Marion Mahony Griffin, Unbound
A new exhibition shines a light on the life of America’s most influential yet least known early 20th century female architect.
The historical record left by architect Marion Mahony Griffin has been obscured by time, distance, and the prejudices of her age and profession. To begin with, much of her built work was on the other side of the globe, in Australia. She disdained self-promotion and the public spotlight, rather literally—she seldom faced a camera. She’s primarily associated with Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most domineering egos in all of architecture. And of course, she practiced in a time when women were prescribed very particular social and professional spheres, outside of which which she brazenly operated.
A new exhibit at the Elmhurst History Museum in suburban Chicago, In Her Own Right: Marion Mahony Griffin, traces the career of Illinois’ first woman architect as she flit between design practices and continents. The exhibit is mostly a chronological collection of photos and wall-text, with a handful of wood models. Overall, the show provides a rare occasion where her husband, Prairie School architect Walter Burley Griffin (whom she promoted relentlessly), slots into the background of his wife’s expansive talents.
Marion was born in Chicago in 1871, just months before the Great Fire wiped the city clean and set the stage for the most important urban-rebuilding of the century. In 1895, after attending architecture school at MIT, Marion got a job at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio—the great architect’s first hire. There, she met Walter Burley Griffin, who later joined Wright’s team.
Though she worked within strictures set by others, Marion was a consummate collaborator. In fact, some of Wright’s most known projects, like the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois, and others assembled in the legendary German Wasmuth Portfolio, were, in fact, by Marion. Marion also developed Wright’s iconic illustration techniques. “The style that vaulted Wright [to the top] was her style,” says Elmhurst History Museum curator Lance Tawzer.
When Walter and Marion left Wright’s employ, they shared an abiding distaste for Wright and a growing love for each other. They married in 1911, and soon after won a design competition to plan Australia’s new capital city of Canberra. Their scheme for the capital was orthogonal at its government district core, loosening up with concentric arced streets as it extended outward. Axial boulevards sliced through a series of five lakes, all rendered in Marion’s emotive pen strokes.
Much of the Griffins’ plans for the city were never built, but this didn’t stop the couple from embracing Australia, and they built many works in Melbourne and Sydney. Take the sixteen houses they built for the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag. Often made of rusticated irregular stones, these bunker-like homes (modeled after the Melson House in Mason City, Iowa) provide protection from what the Griffins might have perceived as a remote and wild place. It certainly provided a logical endpoint for Prairie School’s idealized convergence with nature.
At Castlecrag, the Griffins’ developed a circle of friends that reflected their own artsy avant-garde sensibility. Marion’s cousin, architect Dwight Perkins (father of Perkins+Will founder Lawrence Perkins) once called her the most bohemian person he’d ever known. At Castlecrag, she put in time as a director, actor, and costume and set designer for a local theater she designed, and practiced anthroposophy, a sort of hybrid mysticism and alternative medicine.
After her husband’s death in 1937, Marion returned to Chicago and largely set architecture aside. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she was consumed with family life, helping to raise her widowed niece’s children. Marion had no children herself, and died penniless in 1961. Because she spent the first part of her career in Wright’s shadow and spent the rest of it lifting up her husband’s star, there are only a handful of still-existent projects that were conclusively designed by her alone.
“Marion’s story was always told in the context of Frank Lloyd Wright or her husband, as if her associations made her important,” says Tawzer, the curator. But, he adds, “her associations validated the talent that she already had.”
The exhibition In Her Own Right: Marion Mahony Griffin is on view at the Elmhurst History Museum through March 12, 2017.