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Gardening and More: Talk set on career of forgotten landscape architect at the Martin House Complex

THIS SIDE OF BUFFALO — Walter Burley Griffin designed the landscape at the Barton House, one of the buildings at the Martin House Complex in Buffalo. Though Griffin is known throughout the world, he is obscure, here in his home country. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
BUFFALO — Did you know that one of the most important landscape architects in the world did work located right here in Western New York? His name was Walter Burley Griffin, but chances are, you have never heard of him.

While he has a world-wide reputation, Griffin is virtually unknown, in his home country.

The architect designed the landscape for the Martin House Complex in Buffalo. He also designed the entire city of Canberra, the capital of Australia.

Learn more about his fascinating career, during a presentation by Christopher Vernon, associate professor in the school of architecture, landscape and visual arts at the University of Western Australia, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18 in the Greatbatch Pavilion at the Martin House complex, located at 125 Jewett Parkway in Buffalo.

Tickets are $20 for Martin House members and $25 for nonmembers. To reserve tickets, visit the Martin House Complex website or call 856-3858.

Walter Burley Griffin is “probably one of the most important landscape architects you’ve never heard of,” Vernon said. Despite his accomplishments, Griffin does not have the reputation in the United States that he deserves.

Griffin was born in 1876 and raised in the Chicago area. As a teenager, he attended the 1893 Chicago world’s fair, which was a pivotal experience for him. The World’s Columbian Exposition was a designed city, though a temporary one. While visiting the fair, Griffin realized that he was interested in designing not just buildings, but the whole package, so to speak, including landscapes.

Griffin worked with architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, from 1901 – 1905. Both men wanted integration between architecture and landscape. Griffin’s design for the Martin House Complex was the most elaborate garden he created, while working for Wright.

While Wright attempted to copy nature, Griffin was not interested in disguising the hand of man, in his designs. Griffin designed geometrical, formal gardens. That may be one of the reasons this man is not well known.

“Even today, more naturalistic designers get the attention,” Vernon said, adding that Griffin was the antithesis of landscape architect Jens Jensen, who advocated using only native plants.

Soon after completing the Martin House project, Griffin left Wright, to start his own architectural practice. A high point came in 1912, when his submission was chosen for the design of the new capital city of Australia. Although his name was on the submission, Griffin had created the design with his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, an architect esteemed for her talents as a graphic artist.

Winning the competition validated Walter Burley Griffin as an authority in the field and brought him plenty of work, designing parks and suburbs. In 1914, the Griffins traveled to Australia, intending to stay only temporarily. They ended up living there until 1935.

Griffin struggled to keep his Chicago office open but, at a time in which it took a month for a letter from Australia to reach the United States, that strategy proved too difficult.

“When he disappears to the other side of the world, he gets forgotten,” Vernon said. “He has no name recognition in the United States.” In this country, Griffin is seen as a “second-rate Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Many people focus on Griffin’s architectural work and overlook his work in landscape architecture. “In my view, Griffin was a better landscape architect than he was an architect,” Vernon said.

After Griffin moved to Australia, he came back to the United States twice. On one of those occasions, he visited the Martin House.

“He must have been quite proud of the project, or at least curious about how it aged,” Vernon said.

At one time, the Martin family had a gardener, who lived in his own cottage at the complex. Just as the buildings at the complex fell into disrepair, the landscaping ended up not being maintained properly.

Vernon said that he last visited the Martin House Complex in 1992 but recent photos show that trees weren’t replaced, the landscaping has lost much of its complexity and intricacy and much of the landscape is now lawn.

Efforts have been made to restore the Martin House Complex buildings. A new project will soon begin, to determine the planneddirection for the historic landscape restoration, according to Curator Susana Tejada.

“The purpose of the project is to make sound recommendations for how the gardens and grounds of the Martin House will connect with the entire context of the restoration site, what the year of significance will be, what direction planting will take and how the landscape will relate to the museum visitor experience,” she said.

Vernon praised these restoration efforts. “The landscape is as much a product of design as the building is,” he said.

After more than two decades of successful practice in Australia, Griffin ended his career, with an array of projects in India. When Vernon gives his presentation this week, he will emphasize the cross-cultural transfer and transformation of Griffin’s design ideals and approach across the disparate “worlds” of the United States, Australia and India.

Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email Connie@BuffaloNiagaraGardening.com.
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