‘Marion Mahony Reconsidered’ by David Van Zanten (ed.)


2011, 147 P & notes.

I come to this book feeling as if I have entered a room at a party where everyone knows everyone else. The so-called Prairie School, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Griffins are well-furrowed academic fields, quite out of my own area.  My own knowledge of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin is limited to awareness of their houses and landscaping in the Heidelberg and Ivanhoe area, and what I have gleaned from Heidelberg Historical Society’s exhibition Against the Forces that we mounted three years back.  In photographs she looks stern and formidable, and I’m aware of an underlying Unitarian/Anthroposophical influence in her work. What I hadn’t realized is that there is an ongoing controversy over her status as an architect.  Was she a merely helpmate to her husband Walter Burley Griffin,  and architectural collaborator, or was she the hidden force behind him?

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. It is significant, I think, that the book utilizes her maiden rather than married name, seeking to delineate her identity as woman, thinker, artist and representationist in her own right, and not just as an adjunct to the two other men with whom she is professionally associated: Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin.

Marion Mahony, born in 1870, was the second woman to graduate from an American university, and the first to be licensed to practice under any regulatory structure anywhere in the world.  In the first essay, ‘Girl Talk: Feminism and Domestic Architecture at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio’ , Alice T. Friedman points out that Mahony was raised in a liberal, lively, women-centred intellectual milieu. When working together at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park, Mahony and Frank Lloyd Wright sparked off each other and there were strong ideological and intellectual affinities between them.  Although both she and Wright disavowed them, they both carried these affinities throughout their careers.  The chapter is available from Places journal in full here.

The second chapter ‘Graphic Depictions: the Evolution of Marion Mahony’s Architectural Renderings’ was rather too technical for me, but I understood enough that she developed a distinctive representational style for rendering designs on paper that was copied by other studios.  Influenced, perhaps, by the Japanese style that was so popular at the turn of the century, her plates showed the house within a treed garden setting, the floorplan, and often cut-aways showing the construction. Although much of this chapter was beyond me, it did reinforce just how few women there were in the architectural environment.

‘Motifs and Motives in the Lifework of Marion Mahony’ was a beautifully written chapter by James Weirick. He started the chapter with a consideration of a drawing that Mahony had made of a large Angophora Lanceolata tree at Castlecrag Gully- or rather, two versions of the same drawing where the second had an inked-in space  between the branches.  These carefully composed gaps, Weirick suggested, were similar to the blanks and silences in Mahony’s own narrative The Magic of America which she conceived to be a biography of her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. Although she considered herself to be Griffin’s architectural collaborator, in this work (written after Griffin’s death) she consciously cast herself into a subsidiary role- a trope that architectural historians have tended to accept too readily until recently.  Weirick emphasized the influence of Mahony’s anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy heavily influenced by Rudolf Steiner.  Her spiritual journey started with Unitarianism and her design for the  Church of All Souls in Evanston  (since  demolished) was one of her first commissions, encapsulating many of her ideas about a communal spiritual response rendered through a constructed form.  In analysing The Magic of America, Weirick drew on Rocoeur’s work on history Memory, History and Forgetting to explore the difference between memory and imagination and how they operated in Mahony’s narrative.

The final chapter, Anna Rubbo’s ‘Marion Mahony’s Return to the United States: War, Women and “Magic” also picked up on Mahony’s The Magic of America but as just one aspect of her time back in America.  She had returned to America in 1930 after she and Griffin separated, but  they both returned briefly to America in 1932 before travelling to India, where Griffin died. She returned again to America and picked up her long-standing connection with pacificists and suffragists. There are connections here with Australian Miles Franklin and Alice Henry, as well as a number of prominent feminist pacifists. Rubbo makes the point that, within the extensive correspondence between these engaged, active women, the personal and professional are intertwined.   As well as writing the unwieldy The Magic of America she also designed two unrealized projects, the World Fellowship Centre and Hill Crystals.  As with  Canberra, these designs combined housing with and public buildings, reflecting her commitment to community planning, environmentalism and utopianism.

The book is lavishly illustrated, although only four plates are in colour. There are several illustrations that are referred to in multiple places throughout the four chapters, and it was good to have the drawings clearly numbered (although it would have been even better to have a page number as well). I feared a little that I was completely out of my depth -and at times I was –  but not enough to dull my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  I liked the symmetry of the first and final chapters, interestingly both written by women, and I come away with a much more developed sense of that rather formidable-looking woman.

For a much more erudite review than this, see Lisa D Schrenk’s review here.  If you have access to Australian Book Review, Alisdair McGregor (the author of Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin) also wrote a review in the November 2011 edition.  Elizabeth Buckingham’s PhD thesis ‘Marion Mahony Griffin and the Magic of America’ is available here.

And if you’d like to know more, Steven Barlow will be speaking to Heidelberg Historical Society about Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony on Tuesday 13 December 2016. See details here.


4 responses to “‘Marion Mahony Reconsidered’ by David Van Zanten (ed.)

  1. Wow, that’s synchronicity: I’ve just reviewed ‘Making Magic, the Marion Mahony Griffin Story’ by Glenda Korporaal. Korporaal is a journalist so she writes clear, accessible prose so I found it enjoyable reading:)

  2. Pingback: Miles Franklin, Canberra, the Griffins | theaustralianlegend

  3. artandarchitecturemainly

    I love the idea that after graduation, Marion Mahony (1871-1961) worked in an architecture firm that was located in Steinway Hall. The space was shared with many other architects, including the very famous Frank Lloyd Wright. It was sheer luck that Frank Lloyd Wright ran away to Europe with the wife of a client in 1909. He left his practice to Hermann Von Holst who imm­ed­iately engaged Marion Mahony to design their more complex projects. Even better was that it was Mahony who recommended Walter Burley Griffin to von Holst, to develop landscaping for the three houses commissioned from Wright in Decatur Illinois!

    It isn’t what you know that counts in this world… it is who you know.

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