Almost Forgotten, if Not Unknown: Australian and Indian Capital Connections

(A chapter from a book, ‘Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions’
see: http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/wi-9781921867323.html )

[ Credits to and by permission of : Christopher Vernon (This article is protected under copy rights act and should not be used by anyone without the publisher’s or the author’s permission) ]

Australia has long recognised Walter Burley Griffin as the American who designed its federal capital city, Canberra. More recently, it has begun to acknowledge Marion Mahony Griffin as the capital’s co-author. Walter’s wife and professional partner, Marion Griffin was an architect and graphic artist in her own right. Today they are popularly known by their first names and collectively as “the Griffins.” Almost forgotten, if not unknown, is that the duo’s remarkable careers culminated in the 1930s with a flourishing practice in India. Even more surprising for some is to learn that one of Canberra’s designers is buried there. How these former protégés of Frank Lloyd Wright came to practice in India is a saga that, as Rosie Llewellyn-Jones put it, “began in hope, but ended in tragedy”. Today, as India’s ever-burgeoning economy continues to transform the face of the sub-continent’s landscape, it is timely to revisit the couple’s little known Indian swansong—and its imperiled legacy.

The journey that led the Griffins to India began with their 1912 victory in the international design competition for Canberra. As a point-of-beginning then, an overview of their entry’s symbolic content offers a contextual backdrop against which to consider these Americans’ trans-hemispherical movements, first to Australia and then to India. It also reveals resonance between Canberra and its immediate successor—and to some degree, heir—New Delhi, and illustrates the unevenness of Great Britain’s imperial project.

Canberra’s origins can be traced to 1901, when six of Britain’s antipodean colonies federated to from the Commonwealth of Australia. Unlike India’s then imperial circumstance, Federation was initiated from within, by Australians themselves. Though the new nation’s forces were still serving the British Empire in the South African Anglo-Boer war, ambition to build a national capital quickly arose from this ethos of political reconfiguration. However, on-going rivalry between the Commonwealth’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, compelled it to construct a capital de novo. Having adopted American precedent, the Australian constitution required the city be positioned within its own federal territory, not a state. Seven contested years later, in 1908 an inland district in the state of New South Wales was selected. Next, the Commonwealth surveyor was instructed to determine the city’s specific site from a “scenic standpoint, with a view to securing picturesqueness, and with the object of beautification.” As these qualifications suggest, the capital building enterprise was as much a landscape design proposition as it was an architectural or engineering concern. In 1909, the surveyor selected a largely pastoral site within the broad valley of the Molongolo River as meeting these criteria. With the future capital’s site now fixed, the new nation was ready to contemplate the design of the city itself.

In April 1911 Australia idealistically launched a competition to secure a city plan. Controversy quickly followed. The government’s decision that a layman—the Minister of Home Affairs—would have final adjudication authority sparked professional outcry and led the Royal Institute of British Architects to censure its members’ participation. Despite the furore, and to the surprise of many, Australia self-confidently proceeded with the contest, a choice that also attracted professional ire. For instance, believing the competition “antagonistic to imperialistic ideals,” Britain’s Town Planning Review (1912) complained

[ . . . ] to ignore the advice of a Royal Society like the Institute of British Architects, which numbers amongst its members not only the more eminent of the Australian architects, but also the best brains of the mother country, was hardly what one would have expected.

By contrast, the decision to commission Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens to design New Delhi would be made autocratically.

In December 1911, a world away in the Griffins’ native Chicago, Marion concentrated her creative energies to produce a remarkable ensemble of drawings representing the vision she and her husband shared for Australia’s capital. That same month, further east across the globe, King Emperor George V announced the transfer of India’s seat of government from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi. For The Chicago Tribune (17 December 1911), the newly-crowned Emperor’s announcement was a “wonderfully sagacious and totally unexpected proclamation”.

Although designed collaboratively with Marion, the plan for Canberra was submitted in Walter’s name and in May 1912 Walter Burley Griffin was selected the winner. The Griffins’ entry was distinguished by its sensitive response to the site’s physical features, especially its rugged landforms and watercourse. This attribute proved paramount to their design’s success. Organised on a cross-axial scheme, the plan fused geometric reason with picturesque naturalism. When negotiating the fit of their geometric template with the actual site, the couple opted to venerate existing landforms. Hills, for instance, were not design impediments to be erased, but “opportunities to be made the most of”. Discerning a linear correspondence between the summits of four local mounts, the couple inscribed and accentuated the alignment with a “Land Axis.” Anchored by Mount Ainslie at one end, the Land Axis extends some twenty-five kilometres to its other terminus, Mount Bimberi. By using its topographical features as axial determinants and visual foci, the Griffins “sacralised” the future city’s site. The Molonglo River valley posed no less a design opportunity for the pair than did the site’s landforms. Accordingly, they delineated a “Water Axis” across its Land counterpart at a right angle, aligning it with the river course; in turn, the Griffins reconfigured the river to form a continuous chain of basins and lakes.

Enlarging their cross-axial geometry, the Griffins composed the city centre as a triangle, aligning its points with local summits. Concentrated within the triangle, public edifices are distributed in accordance with a systematic, topographically articulated political symbolism. Near the triangle’s base, national cultural institutions line the northern margin of the central basin. At the triangle’s north-west point, a hill became the nodal focus of the Municipal Centre. Another summit punctuates the triangle’s north-east point, becoming the city’s Market Centre. Collectively, the two centres and cultural institutions represent the People. Across the ornamental waters at the basin’s southern edge, an area gently rising to the triangle’s apex becomes the Government Centre. The Judiciary, Legislative and other Departmental buildings are positioned at the foot of the hill, near the water’s edge. Ascending towards the triangle’s apex, one next encounters the Houses of Parliament midway up the hill. The summit is symbolically occupied not by the government but by the People. Here, at the highest elevation within the city’s centre, the Griffins positioned a monolithic Capitol. Unlike its American namesake, however, this one was envisaged as a commemorative building to enshrine the achievements of Australian citizens.

Within the capital’s ceremonial centre, a network of avenues radiate from the triangle’s Capitol Hill apex. The hill itself is circumscribed by four concentric boulevards, named respectively Capital Circle and National, State and Australasia Circuits—physically and symbolically accentuating Capitol Hill as the epicentre of the federated nation. From this hub, the Griffins projected radial avenues or “spokes” named for and geographically aligned with the actual locations of each outlying state capital. Two other radials, Commonwealth and Federal Avenues, delineate the triangle’s sides, and Constitution Avenue its base. Through this street configuration the Griffins spatially represented Australia’s Federation. In a symbolism made legible by their names, the radial avenues gather in power from the “sub-centre” state capitals throughout the country and concentrate it within the national capital.

Although it occupied a geologically ancient continent, the new Australian nation lacked the cultural artefacts and other monuments typical of Old World and, by this time, even New World capitals. In compensation, the Griffins fashioned Australia’s new national cultural history from its natural history—as demonstrated by the design significance they awarded the site’s physical features. This approach was born of their American fascination with the natural world, if not wilderness, and the desire to conserve it within urban environments.

In excess of the competition’s requirements, the Griffins also envisaged a notional architecture scheme—a palimpsest of global cultural references—for the city. Most remarkable was their unrealised Capitol. An organic extension of its hilltop setting, the building obscures the boundary between architecture and nature. Instead of the “inevitable dome” the Capitol culminates in a “stepped pinnacle” or ziggurat. For Walter this form expressed “the last word of all the longest lived civilisations” such as “Egypt, Babylonia, Syria, Indo-China, East Indies, Mexico or Peru”. This view reveals the role architecture was awarded within their broader symbolic programme: if the city’s layout monumentalised the local, then its buildings would reference the timeless global. Curiously, the couple excluded Australia’s indigenous culture; the native landscape venerated in their design was a terra nullius. Although this omission was not unusual for the times, the Griffins’ silence is perplexing, given that they had a longstanding interest in indigenous cultures. It is perhaps explained by the fact that, unlike the Meso-Americans, the indigenous Australians did not make enduring monolithic architecture that could be readily adapted for the new capital’s buildings. India, by contrast, would offer Baker and Lutyens indigenous traditions not only in architecture but also in garden design.

In 1913 Australia’s federal capital gained a name, itself the outcome of another competition. Those evocative of Britain, such as new London and Shakespeare and diverse others, were rejected in favour of “Canberra” (on the name competition, see Daley 1976). Apparently derived from an indigenous language, the new name was thought to mean “meeting place.” This early and prominent appropriation was indicative of the new nation’s self-confidence in the success of its imperial conquest. When dedicating Canberra’s foundation stone that March, the Governor-General proudly revealed that the Viceroy of India had requested a reproduction of Canberra’s plan. “It is interesting to note,” he continued, “that those engaged in the building of the capital of one of the oldest of civilised countries are apparently not above accepting ideas from this, one of the youngest countries in the world”.

Taking up the official position “Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction,” Walter, along with Marion, moved to Melbourne (then the temporary national capital) in 1914. He next began implementing the future capital’s design, prioritising street layout and planting with local species. Buildings were to be constructed afterwards, carefully inserted within this template. However, Griffin’s tenure proved short-lived. Political antagonisms and the financial restraints of the World War conspired against the complete realisation of the couple’s design. In 1920, Walter’s Canberra affiliation ended controversially with the abolition of his position. Afterwards, his singular role was usurped by a succession of advisory bodies. Nonetheless, a version of the Griffins’ design was officially gazetted—enshrined in Commonwealth law—in 1925, but this plan reproduced only the street layout and deleted the land-use allocations and symbolic content of the original design: Griffin’s successors literally and metaphorically treated the couple’s design as little more than a street map. Adding insult to injury, even the street names were mostly replaced.

These official acts of erasure, however, are of no less symbolic import than the architect’s original conceptions. In his nomenclature scheme, Griffin projected an imagined Australian republic onto the Government Centre’s street cartography. There, as we have seen, he ascribed thoroughfare appellations such as Federal, State and Australasia. In a dominion still closely tied to the empire, these were tellingly renamed Kings, Dominion and Empire. In another example, Griffin’s Oceanic Circuit became Captain Cook Crescent. According to one government official, the new system redressed concerns that the American’s names were “not in keeping with Australian sentiment”. The government’s alternatives evoked Australia’s colonial past and powerfully asserted its imperial present and imagined future—Australia has yet to become a republic.

Despite the demoralising finish to their Canberra work, the Griffins chose to remain in Australia and by the 1930s had developed an extensive practice that included built works throughout the eastern seaboard. New commissions, however, dwindled as the Great Depression escalated. In remedy, two mutual Australian friends—one then living in India—facilitated new work for the couple on the subcontinent in 1935. As an indirect result, and perhaps owing to his lingering prestige as an author of Australia’s capital, the University of Lucknow solicited Walter Burley Griffin to design its new library. Earlier around 1920, United Provinces Governor Harcourt Butler had commissioned none other than Edwin Lutyens to lay out the then new university’s campus and design its major buildings. For reasons that remain unclear, however, the English architect’s plans were set aside. When later studying his predecessor’s design, Griffin would dismiss Lutyens’ plan as “pure Roman” and his architecture as “edifice[s] de Rome Moderne”.

By September 1935, working remotely from Sydney, Griffin had dispatched a preliminary study for the library. Eschewing Lutyens’ imperial aestheticism, Marion characterised Walter’s scheme as “one which looks and feels quite Indian and yet is the last word in modernism”. Impressed with the American’s solution, the university cabled: “Plans accepted, come on first boat”. Anticipating only a three-month absence, Walter took up the invitation and set sail for India that October, unaware that he would never return.

After briefly visiting Sri Lanka, Walter Burley Griffin arrived at Bombay (now Mumbai) in November 1935. Touring sites of architectural interest enroute to Lucknow, he called at New Delhi and recorded his impressions of the new imperial capital in a letter home to Marion:

“New Delhi,” which might better be called X Delhi for it is the tenth new Capital City of India in this same locality in as many centuries, two Hindu, six Muslim, two British, is the newest of the cities such as I have described, with more uniform and Roman character of buildings, and with roadways with great lawn parkways and handsome avenue trees of selected types of considerable variety, mostly unfamiliar to me. It is almost perfectly flat but planned with many monumental terminal vistas and has already attained completeness and finished elegance though there is of course much construction work going on in the business and residential sections. The long wide walk with reflecting canals and many fountains and the governmental terrace with vast stone buildings and several domes and extensive colonnades effectively massed is essentially roman even to the togas of the statues of the viceroys despite the efforts to supply local color in all the details. Except for the luxuriant verdure of the avenues however the pre-European capitals, the ruins of which extend continuously for some thirteen miles in each direction, must have been even more magnificent and certainly more imaginative and romantic, and the more ancient they are the more architecturally satisfying.

Only four circuitous sentences in extent, Griffin’s account is astonishing in its brevity. Given Walter’s awareness that the Viceroy and the Delhi town planning Committee had studied Canberra’s layout, one anticipates a lengthy rumination, if only for his absent partner’s benefit. Envy of New Delhi’s “finished elegance” might explain his virtual silence. Although begun in advance of the Indian capital, Canberra remained more fully developed on paper than in reality and, as Griffin knew all too well, Australia’s political commitment to its embryonic capital was tenuous. Earlier, in 1931, the New York Times had gone so far as to report that the “Dream City” of Canberra might yet be “abandoned” (31). Meanwhile, New Delhi was inaugurated the same year.

In late November 1935, Walter reached Lucknow; then, as now, a destination far removed from the tourist path. Perhaps most notably, the city entered Western ken in 1857 as an epicentre of the First War of Indian Independence or, for the British, the Mutiny. The conflict’s consequences were not exclusively political: the British victors physically and emphatically transformed Lucknow’s urban fabric in the aftermath. Most prominently, the Nawabs’ intricate garden palace complexes and other buildings were obliterated, replaced with deceptively bucolic parklands. Along with this new profusion of sylvan verdure, expansive axial thoroughfares were blasted through the dense, labyrinthine city. In Griffin’s day and in ours, one might be tempted to appreciate Lucknow’s parks and boulevards only aesthetically as benign civic “improvements.” In reality, these vandalic urban interventions were palpable, spatial expressions of colonial power. In the opening decades in the twentieth century, Harcourt Butler and his successors continued to remould Lucknow—faintly echoing the Empire’s project to build New Delhi. By the 1930s, Butler’s “New” Lucknow had attracted provincial capital status and gained a new Legislative Assembly building emblazoned with fish heraldry usurped from the Nawabs. Griffin’s arrival marked the beginning of a new chapter in Lucknow’s urban evolution—albeit his impact would be at a far more diminutive scale.

Walter Burley Griffin grew quickly enchanted with this “city of gardens.” In contrast to his British travel guidebook’s dismissal of the city’s remaining Nawabi architecture as “degraded and barbarous”, the American architect believed the buildings to be “exquisite” and likened Lucknow’s skyline to “a perfect Arabian night’s dream of white domes and minarets”. Ethereally feeling “at home,” anthroposophist Walter mused to Marion, “My physical appearance does not suggest much of the Indian, but I have a hunch that much of my architectural predilections must have come from Indian experience [in a previous life]”. Abandoning his plan for a brief stay, Walter decided instead to launch a new practice and, by June 1936, Marion had joined him to assist. After some twenty years living in the British Empire’s Australian dominion, the pair now immersed themselves in an India on the road to independence.

When Walter was asked if he “was going to follow the Indian style,” Marion recounted, he laughingly answered that he was “going to lead it”. Unlike the historicist stylism favoured by imperial architects, the couple’s architecture featured bold, earth-pressing cubic masses; smooth, planar surfaces punctuated with sculptural ornament abstracted from indigenous sources. For the Griffins, such a “localised” modernism offered a means to distance India from its colonial past. Superficially resembling Art Deco, the couple’s dwellings proved appealing to the emergent Muslim and Hindu elite.

Walter’s work on the University of Lucknow library also led to his first private works; a number of professors commissioned him to design their own homes. Of these, the Bir Bhan Bhatia house (1936) is one of the finest dwellings the couple ever produced, anywhere.

One of the very few architectural firms in Lucknow, the Griffins’ new practice soon burgeoned. Surviving drawings, photographs and textual sources confirm that their “Lucknow office” produced more than 50 projects between November 1935 and February 1937. These ranged from private dwellings, gardens and public edifices to housing projects and suburban communities. Perhaps most spectacularly, the Griffins also designed the layout and an extensive array of pavilions for the United Provinces Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, hosted by Lucknow in 1937. Other important landscape architecture commissions included a new campus plan for the University of Lucknow and a garden for its library. The latter composition featured more than fifty different tree species. Although their work was concentrated in Lucknow, they also made designs for projects in, for instance, Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata. Significantly, the couple employed and trained local assistants, although their identities and number remain uncertain. Nonetheless, these Indian apprentices may well have extended the Griffins’ influence through their own work.

Ultimately, the Griffins’ new Indian experiences, for them quite exotic, became a catalyst for professional renaissance. Tragedy, however, intervened. In February 1937, Walter succumbed to peritonitis and was buried locally in an unmarked grave. Having lingered only long enough to complete projects at hand, a bereaved Marion was back in Sydney within months, closing this remarkable episode in Lucknow’s history. Soon finding life in Australia too difficult without Walter, she returned home to her family the next year. Once again in Chicago, Marion would lecture on her experiences in India, despite its grief-filled associations.

Today in Lucknow and India more broadly, sadly, local knowledge of the Griffins is scant at best. Only in 1987 did an Australian living in Canberra relocate Walter’s grave and spear-head an initiative to have it permanently marked. More broadly, as though the city’s history ended in 1857, heritage esteem for Lucknow’s architecture apparently does not include the twentieth century within its temporal scope.

To date, most of the scholars who examined the Griffins’ Indian projects did so working from Australia or America, relying primarily upon locally-held records. Collaboration with Indian scholars is the next vital step toward conclusively identifying the full extent of the Griffins’ oeuvre. Local research expertise and on-site surveys, for instance, are required to determine which projects were actually built and what physical artefacts might remain. As well, a thorough investigation of Indian archival repositories may well yield documentation which not only enlarges our appreciation of known commissions but also reveals additional, heretofore unknown projects.

In the twenty-first century, like the nineteenth, Lucknow has again become a site of urban erasure. This time, however, the wounds are self-inflicted. India’s accelerating economy fuels not only new construction but also demolition and clearance of the past. This phenomenon now poses an urgent, immediate threat to documenting and conserving the Griffins’ built and landscape legacy. For instance, a new office and works for the Pioneer Press at Lucknow was the most substantial of the Griffins’ Indian buildings to be constructed. Tragically, the Press was razed in the 1990s and replaced with a multi-storey concrete tower. There is, however, a remarkable exception: astonishingly, the Bhatia house still stands—at least for the moment.

This is from a chapter titled : ‘Almost Forgotten, if Not Unknown : Australian and Indian Capital Connections’ (Chapter-4) by Christopher Vernon from the book : Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions’ see: http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/wi-9781921867323.html The writer Christopher Vernon is a researcher of architecture and has had a long interest in Griffin. He has visited India umpteen times and closely admires Griffin’s work and life in India. Christopher Vernon is an Associate Professor with the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Visual Arts (M433) at The University of Western Australia. In fact he brought about Lucknow’s interest in Griffin’s work and life, who till date is unknown to most of people in Lucknow.

Credits to and by permission of : Christopher Vernon (This article is protected under copy rights act and should not be used by anyone without the publisher’s or the author’s permission)