Paradise on Earth

National-Library-of-Australia-View-of-Castlecrag-houses-under-construction-c1922A celebration of the career and legacy of visionary architect, Marion Mahony Griffin, the Museum of Sydney presents a new exhibition, Paradise on Earth from Saturday 7 November 2020.

Paradise on Earth reimagines the extraordinary work of Marion Mahony Griffin and her deep connection to the natural environment which she saw as a place full of discovery, wonder and enrichment.

Marion, in many ways was a woman ahead of her time. Over a five decade career, she and her husband and architectural partner, Walter Burley Griffin, worked according to their strong design and philosophical principles – connecting social, architectural and environmental ideals. Like many female architects and innovators of her era, Marion’s role was, for much of the 20th century, relegated to the shadows.

Paradise on Earth celebrates and creatively engages with the many dimensions that make up the Marion Mahony Griffin story. Visitors to the exhibition will learn of Marion’s architectural beginnings and aesthetic sensibility, her collaborative work with her husband and their signature ideal for a ‘utopian way of residential living’ realised in the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag.

Guests entering the museum will encounter, for the first time, a new artwork by Sydney Living Museums’ artist-in-residence, Dr Lisa Cooper, that channels Marion’s exquisite Forest Portrait paintings and her all-consuming fascination with nature.

Throughout all levels of the museum, Paradise on Earth reflects on Marion’s wonderful work through her drawings and writings, stunning objects, photos and films. An immersive installation, Enchanted Valley, presents a dynamic digital reimagining of the Haven Scenic Theatre – capturing the colours, textures and changing moods of the Australian bushland as Marion would have experienced and imagined it.

The exhibition explores Mahony’s architectural beginnings and aesthetic sensibility; her collaboration with Walter Burley Griffin; and key projects in Australia, including Canberra, the Capitol Theatre and Café Australia, with a special focus on the life and community of Castlecrag.

A newly produced film examines Mahony’s ongoing impact and the experience of living in the experimental suburb of Castlecrag in more depth, through interviews with current and former owners of Griffin homes and a selection of architects and other experts in the field.

A reimagining of Castlecrag’s Haven Amphitheatre captures the colours, textures and changing moods of the Australian bushland, celebrating Mahony’s fascination with and deep respect for the natural environment. The immersive digital day/night sequence draws on the colours and linework of Mahony’s evocative Forest Portraits in unexpected and playful ways.

“There’s something truly magical about this exhibition,” said Adam Lindsay, Executive Director, Sydney Living Museums and NSW State Archives. “All displays throughout the museum combine to create a sensory, imaginative and interactive experience for visitors – enchanting, evocative and playful.”

Born in Chicago in 1871, Marion Mahony Griffin was an accomplished modernist architect – the second female architect to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a landscape architect and artist. She held strong spiritual beliefs and philosophical views including the Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophist movement.

Marion worked with Frank Lloyd Wright where she met Walter Burley Griffin, who she married in 1911. The couple came to Australia in 1914, having won the Australia Federal Capital Competition, to design Canberra.

A significant period in Marion’s life took place in Sydney in the 1920s and 30s, when she and Walter established their ‘model residential suburb’ Castlecrag, on Sydney’s Middle Harbour. Their vision for Castlecrag was a suburb of houses, reserves, walkways and contoured roads that were ‘aesthetically in keeping with the surroundings … and subordinate to the natural beauty of the land’.

To Marion, enjoying, connecting and communing with nature, both physically and spiritually, was an essential part of suburban living. Marion became deeply involved in Castlecrag life, organising community activities, plays and performances in the open-air Haven Scenic Theatre, which she and local residents created in the early 1930s.

In 1920-21 they acquired the development rights for Castlecrag. Signature of the Griffins’ design and architectural style was to create a built environment that worked with and complemented the natural landscape. Castlecrag was a model suburb designed with community involvement at its core, quite ‘utopic’, without fences and boundary walls, encouraging residents and visitors to commune with nature in their urban lives.

The couple remained in Australia until 1935. Walter died in 1937 and after a brief return to Australia, Marion returned to Chicago where she wrote her memoir, Magic of America, which includes a record of her architectural drawings and landscape illustrations, including a series of 24 Forest Portraits some of which were made into coloured illustrations on silk.

Today, 100 years after the establishment of Castlecrag, and nearly 150 years since Marion Mahony Griffin’s birth, Paradise on Earth explores Marion’s extraordinary vision and her ongoing inspiration to artists, architects, historians and urban planners.

Paradise on Earth
Museum of Sydney, Corner Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney
Exhibition: 7 November 2020 – 18 April 221
Free with museum entry

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: View of Castlecrag houses under construction c1922 – courtesy of National Library of Australia