Burleigh Griffin’s modern view of housing

BY JANE CANAWAY
01 Jul, 2008 05:08 PM
MANSIONS that take up too much room on a block, pollution and affordable housing may sound like modern issues.
But a new book compiling the writings of architect Walter Burley Griffin reveals his interest in those topics many decades ago.

Much has been written about the American-born architect who had a major influence on adolescent Australia as it struggled to find its own identity in the early 20th century.

The solid tome, edited by Griffin’s grand-nephew Dustin Griffin, comprises 71 passages of the architect’s writings on a range of subjects.

Apart from designing the nation’s capital city, Canberra, Griffin and his equally creative wife Marion Mahoney designed towns, public buildings, individual homes and a number of residential estates.

In the north-west suburbs, Griffin’s work can be seen in the design of Essendon’s Incinerator in Holmes Road, created as a municipal rubbish disposal unit and now converted to a vibrant arts and cultural centre.

The layout of part of Avondale Heights was also done by Griffin, originally using similar ideas to those he followed in designing Eaglemont in Melbourne’s north-east.

However, the concept of shared neighbourhood gardens was never followed through and most of the open space has since been rezoned as residential, although only two have so far been developed (both for aged-care homes).

Griffin would have been horrified. In 1923, he gave a lecture in Melbourne in which he said: “Each year more and more forests are ring-barked, fields eroded and pest-infected, rivers befouled and dredged, factory-invaded, and slashed by railways.”

In Melbourne, his work can be seen at Newman College at Melbourne University, the Capitol Theatre – and a missed opportunity to develop a vision he had for the Jolimont rail lines, a plan that is back on the drawing board.

An early student of Frank Lloyd Wright and reader of Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy, Griffin believed strongly that buildings should harmonise with their environment and was keen to use materials and colours that blended with nature.

He was keen on affordable housing and on the idea of building homes with flat roofs that could be used for gardens. In 1921 he wrote: “It will be generally admitted that the attractiveness of metropolitan Melbourne lies not so much in its famous wide pavements or more or less smoky city architecture, as in its beautiful gardens, upon which visitors from other cities always remark, and in which they find a source of pleasure.”

The Writings of Walter Burley Griffin, 512 pages, published by Cambridge University Press Australia; rrp $199.
SEE: www.cambridge.edu.au/griffin

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Article by Jane Canaway

British-born, schooled in Holland and Wales, I worked my journalism cadetship in the Home Counties, escaped to London, then spent a couple of years travelling before settling in Melbourne, where I have written and edited for a range of publications, including Pacific Magazines [Your Garden, Home Beautiful, New Idea] and Fairfax Community Newspapers. Now a mother of two wonderful teenagers, I write about gardening, sustainability and people, when I can drag myself away from the vegie patch and my saxophone.
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