Marion's ceiling shines again

The revitalisation of Melbourne’s Capitol has provided an opportunity to revisit the feminist history of architect Marion Mahony Griffin and her contribution to the iconic building.

Marion Mahony Griffin (Mahony), an esteemed architect in her own right, was generally content to stay in the shadows of her better-known husband and professional partner Walter Burley Griffin, despite being the more senior architect of the two.

In fact it was Mahony who originally employed Griffin to work in the offices of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

For some time now, it has been acknowledged in architectural circles that Mahony was a co-author in many of the projects that have been previously attributed solely to her husband.

The famous ceiling of Melbourne’s iconic Capitol Theatre, with its 33,000 plaster crystals lit by thousands of coloured bulbs to create the impression of a ‘crystalline cave of wonder’ is one such work.

Mahony’s interest in nature and mathematics, and her annotations on architectural drawings of the ceiling support the theory that she was the one responsible for the brilliant, geometric design.

Similarly, academics now recognise that Mahony was deeply involved in Griffin’s prize-winning submission for the design of Australia's capital city, Canberra.

Her lucid plans and superb perspective drawings almost certainly ensured that Griffin’s entry caught the judges’ eyes, but her integral involvement in the scheme was never promoted.

Dean of the School of Media and Communication Lisa French, who has contributed to a growing body of research on Mahony’s contribution to the Capitol, described her as a genuine trailblazer.

“She helped pioneer women’s participation in architecture in the United States, as well as contributing as a founding member of the Prairie School, and aside from Frank Lloyd Wright, was its longest practitioner,” French said.

“In 1894 she was the second woman to graduate in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and she was the first registered female architect in Illinois.”

The famous ceiling designed by Marion Mahony during the restoration process. Photo credit: Igor Hill

Mahony and Griffin delivered Melbourne a design triumph in the Capitol, at a time when audiences were increasingly interested in motion pictures and grand ‘picture palaces’ were seen as a boost to morale in the post-war period.

According to French, the theatre and its stunning ceiling gave visitors a “sense of potential, awe, grand idealism, aesthetic and technical achievement”, and it was famously referred to by architect Robin Boyd as “the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built.”

Mahony died in 1961 at the age of 90, a couple of years before Boyd led the first campaign to save the Capitol.

Her contribution to The Capitol was noted throughout celebrations for its recent relaunch following a two-year revitalisation project.

Minster for Training and Skills and Minister for Higher Education Gayle Tierney noted that Mahoney was one of the first licenced female architects in the world.

“The wonderfully glamorous interior bears her unique stamp," Tierney said.

“Marion designed the spectacular ceiling that is surely the theatre’s outstanding feature and it gives me great pleasure to recognise and celebrate her talent."

The grand picture palace has now taken a leap beyond its cinematic heritage to become a place of ‘education by day and culture by night’.

However, it remains a venue that will continue to introduce new audiences to the formidable talents of Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin and one which preserves their magnificent gift to the people of Melbourne. 

 

Story: Karen Phelan and Lisa French

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