to create a habitable ‘second nature – one that drew reference from its natural setting’ (Vernon, 2002).

A unique plan

Other competitors had responded to the site as a blank page, distorting it to conform to various aesthetic principles. In contrast, the Griffins were sensitive to the site’s natural features.

The Griffins delineated a land axis, aligned with the summits of four local mountains. It went from Mount Ainslie to Mount Bimberi in the Brindabellas, passing through Camp Hill and Kurrajong. Crossing this at right angles was a water axis along the river, which in the plan became a chain of ornamental basins. By integrating the site’s topography with their design, the Griffins presented the site itself as a symbol ‘of a democratic national identity’ (Vernon, 2002).

A civilised city

Complementing their landscape design was an architectural scheme for the city. Most remarkable was their proposal for a huge Capitol building, atop the inner city’s highest hill (Kurrajong, now known as Capital Hill).

A ceremonial building, the Capitol would commemorate the achievements of the Australian people. Instead of the ‘inevitable dome’, the building would be capped by a stepped pinnacle or ziggurat. For Walter Burley Griffin, this form expressed ‘the last word of all the longest lived civilisations’ (cited in Vernon, 2002).

Northerly side of water axis, Black Mountain to Lake Park. Four drawings are joined to form this panoramic view Northerly side of water axis, Black Mountain to Lake Park. Four drawings are joined to form this panoramic view Northerly side of water axis, Black Mountain to Lake Park. Four drawings are joined to form this panoramic view Northerly side of water axis, Black Mountain to Lake Park. Four drawings are joined to form this panoramic view
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There was a larger symbolism to the Griffins’ architectural program. While their city would echo the local landscape, its architectural style was global. Indeed there are many references to the ‘Prarie Modernism’ approach with which both were associated in the United States. An enlightened internationalism was integral to the Griffins’ vision for Australia.

This is the view across a line drawn from Mount Ainslie to Kurrajong This is the view across a line drawn from Mount Ainslie to Kurrajong This is the view across a line drawn from Mount Ainslie to Kurrajong This is the view across a line drawn from Mount Ainslie to Kurrajong
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Monumental nature

Lacking the cultural history, artefacts and monuments of Old World capitals, the Griffins’ Canberra would showcase nature instead. The city’s hills became key nodes in a sophisticated three-dimensional urban geometry. The main street of the city (Constitution Avenue) ran parallel to the water axis, on the base of the triangle whose apex was Kurrajong Hill.

Marion Mahony Griffin’s drawings

Marion Mahony Griffin’s representations were a major factor in the design’s success. Florence Taylor – George Taylor’s partner – wrote that the Griffins’ submission ‘stood out with wonderful force’, not just because of the design but equally due to ‘the wonderful manner in which the work was depicted’ (cited in Vernon, 2002).

Marion Mahony’s superb renderings are works of art. They are infused with sepia, gold and other luminescent tones which capture the goldenness of a quintessential Australian landscape.

The drawings are now national heritage treasures held by the National Archives of Australia.

 

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