ACT News


City vision almost missed boat

How common it is in marriages, that one partner (often the man) is sometimes a dreamer living in a world of elves and fairies where there are no clocks and deadlines to worry about. Meanwhile the other partner, often the woman, is sometimes immensely practical and lives in a fairyless, elfless world where there's lots of essential clock-watching, organising and feats of punctuality to be achieved. In these sorts of partnerships the practical one occasionally finds it necessary to bark at the dreamy one.

In a delightful passage in her wandering, hard-to-navigate autobiography/memoir The Magic of America, Marion Mahony Griffin remembered the day when she had to bark at her husband Walter Burley Griffin about his designs for the city at Canberra.

Not that, before we report what she barked, each member of this temperamentally contrasting brace of geniuses fits easily into the dreamer/pragmatist stereotype. Marion, too, a graphic and landscape artist, book illustrator, muralist, landscape architect, interior designer and a fierce environmentalist for Australian bush places, was sometimes too a dreamer. Some of her loveliest illustrations are of fairies. Walter, though imperturbable, was sometimes industrious. All Canberrans can read, for Canberra 2013 homework, about them in Alasdair McGregor's Grand Obsessions: The Life And Work Of Walter Burley Griffin And Marion Mahony Griffin.

While McGregor's book is in the shops Marion's The Magic of America has never been published. It can be read online but everything about it including the scholarly indexing of its contents is like a labyrinth and readers can get hopelessly lost. Once, lost in it, I stumbled across a song she wrote that has probably never been sung but, this week, your columnist handed personally to personable Robyn Archer. As well as being creative director of the Centenary of Canberra she's a vaudevillian and a ukulele virtuoso and there's the shy hope that one day in this festive year she may give the song what may well be its world premiere. It is Marion's funny, satirical account of her and Walter's ordeals at the hands of politicians and bureaucrats after he'd won the capital design competition. Marion set it, wittily, to the melody of A Frog He Would A'Wooing Go (Hey ho says Rowley.)

On another occasion, hopelessly lost in the Magic of America and calling ''Coooo-eeee!'' in vain, your columnist came across the aforementioned description by Marion of the day she spat the dummy at Walter. She loved and worshipped him but sometimes found him a pain.

The background is that the deadline for sending off their entry in the Australian competition was looming. Marion's renderings of Walter's designs (her illustrations that picture the imagined city in its Canberra settings) are vital to the entry. (Today there's no doubt Walter's plans would never have won without them.) Marion, exasperated, couldn't get Walter to show a sense of urgency.


"The storm of my wrath broke over his head … 'I said For the love of Mike! when are you going to get started on those capital plans? … Do you realise it takes a solid month to get them over there? That leaves exactly nine weeks to turn them out in. Perhaps you can design a city in two days but the drawings take time and that falls on me … Perhaps I am the swiftest draftsman in town (Chicago) but I can't do the impossible. What's the use of thinking about a thing like this (designing an ideal city) for 10 years if when the time comes you don't get it done on time! Mark my words and I'm not joking either, either you get busy on it this day, this very minute or I'll not touch a pencil to the darn things.'' A lovely story. Every dopey husband lucky enough to be married to a dynamic, practical woman will identify with that conversation.

Her lecture worked and Walter got to work (not quite that minute because he was sawing wood at the time and sawed on when she'd finished).

Then in The Magic of America there's a thrilling description of how after nine weeks of frenzied work the enormous box ''too big to fit in a taxi'' containing the Griffins's entry was ''toward midnight of a bitterly cold winter night … rushed across the city to the last train that could meet the last boat for Australia''. And so the winning entry almost didn't even get into the competition.

Marion's mystical renderings, including her famous View From Summit Of Mount Ainslie (in Chicago she had to ascend Mount Ainslie in her imagination, using topographical information supplied from Australia to all entrants) and her as-seen-by-an-eagle City And Environs will be part of a display at the National Archives of Australia from March 1.