Marion Mahony Reconsidered examines the Chicago architect’s career
A new University of Chicago Press book revisits Marion Mahony Griffin’s work with Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin.
Marion Mahony Griffin (1871–1961) was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first assistant and the first woman to be licensed as an architect in Illinois. Her drawings of Wright’s Prairie Style homes helped catapult the architect to international fame. With her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, Mahony created a master plan in 1912 for Canberra, Australia. Her career spanned several decades and three continents. So how did she end up dying a pauper in Chicago?
The essays in Marion Mahony Reconsidered (University of Chicago Press, $45), edited by Northwestern University professor David Van Zanten, attempt to fill some of the blanks in the architect’s extraordinary life. Due to its academic tone, the book will be enjoyed most by readers with a strong interest in architectural history. Contributors Alice T. Friedman, Paul Kruty, James Weirick and Anna Rubbo—all scholars in Australia or the U.S.—originally developed their essays for a 2005 symposium that accompanied the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art exhibition “Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature.”
Marion Mahony Reconsidered brings its fiercely independent subject to life, however. The authors link her practice to her progressive ideals and offer glimpses, through colleagues’ and friends’ testimony, of a woman who wasn’t afraid to argue with Wright, who fought for her husband’s legacy, and whose flair for the dramatic found outlets in community theater and “exotic and unusual” clothing. The book includes copious illustrations of Mahony’s work, but it’s a shame only four plates are in color.
The authors study different periods of Mahony’s career. Friedman and Kruty explore her stint in Wright’s studio. Weirick focuses on Mahony and Griffin’s time in Australia, and on Mahony’s unpublished account of her husband’s life, The Magic of America, which is available on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website. Rubbo examines Mahony’s later years in Chicago, where she returned after Griffin’s death in 1937.
The writers aim to recover the truth about the architect’s contributions to her profession. Mahony herself complained about Wright’s tendency to take the credit for other people’s work, and she appears to have downplayed her accomplishments to promote Griffin’s.
While Mahony executed few commissions alone, Friedman’s engaging essay suggests that her MIT degree and connections among Chicago reformers facilitated Wright’s projects for educated female clients. Kruty shows that her drawing style, influenced by Japanese prints, was adopted by the whole Prairie School—except for Louis Sullivan. Weirick finds evidence of her close involvement in Griffin’s two-decade Australian practice, and Rubbo proves that she didn’t stop working when she returned to Chicago, instead designing communities to be developed by activist friends.
When these projects were derailed by World War II, Mahony was marginalized. Her gender, long absence from the U.S. and obsession with anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual philosophy, didn’t help. (In 1940, Mahony’s lecture to the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago chapter went awry when she demonstrated eurhythmic dancing.) But with her determination to integrate architecture and nature, and to work collaboratively, Mahony was ahead of her time, and she still has much to teach us.—Lauren Weinberg
Marion Mahony Reconsidered is out now.