A vision for a democratic capital

Detail from Griffin plan for Canberra – Southerly side of water axis, Government Group, c. 1911–12 NAA: A710, 43

In 1912, Walter Burley Griffin won the competition to design the new capital of Australia. The winning designs, rendered by Marion Mahony Griffin, are a treasured part of the National Archives collection. And they are listed on UNESCO's Australian Memory of the World register.

A new national capital was a key step in building a democracy from the ground up, and the Griffins' design promised harmony with its site. Other competitors in the national capital design competition had treated the site as a blank page, but the Griffins were sensitive to the site’s natural features.

The plan worked along two axes – a land axis, aligned with mountain peaks, and a perpendicular water axis, along which the lake would stretch. Atop the highest hill (which Parliament House now occupies) the Griffins had planned for a ceremonial public building to celebrate the achievements of the Australian people.

The quality of Marion Mahony Griffin's renderings has not diminished with age. Her panoramic visions, drawn on cloth and highlighted in gold leaf, are as much fine art as they are a historic treatise on the early days of landscape architecture.

The drawings held by the National Archives are the only set that the Griffins submitted. Another two sets are believed to have been drawn up but it is not known whether they have survived.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019