Marion Mahony was born in Chicago in 1871. She was the second woman to graduate in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1894, making her one of the first licensed female architects in the world.
Beginning in 1895, Marion Mahony worked for Frank Lloyd Wright as part of the Prairie School architectural movement. She was his first employee and later one of seven draftsman who contributed to the style of architecture that made Wright famous. She is best known for her drawings and watercolor renderings of Wright’s designs. In 1910, a book of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs was published in Germany, which became one of the most important publications about architecture in the last century and influenced Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Mahony’s drawings, retraced in ink, made up more than half the book. When people see her drawings and watercolor renderings, they think of Frank Lloyd Wright, but the notoriously arrogant architect never gave her any credit for her work.
Marion Mahony married Walter Burley Griffin in 1911, another Prairie School architect she had met in Wright’s studio. She devoted herself to furthering her new husband’s career. She persuaded him to enter a competition for the design of Australia’s proposed capital city in Canberra. They collaborated on the entry, and Marion created 14 large presentation drawings of Walter’s design. Ironically, neither Marion nor Walter had ever seen Australia. Her drawings captured the imagination of the judges, and the couple won the competition.
In 1914, they moved to Canberra to oversee the building. After many bruising, bureaucratic battles over the new capital city, very little of their vision survived. Although only small parts of their original plan were implemented, the couple had other successful projects in Australia. Marion managed their Sydney office and did the designs for their private commissions. Their projects included five new towns, several suburban communities, three campus plans, houses, and some industrial and commercial buildings.
The couple also worked in India, where Walter designed a university library. After her husband died there in 1937, Marion returned to Australia and then to the United States. She continued working and was also known as a horticulturist, graphic designer, and painter. She remained an advocate for community planning and the environment until her death in 1961. In 2005, her paintings were published in the book Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature.
In Canberra, memorials to her husband Walter Burley Griffin are easy to find. The lake in the center of the city bears his name. His portrait is on a commemorative postage stamp.
Marion Mahony Griffin is more elusive. The National Archives of Australia exhibited her renderings in 2013 for Canberra’s centennial. That same year, a view from the summit of Mount Ainslie, the subject of her most evocative drawing, was named in her honor.