Space Resonates with Inspirational Memories: W.B. Griffin, Lucknow Chapter – Dr Rani Massey


Space is actively “produced ” through human activity and is therefore a social construct. The production of Space Theory explains how people inhabit the world and find mediations between the world and themselves, as social and cultural agents. Since space acquires a human dimension, it is therefore mentally and emotionally embedded. This, therefore, gives significance to memory, which is dynamic. The study bears truth to Walter Burley Griffin, the famed American architect, acclaimed for his passionate foray into architecture in three diverse continents- America (citizen), Australia and India. The aim of this paper is to investigate through narrative autobiographical memories,the memories of  Griffin expressed in letters,which were later preserved by his wife. Do memories stimulate space? The study proves that space continues to resonate with inspirational memories.

Keywords: memories, autobiographical narrative ,space , resonate, inspiration

Space is actively ‘produced’ through human activity. It is not a container for human activities to take place within. The production of ‘Space theory’, propounded by Henry Lefebvre, French geographer – philosopher, and Marxist thinker, has reiterated and popularized this idea (Lefebvre, 1974). The thinking encapsulated therein is that humans create the world around them. Also, humans are, in turn, created by the world around them, that is in the larger perspective, by culture and society. In other words, the human condition is characterized by a feedback loop between human activity and the material surroundings; one impinging on the other naturally  (Paglen, 2009). Since space, acquires a human dimension, it is therefore mentally and emotionally embedded. This, therefore, gives significance to memory, which is dynamic. Social space particularly, therefore, is a social construct and is relationally constituted out of the simultaneous co-existence of social relations and interactions. Besides their materiality, spaces are regarded as the loci of interaction and negotiation. (Barker, 2000) The case of W.B. Griffin and his works in that context  stands out as a good example. The architectural feats of Walter Burley Griffin, the famed American architect of the late 19th and early 20th century, have come under the arc lights, especially with the Centenary Celebrations of Canberra, the Federal capital city of Australia, which he designed, after having won the Federal Capital Design Competition in 1912. He has been acclaimed for his passionate foray into landscape architecture in three dynamically diverse continents- America (citizen), Australia and India (to which he travelled). Griffin and his wife are ardently admired today for their creative diversity, which bears the imprint of a unique style –a blend of form with utility, catering to community living and environmental protection. Part of that legacy was derived from Frank Lloyd Wright whose ensemble-oriented ideas on urban planning influenced the couple who had worked with him in America. The Chicago-based Prairie School also strongly impacted them. Griffin’s journey which began with the Progressive Movement in the late 19th century in Chicago, witnessed twenty years or so, of designing at great length in the British Empire’s Australian dominion ( griffin It culminated in further creativity in aspects of Eastern architecture, while being impacted in India ( 1935 -37), before his death here. He was followed by his talented architect wife and creative partner Marion Mahony (1936-37), who endeavoured to ceaselessly support his projects. 

The autobiographical memories of the architect Walter Burley Griffin, interestingly trace and piece together his experiences – emotional and mental renderings, which he exhibited while he was in Lucknow, India, on a commission to design buildings- physical space. The emotions and the state of mind, that he experienced and exhibited are deeply imprinted in the annals of history through ‘The Magic of America’, an electronic project of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, of The Art Institute of Chicago and The New-York Historical Society. It bears a collection of the Griffins’ letters, photos, illustrations/drawings of their personal lives and architectural works with reflections compiled by Marion, his architect wife, in 1940’s after her husband’s death and on her return to Chicago (electronic edition officially completed in August 2007 -2008).It throws light on the couple’s  philosophy and lives; their forty years of careers, covering 350 projects, across three continents and is a testimony to the couple’s life and work together. Later, the Walter Burley Griffin Society Inc. was established in 1988 in Sydney, Australia as a non-profit association by a group of people to promote a better understanding of the lives, ideals, vision and works of the Griffins (

 Jens Brockmeier in his book, Beyond the Archive: Memory, Narrative,and the Autobiographical Process (2015), claims,” Memories are not documents that are stored on hard discs or in neural engrams and in the act of recall, reactivated”(p.57).It is a process therefore in which the memories themselves emerge through the subject’s active construction of a life narrative model for the understanding of autobiographical remembering(here Grifffin’s letters and reflections). Brockmeier denounces the archival method and propagates his multidisciplinary narrative model for the understanding of autobiographical remembering. It widens the concept of memory and the approach strengthens the understanding of remembering in the neurosciences, humanities, and social studies, as well as in key works of autobiographical literature and life-writing. The narrative approach not only facilitates the autobiographical form of remembering (personal), but also highlights the interrelations between memory, “self”, and the cultural and social (collective or collaborative) practices, which impact it. Language plays a pivotal role in this context and one form of language is the narrative. The narrative approach entails experiences entwining the past with the present.Brockmeier follows the idea of “autobiographical time” – no chronological framework of clock and calendar and relates it to how it is organized in narratives. All these salient features of a narrative approach to memory relate to the analysis of Griffin’s letters, writings, and works which bear the imprint of diverse memories.                                                                                                                                                                  

Griffin’s experiences in India began in October 1935 when he won a commission with the contact of the Greater Sydney Development Association, with which he had worked, with the aim of developing an idyllic community, living  in close proximity to nature. His work here to design the Tagore Library and its gardens, for the University of Lucknow, began in 1935. Although his plan and design were ready, the project fell through due to administrative and financial wrangles (Puri, 1936).  Together, the Griffins designed more than fifty projects during this period. To cite a few; Pioneer Press (English Daily) Building (now demolished); Library for the Raja of Mahmudabad for his rare collection of books and manuscripts ( dist. Lucknow ) and a memorial to King George V- his only link to the British imperialism ( MoA, sec. 1). His most significant patrons were the Taluqdars that is, feudal landlords of Jahangirabad and Mahmudabad-two estates in Oudh.  

     But, interestingly  India was at this juncture, beginning to shake off the colonial shackles  (British Rule) and was now bracing itself towards modernism. The fresh new spirit enthused Griffin to free his designs from the colonial past by adapting to local specificity. As Paul Kruty has suggested, the most common feature that was ‘new’ in his Indian work was the ‘pointed arch’ or the ‘ Mughal arch’ –a motif to be found in traditional Northern Indian architecture, the difference here being that his were not ornamented in patterns. Also, the expression of the arch as a gable was his own creation ( Sherington,

This ingenuity of adopting the indigenous specificity of locality, while maintaining a relationship with universal modernism remained his legacy to India and to the world of landscape architecture ( Sherington,

A prime example of the above were the canopy pavilions, a stadium, rotundas etc. spreading over a ninety-five-acre site plan, designed by Griffin for the Exhibition of Industry and Agriculture 1936-37 in the United Provinces ( Agra and Oudh, now in Uttar Pradesh), where he uses his individual style of three interlocking Gothic arches, but also puts into practice his ingenuity to use the local bamboo as design  (griffinsociety .org ).                                                                                                                                                              Griffin enthusiastically embraced Indian architecture and its elements, adapting them and re-interpreting them in self-assured diverse architectural forms, as he “sought to create a modern Indian architecture” (Kruty, 1997,p76). He ably widened his architectural canvas to create a vibrant, eloquent and distinctive flavour, reflecting both the stamp of the place and the spirit of the times.

In terms of physical space, the Zenana, women’s quarters featured very prominently in the social milieu of India, especially during the Mughal Period. Literature offers a lens through which real life is reflected. The Zenana has been depicted through different time zones and in different connotations in literature. Ahmad Ali, a prominent Indian writer ( later Pakistani National), and a co-founder of the All- India  Progressive Writers’ Movement and Association (1932), describes in his book Twilight in Delhi (1940), the drastic political/social/cultural changes taking place in the first decade of the 20th century, under the threat of the British Rule in which the Indo-Islamic preserved culture was in danger of annihilation. He clings to the old-world charm and writes, 

          The world lived and died, things happened, events took place, but all this did not                            

           disturb the equanimity of Zenana, which had its world too where the pale and fragile        

           beauties of the hothouse lived secluded from all outside harm, the storms that blow 

           in the world of men (Ali, 2007, pp. 38,39 ).

 This was the socio-cultural spirit and ethos which Griffin faced; adjusting to the expectations and patterns while creating his own imprint. He readily agreed and contributed to the designing of social space through his construction design of a Zenana for the Raja (title of Ruler) of Jahangirabad.The Zenana is as close to the” Indo-Saracenic” style, as Griffin ever got.There is a reference to” open cut stone screens or jalis”, and “tower-like canopies-chattris”( Kruty,1997, p.76). The Indo- Saracenic was a style of Architecture, used by British Architects in the late 19th century in India, as an effort to merge British and Indian aspirations after 1858( Uprising in India 1857). The practice of maintaining Zenanas as a cultural practice continued. 

The Palace of Jahangirabad demanded a Zenana (while Griffin was in Lucknow), which could accommodate its women, and it is women who inhabited and lived there and further made it a social and cultural construct for many years. Social space is implicated in the “power –geometry” of space and is dynamic; constituted by changing social relations (Barker,2000).  In his letter to Marion on 30th January 1936, on constructing a Zenana for the Raja of Jahangirabad, he was surprisingly happy perhaps at Raja’s comment on seeing the design, “How beautiful! This is something entirely new,” (although the Raja replaced the minarets with turrets) and further, “Mr Griffin’s is a real architect- this arrangement (of an entrance for the motor car) will create a perspective effect!”. Griffin proudly continues “And so what I say goes with him, and I am his white-haired boy up to the present.” Griffin was also relieved by this experience, that aristocrats could take quick independent decisions, unlike bureaucracy hassles, a reference to the construction of the Library, Lucknow University (Magic of America ).

Griffin discourses on the relation between architecture and civilization, in his article, ‘Building for Nature’,:-“—   I like to believe that buildings convey the most truth of the mental and spiritual states of various peoples and time”(Griffin 1928, p. 123-127  ).  There is a definite ability to identify himself with the environment of India. In his letter to his father on 26 December 1935, he writes, “I feel comfortable here and find an endless source of interest in the environment of an ancient civilization”( He admired the diverse cultures of both the Hindus and the Muslims.

His admiration for the traditional design is explicit as he states that graceful bulbous domes are everywhere- in fact, domes and minarets play the same part in the landscape around here that ‘eggs and darts’ play in the Renaissance buildings (griffin Griffin grew quickly enchanted with the ‘City of Gardens’ and likened Lucknow’s skyline to a perfect night’s dream of white domes and minaret.There is mention of a similar kind of beauty in William Dalrymple’s travelogue chapter, The Age of Kali, in Writings on Lucknow (Oldenburg,2007  p.22 ) where Lucknow with its domes and gardens had reminded travellers of Constantinople, Paris or even Venice.

Griffin and Marion’s insightful architectural design for the Students’ Union Building, University of  Lucknow, was a perfect blend of form and function, highlighting both its democratic importance and its emblem of ideal discipline and leadership- tall arches framing open stairs, carrying the eyes up diagonally-social space seen as loci of interaction. The importance given to the prized possession of the Bhatia House, ‘ Shanti Sadan’ ( abode of peace) is rightly so because at present it is probably the only remnant left of the legacy of Griffin in Lucknow. Dr.Bir Bhan Bhatia (owner), an eminent doctor and later the Principal ( 1946-1949) at King George’s Medical College, Lucknow requested Griffin, who could barely spare time (only lunch break) to build it. Nestled amidst the rare exotic plants and trees, the house is a cubic structure with an interesting jaali (interlocking design) typical of Griffin’s design, running along its façade and the gate posts; the grey-green polished cement of the verandah with art deco pattern in black( Influenced by the French Arts before W.W.1); the red oxide drawing room floors with a border in black terrazzo (composite material with chips of stone, marble etc.) with a swastika design; inventive roofing and brick walls for insulation; concealed wiring (a new concept then); and geometrical patterns inspired by nature on the  doors all display his ingenuity and creativeness, putting his signature stamp on this iconic house,which is today unfortunately half-hidden by the high-rise buildings  (Adity,2007) and needs to be preserved  ( Figure  1.).

C:\Users\Vijay Massey 1\Desktop\DSC_0230 Bhartia House photo by Trevor Lee 2015 (1).jpg
              Figure 1.  Bhatia House in 2015 shared by Trevor Lee

The exhilarating spirit of the National Liberation struggle, and the impact of the Soviet Revolution in the 1930s inspired a cultural revival which brought about on the Lucknow social scene, the form of progressive art and literary movement. It was this unique old civilization which was gaining new heights of aspirations that Griffin stepped into. He captures precious moments in his letters; one such being a letter(family collection) to a family friend, a noted Australian writer, Miles(Stella) Franklin ( MoA, sec. 4) with whom he shares  his appreciation of excellence and poise of the young women students on his visit to Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow( transcribed in Magic of America). It has the distinction of being the first Women’s Methodist college in Southeast Asia and was founded in 1870 ( as a school) by an American missionary of the Methodist Episcopal Church , Ms Isabella Thoburn who had been sent to educate and empower the young women of India,a need of the times ( Charles,2011).In a letter on 25th and 28th November 1935, Griffin wrote of attending the Annual Convocation Day here and witnessing the presentation of Sophocles’ play “Antigone”. Today the college ( social space) has evolved as a centre of excellence in all-around education for young women with aspirations. The quasquicentennial of the college was celebrated in 2011 with great aplomb.

 No end would be more befitting than the lines written by Marion:

 “Then came that last year. Again the busy cram-ful years seemed like leisure days in the light of this driving year into which was crowded a life’s experience and a life’s work”(Magic of America 1.18 ). and later “…the full flowering of his (W.B.G.’s) work came in the last year of his life.”(Griffin p. 62).

Griffin’s Canberra-Lucknow contribution was commemorated in September 2012- a rightful place in the history of these two capital cities. A small delegation from the Centenary Celebrations of Canberra, along with local organisations and church clergy, visited the Nishatganj cemetery and as part of the ceremony, sprinkled water from Lake Walter Burley (Canberra) on his grave (Mullick,2012). Memories no doubt are revived in a fresh way, to prove that space resonates with inspirational memories. 

There are myriad examples of builders and leaders in their own rights like Griffin who have been and are instrumental in the making of this great city Lucknow, which is steeped in history and heritage, and old-time etiquettes, but is at the same time progressive. At the time of writing, all eyes are on the grand scale Global Investors’ Summit being planned in February 2023 (Lalchandani 2023).    As deconstructed all along the paper, space is actively produced through human activity and is therefore a social construct. It is mentally and emotionally embedded, giving significance to memory, especially autobiographical memory through the narrative approach. In this case the experiences of W .B. Griffin are encapsulated and shared through his letters, writings and architectural designs collated by his architect and artist wife  Marion with her inputs in The Magic of America: Electronic Edition (sec.1) . Space thus continues to resonate with inspirational memories of those with vision and grit. These immersive experiences/ memories pave the way and leave their footprints on the sands of time for others to follow. In conclusion, quoting Marion Griffin, “—–each generation is under the obligation not only to do its own work but so to teach the succeeding generation as to cause progress”(MoA,4.406).


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Author Bionote

Dr.Rani Massey, Former Head Department of English, Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow has taught English Literature and Women’s Studies (Women, language and media). She has to her credit, International publications on Women’s Writings in the SAARC Region and a Research Paper “Women and Resistance in Indo-Anglian Fiction”, textbook: “Women’s Studies in India: Some Contours”, published by Ewha Woman’s University Press, Korea. She has written International research papers on SAARC(under SAARC Apex Body and Indian Council for Cultural Affairs) and attended several international SAARC Literature Festivals and served as Chair on their panel discussions. She is well travelled and has written several travel-related articles for the Times of India, Lucknow edition. She is a member of the South Asian Diaspora International Research Network, the Indian Network for Memory Studies.