Walter Burley Griffin is a household name in Australia as he was the landscape architect who planned the Nation’s capital Canberra. Most Australians when visiting Canberra, curse Burley Griffin for the circular layout of the city. A layout which leads most families to crying out “Dad, we’ve been past that building 3 times!” and a reply of “I can’t get off this bloody road and any way that’s parliament house!”
Born in Illinois in 1876, the young Burley Griffin no doubt would have been influenced by working for the great Frank Lloyd Wright who was known for his sensitivity in blending architecture with the environment. As his career grew, Burley Griffin married fellow architect Marion Mahony and together they won the contract to design the city that would become Canberra. The Burley Griffins arrived in Australia in 1914 and were to spend 21 years here designing cities, suburbs, and any number of buildings from homes to civic structures. Lured to India and embarking on an enticing workload Walter Burley Griffin died unexpectedly in 1937. Marion Mahony Griffin eventually returned to the US after a time in Australia. She died in 1961 aged 90. Between them, they left a splendid legacy in Australia.
The Burley Griffins were known for their city designs that followed the shape of the land. Canberra with its central man-made lake (Lake Burley Griffin) is situated in a basin with streets following concentric circles linked by long broad avenues. The city of Griffith in southern New South Wales also has these concentric circles.
During their time in Melbourne, the Burley Griffins spent their weekends at Gumnut Cottage on Oliver’s Hill. During this time, they designed several housing estates in the neighbouring suburb of Mt Eliza one being the sought-after and now heritage-listed Ranelagh Estate with its intriguing banana-shaped street design.
We once lived in a not so well-known estate in Mt Eliza that had also been designed by the Burley Griffins and often wondered why the street intersections seemed offset. When pulling out of any of those streets one had to twist one’s head sharply to view oncoming traffic. It was not until we sold the house that the estate agent explained that Walter Burley Griffin and the developer had had a disagreement and Burley Griffin got revenge by submitting the plans mirror reversed. Now I don’t know how much truth is in that story but after having lived there for a very long time it made a whole lot of sense to us.
Sources and some fascinating reading about the work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin: