Walter Burley Griffin

Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937), nine years younger than Frank Lloyd Wright, was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois, moved to nearby Oak Park and then to Elmhurst. During his childhood he attended Oak Park High School. In 1899 he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois. The architecture program then stressed a scientific and rational approach to the subject, with less emphasis on design and the historic styles.

The next two years Griffin served as a draftsman in the offices of Dwight H. Perkins, Robert C. Spencer, Jr., and H. Webster Tomlinson, three among the handful of progressive Chicago architects who have come to be known as the Prairie School. Like Frank Lloyd Wright before him, Griffin came under the intoxicating spell of Louis H. Sullivan. Griffin’s employers were also embracing Sullivan’s call for a modern American architecture, free from the historic influences of Europe.

In 1901, Griffin passed the new Illinois licensing examination and began working for Frank Lloyd Wright in Wright's famous Oak Park studio. Although not an actual partner, Griffin soon had a greater role in all phases of Wright's practice than his associates. He was also project supervisor for some of Wright's most important buildings. Wright permitted Griffin to maintain a small independent practice. In 1904 Griffin began to supply landscape plans for Wright's buildings, and in 1905 he took charge of the entire office while Wright was in Japan.

In 1906, Griffin established his own practice. During the next seven years he produced more than one hundred projects. His early buildings are distinguished from the Prairie houses of Wright by their heavier massing, greater emphasis on symmetry and verticality, interlocking, multi-level interior spaces, termination in gabled rather than hipped roofs, and use of diamond forms.

During 1910 Griffin's designs underwent a remarkable transformation. Bereft of overhanging eaves, his buildings were massive, flat-roofed and cubic, surmounted with roof gardens. Beginning in 1912, Griffin often added an expressive veneer of thick, rough-hewn coursed limestone in such buildings as the Joshua Melson house (Mason City, IA, 1912) and the Stinson Memorial Library (Anna, IL, 1912), two of his masterpieces.

In 1911, Griffin married the architect Marion Lucy Mahony, whom he had known for many years in Wright's office and who was then working for the Chicago architect Herman V. von Holst. Mahony, a fiery, theatrical figure, was the perfect match for the obsessive if serene and even-tempered Griffin. Mahony, who was one of the century's most talented renderers, became Griffin's de facto business partner as well.

In 1912, at age 36, Griffin's design for the capital city of Canberra, Australia was selected as the winner from among 137 entries. The young architect left for Australia in July 1913 to oversee the actual construction of the new city, leaving Mahony in charge of their Chicago practice. She would join him later after turning over their practice to F. Barry Byrne.

Griffin found that work already had begun which compromised his plan and he was anxious to rectify the situation. He soon embarked on a long, hard, and ultimately futile fight to save his capital plan. After years of professional abuse, Griffin resigned as Federal Capital Director in February 1921.

Griffin decided to remain in Australia, maintaining offices in Melbourne and Sydney. Griffin received commissions for town plans and subdivisions. Among his masterpieces were an extraordinary group of garbage incinerators for local councils.

In 1935, Griffin's design was accepted for a new library at Lucknow University in northwest India. In October, he agreed to travel to the site and he persuaded Marion to join him in 1936. Commissions began to pour in, as the Griffins seemed to be reborn--Walter producing some of the most original designs of his career and Marion providing yet another set of ravishing renderings.

In February 1937, Griffin became ill and died of peritonitis several days later. His wife closed the office in India, leaving the Australian practice in the hands of Griffin's partner Eric Nicholls and returned to Chicago to write her memoirs.

Griffin stands as the third great member, after Sullivan and Wright, of the Chicago movement to create a decorated modern architecture for the twentieth century. His buildings, landscapes, and town plans record a lifetime's dedication to this goal.


[This short biography has been adapted from an article by Paul Kruty.]

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