Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have shared the story of architect Walter Griffin with his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott and US President Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Griffin, an American who had a connection with both India and Australia, has just a lone building to his name in Lucknow while the others got lost over the years.
On Saturday, the PMO had tweeted a photo of Modi sharing Griffin’s story with Abbott and Obama; in another tweet, the PMO account said: “Walter Burley Griffin was deeply inspired by the culture and architecture of India. He also spent time in India.” Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, also tweeted a photo of Walter’s final resting place in Lucknow.
“His was an Art Deco style and in India, he picked up the architectural elements and contemporised them from the viewpoint of an architect trained in the Prairie style of design,” says Lucknow-based architect and urban planner Rajat Kant, who has studied Walter closely.
Griffin worked in partnership with his wife Marion Mahony Griffin. In 28 years, they designed over 350 buildings, landscape and urban-design projects together. Through their contacts during their time at the Greater Sydney Development Association, Griffin won a contract in 1935 to design the library at the University of Lucknow in Lucknow.
Besides this, he was commissioned several works, including the Student’s Union building of Lucknow University, the Pioneer Press building, the United Provinces Exhibition of Industry and Agriculture in April 1936, Mathur House (in Lucknow), a zenana (women’s quarters) for Raja Mahmudabad, as well as New Hyderabad, Lucknow residence of Dr Bhatia, informs Rajat.
In an article shared with The Indian Express, Christopher Vernon, an Associate Professor with the University of Western Australia and an expert on Griffin, says he and wife together designed “more than 50 projects in the city (Lucknow) and elsewhere…he was enjoying a personal and professional renaissance.”
Griffin’s sudden death on February 11, 1937 at the age 61 due to peritonitis meant that only a handful of buildings were actually built. “Today, only Dr Bhatia’s residence in Lucknow can be attributed to Griffin,” says Rajat.
He attributes the losses to “greed and lack of awareness about Griffin’s legacy.”
“He had also planned Chatterjee House in Calcutta and Narain House in Banaras but their fate is unknown,” Rajat adds. During one of his many research trips to Lucknow, Vernon said there are so many buildings in Lucknow “which are over a century old that it perhaps makes it difficult for the administration to locate them and ensure proper care for all of them.”
Griffin’s grave itself was lost for about half a century until a Canberra resident Graeme Westlake set out on a quest in India to find it, ultimately locating it in Lucknow in 1988, 51 years after Griffin’s death. Behind Graeme’s quest was the architect’s rather significant connection with Australia, having designed its capital Canberra. Last year, Australia even celebrated the centenary year of its capital city’s construction which commenced in 1913.
Griffin’s wife stayed a few months in Lucknow after his death to overlook completion of some of the works in progress, and then lived in Australia for about a year, eventually moving to her native Chicago, USA.