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Federal Parliament Buildings Competition
Purcell and Elmslie
Canberra, Australia   1914

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910
Text by William Gray Purcell

Job Date (in Parabiography): January 5, 1914

Australian Parliament Buildings

[MH: This draft hand corrected, and in some spots not finished. Did the best I could.]

Walter Burley Griffin, of Chicago (died Alahabad, India, 1936) won the International Competition for the city plan for the proposed fiat capital of Australia, Canberra. In addition to life long interest in landscape architecture and city planning, with many successful works to his credit, he had known for a number of years that this new capital city planning competition was in the making. He had spent a large amount of time studying for the project. It is nevertheless astonishing that he won the competition, for his designs would be considered a radical project even today. [fragment sentence: and furthermore was based on Henry George single tax economics] It is probable that the jury did not know how much social dynamite was wrapped in that plan awaiting only the match of procedure with its building to set it off. This is actually about what happened.

There were over a hundred architects entered in the competition, the most distinguished names in architecture of every country of the world, and yet the unbelievable stupidity of the French Beaux Arts training in architecture was illustrated in this city planning competition with a negative effectiveness for which no excuses could be offered.

That is to say, although the competition program was scientifically complete and provided the most detailed account of the topography of the entire region and meteorological data on rainfall, water run-off, and so on, covering a period of 25 years, every last one of these hundred or more architects, Walter Griffin and Albert Kelsey of Philadelphia, alone excepted, planned their cities in such a way that the entire business section of the city would have been flooded under twelve feet of water every fall ("spring" in Australia). That a blunder of this kind was not an accident in ordinarily competent architectural procedures of men dedicated to the French system of education is illustrated by a similar technological debacle in the famous competition for the grand place of the campus for the University of California conducted at the instance of Phoebe A. Hearst, in 1900. Here M. Bernard, at that time the most famous name in the architectural world, won the competition, and when John Galen Howard came to carry out the project he found that in an already exceedingly irregular terrain Bernard's campus plan [edited text I could not understand] called for the proposed future buildings to be placed on terraces fifty to a hundred feet high. In that earthquake region Bernard proposed to hold these terraces in place by forbidding retaining walls which would have cost more than the buildings they were designed to support, if indeed the buildings could have been supported at all within or upon such fills. California sun reflected from these great blank walls would have killed the plantings and made the area in front of the uninhabitable, indeed, at times practically impassable.

This winning plan for the University of California, by one of the most publicized names of that day in architecture, was nothing more than an academic arrangement on paper, completed unrelated to the material conditions of the site. Had some super dictator actually built this astonishing group of buildings, it would have required nothing short of airplanes for the 20,000 students now attending the University to have gotten from one class to the next.

[MH: The following text is separated from the rest of the draft by a line, and has a question mark next to it]

I have referred elsewhere (our building [McCosker]) to some aspects of this winning plan of Griffin's which stands today a pioneer in functional landscape and metropolitan area city planning. Not a single advantage which has been developed in all the recent years of regional study is absent from Griffin's forward looking project. A book should be written on this achievement and it is a great pity that practically no one today knows what he did there. It is even more unfortunate that after the World War, which interrupted the building of the city, the politicians removed Griffin from direction of the enterprise. Hack draftsmen and engineers in the employ of the state then replanned the appearance of all that was shown on the Griffin plans without the least idea of the reasons which had governed the disposition of the parts. The result is a typical streamlined design - superficial, unintelligent - and from this was built the city of Canberra, as it stands today. Canberra shows almost none of the advantages offered by Griffin's plan and is complicated by a failure to make provisions for a growing city. Friends of mine who have visited the city tell me that it is simply a dismal prospect of unbelievable inconvenience with no hope now for future reorganization and integration as occurred in the city of Washington.


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.8]
research courtesy mark hammons