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‘Drawing’ exhibit celebrates the influence of Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin

CanberrCity Plan: Plan CanberrCity Environs from CanberrAustralicirc1912 ink linen 41 inches by 30 inches.   |  Photography ©

Canberra City Plan: Plan of Canberra City, and Environs from Canberra, Australia, circa 1912, ink on linen, 41 inches by 30 inches. | Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago

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‘Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the
International Stage,

♦ April 19-Aug. 11

♦ Northwestern University’s Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

♦ Free

♦ Suggested donation, $5
♦ (847) 491-4000;

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Updated: April 29, 2013 9:09AM

Even without his secret weapon, the Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin probably would have won an international competition to design Canberra, the Australian capital city, in 1912. Griffin’s scheme had in spades what those of his far more famous main competitors, Eliel Saarinen and Alfred Agache, did not: drama, clarity, harmony with the existing landscape and a geometric plan with distinct districts linked along axial lines.

But Griffin also had another huge advantage. His design for Canberra was visualized in a series of intricately decorated, richly colored and often vast renderings on fine linen by his wife, the great draftswoman and muralist Marion Mahony Griffin, whom he’d met while both worked in the Oak Park studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.

“They’re spectacular works of art,” says Northwestern University architectural historian David Van Zanten, chief organizer of “Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900-1925,” the eye-popping new exhibit opening April 19 at Northwestern’s Block Museum. “The plans of their main competitors were nice, conventional drawings roughly one meter square, but Marion’s are really gigantic — some of her cross-sections are 20 feet long — and incredibly vivid and elaborate, layered with copper, silver and gold metallic paint. The Australians could have said either ‘Oh my God!’ and run away, or ‘Wow, let’s go with it!’”

The latter response prevailed, and a few of the Canberra drawings — others are too fragile to travel from the Australian capital, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year — are the starting point of “Drawing the Future.” The exhibit examines the work of the Griffins before, during and after the Canberra competition, which was highly influential despite the fact that the capital city was completed in modified form only in the 1960s, long after Walter Griffin’s death.

“Marion’s gift for drawing and presentation probably sold the project to the jurors as much as Walter’s ideas did,” says Corinne Granof, a curator at the Block, which boasts a large collection of Marion’s Canberra competition renderings as well as her drawings for other designs by Wright and her husband. “They have such a strong decorative quality, and reproductions don’t do them justice at all. You really have to see them in person to appreciate how remarkable they are.”

The exhibit also explores how the Griffins helped spread Chicago’s architectural and urban design legacy through dialogue with architects and city planners — including Tony Garnier, Rudolph Schindler, Robert Mallet-Stevens and Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer — in Paris, Vienna, London and elsewhere as they traveled in search of jurors for another competition to design Australia’s Parliament building.

Part of that legacy was derived from Wright, whose ensemble-oriented ideas about urban planning probably influenced those of Walter Burley Griffin, and whose interest in Japanese prints obviously informed Marion Mahony Griffin’s highly stylized draftsmanship. The Griffins were also heavily indebted to Daniel Burnham’s Beaux Arts scheme for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and Jules Guerin’s exquisite large-scale watercolor illustrations for Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.

“Urban planning was still in its infancy at that time,” Granof says. “The synergy between architects’ thinking about how to design a modern city using geometric principles as organizing features, and how Chicago architects approached modern building, turned out to be important in the history of city planning. The exhibit shows how the Griffins became a big part of that history.”

Kevin Nance is a local free-lance writer.

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