A Rise from The Ashes
Following Chicago’s widespread devastation caused by The Great Fire of 1871 and significant population growth, several progressive architects known as the ‘Chicago School’ set about advancing building heights and architectural capabilities by designing the first ‘skyscrapers’ in the city. As time went on, these pioneering architects began to reject the ideologies of previous European influences and set about creating a more distinctive style that related to the flat spaces of the American Midwest, which fittingly became the ‘Prairie School’ style.
The truly unique Prairie School style of American architecture associated with several eminent names including Walter Burley Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright is still dotted around many famous global cities, including throughout Melbourne.
Frank Lloyd Wright
In 1893, when Frank Lloyd Wright founded his architecture practice in Oak Park, Chicago, he was one of the key pioneers in establishing this new style, a style we still celebrate today. The talented team, which included Walter Burley Griffin was inspired by Louis Sullivan, who Wright viewed as a mentor. Once Wright and his colleagues developed the Prairie School design, they were steadily emerging off the page and out of the ground during the first decade of the twentieth century. Wright would describe the style as ‘organic architecture’ and refer to the buildings as being ‘married to the ground’, underpinning their horizontal landscape amid neighbouring European-inspired more vertically centric dwellings.
Walter Burley Griffin
Walter Burley Griffin was about ten years younger than his peers when first working with Frank Lloyd Wright and the other pioneering Prairie style architects at the turn of the twentieth century. Griffin was seen to be the most favoured by Wright, evident when Wright left Griffin in charge of his studio on an international trip to Japan in 1905. Unfortunately, this additional authority led to a falling out between the two upon Wright’s return. The two seemed to go their different ways: Griffin opening his own studio and rising to popularity with his wife and fellow architect Marion Lucy Mahony, while Wright continue to lose popularity over a scandal later in the decade.
The Canberra Connection
Walter Burley Griffin was on his honeymoon with wife Marion Lucy Mahony when he first heard about the Australian government’s international competition to design their new, and unnamed capital city (now known as Canberra) in 1911. The pair worked eagerly to produce plans for the new town and eventually Griffin was selected as the winner from a group of 137 entries. Griffin would travel to Australia in 1913 while leaving Mahony in charge of the American practice. He spent time bushwalking and studying fields to better understand the local landscape and would go on to use his newly acquired Australian flora knowledge as names for new landmarks such as Telopea Park, Grevillea Park and Blandfordia. Griffin had many more grand plans for Canberra, yet the First World War put significant restraints on finances and resources. Political tensions between Griffin and government bureaucrats would lead to him eventually withdrawing from the lead design role in 1920.
The Extended Australian Holiday
When Walter first arrived in the country in 1913, he would receive various requests and commissions for work outside of Canberra and would go on to set up successful practices in both Melbourne and Sydney. The Griffin’s first major job after leaving Canberra would be the Capitol Theatre which, notable architect and writer, Robin Boyd described as ‘the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built’. Griffin would pioneer other architectural styles including the elusive ‘Knitlock’ style, while also working on the design of famous commercial structures such as Capitol House, Palais de Danse and incinerators in Essendon and Brunswick.
The WBG Influence
Walter Burley Griffin would effectively pass the Prairie School style of American architecture on to his many understudies who would lead designs of the unique homes in Melbourne. An utter minority in comparison to Victorian, Edwardian and other architectural styles in the area, the Prairie style is still seen in small numbers, with heritage regulations protecting some of the few that remain standing.
The Prairie Style on Display in Melbourne:
‘Revell’ at 9 Toorak Avenue, Toorak – It was designed by a direct pupil of Griffin, Edward Felder Billson from the University of Melbourne. The hipped roofs, exaggerated eaves and casement windows all contribute to the horizontal appeal. Built 1920. Pictured top right.
‘Langi Flats’ at 579 Toorak Road, Toorak – Fronted by towering lemon-scented gums, a signature landscape quality of Griffin and Mahony, Langi is a unique and accomplished apartment block in the Prairie style. The geometrically stylised plant forms are indicative of Louis Sullivan inspiration. Designed in 1925 (north wing) and 1926 (south wing) by Griffin. Pictured bottom right.
‘Robinson House’ now ‘Fairmaids’ at 108 North Road, Brighton – Built by English engineer Percy Robinson as his own home in 1923, thus the original name, 108 North Road is of local significance due to its intact façade detail and supreme rarity within the area. The overhanging eaves, casement windows and continuous piers are synonymous with Griffin’s work, so the property has been protected under heritage overlay regulations. 108 North Road was recently sold on December 6, 2022, through Jellis Craig Brighton.
The Knitlock Niche
During his time in Canberra, Griffin developed a patented modular concrete construction known as ‘Knitlock’, although none of these buildings were ever erected in the capital. The best example of the style is found at 16 Glyndebourne Avenue, Toorak or Stanley R Salter House. One of a kind, the house forms around an atrium courtyard, while a tessellated tiled roofing system invented by Griffin has each tile resembling a diamond patterned flat shingle.
Goad, P. (2009). Melbourne architecture. Boorowa, N.S.W.: Watermark Press.