Something for all of us

Emily Catt
Tuesday, 26 April 2022

From the summit of Mount Ainslie

In 1911, Marion Mahony Griffin (1871–1961) and her husband Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937) imagined the Australian capital during a cold Chicago winter. They were working tirelessly over 9 weeks to complete their competition winning entry for the Federal Capital Design competition. Despite having never visited Australia, Marion's View from the summit of Mount Ainslie managed to capture the Australian light and environment with surprising accuracy and is still recognisable in the present-day.

In 1938, before leaving Australia to return to Chicago, architect Marion visited the summit of Mount Ainslie in Canberra. While at the summit, Marion delighted in seeing the birth of the city and their plan coming to life before her. She also lamented that the city would not be complete without its ornamental water basins. Unfortunately, the Griffins' proposed lake did not eventuate until 1964, 3 years after Marion’s death.

Ornamental waters

At the centre of the Griffins' design was an ornamental lake with a series of basins. Walter drew on an experience from his teenage years to fulfil the design requirement for ‘ornamental waters’ as stipulated in the Australian Government's competition brief. In 1893 Walter had ridden the 80 metre tall Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exhibition, gaining an aerial view of the water basins at the Court of Honour which inspired his vision for the Federal Capital.

Although forming the centrepiece of their design, financial constraints resulting from the outbreak of the First World War and subsequent changes of government put the Griffins' design and its central lakes at risk of never coming to fruition. Despite holding the position of Director of Federal Capital Design and Construction from 1913 to 1920, Walter was only able to make minimal progress towards realising his vision due to significant bureaucratic opposition.

Something here for all of us

In the 1950s and 60s, Canberra and the Griffins' plan found a surprising ally in Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1894–1978). In 1954 a report by the Senate Select Committee recommended that investigations into the construction of the lake start immediately and that the design feature of the 'three central basins be regarded as obligatory.' In 1960 building works commenced and in September 1963 the dams were locked. It took a number of months for the lake to fill.

On 29 April 1964 the lake reached full capacity and Lake Burley Griffin became a reality. In October of the same year the lake was officially inaugurated by Menzies.

Learn more about the work of Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin at Marion: the other Griffin, open until 8 May 2022.