“No Apology in a World of Men”: Marion Mahony Griffin and Women in Architecture Curricula
As a woman student of architecture, I didn’t initially question how architectural history was presented as being the sole domain of male genius. A seminar on gender and architecture, taught by Lauren O’Connell at Ithaca College, opened my eyes. Architecture’s pedagogical emphasis on men does not reflect a lack of women in architectural practice, but rather a historical and still inexorable focus on ideals and precedents coded masculine. Due to their supposed feminine traits, women have been viewed as ill-suited for the profession, and their contributions have been discredited, ignored, and excluded from architectural history and discourse. As scholar Karen Kingsley observes, the core courses that are required in all accredited architectural programs continue to “utilize the great monuments and/or great men approach, isolating and objectifying designer, group and work. It is a male-centered curriculum from a male perspective.”1Karen Kingsley, “Gender Issues in Teaching Architectural History,” Journal of Architectural Education vol. 41, no. 2 (Winter 1988): 21.
Women architects are rarely mentioned in standard architecture coursebooks. In 2006, a study evaluated the textbooks used in history-of-architecture courses at top architecture schools (Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley, and eleven others). The study found that female architects and designers were either excluded completely or severely diminished.2Meltem Ö Gürel and Kathryn H. Anthony, “The Canon and the Void: Gender, Race, and Architectural History Texts,” Journal of Architectural Education vol. 59, no. 3 (Feb 2006): 73. Often their work was credited to their collaborators, despite evidence to the contrary. Notably, several texts analyzed in the study were the same used in an earlier study, in 1988.3Gürel4 and Anthony, 70. In the intervening eighteen years, there had been extraordinarily little change in course materials. The most widely used textbook remained Modern Architecture Since 1900, by architectural historian William J.R. Curtis. Initially published in 1982 by Phaidon Press, with a third edition published in 1996, this is the textbook that I used as an undergraduate. Curtis occasionally mentions women architects, but the book includes no sustained discussion of any single woman.5William J.R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (London: Phaidon Press, 1996).
There is one woman I would have liked to know more about: Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961). Mahony Griffin designed significant projects in her own practice and was celebrated as an exceptional draftsman. She also made formative contributions to buildings credited to Frank Lloyd Wright. (Curtis mentions her just twice — once in passing, and once in an image credit.) Mahony Griffin is an example of a woman whose work could, and should, be taught to architecture students. Not doing so is a missed opportunity to achieve greater gender inclusion in architectural curriculum.
Mahony Griffin grew up north of Chicago and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where in 1894 she became the second woman to graduate from the architectural program. She subsequently returned to Chicago and became the first woman architect to be professionally licensed in the state of Illinois. From 1895 to 1909, she worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, playing a central role in the Oak Park Studio. There is evidence of Wright capitalizing on Mahony Griffin’s work early in their relationship when, around 1898, the Oak Park Studio was built adjacent to Wright’s residence. Scholar James Weirick points out the coincidence: Mahony Griffin’s thesis study was entitled “The House and Studio of a Painter,” and focused on a house attached to a studio. The configuration Wright adopted was remarkably similar to the one Mahony Griffin presented in her thesis. (Wright would have had access to Mahony Griffin’s work when he reviewed her portfolio.)
Mahony Griffin also appears to have developed the T-shaped plan characteristic of the Prairie style, which is widely attributed to Wright. In a 1947 letter to her colleague William Gray Purcell, Mahony Griffin states that the T-shape had been an early idea of hers, generated for a competition, and that Wright later used it as his own. While the vagaries of collaboration make it difficult to trace Mahony Griffin’s exact contributions during these years of Wright’s practice, it is clear they were substantial. Wright’s biographer Grant Carpenter Manson refers to Mahony Griffin as the studio’s “key figure.” “If the studio had been organized along more conventional lines,” Manson writes, “she would have held the rank of head designer.”6Grant Carpenter Manson, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age (New York, 1958), 217.
In 1909, upon Wright’s departure from the Oak Park Studio, he offered Mahony Griffin the head position. For unclear reasons, she didn’t accept the job. As she wrote in her unpublished autobiography, “Later this architect went abroad. He asked me to take over the office for him. I refused.”7Marion Mahony Griffin, The Magic of America: Electronic Edition (The Art Institute of Chicago and The New York Historical Society, August 2007), 174. It is thought that Mahony Griffin’s sympathies lay with Catherine, Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife, from whom he was estranged. The studio responsibility was instead given to Hermann von Holst, another MIT graduate. Von Holst was inexperienced with the Prairie School style, and he often turned to Mahony Griffin for help. Though Mahony Griffin didn’t hold the title of head designer, she nonetheless became the dominant member of the practice and ultimately controlled much of the studio’s production. She personally managed a team of six draftsmen during a period when several significant homes were inked, including the Wills House, Henry Ford Estate, and the E.P. Irving house.
In addition, Mahony Griffin principally designed the Robert and Adolph Mueller homes, as well as the David Amberg home. The Ambergs’ house, which was particularly admired in the architectural community, was explicitly claimed by Wright and von Holst as their design. Mahony Griffin’s contributions were described as decorative. Some historians even cast doubt over her capability to design such works. H. Allen Brooks, for instance, writes that the Robert Mueller home was “too broad and relaxed to be designed by Mahony.”8H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries (New York, NY: Norton, 2006), 157. Mahony Griffin’s draftsmen, however, knew otherwise. “In these three houses we did everything,” wrote her draftsman Roy Lippincott, in reference to the Robert and Adolph Mueller homes, and the Amberg home. “These were practically wholly Marion’s, and she and I made all the drawings.”9Roy Lippincott to Mark L. Peisch, November 28 1954. Department of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Indeed, Mahony Griffin’s renderings were widely admired, and her drafting skills considered some of the best in architectural history; the critic Reyner Banham referred to Griffin as “the greatest architectural delineator of her generation.”10Cited in Elizabeth Birmingham, “Marion Mahony Griffin,” Pioneering Women of American Architecture. During her time at Oak Park Studio, Mahony Griffin’s drawings were constantly showcased in magazines and exhibitions. More than half of the drawings included in Wright’s 1911 portfolio, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright — described by Vincent Scully as “one of the three most influential architectural treatises of the twentieth century” — are by Mahony Griffin.11Frank Lloyd Wright and Anthony Alofsin, Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright (New York, NY: Rizzoli, 1998), 5.
In 1911, Mahony Griffin married Walter Burley Griffin, another early member of Wright’s studio. The two founded their own studio and designed hundreds of projects in the United States, India, and Australia, over the course of nearly four decades. In 1912, they won a high-profile competition for the Australian Federal Capital at Canberra, for which Mahony Griffin’s renderings “had a great deal to do with the judges’ decision.”12Janice Pregliasco, “The Life and Work of Marion Mahony Griffin,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies vol. 21, no. 2 (1995): 91. The Canberra win made headlines across the United States, including multiple columns in the New York Times. The Griffins went on to design the Capitol Theatre and Capitol House project in Melbourne and the Castlecrag suburb development north of Sydney. Back in the U.S., one of the couple’s largest projects was a housing development in Mason City, Iowa, which remains the largest concentration of Prairie Style buildings in one area.
After Walter Griffin’s sudden death in 1937, Mahony Griffin finished their outstanding projects in India, and then returned to Chicago. She continued designing and lecturing, and wrote a 1500-page autobiography, The Magic of America. The manuscript documented the work of an important architect, and yet Mahony Griffin couldn’t find a publisher. The Magic of America is now available online through the Art Institute of Chicago, where Mahony Griffin donated her archives. She died in 1961, in poverty.
Banham once said that Mahony Griffin was “America’s (and perhaps the world’s) first woman architect who needed no apology in a world of men.”13Pregliasco, 181. Her work helped shape and define the Prairie Style and was essential to Wright’s international success and acclaim. Among many other women in the history of architecture, Mahony Griffin should be given her due. She deserves more than a passing mention in the standard textbook. For architecture to become a gender-balanced profession, its discriminative past practices need to be redressed. Teaching a truer version of architectural history is a good place to start.
- Karen Kingsley, “Gender Issues in Teaching Architectural History,” Journal of Architectural Education vol. 41, no. 2 (Winter 1988): 21.
- Meltem Ö Gürel and Kathryn H. Anthony, “The Canon and the Void: Gender, Race, and Architectural History Texts,” Journal of Architectural Education vol. 59, no. 3 (Feb 2006): 73.
- Gürel and Anthony, 70.
- William J.R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (London: Phaidon Press, 1996).
- Grant Carpenter Manson, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age (New York, 1958), 217.
- Marion Mahony Griffin, The Magic of America: Electronic Edition (The Art Institute of Chicago and The New York Historical Society, August 2007), 174.
- H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries (New York, NY: Norton, 2006), 157.
- Roy Lippincott to Mark L. Peisch, November 28 1954. Department of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
- Cited in Elizabeth Birmingham, “Marion Mahony Griffin,” Pioneering Women of American Architecture.
- Frank Lloyd Wright and Anthony Alofsin, Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright (New York, NY: Rizzoli, 1998), 5.
- Janice Pregliasco, “The Life and Work of Marion Mahony Griffin,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies vol. 21, no. 2 (1995): 91.
- Pregliasco, 181.