The Australian capital — Canberra — celebrated its 25th birthday on May 9, 1952. ‘Celebrated’ is in the context a formal word, because in fact there were almost no celebrations; it was an event which passed practically un-noticed, not commented upon, by almost everybody. That was logical enough — cities, like human beings, became excited about birthdays in their youth, indifferent about them as they grow up.
Some sense of grace, however, might have obliged the authorities at Canberra to look back on the beginnings of the capital with at least a passing acknowledgment of the people who helped to fashion it in thought, plan, and fact; and one of the men to whom they might have paid a tardy, overdue tribute was Walter Burley Griffin, out of whose mind came the pattern of the Canberra we know today. Griffin remained forgotten on a significant birthday as he was forgotten all through his life. Canberra had neither thanks for his work in his day, nor memory of it when his day had passed.
Griffin was a man worth remembering. He added to the volume of Australian life not only a capital city — he added something of even greater value, something which is not conspicuously a part of the Australian character. This was a sense of quality in material things; a sense of beauty and order in the midst of harshness and crudity; a sense of the aesthetic, immeasurably more significant because it was an aestheticism allied through architecture with the real, the durable, and the useful. A civilisation just emerging from the first hard bare upsurgings of its pioneering days can do with these lessons and these teachers.
Had he been intrinsically a more dynamic man, Griffin might have succeeded to a greater degree in impressing his rich personality upon his age. But had he been a more dynamic man he might also have turned his talent towards making a lot of money. What is remembered of him will be remembered for a long time, because it will repeat itself in younger men and in widening ideas.
As a young Chicago architect he might have lived his days in the United States and, in a warmer intellectual atmosphere, attained a riper place. It was the sudden flowering of events in the Australian Commonwealth which determined differently. Federation had hypothecated a national capital. By 1908 it had advanced from a thought to a decision. Soon, architects throughout the world were busily devising plans: by 1912 Griffin had been named the winner and was making his way toward Australia to supervise the work of building.
Soon, however, the mood of the world was one of destroying, not of building, and there was much delay in the ground-planning work in Canberra. Amid the delays, Griffin fretted. The first flush of official enthusiasm waned; postponements and compromises supervened. As the postponements and the compromise grew larger, departmental minds began entangling with Griffin’s own pure fountain of inspiration. Trifling differences became bitter quarrels; minor divergences became unbridgeable gaps. The disinterested onlooker can sympathise with the two sides — Griffin dismayed, resentful, angry, as his beautiful web of thought was changed even in non-essential detail; departmental engineers and officials on their side utterly unable to comprehend the rare, precious sense of ordered rightness which dominated all Griffin’s feeling about his ideal plan.
It all ended in Royal Commissions, partings of the ways, frustration and unhappiness; by the time the first world war had ended and Australia was ready to give full thought once again to the building of the national capital, Griffin was no longer associated with it except that its plan remained his dream-city. Substantially it has remained so, though with minor variations that always angered him. But it did become a city of great and gentle beauty, a capital of dignity, refinement, and strength.
Griffin gave it all these things; the pity of it is that the clinical disputations were not forgotten and Griffin given a measure of true recognition.
Griffin turned his poetic mind to fine architecture elsewhere in Australia, still a man far beyond his age and indeed a man whom the average Australian had no chance whatever of understanding. He designed the irrigation township of Leeton in New South Wales — failing to realise that a busy run-of-the-mill provincial township could never fully sustain the demands which his design would place upon it. He designed a model suburb at Castlecrag overlooking Sydney Harbor, a suburb where a measure of wealth and artistic apprehension had to predominate if the conception were to remain pure. Each house was meant to harmonise with its immediate surroundings; no house was to overlook a neighbour’s privacy; trees were to be respected in full measure; formal gardens were frowned upon, so that the minor subtleties of the Australian bushland could come into their own. New methods of construction, new kinds of material, were tried out to gain the maximum in good taste and economy — to attain that ‘beauty in utility’ which dominated Griffin’s thinking. He had no patience with ‘model’ suburbs in the sense of a living apart from ugly factories and dingy slums. Castlecrag was less of a model than a clinic, to demonstrate that all people eventually might live well.
Griffin had no awareness that thundering down upon him and all his dreams were the gigantic footsteps of that ‘post-war age’ which has left Castlecrag merely a pretty suburb and done nothing to bring new beauty to Sydney, though much to spoil it further.
Griffin himself was a finely sensitive, gentle man, kindly and thoughtful, ruthless only in fighting for the standards which dominated all his life. Those who remember him, remember him indeed as a man not quite of this world, a translucent spirit against which their own heavier clay seemed even more surely of the dour earth. He loved trees with an almost pantheistic passion, even injuring himself in a minor but permanent way when he tried to save a clump of trees from a bushfire at Castlecrag. Against thoughtless vandals he waged perpetual war, prosecuting even to the minatory ‘fine and costs’ in serious cases, but without malice. He fought to preserve an ideal as remorselessly as his fragile nature fought against the men who, to him, were the ‘spoilers’ of his dream city. Perhaps the vandals forgave him; the others did not; and Canberra has forgotten him.
It was Walter Burley Griffin’s strange destiny to grow up in one continent, carry out his life-mission in a second, die in a third — for he died unexpectedly while on an architectural mission for the Indian Government, and was buried at Lucknow in 1936. In many ways he was timeless and placeless, above and beyond both, a dreamer who plucked his fancies from the stars. Australia has need of the things he stood for: one at least may hope that a writer with the technical competence to explain his systems and the understanding sympathy to explain his thoughts will even yet write the book which should be written.
In Canberra, he needs no monument in brass or stone.