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Canberra & the Griffins. a Theosophical view

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.


The foreword is extracted from "Canberra" by Steven Guth. A text book for schools it was first published by Jacaranda Wiley in 1977. "Canberra" was the first piece written by the article's author. It sparked off his continuing interest in the city.

The First Fleet - the first successful foreign settlement in Australia - arrived in 1788. It consisted of about 1,000 British convicted criminals and military men. Free settlers slowly followed and more settlements were made around Australia's coastline. As the Aboriginal Australians were killed the settlers moved inland.

About a hundred years later - in the 1870's when France and Germany were at war - the last British soldiers left Australia. Soon after, in the 1880's rumours spread around Australia that the Germans would settle New Guinea and that the French would use the Pacific island of New Caledonia as a convict colony. Aware that the six separately governed nation states couldn't create an effective defence force British people felt Australia threatened. So, finally, on 1st January 1901 the British Government passed a bill in London joining the six colonies into a Commonwealth - a suitable name because the word "commonwealth" means "the general good" or "the benefit of everyone".

Where to build a Capital City?

The people in the various states did not want the Commonwealth Government to stay in Melbourne. Sydney also was impossible because Melbourne people wouldn't allow it. And other State capitals were not favoured by either Sydney or Melbourne. So, it was agreed that the best location would be somewhere in NSW atleast 100 miles from Sydney. The Capital also had to be away from the coast, well out of the 50 mile range of battleships with their guns.

Politicians travelled around looking at possible sites. Many country towns were considered but finally the rather desolate Canberra site was chosen. It seems that the main reasons were:

  1. A healthy, cool climate without snow.
  2. Possibilities for an adequate water supply.
  3. The fact that the site was seen by many as appropriate for "a bush capital in no man's land"- A place far away from lines of communication ... and so unlikely to be quickly built.
Canberra in relation to the state capitals
Canberra is about 300kms from Sydney and 600kms from Melbourne. A bit over a 1000km to the other state capital cities of Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane. Well over half of Australia's 20 million people live within a 1000km (600 miles) of Canberra. Canberra's population is about 300,000.

Canberra's plan.

Once the site was chosen, the Commonwealth Government had to choose a plan for the city. It decided to hold a world wide competition. In April 1911 the competition was announced and lists of instructions were sent to competitors. The city was to be for 25,000 people and the plans were to include the site locations for the capital's important buildings.

There were many disagreements about the competition. Australian architects did not like the idea that the Minister for Home Affairs made himself final judge of the entries. They also said that the prize money was too small and that the nine months given was too short. So Australian and British architects and engineers refused to enter the competition. In spite of all this 137 entries were received by the closing date - the end of January 1912.

Griffins design for Canberra - click for larger image
The Griffins design for Canberra was a beautiful artwork.
In terms of town planning it was decades ahead of its competitors.

Walter Burley Griffin won first prize. But there was further trouble. Some people thought Griffin's city would cost too much and so a Government board drew up a composite plan. Then there was a change of Government and Griffin's plan was again adopted. Griffin came to Australia in August 1913 to become Director of Design and Construction for the federal capital; a full time position he held from 1914 to 1920 on half pay.

Griffin's work was made difficult by some public servants in the Public Works Department who tried to slow or stop the project. When confronted about this they defended themselves by saying that Griffin was a poor organiser. In fact most Australians had little sympathy for the idea of a national Capital city. From the Melbourne "Punch" newspaper of 2nd December 1920...

At the end of this week there is to be a little jaunt for members of the Federal Parliament to Canberra.

That is a waste of money.

There is also a proposal to spend more on building at Canberra.

That is a still greater waste of money.

And it is about time the people of Australia, as a people, took a hand in the matter.

This Federal Capital. nonsense has been going on for years. Thousands upon thousands of pounds have been spent there, and practically nothing has been seen for the money. ... The whole proposal is stupid from start to finish. ...

Canberra and the Federal Capital nonsense was so much political bribery. There was jealousy between New South Wales and Victoria. To get them together in the Federation, Canberra was thrown in as a sort of 'make-weight' for New South Wales. . . Now Australia is no longer a collection of States. It is a Commonwealth. It is a nation.

As a matter of fact, the only people who today want Canberra ... are a few representatives of New South Wales in the Federal House. There is not a businessman, not a householder or a taxpayer, who cares anything at all about Canberra."

Parliament House was built in the Canberra wilderness in the early 1920's and officially opened on the 9th May 1927, to finally make Canberra the official "Seat of Government" of the Australian Commonwealth.

The 1927 census shows that 7,000 people lived in Canberra. In 2002 the population of Canberra area was about 300,000.

The Beginning

The facts surrounding Canberra's beginning can still be dragged out of the mists of time. What was happening in the decades around Federation? What was Walter Burley Griffin's background? Was Marion Griffin part red Indian? (She was from a solid Irish background and proud of it.)

What spiritual, what intellectual framework did they live in? No, it wasn't Theosophy. It was Henry Georgeism. "What is that?", I can hear you asking. Well, you've heard of Karl Marx, the man who set out the philosophical framework for communism? Henry George was his American equivalent. Both tried to develop theories which would solve the poverty created by the Industrial Revolution. Poverty that preceded the creation of the Welfare State. Poverty that was grinding and absolute. Poverty, which as Henry George pointed out in his works, paradoxically got worse for the workers as the rich got richer. The "why" of this cried out for answers and solutions. Marx came up with a solution. So did Henry George. George saw the problem - and its solution - as being linked to the ownership of land. If land values remained fixed, rents would remain low and poverty - so he believed - would be eliminated. He saw a Brave New World in which the nation state, not a privileged group held all land. The Griffins were Henry George fellow travellers.

So imagine their excitement on hearing of a nation with an Anglo-Saxon government which had created as its Capital a State in which there was to be no private property, no land speculation, equality for all and no poverty. It inspired them into putting the effort into making a submission to the National Capital competition.

Progress and Poverty - click for larger image
Title page for the book that started the Griffins on their Australian adventure.
The Progress and Poverty was written in the late 1870's

As a Theosophist I see the spiritual base of the Australian Capital city as originating from this short quote ...

"To those who, seeing the vice and misery that spring from the unequal distribution wealth and privilege, feel the possibility of higher social state, and would strive for its attainment."

This is the dedication to Henry George's book "Progress and Poverty". The preface of this book tells us it was penned between August 1877 and March 1879. I add the dates as an astrological curiosity; I wonder what a natal chart for the time would show.

Here is a quote from "Progress and Poverty". From the summary paragraphs of the Chapter, "The Laws of Distribution, page 160.

'The value of land depends wholly upon the power which its ownership gives of appropriating wealth brought about by the use of labour. The increase of land values is always at the expense of the value of labour. And, hence, that the increase of productive power does not increase wages, is because it does increase the value of land. Rent swallows up the whole gain, and pauperism accompanies progress.

It is unnecessary to allude to facts. They will suggest themselves to the reader. It is the general fact, observable everywhere, that as the value of land increases, so does the contrast between wealth and want appear. It is the universal fact, that where the value of land is highest, civilisation exhibits the greatest luxury side by side with the most piteous destitution. To see human beings in the most abject, the most helpless and hopeless condition, you must go, not to the unfenced prairies and the log cabins of new clearings in the backwoods, where man single-handed is commencing the struggle with nature, and land is yet worth nothing, but to the great cities, where the ownership of a little patch of ground is a fortune.'

Author's Background

Over the years as I delved into the mists of time that surround Canberra's inception, I have pursued many sources. In 1977 I wrote a school text "Canberra" published by Jacaranda Wiley. In 1987 I wrote a paper, "Canberra an Anthroposophical Site?" This explained Canberra's Geomancy and Feng Shui in Anthroposophical terms and suggested that Canberra's hidden plan - as laid down by the Griffins - gave great and unusual opportunities for spiritually orientated groups to link their "doings" into the international, social and political realities of the city. (The Adyar library in Sydney has a copy.)

A fascinating source of information on early Canberra is a manuscript Marion wrote - but never completed - in the 1940's. It told about her life, her life with Walter and the development of Canberra. Called "The Magic of America" it is available only as microfilm (a copy is available in the Australian National Library.) It is a collection of bits and pieces, impossible to follow, complex and huge. A friend, and co-worker, Ron Evans has done a brilliant job - it took him months - of combing through the MS, extracting important bits and writing a connecting commentary. He called his work "Marion's Magic" and I quote from it in this article.

In the 1990's, still pondering the question of the spiritual sources that flowed through the Griffins, I went on a quest to talk to all the living people I could locate who had known the Griffins. Fortunately, the National Library lent me an archival tape recorder and now there are tapes, transcripts and photographs available of many of the people I discovered in my quest. Not all my respondents were willing to have all their words recorded. In fact my most useful informant - I lived with him for days - regarded tape machines as potential boat anchors.

The Middle Period

Which brings me to the middle period. Most of the tapes are about the Castlecrag community experience. The tapes give a fascinating view into how the spiritual world works into people. I guess a lot was happening under the surface in Sydney at the time. From a Theosophical viewpoint it was the time that Leadbeater held regency at "The Manor", a nearby harbourside suburb in Sydney.

"But what," I hear you asking, "of Canberra? It may be interesting to learn about the Griffins in their later years. But what about the Capital city of Australia? It too had a beginning. What happened in the early years? How were the Griffin's involved?"

The Griffins

First a bit about Marion. She could draw and paint really good architectural perspectives so bringing two dimensional representations into three dimensional life. She was quick and brilliant and she was much sought after by architects who needed her skills. Many, including Frank Lloyd Wright, used her services.

The quote below comes from page 17 of "Marion's Magic".

'Now, on coming into Walt's office I had revelation after revelation, thrill after thrill. Problems which I had seen struggles over in office after office and never solved were being solved one after the other. Inspiration was tapped and I watched him with awe and amazement and understanding as designs dropped from his pencil, each one a perfect classic.

The small house, the minimum, the inexpensive house, the most difficult of all architectural problems were solved with the precision of a mathematical problem and with the exquisiteness of a Greek temple: and one after the other laid before my delighted eyes.'

and from page 14

'At about this time Bailey's volumes on plants was published. Griffin devoured them and what he read he remembered. Twenty years later in Australia when he found flowers described in Bailey's he could name them. He had the use of absolute memory.'

Are you beginning to get the picture? Walter, or Griffin as Marion was inclined to call him, was brilliant. He worked fast and hard and seemingly tapped into inspiration as he went.

And what about those Canberra plans? Marion mentions their beginnings on a canoeing expedition.

But before I quote, some background...

Virtually every summer weekend the couple used their canoe to explore the waterways surrounding Chicago. Just before Marion lashed out at Walter with the commencement tirade she describes, the couple had just paddled 45 miles in the "hottest day any of us experienced" after having spent a wet night sleeping inside their canoe. A situation that made it easy for the spiritual world to intrude into their thoughts. (For the astrologically minded the date - it probably was a Sunday - can be worked backwards. Closing date for entries was Jan 31st. 1929 ... less a month, less nine weeks) From "Marion's Magic" page 26.

'... Perhaps it was the torture of those sunburned legs, perhaps it was just that well-known mean disposition of mine or it may have been those spiritual advisers, of whom I was unconscious at the time, who said to me - "We can't do anything with him without some human help. Won't you do something to make him get a start on that important matter he has in mind?" - or perhaps it was the suggestion of the Devil himself as Walter was later inclined to think.

Anyway the storm of wrath broke over his head on some such lines as follows: "For the love of Mike when are you going to get started on those Capital plans? How much time do you think there is left anyway? Do you realize that it takes a solid month to get them over there after they have started on their way? That leaves exactly nine weeks now to turn them out in. Perhaps you can design a city in two days but the drawings take time and that falls on me. Nine weeks! It isn't possible to do them in nine weeks. I may be the swiftest draftswoman in town but I can't do the impossible. What's the use of thinking about a thing like this for ten years if when the time comes you don't get it done in time?

Mark my words and I'm not joking, either you get busy on that this very day, this very minute (with rising tones) or I'll not touch a pencil to the darn things. Serve you jolly well right if I refused to take it on now. (No, not jolly. Such language only came later)."

And Walt said nothing. (He was such an amiable man) but started sawing wood. And so a new adventure was started.'

(Commentary added by Ron Evans):

At the Griffin home in Elinhurst, Walter took a large room as a studio. He hung the maps and cycloramas of the city site available to all competitors. "Thus he lived with the city of his vision and grew with it," his father said.

The presentation drawings, mounted on stretchers in fifteen panels and featuring almost twenty square metres of exquisite display in inks and watercolours and gold-leaf, were completed at the last moment in the studio loft of Steinway Hall.

After nine weeks of driving work, toward midnight on a bitterly cold winter night, the box of drawings, too long to go into a taxi, was rushed with doors open, and the men hanging out without their coats - no time to go back up the 12 stories to get them - across the city to catch the last train to meet the last boat for Australia. Mr. Griffin was the only one not quite frantic because to him if Australia was serious about their Federal Capital, they would not let the late arrival of plans determine their choice.

Yes, Marion could communicate. Walter was a poor communicator. Here is a sample of his writings. It expresses his ideas on property and reflects his Henry George beliefs. From page 30 of "Marion's Magic".

'The interradical spaces become strictly domestic, and can develop in quiet and security. The spaces formed by the obtuse angle in the centre of the domestic spaces form a natural location for small parks increasing in size with distance from the centres and decreasing land values.

The matter of land values, so disastrous to the orderly development of most cities, will be entirely an advantage in Canberra, for the nation has taken the precaution of resuming the land in the city site and the whole Federal District.

The land value, instead of going into the pockets of private individuals for the enrichment of a few, will be retained by the community and will pay for the whole development of the city, eliminating any taxing for this purpose. The building of the Federal Capital therefore shall not become an expense to the people of Australia; it will be a paying business bringing increased profit as the population increases.

Unfortunately today most land is sold to individuals who rent it to those who wish to build, and princely incomes flow into the pockets of a handful of individuals who absorb the earnings of the whole community.

In Washington, for instance, the withholding of land for speculation ...'

And ... in Australia.

When the Griffins arrived in Australia they had to struggle to get their designs on the ground. Walter couldn't communicate with Australian architects and bureaucrats - groups that already were intrinsically hostile to the American - and things rapidly moved from bad to worse.

Two factors contributed to problem.

  1. Walter (in the way of many architects) may well have jiggled his cost estimates to suit his belief in the necessity of an idea.
  2. No one wanted Canberra built, especially during and after the 1914 to 1918 war when money and resources were scarce.

It doesn't take much imagination to see how in the turbulent political climate around WW1 - with Australian Governments and Ministers coming and going - the Griffins' dreams quickly became complex nightmares.

Still, slowly, Canberra got built. (Incidentally, the name is probably derived from "Canberry" the name of a local sheep station.)

At first Walter saw to it that trees were planted to make sure that the roads would remain where he had placed them. Then, slowly with horse and dray (some photos still exist) roads were built and parks were etched into the hard ground. Parliament house was completed in 1926. By this time the Griffins were working out of offices in Sydney and Melbourne.

Walter and Marion Griffin

Walter and Marion at Castlecraig in the 1930.

With Canberra removed from their involvement the Griffins moved to creating the Castlecrag community. A model suburb it began just beyond the end of the tram-line and rested on denuded rocky sandstone. The Griffins incorporated into it the best town planning techniques and some quirks of their own. Houses were to fit into, not dominate the environment. Roofs were flat to enable the sandstone houses to avoid the tin roof and red tile menaces ... and to let people gather in the evenings to see the stars.

The Castlecrag community was an intellectual Arts and Crafts community. Weekly Anthroposophy lectures (Walter reportedly slept through these), study groups, gramophone evenings, four annual seasonal Greek/Anthroposophical plays. These were staged by the community in the "Haven" sandstone Amphitheatre (car lights were used for illumination, and Walter was a hopeless actor). The Haven remains. So too does Glenean school, a Waldorf school started by the community, it now has 520 students.

Now For Theosophists, this is where the story becomes interesting.

The Theosophical and Anthroposophical societies after their 1911 split have remained parallel in their unfolding of the spiritual impulses that created the original Society in the late 1800's. No where is this clearer than in Sydney during the turbulent years between the World Wars.

The Manor, with Leadbeater at the helm, in many ways paralleled what was unfolding in the Castlecrag community around Walter Burley Griffin. Castlecrag was small and intense and much came out of it. One example, which is somewhat typical, is the person who on the edges of the community was to become head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the formative post WW2 years. The spiritual world used Castlecrag as a base to fashion the personalities it needed to act out its impulses.

C. W. Leadbeater and the "Manor" were grand, large and flamboyant. Walter Burley Griffin was intense, deep and a poor communicator. To add a final twist to the story, in 1935 Walter left for India, produced some fascinating and incredible work and came to a quick and surprising death. This is Marion's description from page 104 of "Marion's Magic".

'...The day before he had to go to Cawnpore for a miserable committee meeting ... the meeting closed just 5 minutes after the train left so he had 3 hours on his hands which he spent walking. Perhaps that was the last straw which ruptured the walls of the gall bladder ...

... The next day we went to the bank. After the decision for the operation he turned to me and said. "A pity that Mars is in the 8th House, isn't it?" I brushed it aside and said, "That's a long way off" and we both brushed the idea out of our minds. He didn't want to go. Things were pouring in on him here and he was very happy. There was a beautiful notice in The Pioneer Newspaper about him which I'll send when I get a moment to address them.

Toward the end his mind wandered and he talked swiftly but all about his work, calculations, demanding answers and when I gave him figures he heard me for he took them up and went on from there. And then quiet again. As the end drew near I talked to him telling him what a wonderful life I had had with him, and how beloved he was by everybody. Suddenly he turned as if with a great effort and looked straight in my eyes, his own wide, round, startled as if it had never once occurred to him that he could die. His eyes never left mine till he drew his last breath and I closed them.

On the 11th Feb 1937 Walter died.

He came to me in the next morning. I dreamed he met me on the road on the bank of the river. He was joyous, very joyous, and he said things, mostly I cannot remember, but one thing he stressed was "Be sure to remember. You must lead an active life."

If I owed him a debt from a previous incarnation I surely have paid it in full. It's as well I had no idea of that as the driving force, for the joy of those wonderful years with one of the most important men of his generation would surely have flown if I had any sense of obligation in the services I had rendered to him.'

Afterwards, when Marion returned to Castlecrag, nothing worked for her. She connected with fairies and tended to be avoided by people. From page 116 & 117 of "Marion's Magic".

'So I did a little concentration exercise on the plants and presently all of a sudden the whole hillside blossomed out with lovely brilliant blue little beings moving about, dashing here and there between the plants - millions of them like living blue flames almost filling the space all over the hillside between the flowers. It was a lovely and wonderful sight. It was the Undines I saw at their work.

When I checked on this later with others who had seen them they confirmed in detail what I had seen. I was happy to be able to report this to Mrs Trinick and felt that they had shown themselves to me because they too wanted to comfort a loving and grieving mother.

At other times I have seen the Fire Fairies, the salamanders, who like little golden comets dash about condensing the light to feed and form the fruit. I have never seen the other fairies though there are, among my friends, those who have.'

It's not on the tapes but I've been told that as Marion never had a child Walter was mated to another and progeny was produced. The community encouraged this because Walter was a blond haired, blue eyed genius and so needed to have children to further the evolution of the race. Anthroposophy had some elements of National Socialism in it during the inter-war years.

So, Marion returned to America, tried to work as an architect, was unsuccessful and died in 1956, aged 91. She wrote some of the bits and pieces that make up her "Magic of America" MS in the 1940's. The microfilm document that makes up her book was assembled after her death.

Meanwhile, Canberra grew. Badly and slowly until the 'Great Ming' (prime minister Robert Menzies) disgusted at the latest example of government housing, decided to set up an effective developmental authority.

The "National Capital Development Commission" was set up by an Act of Federal Parliament in 1957. It attracted good staff and did great work. It wove into Walter's inspirations all manner of details that added to Canberra's Geomantic strengths. Statehood was thrust onto the Federal Capital in 1988. With it has come the gradual erosion of the public leasehold system that so attracted the Griffins at the turn of last century. Land values and rents are rising in the city ... and so is the number of homeless. Was Henry George right?

Towards the end of the story ...
Canberra's present and possible future.

Canberra has geomantic patterns etched into its landscape. In the ceremonial part of the city many things have been added to the Griffin's basic formulations. The latest is Commonwealth place and its adjacent and, strangely named, "Reconciliation Place".

Both these locations are on the Griffins' "land axis line" which runs from Mt Ainslie to distant Mt Bimberri. The line passes through the War Memorial, down Anzac Parade through Parliament House and across the Woden cemetery War Graves. In geomancy terms the Griffins' land axis line is called a "ley line"... Ley lines connect points; thoughts and energies run along them. They cause aligned sites to become similar.

Reconciliation Place was intended to commemorate the reconciliation between Australia's indigenous people and those who came to this land from the British Commonwealth. Actually, the location is a midden, a burial mound. Meditate on it and you are quickly drawn into the underworld, the world of the near dead. It seems to connect with forces from deep within the earth, to the spiritual being that controls the flow of water on the land.

Earlier in the week I was near Reconciliation Place - I had just left a book launch with forty Aboriginal people in the nearby National Library. After a shared lunch I wandered over to the midden and sat for awhile. In my meditative consciousness I perceived aboriginal ghosts, the ghosts that had been with us during lunch (ancestor ghosts according to a woman I spoke with) disappearing into the mound. Perhaps, Reconciliation Place has become a sacred site that links the social, political and spiritual activities of Canberra with the living realm of aboriginal "Dreaming". The Aboriginal embassy for the underworld.

Over last few years a lot of strange new things have been building up underneath Canberra ... and of course parliament house is built where a hill used to be and has grass on its roof.

Arranged on the land axis ley line, near the War Memorial are a growing number of monuments celebrating Australian doings in War. Between the Nurses Memorial and Korean Memorial stands a huge Deva. A Deva of ceremonial. On many occasions I've had contact with its being. A purple strand from her arrives at every meeting with a spiritual content that takes place in the city. A purple haze announces her presence during the monthly Theosophical lecture. She seems very similar to the being described in H.K. Challoner's book, "Regents of the Seven Spheres" on pages 59 to 63. Here is the part of the poem ...

"The Deva of Ceremonial"

We watch, we wait.
From man's primaeval, blind desire for union with That from which he came
Were we created.
We will remain with him till that desire is consummated,
And we, with man, return into the glory whence all things emerged.
There is no place, however low and humble, consecrated by the use of prayer and praise
Unblessed by one of our great Brotherhood,
And by those mightier Ones, radiant in love, who are our Lords.
Our strength, our beauty and our power to bless
Grow by the force which emanates from priest and worshipper;
According to its measure we are enabled thus
To shower our benedictions forth...

The well-known Theosophical authors Geoffrey Hodson and C. W. Leadbeater present descriptions of similar beings. There are lots of these beings around Canberra adding to the warp and weft of the location's spiritual potential. They anchor themselves at geomantic points, points which the Griffins were led into making possible.

The end ... and a future beginning?

Canberra needs, and in fact collects, spiritually oriented people to work with the spiritual forces that are developing in the city's ceremonial core.

The Theosophical Society could certainly do more in the national capital.

The rationale behind Canberra was that it would serve to unite the rivalries that separated State Capitals and make the development of a united Australia possible. The Theosophical Society seems to be locked into all manner of local State affairs without a uniting National or International purpose.

Perhaps things would change if we allowed Canberra's spiritual forces to work into our doings?

"What" I ask, can we do to overcome the forces of hindrance that hold us back from developing our future potential?

Steven Guth Galong Village NSW 2585 Australia.

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