Architecture Planning and Preservation Marion Mahony Griffin
by
Shiben Banerji
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0062

Introduction

Marion Mahony Griffin (b. 1871–d. 1961) excelled in a range of creative endeavors as extensive as the geographic expanse of her long and storied career. Between 1894 and 1949, Mahony worked as an architect, illustrator, planner, real estate developer, community leader, public speaker, and author in the United States, Australia, and India. From the outset, Mahony’s career included solo commissions, independent exhibitions, and lectures as well as work completed in conjunction with contemporaries who, like Mahony, began their careers in Chicago’s Steinway Hall loft. They included, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hermann von Holst, and Mahony’s husband and professional partner Walter Burley Griffin. Critical interest in Mahony’s contribution to architecture and urbanism mirrors the reception of architectural modernism in the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mahony’s work was examined for its potential to herald a new age. In the middle of the century, it was seen as a possible beacon and alternative to European modernism. Since the dawn of the 21st century, and after a period of apathy toward her work, historians and professionals have begun analyzing Mahony’s practice, its conceptual surround, and the history of its reception to reflect on the transnational routes of architectural modernism, biases in the historiography of architecture, and the potential for an ecologically sensitive approach to urbanism. This trajectory of US reactions to Mahony from hope to apathy to renewed interest is curiously also true of popular and scholarly portrayals of Mahony in other countries. It evinces a US-centric approach to understanding Mahony’s work that, until very recently, obscured the importance of anti-colonialism in shaping Mahony’s visual, spatial, and literary practice after 1914 when she began to live and work outside the United States. New scholarship on Mahony’s work has led to popular and professional acknowledgement of her talent: the Marion Mahony Emerging Practitioner Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology honors a distinguished alumna; Marion’s List is a public register of women working in architecture and the built environment in Australia, launched by Parlour in collaboration with the National Committee for Gender Equity of the Australian Institute of Architects; the Australian Capital Territory Government named the lookout on Mount Ainslie in Canberra, made famous by a Mahony rendering the Marion Mahony Griffin View; and the Chicago Park District and current residents in Mahony’s old neighborhood named a lakefront beach in Chicago the Marion Mahony Griffin Beach Park.

Biographies

Biographical explanations for Mahony and Griffin’s work have long dominated Mahony scholarship. In part, this was an artifact of their work being scattered across three continents. Scholars relied on autobiographical recollections of projects in The Magic of America: Electronic Edition to account for the provenance and conceptual stakes of their projects. Unfortunately, none of these biographical studies examine the poetics and literary dimensions of Mahony’s memoirs, treating it instead as a transparent, even if occasionally unreliable, recollection. Curiously, every biographical study focuses on a specific phase of Mahony and Griffin’s career. A particularly vexing problem for biographical approaches to Mahony and Griffin’s built work is the significance of modern occultism for the forms they created. Biographies that mention Mahony and Griffin’s record of built and written work for the Theosophical Society and their subsequent membership in Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society avoid historicizing modern occultism’s insistence on addressing social and political issues as a way of uncovering putatively esoteric truth. Consequently, the Theosophical Society’s historical interest in the economic doctrines of Henry George—another important source for Mahony and Griffin—are overlooked. Weirick 1998 (cited in Buildings) contains a responsible account of architectural forms that can be traced to Mahony and Griffin’s encounter with modern occultism beginning in 1926, and dismisses outlandish claims in the Australian popular press about the supposedly esoteric meanings of Mahony and Griffin’s Canberra plan. Mahony appears only passingly in Birrell 1964, Johnson 1977, and Peisch 1964, even as her memoirs constitute an integral source for each of them. McGregor 2009 is explicitly a joint biography, as is, despite its title, Walter Burley Griffin: In His Own Words. Valuable insight on Mahony’s architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1890s can be found in Grimes 2007 (cited under Historiography: Feminist Analyses), while Mahony’s stellar performance on the first architectural licensing exam held in the United States in 1898 is documented in Kruty 1997. Biography is an object of historical analysis, rather than a mode of historical explanation or a repository of facts and anecdotes in Banerji 2021 (cited under Transnational Routes). It historicizes the genre of the architect’s autobiography, and links the early reception of Mahony’s memoir to the professionalization of architectural history in the United States. This contextualization makes Mahony’s text more amenable to literary criticism, revealing Mahony’s reception and reworking of Anthroposophical and Georgist textual sources and themes.

  • Birrell, James. Walter Burley Griffin. Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1964.

    The first biography of Griffin. The little attention it devotes to Mahony is unflattering, suggesting, for example, that Mahony married Griffin because she anticipated he was about to become successful.

  • Johnson, Donald Leslie. The Architecture of Walter Burley Griffin. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan, 1977.

    Covering a greater geographic and temporal span than Birrell 1964, this biographical study is marred by factual errors. Information on Mahony in this volume is based entirely on Van Zanten 1966 (cited under Buildings). Derisively describes Mahony’s work prior to her marriage and partnership with Griffin as “inconsistent, [lacking] restraint, and . . . not architecturally rationalized as an aesthetic and technical whole” (p. 12).

  • Kruty, Paul. “A New Look at the Beginnings of the Illinois Architects Licensing Law.” Illinois Historical Journal 90.3 (Autumn 1997): 154–172.

    Describes the circumstances leading to the first regulations in the United States requiring architects in Illinois be licensed to practice, the conditions under which Mahony’s contemporaries received grandfathered licenses, and the components of the three-day exam first held in 1898. It notes that Mahony earned the third-highest score of all the examinees on that occasion, making her the first woman in the United States to earn an architectural license via examination.

  • The Magic of America: Electronic Edition.

    Mahony’s sprawling memoir, composed of disparate literary fragments: correspondence, essays, and project documents. Although its more than 1,400 pages are nominally organized into four-thematically defined sections, themes like social relations in land recur across the text. Similarly, building projects like Newman College are discussed in each volume.

  • McGregor, Alasdair. Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Camberwell, Australia: Lanter; Penguin Books, 2009.

    A joint biography with useful details on Mahony’s early life and career.

  • Peisch, Mark L. The Chicago School of Architecture: Early Followers of Sullivan and Wright. New York: Random House, 1964.

    Originated as a PhD dissertation, this monograph focuses on Griffin’s early career. Notoriously, it diminishes Mahony’s role in designing the houses at Millikin Place in Decatur, IL, attributing them instead to Wright without citing any credible evidence.

  • Walter Burley Griffin: In His Own Words.

    Production notes and interview transcripts for a PBS documentary on Mahony and Griffin.

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