Today I am here to bring to you what I consider to be an amazing story. I believe the information I will present to you to be most illuminating. Since it concerns our Australian national capital city of Canberra, I feel it is information that we should all be acquainted with. I know that from now on I will see Canberra in a whole new light! And I use that word advisedly. Let me make it quite clear at the outset however, that I stand before you today simply as a messenger, a channel, a conduit. A presenter of the treasury of information and interpretation contained in this marvellous book, THE SECRET PLAN OF CANBERRA by Peter R Proudfoot. He has put together this most valuable piece of scholarship & I fully, & gratefully acknowledge, his comprehensive, insightful & definitive work.  This all began when I was required to give a talk on a person/or persons who had made a significant contribution to Australia. I was fortunate enough, to see the the ABC TV Compass program on entitled Beyond Architecture. Like most Australians I had visited Canberra several times, thought it a beautiful city, knew it was designed by someone named Walter Burley Griffin, end of story.  But, after watching Beyond Architecture I was hooked, I wanted to know more! I should perhaps add here that I am a Scorpio which of course explains a lot – born researcher, seeker after truth, thirst for knowledge, – the whole box & dice. But, I hasten to add, the higher form; – the Eagle, not the Scorpion!  So, I would like to share with you my great admiration for the absolute genius of 2 extraordinary people, the brilliant, inspired Walter Burley Griffin & his equally brilliant & gifted wife Marion (Mahony) Griffin. As architects, artists & landscape designers they have few equals.  Now it is time to look beyond their professional genius to the profound philosophies that inspired them both. And theirs was truly a marriage made in heaven; two more attuned individuals you could not find. Amazing! Karma!  I only hope that I can do the Griffins & Professor Proudfoot justice.  Let me start by reading from the introduction to Prof. Proudfoot’s book:  This book has greatly benefited from discussions with Associate Professor Graham Pont at the University of NSW. The University of NSW School of Architecture assisted with a generous grant towards the cost of this publication.   In 1913, a year after winning the Canberra competition, Walter Burley GRIFFIN declared, “I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. I have planned an ideal city.”  Griffin’s plan for Canberra is generally regarded as a synthesis of the city beautiful & the garden city movements which dominated town planning in the late 19th & early 20th centuries. It cannot however be understood simply in those terms. The plan’s overarching concept establishes references to a particular sacred geometry adopted by the Griffins. It expresses a symbolic content.  

Inspiration was drawn from both ancient spiritual ideas & the Griffin’s understanding of geomancy. Canberra therefore has affinities with Stonehenge, sacred Glastonbury, ancient Egyptian temples & pyramids, – even with the concept of the New Jerusalem.  The decline of Christianity during the later 19th century together with the social & technological changes created by the Industrial Revolution, brought about in many Western countries a “spiritual re-orientation”. New & influential religions emerged: ancient ones were revived. Theosophy & later Anthroposophy both drew on the ancient “Wisdom of the East” & “occult & heretical byways of Western thought”. Other movements, such as Rosicrucianism, the Swedenborg Church, & Freemasonry attained new levels of appreciation & popularity. For many, an exploration of spiritual & the occult became the next necessary step to ensure proper human development & evolution.  According to Rudolf Steiner:   “man was on the threshold of the beginning of a Spiritual Era, that the moment had come when esoteric knowledge can become exoteric, that is, the ability to explore the higher worlds can now be made common property”. 

The modernist religions of Spiritualism, Theosophy, & Anthroposophy had deeply influenced many creative artists, including Kandinsky & Mondrian, & certainly both Walter Burley Griffin and his wife and colleague Marion (Mahony) Griffin. 

Theosophy became an important vehicle which accelerated the revival of interest in the culture of the ancient world, and the relationship between religion, art and architecture. It focussed on the lost canons and sciences that Theosophists believed had directed and controlled all aspects of life in the ancient world. By the beginning of the 20thC Theosophy had become a strong cultural force that was felt in many aspects of life. It was closely linked to the art world. To quote Roger Lipsey:   “Theosophy pointed artists towards a new inwardness and the possibility of translating that inwardness into visible form.” The Theosophist Claude Bragdon, with whom the Griffins had personal contact, in his book The beautiful necessity: architecture as frozen music –  7 essays on theosophy & architecture, first published in 1910, sought to revive the Pythagorean principles of number, proportion & sacred geometry in architecture. Bragdon described the importance of the Vesica, the first symbol of Christianity, and the basis of Canberra’s geometry.  In 1903 Bragdon wrote:  “Beneath the dense materiality of our civilisation there is fermenting a leaven of spirituality which may usher in a period of faith like that which Europe underwent in the Middle Ages, when Gothic architecture had its origin: a period in which the soul comes nearer to the surface of life.”  There is a clear commonality in the works of Louis Sullivan, Annie Besant & Charles W. Leadbetter, & later Marion (Mahony) Griffin in the Magic of America.  

1. Theosophy: The full extent of Theosophical influence on the Griffins during the early period in Chicago is unclear. Walter was possibly a Freemason at the time. By the 1940’s however, when writing The Magic of America, Marion openly expresses the importance of the mystical & the esoteric for Walter & herself in the early years.  

Marion frequently refers to Canberra as the “only true modern city – Alpha & Omega”; as a city designed by “creative thinking”, and one that revives “the ancient science”, even though nothing was said of the esoteric nature of the scheme at the time.  With regard to the competition for the design of the national capital the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley and the Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, maintained that the Australian government itself, not the panel of assessors would make the final decision concerning the award. Alfred Deakin himself was involved with spiritualism throughout his youth, & all his life he was absorbed by the occult. This is illustrated in his reflections on religions which appear in hundreds of volumes of private journals and “gospels”. Deakin ceased to be Prime Minister in 1910, but in the final judgement could he or his colleagues have recognised the ancient paradigms underlying the plan? Could he have seen that the drawings, resplendent with luminous waters & glowing mountains, depicted ancient geomantic symbols? And could he have realised that the Original Report which accompanied the drawings & presented the scheme only as an amalgam of Garden City & City Beautiful principles actually veiled the true “cosmic significance” of the scheme of Canberra?  At Steinway Hall Chicago, the Griffins were at the core of a dynamic movement that deeply affected all their colleagues, who were just as secretive about their work as the Griffins. It is now clear, however that Louis Sullivan’s concept of transcendental ornament, so prominent in the Griffin’s work, was influenced by the theories of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. 

2. Louis Sullivan: was a key figure in the promotion of spiritual concerns as a design force in architecture, in Chicago, during the late 19th & early 20thC. The key in his design process was the role of ornament. Based on organic & geometrical forms, Sullivan’s idiosyncratic, light-splintering ornament in metal & glass on the facades of his buildings became symbolic of a metaphysical representation of the creation of the Universe.   Sullivan was given heroic status by Marion & Walter Griffin: throughout the Magic of America he is lauded as the “founder of creative thinking in modern architecture”. Most important of all, Walter is described by Marion as the true successor to Louis Sullivan. Like Sullivan the Griffins sought a truly “Democratic architecture”, imbibed from the ideas of Walt Whitman, achievable only through the “laws of nature.”  In the Canberra plan Walter & Marion’s personal cosmogony finds its symbolic expression – its geometry arising from the Vesica, and its axiality, both being clearly derived from sacred and divine traditions, and representing an order for creativity and success in the modern world.  

3. Rudolf Steiner: Founder of the Anthroposophical Society believed: “that man was on the threshold of the beginning of a new Spiritual era,that the moment had come when esoteric knowledge can become exoteric, – i.e. that the ability to explore the higher worlds can now be made common property.” 

4. Goethe: Marion Griffin was influenced by Goethe’s writing through its appreciation by Rudolf Steiner. For Steiner the ideal modern artist was the architect. For him,“the beautiful is a manifestation of the secret laws of nature. Art, religion & science are inseparable, & the artist unites the earthly & the divine not by allowing the divine to flow down to the world but by raising the world up into the sphere of the divine.”  Another early influence on Marion was the idea, drawn from Hermetic thought, that art & religion should be unified with science. She believed that the role of the 20th century artist & architect was to “reunite the 3 into a true unity”. From her numerous references to atomic theory it is clear that this was one influence on her rendering of the splintered & crystalline forms. She believed that the smashing of the atomic forms frees the spiritual forces of matter.  

5. Feng Shui: the philosophy of landscape design, is based on an understanding of “chi”.  If “chi” is not treated properly the destiny of humans in relation to the site will be affected.  

6. The Tower: The Capitol, a monument to the Australian people, a national archive, & a place of commemoration of Australian achievement, was to be set above the Parliament House, the judiciary, the executive & the mercantile groups.  The description of the Capitol building crowning the city of Canberra as “representing the spiritual head” indicate that the Griffin’s were aware of the esoteric “tower” symbolism & iconography.  The Capitol was to be crowned by a winged eagle sculpture denoting Canberra as “caput mundi” and the building itself was the “omphalos”, the symbolic centre or world navel linking the “spiritual knowledge with the abundance & depth of nature”.  The notion of the tower, embodied in the Burley Griffin’s Capitol, as symbolic of the meeting between spirit & nature was used frequently at the time by such figures as W.B.Yeats, Arthur Edward Waites, and in the mystical Rosicrucian organisation of the Golden Dawn. The tower enshrined the spirituality of philosophers and mystics.  

A Geomantic Model: Bragdon described the importance of the Vesica, the 1st symbol of Christianity & the basis of the Canberra geometry, to the medieval masons. He also wrote that “the geometric forms generated from the Vesica were given certain symbolic interpretations by the ancients”.  For example, the square, triangle & circle are the most significant for “the circle is the symbol of the universe; the equilateral triangle of the higher Trinity, and the square of the lower quaternary of man’s sevenfold nature”. The rhombus, consisting of two equilateral triangles represents the world above & the world below, or in alchemical terms, the male and female principles of creation.   The plan for Canberra expresses the continuity of the cosmic symbolism between Europe & Asia. In broad terms, for both East and West, the circle symbolises heaven, while the cross, & its related form the square, symbolises the earth. These two signs have played a very stable role in cosmic symbolism & the sacred geometry of building, and art, throughout the world, throughout history – from Athens and Rome, to Babylon, Peking, Angkor Wat, Benares and Mandalay.  Cosmic geometry also informs all Islamic mosques, gardens and tomb complexes like the Taj Mahal. Among the monumental civilizations of the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas, as well as the tribal cultures of the North American Indians there is indisputable evidence of related cosmogony.   The last city which reflects this system of ideas, and to be designed in the grand or cosmic manner, was Canberra.   At the dawn of the 20th century it was the new religious movements such as Theosophy that drew on the ancient“wisdom tradition”. With Theosophy this tradition was drawn into the mainstream of contemporary artistic and intellectual life. Such a tradition had the power to direct its followers towards a new inner awareness, enabling them to take the cosmos into account and depict the world as an abstraction of a majestic play of energies.  The importance of Theosophic thought to the work of the Griffins becomes clear as early as 1912, from the geometry of the design for the federal capital of Australia. The geometry of Canberra’s plan, based on the figure of the vesica, acts as a symbolic reinterpretation of one of the most fundamental precepts of Theosophic thought: cosmic evolution – a perpetual cycle of birth, death & regeneration as the underlying processes of the universe. The Vesica is the orifice created from the intersection of 2 equal circles, symbolically representing the intersection of the material & spiritual worlds.  The nucleus of the Canberra design is generated from the sacred figure of the vesica, from which emerges 2 equilateral triangles which share a common base. The sanctity of the vesica lies in its ability to give rise to geometrical figures such as the rhombus, Star of David, or the hexagram. Thus, within ancient & esoteric traditions, it became a symbol of perceived knowledge.  In Chaldean & Hindu images the circle, fundamental to the vesica, enshrines the geometrical figure of the double triangle, replicating the Star of David. The circle symbolises the spiritual origins of the universe. The triangle represented spirit force and matter; also, the upward, active male & the downward, passive female.  To the Griffins, the Vesica clearly represents the true geometrical symbol of the Theosophical idea of themetaphysical state of the spirit, “the womb of the universe”, from which all processes evolve. And the double triangle is the central figure in a cosmological diagram which represents the mystical progression from matter, ie, the downward triangle, through to spirit, ie the upward triangle, as motivated by the spiritual essence of the universe.  The point of intersection of the Cross in the Canberra plan is marked by the Water Gate.  Naming the axes “Land” and ”Water” parallels the juxtaposition of Earth and Water in the Chaldean and Hindu cosmological diagrams, indicating that the Griffins were familiar with Theosophical teachings on the subject.  Theosophical founder, HPBlavatsky describes the deeper significance of the Cross as follows: “The Philosophical Cross …… is the basis of the occultist.” In the past socio-political idealism & democratic, symbolic intent, rather than site characteristics, have been singled out as the essential organising principles of the Canberra plan. Such explanations fail to recognise that the Griffin’s concept of democracy was tied to ancient Greek religious symbolism as related to landscape. In every respect in Griffins plan the eye is directed to the mountains and hills; City Hill, Capital Hill, Mt Pleasant, Mt Ainslie, Red Hill & Bimberi Peak.  The Government group of buildings is organised on frontages and terraces in a horizontal order and a vertical hierarchy which culminates in the Capitol. Burley Griffin described the structure of the parliamentary triangle and the northern parkland beyond the formal basin,as analogous to a theatre, referring to it as a “stage setting” and a “dress circle”.  It is clear from the use of the site that the Griffin’s use of these terms can be taken as referring to a Hellenistic theatre and temple complex such as Delphi, the Acropolis, Pergamon, Lindos, Palestrina and Tivoli. Why? In her book The Magic of America Marion reveals that she saw the ancient Greeks as a race of “creative thinkers”, and from creative thinking democracy could arise.  Marion saw her task as introducing liberty to the world. Marion saw liberty as the function of individualistic, creative and productive cultural activity, which in Canberra is enshrined in the concept of the Capitol.  Equality, fraternity and liberty were unified in Canberra in a triangular concept. The equilateral triangle, derived from the principles of sacred geometry, is a rich source therefore of arcane symbolism: it represents the Holy Trinity in Christian iconography, It is the symbol of the Godhead in several Cosmologies, and to the Griffins it may also have been a symbolic expression of democracy.  

Chinese Geomancy – Feng Shui: Another influence on the initial plan of Canberra was “chi” and “feng shui”. The concept of “chi” appealed to Marion & Walter because it stressed good health and fortune. Well before the Canberra project Marion had acquired a knowledge of Taoist philosophy as well as experience in eastern artistic principles through the impact of the Japanese print on the

Chicago school of architects. The Japanese influence in her landscape architecture designs is well recognised, much of her work being likened to Japanese woodcuts. In Chinese landscape painting the artist was more concerned with the “chi” of an object, its spiritual side rather than just it’s physical form. “Chi”, which can be translated as the breath of life, is the cosmic energy that infuses all forms, & as such underlies the Taoist philosophy of landscape design, “feng shui”.  There are a number of distinct features that characterise the Canberra site according to “feng shui” principles – the Capitol & government buildings and Capitol Hill sheltered by a high mountain range to the south (Bimberi Peak in the Brindabellas); Black Mountain (Azure Dragon) to the west; & Mugga Mugga (the White Tiger) to the east. These can all be symbolised as the manifestations of the earth’s spirits.  As in the ideal “feng shui” landscape – man in harmony with the earth –there is an unobstructed view from the Capitol  towards Mt Ainslie in the north, & there is a quiet Heaven Pool (in the foreground of Griffin’s  Parliament House) with a curving & slow moving body of water in the distance. 

Parliament House: This was built by the Italian-American architect Romaldo Giurgulo and actually responds to the original matrix established by the Griffins, although from his writings and interviews it would appear however that he is largely unaware of the ancient regime he is responding to.  By extending and refining the geomantic principles underlying the original plan, Giurgola has aligned Canberra with the most potent of ancient paradigms.  The great ramped hemicycles embody the “dragon” forms of “Feng Shui”. They form protective arms to the east & the west (the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger).  The forecourt enclosure rises to its peak at the southern end and tapers down to ensure an unobstructed view north to Mt Ainslie.  As in the ideal “Feng Shui”  arrangement there is a quiet “heaven pool” in the foreground – the forecourt pool – with a slow-moving body of water in the distance.  As in Greece, where the city is seen against the sacred mountain, the elevations of the new Parliament House are profiled under the curvature of the re-stated hill. Akin to Walter & Marion’s proposal for the Capitol in the initial plan the new Parliament House is intended to “personify the essence of the Australian spirit, while at the same time symbolically reflecting the cosmic order.

Canberra is therefore the “caput mundi” – the geomantic expression of the microcosm in the macrocosm – The pivot around which everything else revolves. It is designated as the centre of the world & automatically defines the origin point for any city.

Crystal iconography: is a common aspect of German Romantic theory,  – Nietzshe, Goethe. In a study of the crystal-like quality of the monuments drawn by Marion for the Canberra plan –the Arsenal, the Cathedral, the Legislatures, & the Capitol, Marion has drawn in along the crucial points of the axis notional buildings – all of which are portrayed as crystals, angled, faceted, and shimmering.which are very close in spirit to the early works of the German expressionists. However, there has been no analysis of the significance of this.  An exploration of the iconography of the crystal, its history and significance – as well as its extent in the Canberra project – yields a number of symbolic meanings. 

Crystal iconography, symbolising spiritual transcendence and transmutation, is a further major influence & emerges as a dominant feature. The use of the crystal form can be seen as a continuation of a tradition stemming from ancient Solomonic legends, St John’s revelation of the New Jerusalem, Islamic architecture, the legends of the Holy Grail, the Gothic cathedral & light mysticism, and the emergence of alchemy. It was iconographic tradition that crystals had the ability to effect a transmutation of the viewer from the base condition of existence to a more noble and spiritual state. Marion makes reference to crystals in her book, The Magic of America: “The Fairies build the vegetable kingdom but it takes the great primal spirits of mathematics to create the crystals – the Universe.” In Marion’s drawings of the City and Environs each mountain is shrouded in a luminous, iridescent, white and yellow aura that radiates like a crystal. Marion may have been aware of the crystal iconography beginning to appear in the work of the German Expressionist architects. In their work, & that of their mentor Louis Sullivan, glass & ornament become a light-splintering medium allowing the observer to transcend the physical domain & enter a spiritual communion with nature and the forces that shape it.  The crystal form had already appeared in the Griffin’s earlier work in America in 1912. In their Australian work the crystal theme became the basis of a design motif: at Newman College it is an organising device. On the plan the dome resembles a faceted crystal of star shape. This theme reached its absolute peak in the ceiling of the Capitol Theatre.   Marion wrote in her book Magic of America that Walter “conceived a building not as a facade but as a 3 dimensional form”. This description could apply directly to the Canberra architectural proposals, for which Marion literally presented a number of 3 dimensional crystal forms, the suggested materials of which were marble & concrete faced with quartz aggregate or even glass or diamonds! A combination whose effect would parallel the dazzling opalescent quality of the crystal. Like the Germans Marion & Walter utilised the crystal as a symbolic metaphor of spiritual transcendence, transformation, or transmutation. The German Expressionist movement had one clear objective: to effect a “changed society”, a “political metamorphosis”, & to create a Utopian state out of the existing tangled political climate.  Well, you certainly had to hand it to them for trying to do this in Australia, – a Herculean task! 

The Griffin’s Legacy: What we have now at the centre of Canberra is the legacy of an attempt to reinstate the science which “had died out & was no longer practised”, combined with picturesque settings as devised by the National Capital Development Commission from 1958.  The initial plan, however, has a character that resembles many of the geomantic axial & linear constructions in Europe, Britain & the Americas, and utilises imagery symbolic of Theosophical concepts of the nature of the cosmos.  Marion and Walter Burley Griffin sought abstract laws of art to express, in symbolic terms, their own world view. They created their own cosmogony out of ancient traditions, while at the same time drawing on Christian symbolism by applying the earliest symbol of that religion – the Vesica.  The initial plan for Canberra was not a wilful and impractical expression of two American expatriate architects. It can only be explained as the synthesis of many forces which were brought to bear upon the consummate artistry and genius of Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. It must also be understood in the context of an international movement that included many of their artistic contemporaries & architectural colleagues; a movement which sought its inspiration from new forms of artistic expression in a pool of ideas whose origins were ancient and universal. The capital of Australia, therefore, must be interpreted & re-valued within a planning tradition that reaches right back to the origins of ancient cities.  In Athens the Greeks set up temples on the Acropolis in such a way that the landscape was drawn around them. The axis of the Acropolis is the most famous geomantic axis of the ancient world.  In Rome, too, the divine and cosmic concepts are implicit in its structure.  The “axis urbis” of antiquity, running along the “via sacra” through the temple of ‘Jupiter Capitolinus”, was strengthened & enriched when the Colosseum was built exactly on the axis in the sacred valley between the hills. It was further reinforced when the temple of Venus and Rome was similarly located. Thus, its two sanctuaries, placed back to back in the temple, stood Janus-like, facing both directions taken by the axis in a symbolic expression of the role of Rome as “caput mundi”. In the initial design for Canberra, Marion and Walter Burley Griffin depicted a construction which parallels the heroic proportions of the geomantic constructions in Athens and Rome.  Looking at Stonehenge, the parallels with Canberra are uncanny. Capitol Hill, City Hill and the lake Park monument in Canberra are linked, just like Stonehenge, Grovely Castle and Old Sarum, by means of an equilateral triangle. The continuation of the axis from Stonehenge through Old Sarum to Clearbury Ring  is paralleled by the capital Hill to City Hill meridian continued along Northbourne Avenue. In addition, the nodal point at Salisbury, the double-ring of Stonehenge could be taken as the model for the double-ringed geometry of Capital Hill.  The Vesica, which is the crucial element of the Canberra plan, is fundamental to the geometry of Stonehenge & of Glastonbury, next to Stonehenge the earliest and most sacred site in megalithic Britain &, later, the site of the 1st Christian church.  The Parliamentary triangle of the Canberra initial plan can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the structure of the democratic ideal. As Marion says in her book, The Magic of America true democracy can only be achieved through the appreciation of the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.  The Capitol, a monument to the Australian people, a national archive, and a place of commemoration of Australian achievement, was set above the Parliament House, the judiciary, the executive and mercantile groups. I hope that you will have a new appreciation of the symbolism of our national capital after reading this lecture! 

This is the text of a lecture presented to the Theosophical Society Pasadena in Melbourne. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Theosophical Society Pasadena.