Rare 'lost' Griffin papers found

Today I had the pleasure of handing original documents that formed part of the winning entry to the Australian National Capital Design Competition by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin to the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, and Minister for the Arts, the Hon. Simon Crean MP. The documents had been lost, but were tracked down by Centenary of Canberra historian David Headon. Under the terms of the original competition, the Commonwealth is the rightful owner of these precious documents.

This is the speech I gave this morning:

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people.  I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region.

Thank you everybody for joining us today as we welcome into our nation’s archival collections a document that must surely qualify as one of our city’s founding documents.

Over the past few years we’ve marked the anniversary of a number of the important milestones that culminated in our official birth as a city in March 1913.

We’ve recalled the Battle of the Sites, as the nation cast about for a location special enough for the wonderful city its capital would become.

We’ve been reminded of the sheer physical slog involved in the five-year survey to determine the Territory’s borders.

But perhaps no date and no event in those years building up to Canberra’s birth equals the significance of the event one hundred years ago today – the 23rd of May 1912 – when the winner of the international design competition for the new capital was announced.

More than a decade earlier, in May 1901, in Melbourne, as the Parliament of the new Australian federation met for the first time, the design professionals of the day — architects, engineers and surveyors – were already looking to the future. They threw down a challenge to the new nation’s politicians: to embrace the highest standards of capital city design.

Those of us who call this city ‘home’ have no doubt that those standards were met. So indelible, so distinctive, is the mark of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony upon our landscape that it is hard for most of us to imagine our city looking any other way, to imagine that it might have developed differently. To picture it without the lake, without the Parliamentary Triangle, without its distinctive arterial lines that turn the contours of the land into monuments in their own right, alongside the man-made ones of the past century – including the wonderful building in which we gather today – our nation’s Parliament.

But it might so easily have been different.

On this day one hundred years ago, first place in the design competition was awarded to entry number 29 from a field of 137 designs. It came from Walter Burley Griffin, in collaboration with his wife and professional partner, Marion Mahony Griffin. Their professional practice was based in what was, at the time, the most progressive design city in the world – Chicago. 

The Griffins’ design was selected ahead of the second-placed entry of  Finland’s Eliel [Air — Liel] Saarinen. In third place was France’s Alfred Agache, who would go on later in his career to re-design Rio de Janeiro.

One of the advantages of being a young, modern nation, born out of peaceful negotiation rather than bloodshed, has been that we’ve been pretty good at preserving our documentary history.

Still, even for an event as significant as the design of a capital city, not everything gets properly filed away at the time.

In relation to the Griffins’ winning design a couple of notable items were unaccounted for – presumed forever lost. And one of the great serendipities associated with our preparations for the 2013 centenary of Canberra has been the rediscovery of these fragments of Canberra’s ‘birth certificate’.

On this day last year, we were able to return to the National Archives one of these fragments – the missing drawing from a suite of 16 panels that made up one part of the Griffin entry.

The sixteenth drawing, the ‘Key to the View from the Summit of Mt Ainslie’, long assumed to be lost or destroyed, was uncovered, and recognised for what it was, by the ACT Government’s Centenary History and Heritage Adviser, Dr David Headon.

Now, incredibly, Dr Headon has done it again. The stars have again aligned.

Accompanying the 16 drawings as part of the Griffin entry was a 29 page, unevenly typed prose document — the Griffins’ own interpretation and explanation of their design panels.

Early blue-spirit duplications of this document were made at the time. There are two of these blue-spirit copies in the collection of the National Archives and another in the possession of the National Capital Authority.

Until now, the original was believed lost. Thanks yet again to Dr Headon – who might like to consider a career solving some of our cold criminal cases for us – the original typewritten component of the Griffin entry has been found and will now take its rightful place in our National Archives.

This is the original of Walter and Marion Griffin’s entry to the competition to design Australia’s capital city.

It gives me pleasure today to be able to hand over this document to Minister Crean for Commonwealth safekeeping, to be lodged in our National Archives alongside the other important documents concerning Canberra’s birth and the creation of the nation’s capital.

But before it is locked away it will be displayed here as part of this special exhibition – replacing the blue-spirit copy that is currently on display.

Thank you all for coming today. The countdown is well and truly on for a great Centenary year in Canberra in 2013, with a great and varied program of events being curated by the Creative Director Robyn Archer. And who knows what other treasures Dr Headon can find to help tell the story of our city between now and then.