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Walter Burley Griffin Society of America holds successful gathering in Mason City, Iowa

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
These books reflect some of the ideas embraced by Walter and Marion Griffin.
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MASON CITY, Iowa – In a PBS documentary called Walter Burley Griffin: In His Own Right, my grandfather, the late Dustin Griffin, makes it clear that the famous designer and architect Frank Lloyd Wright – who worked with grandfather’s uncle, Walter Burley Griffin – gets credit where credit is not due.

“Wright has got a lot of credit for buildings that (Walter Burley) Griffin did. Wright did not mind taking credit for everything that he could get,” Dustin Griffin explained in the 1990’s-era documentary.

And yet here in Mason City (formerly "Masonic Grove"), Iowa, Wright’s name looms large – and for good reason. His Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank have been refurbished and he has several homes, including the Stockman House, which are open for tours. Griffin’s recognition (when it’s not misspelled “Griffen”) is less so.

Mason City lured Wright’s former colleagues and Chicago School (“Prairie School”) mates, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, architect and artist Marion Mahony Griffin, at nearly the exact same time that the events featured in Mason City native Meredith Willson’s The Music Man were taking the place. In fact the homes the Griffins designed are within a stones’ throw distance from the famous “footbridge” that crosses Willow Creek where the two lovers in the film adaptation – Marian (Shirley Jones) and Harold (Robert Preston)– meet and Marian sings the famous “Till There Was You,” later performed by The Beatles.

There is a growing contingent of people fascinated with Walter Burley Griffin, although he still remains in the shadow of the far-better known Frank Lloyd Wright.

For the 15th annual meeting of the Walter Burley Griffin Society of America, held here in Mason City, the members and others were able to tour the magnificent homes designed 100 years ago by Griffin and others. They also had a chance to hear the keynote address offered by Prof. James Weirick, the Walter and Marion Griffin expert and Director of the Master of Urban Development and Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Held at the MacNider Museum, Prof. Weirick was introduced by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of Architectural History Paul Kruty. Weirick’s talk was called “The Griffins and the Garden Suburb: From Canberra to Rock Crest/Rock Glen and Castlecrag” and is information that Weirick included in the just-released book Rock Crest/Rock Glen Mason City, Iowa: The American Masterwork of Marion M. and Walter B. Griffin, featuring contributions from Weirick, Kruty, Paul E. Sprague and Robert E. McCoy.

Weirick notes the “fusion of architecture and nature” that is clearly evident among the houses that the Griffins designed in the Rock Glen/Rock Crest development back in 1912.

At the same time in 1912 the Australian competition to design the new capital city of Australia – Canberra – was taking place.  The Griffins submitted plans and won.  This success came just a few years after Walter Burley Griffin had a falling-out with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Weirick explained how the Griffins had a certain “aesthetic” that was based on a consistent set of principles. This aesthetic included geometric order, among other issues.

“A life in harmony with nature,” is how Weirick put it.

“The Griffins were modernists in their commitment to rational planning, transparent meaning, advanced technologies, and abstract form,” Weirick said. “At the same time their design work and enthusiasms demonstrated a clear embrace of American anti-modernism.”

Rational, functional and advanced described Walter and Marion Griffin’s approach to planning, architecture and design, both in the fine homes here in Mason City and later in Canberra and Sydney’s Castlecrag neighborhood.

“The design expression was deeply mysterious, evoking ancient cities and ancient sites, stepped pyramids, ziggurats, temple-like complexes … the Griffin plan has proved timeless, endlessly rewarding for its rational basis on one hand and poetic power on the other, to the extent the key components of the plan … keep coming back, proving their worth.” said Weirick.

This would manifest in the creation of Canberra’s central water feature – Lake Burley Griffin, built in the 1960’s, long after Walter’s death in India in 1937and 50 years after the creation of the original city plan.

Weirick noted that the Griffins planning, as evidenced in Australia, applies to Rock Crest/Rock Glen as well.  They clearly took into account Mason City’s Willow Creek valley, the picturesque landscape and a sense of being at one with the site while having an entirely unique and visually-appealing structure.

“What has made Rock Crest/Rock Glen special, however, has been the mysterious coding of the Griffin architecture,” Weirick said. “Rational in plan, form and structure, decidedly strange in design expression and the use of materials. The source of this strangeness may be quite rational. The cubic forms of the Blythe House come out of the Griffins commitment to fireproof construction using reinforced concrete and tile. The exciting and expressive rock work of the Melson House and the site itself – the cliff-like quarry face of the old limestone workings.”

Viewing the Joshua G. Melson House at 525 E. State Street, in the Rock Crest area, the resulting structure is remarkable – stylized voussoirs and keystones protrude upward. With the mix of stone and concrete, the balcony near the living and dining rooms does provide an amazing and leafy view of Willow Creek and Rock Glen.

“Mason City and the Melson House then play their part in further development of the Griffins aesthetic with the combination of concrete frame construction and rough-hewn masonry to create an architecture of primitive power, massive yet hewn scale, extraordinary, yet deeply in tune with sight, program and purpose.”

Weirick continues by noting that as the Mason City projects were underway, the Griffins presumed that the Australian authorities were “similar to his Mason City clients” and that they were “in tune with his ideas” and that they would implement them all. While some were on board, many were not.

Walter Burley Griffin’s idealism comes is demonstrated when the famed landscape architect spoke to a group in nearby Minneapolis in November 1912 and shared with them that Australia was a bastion of freedom and democracy.

“Walter and Marion Griffin set out to give physical form, tangible reality to a new nation they believed to be in the vanguard of democracy,” Weirick said. “Within a year of their arrival, however, the Griffins had revised (view) of Australia and Australians. They had begun to experience an orchestrated campaign of opposition to every aspect of their Canberra plan. The bureaucratic and political battles Walter Griffin, in particular, had to fight were a great shock to him. Caught in a complex web of jealousy, intrigue, indifference and misunderstanding … their faith in Australia as a rational, modern society was deeply shaken.”

And while all the designs were not embraced by the provincial types in Australian government, the street layout and the lake – Lake Burley Griffin – along with a tomb of a World War I general were the realized portions of Griffin’s plan.

In 1920, this frustration would lead to the Griffins to sever their relationship with Australia’s parliament. Even so, Walter and Marion Griffin remained committed to Australia and worked on smaller-scale projects like Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre and the development of the Castlecrag development, a 650-acre garden suburb on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

Contoured roadways named after castle features were created by the Griffins and forested bluffs and creeks were embraced at Castlecrag where a mix of the primitive and modern seemed to complement one another. While bohemian and modern, the Griffins and their friends at “The ‘Crag,” would perform medieval mystery plays, mystical fairy tales and Greek tragedies in a bushland amphitheatre that noted each solstice and equinox, while reflecting the human condition.

Castlecrag was clearly a special place that embraced individuality and theatricality and rejected materialism.

“Servantless, committed to causes and broadly-based interests they were involved in play readings, discussion groups, interpretive dance and cooperative childcare where all the children ranged free in the bush.  The adults somewhat eccentric in their ways, they tended to be artistic and intellectual, freethinking if not bohemian with the propensity to defy the conventions of marriage and the norms of gender relationships,” Weirick said.

At Castlecrag, the Griffins – who embraced Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual philosophy called anthroposophy - wanted to revert to “deep archetypes – the cave, the temple, the redoubt” with houses fused with nature. They challenged “suburban status” with their architectural creations.

Of course, this was “far beyond the norms of commercial real-estate development” and added to Castlecrag’s “magical qualities” while taking these development ideas to a higher and more artistic level.

“Again the modernist tendencies towards the new, the rationalized, the transparent, the social reality freed from illusions was countered by a return to the arcane, the elemental and the deeply mystical,” Weirick said, adding “the reintegrating of ritual” and a “deep religious longing” combined with going beyond reality, morality and culture were characteristics of Castlecrag in the Griffins day in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

… As was the embrace of Thoreau and Emerson-styled embrace of the natural landscape, forest and environment. Prior to Castlecrag’s utopian development, the area was in a “devastated state.” The Griffins made sure to return the landscape to its natural state, reflecting his prior, environmentally-friendly designs back in their native United States – as it is here in Mason City with Rock Crest/Rock Glen.

During the question and answer portion of the talk, Red Dirt Report probed further into the spiritual beliefs of Walter and Marion Griffin and its impact on their work.

“I think that they were profoundly spiritual in their whole way of being,” replied Weirick. “And that goes back to their childhood experiences in Chicago in the Midwest, growing up in the progressive, liberal Protestantism.”

They were involved in Christ Church in Illinois – and therefore those liberal, Christian beliefs were the “bedrock” of their belief system, he said.

“When they went to Australia they did not, as far as I can determine, join a church. In the 1920’s, when they were actively involved in promoting Castlecrag, that’s when they met the very active members of the Theosophical Society in Sydney and at that point the Griffins become involved in Theosophy,” Weirick said. “To my knowledge they were not involved in Theosophy in their American lives, but if anyone can prove they were, I’d be delighted to find out, but I find no evidence to support it. I think their own value system was based upon making truth self-evident rather than having secret or arcane knowledge that only the initiated would know.”

Weirick added that the Canberra experience was so “shattering” for the Griffins that they ultimately found themselves on a spiritual journey, searching for “something.” When they found a group of likeminded people, like the Theosophists, founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.  And while the Griffins were fascinated with Theosophy, they never formally joined the organization. However, Walter Burley Griffin did write for Theosophical journals and they spoke on the Theosophical Society radio station, Weirick noted.

“In the late 1920’s, they decided to join Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. This was a confirmation of their life philosophy, rather than an influence on their work,” Weirick said.

As Weirick himself wrote in 1998, “They turned instead to Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy. This belief system, which Steiner described as a ‘path of Knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe,’ originated as an independent current of thought within the German section of the Theosophy Society. Essentially a form of Christian theosophy, anthroposophy recognizes Christ as the one great spiritual teacher. To the Griffins, Steiner’s version of occultism to ‘gain knowledge of higher worlds’ provided a way to ‘revitalize their creativity and energy, to recharge the ‘authority from within’ which was the essence of their life philosophy – and raise it to new realms.”

This line of questioning came after I spoke one-on-one with Weirick at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Historic Park Inn in downtown about the research of Peter Proudfoot, a Rome Scholar in architecture and an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of New South Wales, in his provocative 1994 book The Secret Plan of Canberra.

The book, which is hard to find, suggests that Walter Burley Griffin’s winning Canberra design was used to implement cosmic symbolism, sacred geometry and a geomantic arrangement to integrate surrounding natural elements like the Chinese idea of feng shui.

The “ancient science of geomancy” – the idea of man in harmony with nature and “deified landforms” – was at the root of the Griffin plan, claims Proudfoot in The Secret Plan of Canberra.

Writes Proudfoot: “Canberra would be the vehicle for this new spirituality, which would provide a cure for the ills of this materialistic and industrial age.”

This harkens back to the Griffin’s building designs which have a “strong allusion to the temple form,” with Proudfoot noting the use of columns and a pediment in Harry Page House here in Mason City which “recalls the sacred treasuries or peripteral temples”

However, Weirick does not subscribe to Proudfoot’s claims, noting that Proudfoot was a colleague of his at University of New South Wales and that the findings in the book were largely debunked in reviews.

Walter Burley Griffin would die in Lucknow, India in 1937, where he is buried and Marion Mahony Griffin would die in Chicago, Illinois in 1961.

Just last year, Canberra celebrated the city's centennial with all sorts of great events, including concerts by Lake Burley Griffin. One of the performances we noted was by Australian rock band The Church, while also noting Peter Proudfoot's findings in The Secret Plan of Canberra.

All in all, attendees learned a lot from this weekend with the Walter Burley Griffin Society of America. Thanks to Peter Griffin, Paul Kruty, James Weirick and all the wonderful people in Mason City, Iowa - all those who traveled all the way from Australia - who made this event possible.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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