Canberra: Cosmological Symbolism of Mysticism


The design for Canberra, as developed from the initial plan of 1912, by Marion and Walter Griffin, cannot be understood without recognizing that the Land Axis connecting Mount Ainslie with the War Memorial, Anzac Parade, the lake system, the Parliamentary Triangle and Capital Hill, extends to Bimberi Peak, the highest mountain in the Brindabella ranges some twenty-five kilometres to the south of the central city (Figs 1 & 3). Bimberi Peak, not Capital Hill, was designated as the terminus to the Land Axis both on the initial drawings and in the original report.

This north-south Axis and the east-west Water Axis from Black Mountain passing through Fyshwick, the basins comprising Lake Burley Griffin and along the Molonglo Valley, form a cross akin to the monumental constructions of the ancient world such as Constantine’s Rome. There, the Axis Urbis connects St. Peter’s Basilica, the Capitoline Hill, the Via Sacra, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the Colosseum and St. John’s Lateran church, extending to the Alhan Hills, the home of the gods of antiquity. At the Colosseum it crosses another axis connecting the ancient basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul outside the walls. With the establishment of Christianity the ‘cross’ of Rome became the model for the development of many European cities (Fig 9).

The Griffins’ original design stems from ancient religious orders and their understanding of geomancy, an ancient science placing man in harmony with the earth. It is common to both Eastern and Western cultures. Therefore, Canberra has affinities with ancient architectural and planning principles embodied in Stonehenge, sacred Glastonbury, ancient Egyptian temples and pyramids, and even with the concept of the new Jerusalem. All these, and Canberra, share the sacred geometry emanating from the Vesica, the orifice formed from the interpenetration of two equal circles, one the sphere of the spiritual realm and the other symbolic of the world of material phenomena (Fig 2). Liberated from the Vesica are the circle, the square, the triangle, the rhombus and regular polygons which interrelate and, as such, determine the geometrical structure of the initial plan with its attendent architectural proposals; a framework clearly visible now and reinforced by the design of the new Parliament House.

Canberra cannot be understood simply in terms of the late nineteenth century City Beautiful model, derived from Baroque vista planning where parkland is brought into the city centre, or from the Garden City principles of Ebenezer Howard, where landscaping dominates suburban residential development. The paradigms adopted by Marion and Walter Griffin are derived from the cosmological and esoteric symbolism of the Vesica and reflect their own personal cosmogony; representations of the divine in axial and linear constructions in the landscape. Like the secrets of the master masons of Mediaeval times, they were never revealed to the politicians and bureaucrats who condemned the initial plan as impractical, and they are elucidated in this paper through a study of the Magic of America, a four-volume work written, but not published, by Marion Griffin at the end of her life.

At the turn of the century there was a great diversity of influences on artists and architects, but none more intense than those generated from the reaction against the prevailing revivalism and eclecticism. Many outstanding artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Chagall and Klee, and modem architects such as Lethaby, Gaudi, Lutyens, Berlage, Behrens, Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright as well as the Griffins, became interested in Theosophy, the Swedenborg and Rosicrucian movements, Freemasonry and the occult, as they offered dynamic new alternatives to Christianity. And these artists often combined elements of these new religions with paganism in their search for a spirituality which could catalyse artistic inspiration from new historical perspectives. Many sites of ancient religious practice were being excavated and documented at the end of the nineteenth century by astro-archaeologistsand the results published in journals such as Archaeologia and Nature.

Marion and Walter Griffin had access to these journals and there are clear parallels between their work and the published material. For example, the crossed land and water axes of the Canberra plan resemble large megalithic and geomantic constructions surrounding HaagscherBerg near Munchen Gladbach in northern Germany, the Salisbury Plain complex with a north-south axis connecting Salisbury Cathedral, the ancient mound at Old Sarum, the great cosmic temple at Stonehenge, the stone circles at Avebury, Cirencester Church and extending to Dufton Fell in Westmoreland: this axis crossing an east-west alignment connecting sacred Glastonbury, Stonehenge and extending through many sacred and holy hills to Shere near London (Fig 16). Similar to Canberra too is the most famous axis of the ancient world – the alignment connecting the Parthenon with Mount Salamis to the west, and the Horns of Mount Hymettos to the east of Athens. And when the Axis Urbis of Rome penetrates to the Alban Hills, six ancient shrines are built on a north-south axis stretching from Anzio through Lanuvio, Nemi and Tuscolo to Tivoli with Monte Cavo as the pinnacle – the sacred mountain – like the Griffins’ Bimberi Peak in Canberra (Figs 9 & 5).

Added to the simple basic cross of Canberra are a series of interrelated and connected nodal points: in effect, all the mountains – Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie, Mugga Mugga, Mount Pleasant and City Hill – are connected to the main Land Axis extending to Bimberi Peak on the edge of the Australian Capital Territory. This concept reflects the principle of the Five Sacred Mountains in Chinese geomancy. Romaldo Giurgola, the architect of the new Parliament House, understood the underlying geomantic order of the Griffins’ initial plan. The new building, with its two huge ramped hemicycles, its relationship to water areas and the surrounding mountain forms, is akin to a Feng Shui landscape where, ideally, a building should be sited in relation to embracing and protective mountain forms, the White Tiger and the Azure Dragon, with a slow moving body of water in the distance (Lake Burley Griffin) (Fig 4).

The placing of parliamentary functions literally under Capital Hill in the new design has been severely criticised by many architects, but a correct appreciation of Giurgola’s work should recognise its profound connections to the Griffins’ original massing for the Capitol and the principles of Hellenistic city design, to which Marion and Walter were committed. A way of understanding the true historical perspective of the initial design, and Giurgola’s response to it, is through a study of the 1912 original report in which Walter Griffin describes the nucleus of Canberra as a ‘theatre’. He does not mean theatre in the conventional sense but rather a Hellenistic theatre: the ancient city sites of Pergamon, Lindos, Palestrina or the Acropolis in Athens, where, in a grand design, elements are presented on terraces, ramps and stairs, and where images are presented at discrete levels – like the projected Government Group in Canberra where the panorama of public edifices is crowned by the Capitol on Capital Hill and, in turn, by an idealised Bimberi Peak.

The initial plan for Canberra expresses the continuity of the cosmic symbolism between Europe and Asia. In broad terms, for both the East and the West, the circle symbolises heaven while the cross, and its related form, the square, symbolises the earth. As Graham Pont has pointed out in The Circle and the Cross: Genesis and Hermeneutic of the traditional Cosmology’, these two signs have played a very stable role in the cosmic symbolism and geometry of sacred building and the planning of cities from Babylon to Peking, Borobudhar, Ankor Wat, Benares and Mandalay in the East; and in the West, from Athens and Rome to many European cities derived from them whose design has been derived from axial orders. The cosmic geometry also informs all Islamic mosques, gardens and tomb complexes like the Taj Mahal. Among the monumental civilisations of the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas, as well as the tribal cultures of the North American Indians. there is indisputable evidence of a related cosmogony. A common, coherent and complex system of thought and practice belies certain fundamental conceptions of all of these societies are linked by what appears to be a common filiation of ideas or mythical logic. The last city which reflects this system of ideas and to be designed in the grand or cosmic manner was Canberra.

Axial and Linear Constructions:

Representations of the Divine and the Cosmos The extension of the Land Axis of the initial Canberra plan to Bimberi Peak in the Brindabella ranges, some twenty five kilometres from Capital Hill, together with the strict geometrical structure of the central area stemming from the Vesica, indicates that Marion and Walter Griffin’s objectives exceeded the contemporary concerns of the City Beautiful and Garden City movements. The Magic of America reveals their early attempts to establish a new profession of landscape architecture, the unification of architecture and town planning, where inspiration and justification were sought from ancient systems of planning embodied in both Eastern and western geomancy. At the time of the design of Canberra articles and books on the construction and alignments of Greek and Egyptian temples, together with papers on the megalithic monuments such as Carnac and Stonehenge, were published in England. The sodality of the initial Canberra plan bears a striking relationship to a number of these ancient plans and orders in Greece, Italy, Germany and England. At the same time Theosophists and other quasi-religious societies, such as the Freemasons and Swedenborgians, were disseminating knowledge intent on reviving the paradigms of ancient cultures largely as a means of combating materialism and decadence which they saw as endemic to modem society.

Canberra, like its contemporaneous Garden City constructions was intended to provide an ideal surround for a healthy and contented population but. notwithstanding, its prime source of inspiration was the culture of the ancient world. The Griffins sought the revivification of the Golden Age, the myth which is common to all ancient cultures and thought to influence all facets of life and religion. By adopting ancient paradigms they infused the Canberra plan with sacred and divine orders which belie the physical structures of great cities of the world such as Athens and Rome. These themes are implicit in the most significant monumental constructions of the ancient world: thus the capital of Australia must be interpreted and re-evaluated within a tradition fundamental to Western culture.

The concept of quadrats, the quartering of the city by the cardo-decumanus system, manifest in Roma Quadrata and remembered in the Latin Quarter of Paris, is implicit in the Canberra structure, the result of the Land-Water axial intersection. In ancient orders the Omphalos, meaning ‘navel’, is applied to any divined geomantic centre. This point, the cardo-decumanus crossing, which fixes the Axis Mundi, the connection between the heavens and the earth, is designated as the centre of the world. A pivot around which everything else revolves, it automatically defines the origin point for any city. This point refers to the Omphalos at Delphi, seat of the oracle of Apollo and centre of the Greek world (Fig 7). The Omphalos is translated into the Caput Mud of the ancient Roman world; located at the Capitol, the centre of Roma Quadrats and the Templum, it was also prominent in the sixteenth century, fixed in built form at the centre of Michelangelo’s stellate pavement defining the floor of the Campidoglio. The concept of Omphalos, the sacred place at the centre, and Axis Mundi, designating the Templum, is present in the four-square Capitol building proposed in the initial plan, and is carried into the new Parliament House design. Within the ‘sacred’ circular enclosure of Capital Hill the new building is oriented along the Cardo or Land Axis. while a secondary Decumanus or cross axis creates the location of the Senate Chamber and the House of Representatives Chamber. In the new Parliament House this creates a microcosm of the urban precinct at the city centre. The concept of Canberra as Caput Mundi is reinforced by the naming of the avenues which radiate from Capital Hill: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth.

The axial vistas of Baroque city planning regulate the City Beautiful movement. The Griffins’ democratic idealism and their pursuit of an organic naturalism are amalgamated in the initial plan for Canberra: the former comprises the ‘public’ city and its connection to the City Beautiful, and the latter liberates the ‘private’ component of suburban orientation. City Beautiful rhetoric was concerned with civic design rather than social functions and advocated aesthetic architectural planning with a ground composition of monumental buildings, grand piazzas and sweeping vistas connecting extensive parkland to the civic centre. The initial plan for Canberra had responded to this principle within the Parliamentary Triangle. But the overarching concept of the plan was derived from ancient geomantic models incorporating axial and linear constructions which focussed on hills and mountains paralleling ancient symbolism, representations of the divine and the cosmos. Thus, the character of the initial plan, in structure and size, resembles many of the geomantic axial and linear constructions in Europe, Britain and the Americas which have been revealed and documented since the later nineteenth century through astro-archaeology. This discipline has been aided in recent years by aerial photography.

The Greeks on the Acropolis set up temples – the Parthenon, the Erectheion, Athena Nike – drawing around them the landscape and gathering into a composition. The axis of the Acropolis runs from the sea to the mountain. In his Vers une Architecture of 1923 le Corbusier said of the Maiden’s Parthenon, This creates a fact as reasonable to our understanding as the fact “sea” or the fact “mountain”‘. This is the most famous geomantic axis of the ancient world, where the axis around which the temple acts is controlled by the distant landscape forms.3 The cardo-decumanus intersection is dominant where the main axis links Mount Salamis in the west with the central axis of the Propylaea, the statue of Athena, the site of the old temple of Athena and the horns of Mount Hymettos in the distance. From north to south a secondary axis links the sacred horns of Mount Deceleia with Posiedon’s porch on the northern end of the Erectheion, and continues through the altar of Athena to the northern comer of the Parthenon and then beyond, leading the eye away to the distant sea4 (Fig 8).

Implicit in the structure of Rome are divine and cosmic concepts. The Axis Urbis of antiquity, the via Sacra and the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, was strengthened and enriched when the Colosseum was built exactly on the axis in the sacred valley between the hills, and further reinforced by the temple of Venus and Rome similarly placed,
with its two cellae back-to-back, thus visualising the double extension of the axis and symbolic of the role of Rome as Caput Mundi. The Axis Vrbis was, moreover, extended to the other side of the Tiber by the construction of a circus, carefully placed in relation to an ancient burial ground and shrine, where the Vatican is today. Constantine transformed Rome symbolically into a Christian city by locating the two main churches on the Axis Urbis, the church of the Saviour, St. John in the Lateran to the south and St. Peter’s in the north. Later, a symbolic decumanus was added between the churches of St. Paul and St. Mary (Santa Maria Maggiore) whereby the sign of the cross was put over the entire city using the Colosseum at the centre to unify anthropometric orders and cosmic axes in the simplest possible way. This cross-axial form acted as a precursor for the development of many European cities.5

As Christian Norburg-Schulz points out in his work on the Genius Loci of Rome, it is not surprising that the extension of the Axis Urbis leads to the Alban Hills, some twenty-five kilometres from the man-made synthesis of the city, where the gods of antiquity were at home.6 Being an old volcano, the Alban Hills have a simple shape and their clear topographic features are emphasised by two almost circular lakes in the deep craters. The hills rise up to form an impressive mass over the everyday world possessing that basic property of the classical landscape: a distinct and easily imaginable relationship between masses and spaces. The main sanctuaries of Latium were located here, lined up on a north-south axis (Fig 9). On the top of Monte Cavo (Albanus Mons), Jupiter Latiaris presided over the whole region. There, every spring, the forty-seven members of the Latin Confederation celebrated the Feriae Latime. Diana reigned in the woods on the slope of the mountain where her sacred grove was mirrored in the calm and deep waters of Lago de Nemi: and on the other side of the lake, in Lanuvio (Lanuvium), where the slope is cultivated and less steep, Juno had her temple.

Continued to the south, the sacred axis reaches Anzio (Antium) where there was a temple dedicated to Fortuna, while towards the north, the same axis passes through Tuscolo (Tusculum) where Castor and Pollux were at home, and then reaches Tivoli, where Hercules ruled over a wilder kind of environment, bearing temples to Sibilla and Vesta. The main sanctuaries of Latium thus formed a natural north-south cardo, about which the cosmos revolved, and the sun followed the natural decumanus of the Secco valley and the Axis Urbis of the city which connected the Roman region with Campania Felix. In the initial design for Canberra, Marion and Walter Griffin depicted a construction which parallels the heroic proportions of the geomantic constructions in both Athens and Rome. The Land Axis connects Mount Ainslie with the Capitol and Red Hill and then the City and Environs drawing clearly indicates that this Axis continues to Bimberi Peak in the Brindabella ranges to the south. The prairie-like undulations of the Molonglo Valley, which greatly appealed to the Griffins, form a natural decumanus akin to that of the Roman Campagna and this is reinforced by both the Water Axis and the Municipal Axis. Together, these focus upon Black Mountain. This cardo-decumanus scheme is also present in Latium at Palestrina where a great composition of axially disposed terraces reinforces the decumanus of the Secco valley while the axis emanating from the temple of Fortuna functions as a cardo which leads the eye between the Alban Hills and the Lepine Hills towards the distant sea7 (Figs 9 &lo). This structure is the third basic component of the Roman genius loci.

In Egypt there is evidence of a geomantic construction of even greater size. A north-south axis, the prime meridian dividing Egypt exactly in half, links the pre-dynastic capitol of Behdet, an island in the Nile just north-east of the Great Pyramid of Giza with Memphis, the capital of United Egypt. It continues to the Great Cateract, which is the outer boundary of Egypt in the north and may have been originally marked by a pyramid (Fig 11). This meridian, in relation to the siting of the Great Pyramid determines the geographic region of Egypt within the bounds of an equilateral triangle. The siting of the two capitals on this line established both as geodetic and political centres at the ‘navel’ of the world.8

In northern Germany a long cardo connects a number of sites and holy hills. This axis runs over Haffen Church to the north on the right bank of the Rhine, to Xanten Cathedral and through the sacred mountain, Haagscher on the opposite side of the Rhine, through the Quirinus Chapel at Finkenberg and terminates at the Minster church at Munchen Gladbach (Fig 13). At Xanten, in front of the altar of St. Victor’s Cathedral, there is a signpost to pre-Christian sacred geography which takes the form of a floor mosaic cosmogram based on the eight-armed cross, the division of the sky according to the eight directions and comers of the world with the supreme god in the centre (Fig 12). The arms of the four cross-strips of the Xanten cosmogram point precisely in the eight cardinal directions to the following (apart from the sanctuaries to the north and south already mentioned): to the north-west, Appeldorn church; to the west, the ‘red mountain’ near Uedem; to the south-west the Geribemus Chapel on the Furstenburg; and to the east via Drevenack church to the old church of St. Agatha in Dorsten.

In the imagery of microcosm-macrocosm, this ancient belief in the unity of all life and the analogy and reflection of the great in the small finds its most striking and expressive representation. It appears everywhere in both the Old and the New World in traditional and rediscovered sacred images and calendars, which have always relied upon the same laws of correspondence between the cycles of earth and heaven.

The observations of Dr. Josef Heinsch illuminate the philosophical stance of Marion and Walter Griffin and their contemporaries who were interested in the rejuvenation of ancient paradigms. The ancients believed that all human thoughts and actions were subordinated to the energising influence of the all-powerful divine forces and that
everything mundane was bound up with the divine. Their philosophy and wisdom culminated in the knowledge that ‘as above, so below’; thus they attempted to bring all their activities and ambitions into harmony with higher nature, the divine will.

Geomantic constructions and axial alignments in the ancient world were not restricted to the cardo-decumanus scheme; many early examples exist where interconnecting alignments form complex geometrical forms relating both man-made and natural elements. Recent studies have indicated that certain geometrical patterns in the landscape can be linked with the ‘. . . ancient geometers image of the ideal cosmology.’~~ Far back in prehistoric times, probably when agricultural settlements were made in the Stone Age, large tracts of land were already being accurately divided and surveyed. This ancient geometrical arrangement of the country appears to have been started and carried on uniformly over a wide area, in the Orient as well as in northern Europe, according to certain fixed angles measured from the astronomical north-south axis, and there were also equally universal measures of length. There are metrological principles in landscape patterns which correspond to angle, length and number. These proportions were later retained in canonically constructed sacred buildings, northern stone circles and Oriental temples as well as Christiz churches, and are effective today in giving them a cosmic-sacred quality.

Apart from the fundamental triangulation of the country based on 30 degrees and 60 degrees, and the orientations on the diagonal of a square (45 degrees), or double square (about 26.5 degrees), the main sacred angles determining the ancient geometrical arrangement of the landscape relate to a bask meridian (Fig 14). This base line links two
important sacred sites which are found to occur regularly: (a) the holy hill in the west, originally associated chiefly with moon worship and in Christian times often dedicated to the Virgin; and (b) to the east of this on 84 degrees or 96 degrees – with a 6-degree deviation to the north or south – the former solar site, in Christian times often dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the mathematics of the ancients this base line, with the angle of 6 degrees, appears in a right-angled triangle with short sides in the ratio 19:2, the square on the hypotenuse being 365 (W+12); the line was named the solar year line.I1 The sacred art of metrology, the magical view of microcosmic-macrocosmic correspondences, based on the ancients’ clear insight into nature, originally covered all sites of any importance, in particular sacrificial and assembly places in addition to boundary marks. Allowing for the varying importance and purpose of these sites their orientations to one another, starting throughout from the north-south axis or cardo, followed universally valid rules. The general conservative retention of holy hills as the chief sacred centres, as well as Pagan religious sites and their occupation by churches, chapels and mosques to align them with Christianity or Islam, creates a recognisable pattern today giving a characteristic local stamp to the structure of a country or landscape. Josef Heinsch has demonstrated the principles of this universal geometrical structure which belies ancient settlements in northern Europe – at Odry in Czechoslavakia, the regions surrounding Chartres in France, Kleve in Germany and Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain in England (Fig 14).

In the initial plan for Canberra the Griffins drew into the geometrical composition a number of hills apart from those comprising the fundamental central composition within the structure of the Vesica. Mount Pleasant, Mugga Mugga and numerous nodal points, the centres of polygonal suburban street patterns, extending from the triangular matrix such as Northbourne Avenue to the north between Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain, or emanating from Capital Hill, in totality, bear a striking resemblance to the principles of sacred geometry outlined by Josef Heinsch.

Following the publication of the Antiquities of Athens (1762) by Stuart and Revett and the excavations by Evans and Schliemann, and many others, around the Mediterranean during the mid-nineteenth century came the work on Egyptian and Greek temple orientation by Sir Norman Lockyer and his contemporaries. They proposed the theory
that Egyptian and Greek temples were axially aligned in accordance with the solstices or equinoxes of the sun, the rising and setting of the moon or a particular star, or even the date of the dedication of the temple to a particular deity. And they linked the Megalithic period in Britain with the tradition of temple construction in Egypt and Greece.

Then, from 1890, and building on the work of William Stukely and John Wood, Lockyer began studying the megalithic monuments of ancient Britain.13 In numerous publications in Nature from 1890 to 1910. and in his book Stonehense and other British Monuments Astronomically considered (1906), Lockyer revealed the astrological and -geological influences -g overnin-g the selection of sites and the principles of construction of these monuments. At the same time, British and Italian archaeologists were excavating the Hellenistic temples at Lanuvio, Tivoli and Nemi mentioned previously, and these sites were documented in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, the Proceedings of the Royal Society and in the journal Archaelogia from 1895.15

Now, while the Griffins may not have known the professional archaeological journals it is very likely that they knew of the Nature journal for it was an international journal which, in addition to material on the natural sciences, contained articles on art and architecture. Walter was an advocate of design in harmony with nature and Marion was influenced by mysticism, spirituality and nature worship. At the time of the design of Canberra it is likely that the Griffins had already assimilated Lockyer’s work, which focussed on the orientation and alignments of these ancient megalithic constructions with natural landforms, man-made outliers and avenues, and markers, as well as his discourse on the attendent beliefs and customs of the societies which produced them.

Stonehenge is the solar centre, the great cosmic temple, which lies on the solar year line extending over the Salisbury region. The entire geometrical scheme incorporating sacred sites, holy hills and prehistoric villages and towns extends to Glastonbury where a system of axes connects St. Benedicts’, the Market Cross, St. John’s Church and Wells Cathedral while another axis runs over St. Benedicts’, along the axis of the town, through the axis of the abbey church, down Dod Lane to Gore Hill in Wiltshire and through to Stonehenge; it continues to Bury Fort, Puttenham Common Hill and Shere Church (Figs 15 & 16). These axes were not simply sight lines but functioned as processional ways marked by standing stones often incorporating barrows or burial chambers all visible from the sacred hills and mountains across the landscape.”

In 1911, when Marion and Walter Griffin were preparing the drawings for Canberra a large body of work on the axial orientation of Egyptian and Greek temples, and the megalithic monuments of Britain and Europe had been recently published by scientists, C W Penrose, J Griffith and by Lockyer himself. In particular, Lockyer’s work on the astronomical and religious significance of Stonehenge as it was described and illustrated in the journal, Nature, in 1905 and 1907, seems to have been used as a model for the Parliamentary Triangle and Capital Hill structure of Canberra.17 At the centre of the Salisbury Plain complex of axes Stonehenge is connected to the sacred forest at Grovely by a meridian, previously described, which is also the sight line of the summer solstice, the line of sunrise on the longest day of the year. Lockyer observed that the nucleus of this geomantic construction is an axial arrangement in the form of an equilateral triangle which connects the ancient mound at Old Sarum with Grovely Castle and Stonehengels (Fig 14). The side of the triangle connecting Grovely Castle with Stonehenge, when extended, connects sacred sites at Sidbury in the north and Castle Ditches in the south. Similarly, the side of the triangle connecting Old Sarum, when extended, passes over the spire of Salisbury Cathedral and then to the Clearbury Ring further south. In the other direction the axis extends through the sacred site of Windmill Hill, which is related to Silbury Hill, and the great stone circles at Avebury; then it continues further north passing over Cirencester Church and over many hills as far as Dufton Fell in Westmoreland. Thus, the great cosmic temple of Stonehenge marked the crossing of an extensive and monumental north-south cardo and a decumanus connecting Glastonbury in the west with Shere and Hackhurst Down in the east.19

The parallel with Canberra is uncanny: as at Salisbury, with the connection of Stonehenge, Grovely Castle and Old Sarum; Capital Hill, City Hill and the Lake Park monument in Canberra are linked 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, while 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 initial plan for Canberra was clearly influenced by mainstream Theosophical ideas but it is reasonable to suggest that the work of Norman Lockyer could have crystallised the Canberra geometry.20 The Vesica is fundamental to the Stonehenge Geometry and to that of Glastonbury, next to Stonehenge the earliest and most sacred site in megalithic Britain and, later, the site of the first Christian church.

The organisation of the monuments on Salisbury Plain could well have influenced the design of the Parliamentary Triangle in Canberra. Before 1911, Norman Lockyer had also published a series of articles in Nature on the axial alignments of British megalithic monuments which could have served as a model for aspects of the initial Canberra plan.21 He describes the practice of the ancients, where specific holy hills and solar sanctuaries were marked with large stones or slabs. The design and location of a number of the Griffins’ suggested architectural forms, such as the Casino and the Capitol, directly resembles this practice. The twin towers of the Casino, which immediately direct the eye to the peak of Mount Ainslie, is especially reminiscent of the location of the ancient tors, the largest megalithic markers (Fig 6).

Walter and Marion Griffin’s intentions for Canberra were projected beyond existing planning concerns, as demonstrated in the new capitals such as Washington DC and New Delhi. The connection of monuments, architecture and natural landforms in a strict axial and geometrical scheme places Canberra within the same tradition as great cities of the world such as Rome and Athens. No contemporaneous city plan utilises the equilateral triangle as the dominant geometric figure.22 The expression of ancient paradigms and an idiosyncratic cosmological symbolism are clearly prime objectives in the design for Canberra but, in order fully to comprehend the scheme, it is necessary to understand other forces at work on the Griffins and their colleagues.

In attempting to establish the new profession of Landscape Architecture, Walter Burley Griffin, like the majority of his radical contemporaries, rejected the eclecticism of the Beaux Arts schools. He sought the integration of architecture and land-planning on a grand scale. In their writing the Griffins accentuate the historical periods which were characterised by ‘creative thinking’: notably, ancient Greece and the Gothic period. Marion, in particular, attributes creative thinking to the true radicals of the twentieth century, Louis Sullivan and Walter himself. In the Magic of America she writes that

– Mr. Griffin, Mr. Sullivan’s successor in creative thinking in these fields awakened the community to the necessity of considering simultaneously the problem of building and environment near and far. It now becomes clear that these cannot be practiced as separate
professions, architect or town planner, but only as one indivisible profession – Landscape Architecture.

The dry cut, analytical interpretations of the ancient world were disregarded in this quest and the Griffins focussed on the magic ritual and wonder conjured up by new interpretations of both Eastern and Western traditions. Civilisations in possession of advanced astronomical and geodetic knowledge fundamental to all facets of life could be exemplars in the attempts to overcome the sociological problems and ills generated by the industrialised and materialistic twentieth century. In a new profession of landscape architecture sincerity and invention would replace ‘. . . decadence, imitation and ostentation’.Norman Lockyer’s descriptions of the ancient world, while centering on the astronomical significance of the great monuments also dwelt upon their importance as sacred centres of nature worship.25 Both Marion and Walter regarded the ‘historic civilisations prior to the Romans’ as correctly relating ‘man to nature’. There was also a legacy from ancient planning realised in more recent times – Japanese roads, all in cutting, do no violence to the topography. Feudal castles appear to grow out of the jagged rocks of Europe. The mud houses of the African deserts and the Pueblo Indians in America are distinctly part and parcel of a homogeneous nature as is the Eskimo igloo, and these certainly represent more scientific, ecomomic and comfortable housing under the conditions than do our houses constructed now after 2000 years to the specifications of Vitruvius.

The Griffins were not alone in their fascination for geomantic traditions and their potential in modern land planning; it had become the subject of debate and discussion on the other side of the Atlantic. The biologist, sociologist and town-planner, Patrick Geddes, in particular, stressed the importance of the recognition of cultural history as a tool for the development of planning in the future. A higher evolutionary goal, a greater stage in human development, would cure the maladies of the modem city. And the best procedure for studying the city, in order to achieve this, was to produce a regional survey, a study of its geographical location and the history of the evolution of its cultural traditions which he labelled ‘civics’. By understanding the deeper past Geddes advocated that the planners of the present could ‘accurately forecast the future’. This theme was illustrated by his regional survey of Edinburgh: it provided examples in buildings and civic layout which best revealed the importance of the past in the presentation Patrick Geddes reproduced a number of illustrations showing the development of the city from ancient times. Reminiscent of the megalithic alignments elsewhere in Britain, the city is organised around an axis focussing on Edinburgh Rock. The studies of the mediaeval city demonstrate a clear east-west axis running along the ridge between the castle on the rock and the abbey town in the distance with a cross axis connecting a cluster of smaller monasteries and churches outside the town to the port in the north. Geddes goes on to compare the relationship between the castle rock, the plain below and the sea port of Edinburgh with the Acropolis, the Attic Plain and the port of Piraeus.

Like Norman Lockyer, Geddes recognised an ancient organizing principle which was common to Egypt, Greece and Britain. He published a number of articles on the megalithic builders and the ancient Celts in Nature and other journals, so he would have been aware of the debate on axiality and symbolism as revealed by astro-archaeology. Lockyer, who had discovered the gas, helium, was an eminent scientist of his day, but he was denigrated in conventional archaeological circles. Geddes was equally unpopular in conventional academic circles, as revealed by Helen Meller. She describes Geddes’ writings on ‘Romanticism, nature worship, the forays into Celtic past’ as ‘delightfully unconventional in comparison with the norms of social behaviour of Edinburgh ~ociety.’~g His ‘unconventionality’ would surely have appealed to the Griffins.

In 1900, then an influential member of a group which advocated a ‘sociological approach to the Garden City’, Geddes spent a number of weeks in Chicago where he met Walter Buriey Griffin .It appears that he had much in common with the Griffins in ascribing creative thinking to the ancient Greeks and in his advocacy of a return to the religious ideals of the past as a prelude to their restatement in modem form. His notion of ‘evolutionary perception’ of the city, ‘street by street, district by district’, finds parallels in the Griffins’ method of the gradual unfolding of the Government Group in Canberra. Patrick Geddes could well have introduced the Griffins to Norman Lockyer’s work on the axiality of ancient Greek, Egyptian and British monuments. Meller points out that Geddes and his contemporary Branford were in ‘pursuit of cosmic idealism . . . which appealed to
many . . . struggling to establish value systems in the modem world.’31 Doubtless, Marion and Walter were aware of Geddes’ Edinburgh survey and its accompanying drawings for it formed part of his well known ‘Cities and Town Planning Exhibition’, which, including the Edinburgh survey, was published in the British Town Planning Conference Transactions of 1910. The competition conditions for Canberra advised all competitors to consult this document. It also contained an article by John Sulman, who went to England from Australia to promote the international competition.

In ‘Notes on Abstract Art’, Bernard Smith writes on the influence of the modernist religions, Spiritualism, Theosophy and Anthroposophy -

I began to read everything I could find on Steiner, including his own varied works. One day it struck me with all the force of an illumination. Here of course lay the source, power and influence of modem abstract art. It was the religious art of the twentieth
century, and its origins lay not in the great traditionalist religions but in the new syncretic religions such as spiritualism, theosophy and anthroposophy that had begun to emerge in the later nineteenth century with the decline of Christianity .33

In expanding on Bernard Smith’s theme, Sixten Ringbom’s seminal article on the whole question of abstraction and the occult revealed how abstract artists such as Kandinsky, who had embraced Anthroposophy and Mondrian, Theosophy, were deeply influenced by
the little book entitled Thought Forms by Annie Besant and C W Leadbeater (1901).34 The Theosophical Society, established in 1875, was the outgrowth of a small group attending a lecture by George Felt on ‘The Lost Proportion of the Egyptians’. At this lecture were Madame Helena Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge as well as Besant and Leadbeater. As the story goes, Olcott, during the discussion following the lecture, suggested that it would ‘. . . be good to form a society that focussed on this kind of study’. So, with the approval of the others present, the Theosophical Society was formed.35 Writing about Mondrian, Michel Seuphor observed that

Mondrian was long interested in theosophical speculations. As late as 1916 the portrait of Mme Blavatsky hung on the wall of his studio. Yet in ins writings he made no mention of his theosophical sympathies. Even in private conversation he avoided religious topics and closed up at the slightest hint of them.36

The Magic of America reveals the extraordinary impact of Theosophical ideas and concepts on the Griffins, particularly Marion. With regard to their early activities in Chicago it appears that much the same could be said of them as Michel Seuphor says of Mondrian. Their collegues in the Chicago School were equally secretive but it is now clear that Louis Sullivan’s concept of transcendental ornament was influenced by the theories of the eighteenth century Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, and both John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham belonged to the Swedenborgian church.37 Claude Bragdon was a member of the Theosophical Society and his book The Beautiful Necessity: Architecture as Frozen Music; Seven Essays on Theosophy and Architecture (first published in 1910) sought to revive the Pythagorean principles of number, proportion and geometry or sacred geometry in modern architecture.These essays were available to the Griffins at the time of the preparation of the Canberra plan. 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 directed and controlled all aspects of life in the ancient world. The work of Sir Norman Lockyer and his associates on the megalithic monuments of ancient Britain and the Greek and Egyptian temples, in many ways provided Theosophists with the physical evidence for the existence of a canon which regulated the universal culture thought to have emanated from Atlantis, the lost city postulated by the archaeologist, Schliemann, and others.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Theosophy had become a strong cultural force that was felt in many aspects of life. In An Art of our Own : the Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. Robert Lipsey writes that Theosophy was closely linked to the art world generating ‘. . . a visual language that was to enter the mainstream of twentieth century art – the abstract image – the Thought Form – perception of the etheric realm! It was a new school of thought towards which artists and seekers could look for a new and radically different description of the world. Lipsey notes that Theosophy was powerful enough to point artists towards a new inwardness and the possibility of translating that inwardness into visible form . . .. An informed poetry of the cosmos is needed no less than an informed science, and Theosophy gave some the courage to seek it.39

These passages give an indication of the operative forces which conditioned the circumstances under which the plan for Canberra was produced. The Griffins were at the core of a dynamic movement which deeply affected all the practitioners in Steinway Hall, Chicago. Thought Forms by Besant and Leadbeater immediately resonated with esoteric writings in both Eastern and Western cultures.40 While many of the professionals may not have been active members of the Theosophical Society they were what Robert Welsh describes as small “t” theosophists whose work reflected a casual but serious aquaintance with the literature. Marion and Walter did not write of any official connection with the movement before or during their sojourn in Canberra but the Magic of America, whilst compiled well after the period, clearly displays their early leanings towards the new religion. The Griffins became members of the Anthmposophy Society, led by Rudolf Steiner, after leaving Canberra in 1920.

Claude Bragdon’s book, The Beautiful Necessity, was the most influential and popular source of inspiration to architects, many of whom became important contributors to the ‘organic’ movement in architecture. He describes the importance of the Vesica, the first
symbol of Christianity and the basis of the Canberra geometry, to the mediaeval masons who determined the planning and proportions from it, and he writes that the geometric forms generated from the Vesica were also given certain symbolic interpretations by the ancients.

Bragdon’s summaries were consistent with the theosophical concepts propounded by Helena Blavatsky. The rhombus, consisting of two equilateral triangles represents the world above and the world below, or, in alchemical terms, the male and female principles of creation, the two brought together creating universal harmony. The square, triangle and circle are the most significant for ‘. . . the circle is the symbol of the universe; the equilateral triangle of the higher Trinity (Atma, Buddhi, Manas), and the square, of the lower quaternary of man’s sevenfold nature!41 The influence of Claude Bragdon’s work at the time of the development of the design for Canberra is revealed by Marion in the Magic of America.

The vegetable kingdom transfers the spirit to matter, mathematics to life, the ether shapes the leaves from circular to triangular. Australia’s archangel was the greatest of artists playing with forms. Griffin emulated him in playing with forms.
Spirits conceived life in the triangle and the sphere. Goethe sensed this.42

Bragdon calls for a new architecture for the modem world:-

It is not unreasonable to believe that the movement towards mysticism, of which modem theosophy is a phase and the spiritualisation of science an episode, will flower out into an
architecture which will be in some sort a reincarnation of and a return to the Gothic spirit, employing new materials, new methods and developing new forms to show forth the spirit of the modem world without violating ancient verities.4~

The Canberra plan, with its clear references to ancient geomantic models such as Stonehenge, the Salisbury Plain triangularity, the long axial arrangements of monuments in the landscape, together with the symbolic implications of the geometry, answer Bragdon’s call both in the architecture of the Capitol and the Government Group and in the heroic scale of the land planning. The geometry of Canberra, arising from the Vesica, and the axiality, both of which are clearly derived from sacred and divine traditions express, in symbolic terms, Marion and Walter’s personal cosmogony. It represents, moreover, an order for creativity and success in the modem world. Walter writes in the Magic of America that -

When I was a boy I consulted Herbert Spencer’s philosophy for enlightenment, and found architecture considered virtually as an ecclesiastical appendage; the notion seems a preposterous limitation and I feel sure that my reaction represents the typical modem
attitude towards this art. Just so. But after studying the buildings and noting with an astonishment the absence of creative architecture in the Western world for half a millenium, in fact since Mediaeval times, the force of Spencer’s observations became striking, if not conclusive. More over in the face of the world wide testimony of the stones that the religious structures have been the only ones to make a lasting contribution to the art of architecture, it is meet to give pause as to which architecture is when considered a living growing thing, not a graveyard . . .

For the beginnings of a fresh life we have to go from the mass opinions to those of the few pioneers who have for about a century now been exploring the complexities of the human mind and soul and the conditions for a full rounded healthy working. From these
students a practical religion may be forthcoming compatible with modem objective science but taking into account, without prop of external agencies, our vaster subjective activities, desires and needs. Then again will the imagination and the creative powers of
mankind be unbound and free for an architecture as far transcendent of historical efforts as is the science of construction and our economic power.44

Note. This paper is the part result of a grant by the Australian Research Council to the author for 1990-97. Deborah van der Pluat was anointed Research Assistant in 1990. Her special contribution was in the area of crystal imagery and iconographical analysis of the original Canberra drawings.

Mohandas Gandhi

“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.”