Walter Burley Griffin and Australia’s Capital

This exhibition follows the story of Australia’s capital city, Canberra, from decade-long site selection debates, through to the design competition featuring the drawings of the finalist, Walter Burley Griffin. 
The seat of government
Unlike many cities in the world, Canberra, right from its earliest conception, was a planned city. Section 125 of the Constitution Act 1900 stated that, ‘The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth, and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth, and shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney.’ 
Selecting the site
Over the following decade the location of this future territory served as the source of much debate. In 1900 the New South Wales Government convened a Royal Commission to investigate sites for the future capital.
The shortlist
In 1902, federal politicians undertook a series of inspection tours of possible sites. These included Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Bombala, Dalgety, Goulburn, Gundagai, Lyndhurst, Orange, Queanbeyan, Tumut, Wagga Wagga and Yass. Under the direction of the Minister of State and Home Affairs, Sir William Lyne, the Capital Sites Enquiry Board was formed to investigate them in relation to their suitability. In 1904 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and the Minister of Home Affairs Sir John Forrest travelled to the favoured sites with New South Wales district surveyors Charles Scrivener and Alfred Chesterman.

In 1904 the government under Prime Minister Watson passed the Seat of Government Act, which would locate the new seat of government within 17 miles of Dalgety.

Four years, and three prime ministers, later ongoing disputes with the New South Wales Government saw this location moved closer to Sydney and proposed the Yass–Canberra site as an alternative.

In 1908 the previous Seat of Government Act 1904 was repealed, and instead the Seat of Government Act 1908 was passed. This act would move the site of the future capital from Dalgety to the Yass–Canberra region.

A preliminary survey
In 1909 District Surveyor Charles Scrivener was ordered to undertake a preliminary survey of the Yass–Canberra region, and on approval of the federal advisory board, Scrivener undertook a more detailed survey of the region.  
Once an agreement was reached with the New South Wales Government, territory boundaries were drawn up and on 1 January 1911 the Federal Capital Territory was proclaimed.
The competition
On 30 April 1911 the Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley approved an international design competition for the federal capital. O’Malley also reserved ultimate control over the competition by reserving the right to make the final decision. For many of the entrants visiting the site was not possible, and they were instead reliant on the competition materials that were sent to various diplomatic posts and public works departments throughout the United Kingdom, United States, parts of Europe, South Africa and New Zealand. These materials included a cyclorama, Scrivener’s contour map.
The initial closing date of the design competition, 31 January 1912, was extended. In February of that year a Federal Capital Designs Board was appointed to judge the competition. By the extended closing date, in mid-February, the competition had attracted 137 entries from around the world.  With King O’Malley exercising his ultimate power the finalists were decided, with entry number 29 – Walter Burley Griffin – winning first place.
Although a number of names for the capital were suggested throughout this 10-year period, in 1913 the name Canberra was finally chosen, and was declared by Lady Denman on 12 March 1913 in an official naming ceremony.
First place: design 29
Taking first place was the entry submitted by the architect Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937) from Chicago. Although the extent of their collaboration is unknown, it is certain that his wife, architect Marion Mahony Griffin, contributed considerably to the entry. She created the now UNESCO-listed iconic drawings of the future capital.
The drawings
Both Walter and Marion worked at prominent architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm before leaving to start their own business in 1911. The Griffins worked within the Prairie School architecture movement, which celebrated the concept of creating ‘organic architecture’. This concept can be seen clearly in the Griffins’ winning design, which reveals attention to the topographical and symbolic elements of place, creating axes between the significant geographical landmarks and the roads within the city. The following drawings made up the Griffins’ entry to the Federal Capital Design Competition – design number 29.

The red lines on this drawing show the principal structural axes on which the Griffin design is based.

A stylised Mount Ainslie dominates the view north in this cross-section. At the foot of Mount Ainslie, Griffin placed the people’s recreational area.

Walter Burley Griffin designed a ‘government group’, with Parliament House sitting on Camp Hill (the site of Old Parliament House), and his Capitol crowning the highest point of Kurrajong Hill (now Capital Hill, the site of Australian Parliament House).

This is one of four separate pieces, hinged together like a set of Japanese screens. The outline drawing was lithographed onto a linen cloth, which Marion Mahony called ‘window shade holland’. The colour was applied by hand in watercolour, gouache and ink.

This view from Mount Ainslie, so recognisable today, is very much the imagined vision of the Griffins.

Credits: Story

This exhibit is from 'Design 29', a larger exhibition developed by the National Archives of Australia in 2013, drawing on the Commonwealth Federal Capital Design Competition collection held in the Archives. Exquisite architectural drawings, photographs, maps, plans and intriguing archival documents reveal the people, politics and controversy surrounding the creation of the national capital. The exhibition marked the centenary of the foundation of the city of Canberra.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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