Volume: 6, No: 09 ; September-2012
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. …………..
………………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 a 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 artifacts might remain. As well, a thorough investigation of Indian archival repositories may well yield documentation that 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.
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