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Walter Burley Griffin

The Man Who 'Made' Canberra


On the way to the Australian Parliament House in Canberra, the visitor from Sydney and other points north crosses the Commonwealth Ave Bridge which spans a small body of water. To his left, he may catch glimpse of a spout of water rising 140 metres into the air — operating two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, and an extra two hours in the evening during daylight saving time — which is the Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet.

This body of water, a most attractive feature of Canberra with parks and well-kept cycleways around it, is Lake Burley Griffin. It was created in 1963 when the Molonglo River was dammed.

In the Australian capital, the lake is not named after a noted Australian but rather after an American from Illinois: the architect and planner Walter Burley Griffin who died in 1937, 26 years before the lake named in his honor was formed.

Prize-winning design

Griffin, born in 1876 in Maywood near Chicago, won in 1910 an international competition to design the capital of Australia, much as another non-Australian, the Danish architect Joern Utzon, won the competition to design that Sydney icon, the Sydney Opera House.

With a bachelor of science in architecture from the University of Illinois, Griffin worked as a draughtsman with celebrated US architect Frank Lloyd Wright who was later to belittle him as nothing more than a draughtsman.

After this break with Wright, the two American architects were never to speak with each other again.

Largest challenge

Walter Burley Griffin's educational background evolved through an interest in landscaping. Seeking the advice of a renowned landscape gardener, O C Simonds, Griffin was surprised to receive the exhortation that he should study "a more lucrative career."

Walter Burley Griffin enrolled in the Department of Architecture of the University of Illinois. His senior project was called A Capitol Building, the plan of which was later never to be found.

The largest challenge of Griffin’s life came in 1912 when he received word from Melbourne that his design for Australia’s national capital had been awarded first prize. It was at this point that he had his falling out with Wright.

Love and heartbreak

The Illinois architect visited Canberra in 1913 where he was lionised. This was the start of a love affair with Australia, but as with Utzon and the Opera House, the relationship teetered into heartbreak as he battled to have his ideas implemented and bureaucrats resisted his designs.

The Griffin Plan was finally accepted in 1925 and the Canberra of his dream began to take shape. The design of Canberra today is very much as Walter Burley Griffin planned, with streets formed in concentric circles, and a triangle formed by the current Parliament House at its apex, Commonwealth Ave and Kings Ave at its sides and the lake at its base.

While in Australia, Griffin designed Newman College at the University of Melbourne and the Capitol Theatre, also in Melbourne. In New South Wales, he was responsible for the planning and development of Leeton and Griffith towns and the Sydney suburbs of Castlecrag and Castle Cove.

In 1936 Griffin migrated to India. He died in 1937.

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