Known worldwide, U.S. landscape architect Griffin is unsung at home

landscape at Barton House by Walter Burley Griffin from National Library of Australia
Walter Burley Griffin designed the landscape at the Barton House, one of the buildings at the Martin House Complex in Buffalo. Though Griffin is well known throughout the world, he has been almost forgotten here in his home country. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Walter Burley Griffin is “probably one of the most important landscape architects you’ve never heard of,” said Christopher Vernon, associate professor in the School of Architecture, Landscape, and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia.

Christopher Vernon who is authority on WALTER BURLEY GRIFFIN
Christopher Vernon of the School of Architecture, Landscape, and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia will speak on the work of Walter Burley Griffin June 18 at the Darwin Martin House Complex in Buffalo.

Griffin designed the landscape for the Martin House Complex here in Buffalo. He took on many other successful and prestigious projects as well, including designing the entire city of Canberra, the capital of Australia.

Despite his accomplishments, Griffin doesn’t have the reputation in the United States that he deserves, Vernon contends.

Vernon will discuss Griffin’s work in a talk at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 18 in the Greatbatch Pavilion at the Martin House complex, 125 Jewett Parkway, Buffalo.

Tickets are $20 for Martin House members and $25 for nonmembers. To reserve tickets, go online or call 856-3858.

Griffin was born in 1876 and raised in the Chicago area. As a teenager, he attended the 1893 Chicago world’s fair, which was a pivotal experience for him. The World’s Columbian Exposition, as it was known, was a designed city (though a temporary one). Visiting the fair, he realized he was interested in designing not just buildings, but the whole package, so to speak, including landscape, Vernon said in a telephone interview from Australia.

Griffin worked with architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago from 1901-05. Both men wanted integration between the architecture and landscape. Griffin’s design for the Martin House Complex was his most elaborate garden while working for Wright.

But while Wright attempted to copy nature, Griffin wasn’t interested in disguising the hand of man in his designs, Vernon said. Griffin designed geometrical, formal gardens. That may be one of the reasons Griffin isn’t well known.

“Even today, more naturalistic designers get the attention,” Vernon said. He said Griffin was the antithesis of landscape architect Jens Jensen, who advocated using only native plants.

Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin landscape architect
Walter Burley Griffin, right, worked for many years with his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Soon after completing the Martin House project, Griffin left Wright to start his own architectural practice. A high point came in 1912 when his submission was chosen for the design of the new capital city of Australia. Although his name was on the submission, he had created the design with his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, an architect esteemed for her talents as a graphic artist.

Winning the competition validated Griffin as an authority in the field and brought him plenty of work designing parks and suburbs. In 1914 the couple traveled to Australia, intending to stay only temporarily, but they lived there until 1935.

Griffin struggled to keep his Chicago office open, but at a time when it took a month for a letter from Australia to reach the United States, that proved too difficult.

“When he disappears to the other side of the world, he gets forgotten,” Vernon said. “He has no name recognition in the United States.” In this country, he is seen as a “second-rate Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Rendering by Marion Mahony Griffin of the couple's design for the capital city of Australia. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia
Rendering by Marion Mahony Griffin of the couple’s design for the capital city of Australia. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

Part of the problem may be that people focus on Griffin’s architectural work and overlook his work in landscape architecture.

“In my view, Griffin was a better landscape architect than he was an architect,” Vernon said.

After Griffin moved to Australia, he came back twice to the United States, and on one of those occasions, visited the Martin House.

“He must have been quite proud of the project, or at least curious about how it aged,” Vernon said.

Darwin_D_Martin_and_houseman_Reuben_Polder_in_Martin_House_garden
Reuben Polder, left, gardener, and owner Darwin Martin talk in the garden at the Martin House in this undated photo. Courtesy, University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo

At one time the Martin Family had a gardener who lived in his own cottage at the complex. But just as the buildings at the complex fell into disrepair, the landscaping wasn’t maintained properly.

Vernon last visited the Martin House Complex in 1992, but from more recent photos he can see that trees weren’t  replaced, the landscaping has lost much of its complexity and intricacy, and that much of the landscape is now lawn.

Efforts have been underway to restore the buildings at the Martin House Complex, and a new project will start soon to determine the direction for the historic landscape restoration, said Susana Tejada, curator.

“The purpose of the project is to make sound recommendations for how the gardens and grounds of the Martin House will connect with the entire context of the restoration site, what the year of significance will be, what direction planting will take, and how the landscape will relate to the museum visitor experience,” she said.

Vernon praised those restoration efforts at the Martin House Complex.

“The landscape is as much a product of design as the building is,” he said.

After more than two decades of successful practice in Australia, Griffin ended his career with an array of projects in India. When Vernon gives his presentation, he will emphasize the cross-cultural transfer and transformation of Griffin’s design ideals and approach across the disparate “worlds” of the United States, Australia and India.

Vernon organized an exhibition, The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s National Capital, this year for the National Library of Australia as part of Canberra’s centennial.

Vernon is also the author of Graceland Cemetery: A Design History, published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2011.

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