It’s May, 2020, several weeks into the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m struggling in my efforts to write about Marion, even though I have a deep conviction that it’s something I must do. This is partly because I don’t know anything about architecture and partly because I don’t know much about her. Most of what I do know is derived from her memoir, the Magic of America, a 1400-page behemoth full of images, letters, poetry, and long diatribes about government and bureaucracy.
So far, I do know this: She was frustrated that people did not share her view of the world, a struggle echoed in structure of the memoir, which is divided into four separate “Battles”. She hated the Australian bureaucracy, thought the people were uneducated and short-sighted and didn’t appreciate beauty. She was pushy, opinionated and dogmatic, a lifelong teetotaler and vegetarian. She did not suffer fools. She commanded respect and made strong, lasting friendships (e.g. Miles Franklin, Vida Goldstein, Anna Ickes).
Marion was unashamedly herself. In a world where women were supposed to be wives and mothers and defer to men, she didn’t properly fill any of those roles. She didn’t wear the right clothes, she didn’t say the right things, she didn’t have children, she didn’t like to cook or keep house. Her relationship to Walter in some respects seemed more like that of a colleague, a PA, or a PR manager than a wife. She had enormous faith in education as the solution to all the ills of humanity. And not education as in schooling, but education as a way of teaching people to think, to connect to nature, to trust in their own artistic and creative instincts. She had such faith in creativity as the solution to the world’s problems. She had such faith in Beauty. She was an idealist.
In that sense, we have an affinity, the two of us: We’re both idealistic misfits. I can’t get it right either, filling the role that society thinks I should as a mother, wife, and woman. I get so frustrated by indifference to nature and beauty, tolerance of injustice, celebration of excess and the superficial, and our collective inability to challenge and change the status quo. I often feel like I was born in the wrong century. Finding Marion has been a balm to me, a revelation, a relief. Her struggles and passions resonate with me, as does her process of working through them into the realization that in the moment, what matters is not the fact of our particular existence but our connection to everything else.
Humans always have been keen to celebrate success, and up to now the definition of who gets to bear that label has been largely limited to a certain demographic. But things are finally changing, and I think this explains why we get so excited now about finding unsung people like Marion. We can affix the appropriate labels at long last. We can call attention to and celebrate them, and bemoan the fact that they were overlooked during their lifetimes.
But I also think that we have to be careful as we look through the lens of history. Let’s not just transplant her into the soil of the 21st century and see what happens.
The way I see it, pretty much everything about the time in which we live is focused on attention. The VERY last thing you want to be in our world today is an ordinary person. That’s the kiss of existential death. If you haven’t done extraordinary things, been successful, ticked off your bucket list, if you haven’t gotten heaps of attention for what you have created and produced and directed and managed, the money you have made, the property you have accumulated, the likes and retweets and page views, then what has your life meant? The metric we have grown up with, like it or not, is that attention plus money equals success. So it makes perfect sense for us to resurrect the heroines of the past and feel outraged that no one compensated or paid any attention to them, or — worse — that a man took credit for it all. We can imagine no worse fate than a lack of attention, because that (and the money it brings) is what we value above all else. LOTS OF ATTENTION. (Are you paying attention?)
Marion most likely didn’t get proper credit for all the work she did. A few laudable efforts have been made to set the record straight. But I’m a little troubled by something. The “record” — the Magic of America — has been there all along. And the story it tells is this: what mattered to Marion at the time — the only thing that mattered — was that the work she did with Walter got out there. That ugliness and convention was kept at bay just a little longer. That the beautiful and the harmonious, right alongside the ordinary and the useful, were simultaneously made ascendent. That the buildings were constructed, the plays produced, and the ideas were debated and considered. She wanted the world to be a better place. She wanted a world in which the architecture, the education, the every day lives of people reflected the very best of human ability and ideology. She and Walter dreamed of the perfect democracy, where people lived in a perfect utopian balance of freedom and civic responsibility. It wasn’t about them. Neither she nor Walter had outsized egos. They didn’t bother hobnobbing with the rich and famous. They never even built themselves more than a one-room dollhouse. They were down-to-earth and simple, broke most of the time, valuing intellect over money, ideals over expediency. There was nothing she loved more than teaching children how to unleash their innate creativity. That was the ultimate contribution. Not the architecture, not the drawings, not the legacy. The children.
She did the work, shared in the creation, but she didn’t, anywhere that I can see, fret that Walter claimed all the attribution – as long as it wasn’t Frank Lloyd Wright, who she hated with a passion. I suspect this was largely pragmatic: She was smart enough to realize that in Australia in the 1920s, no one would pay good money for anything designed or managed by a woman, so it made sense for Walter to be the public face of their partnership. I imagine she would have welcomed attribution if it meant more commissions, but she had learned, from painful personal experience, that wasn’t the case.
She did care, and deeply, that their life’s work have meaning. I imagine her back in the US after Walter’s death. What had it all been for? A life spent chasing a dream with Walter, just to have it all sink into oblivion? Hence the compulsion to gather it all together, to shine it up, to pull it into a huge, expansive tome – the work of two lifetimes bound together in a work of struggle and battle. This was what she would leave to the world. On the surface of it, it is a tribute to Walter, the most incredible architect ever. But really, it’s not. Even the name — the Magic of America — has nothing to do with Walter. It’s about a dream. Two lives, devoted to the idea that the world could be a more beautiful, more harmonious, more spiritual place.
That is something so foreign to our way of thinking that it hardly even computes any more. So the scholars search in her work for figments and facts, trying to piece a life – those two lives – back together, to figure out who did what, who was the genius, who deserves the credit, what happened. Who should get the attention? They declare that her architectural efforts were simply the execution of Walter’s or Wright’s ideas, and lump the rest into office work and ”decorative” additions. The rest of her life, including the memoir, are dismissed as simply eccentric. These so-called scholars are incapable of reconciling the facts and details she so painstakingly documented with the writing in which she soars over their heads into a world of ideas, ethers, fairies, and forces that cannot be seen. They pick out the verifiable facts, like so many nits on a head of lice-ridden hair, and then give up on the rest of the tangled mess, uninterested in the mind beneath it all.
And then here I am, captivated, caught in the thick of it. For so long I found myself paralysed. I started out looking at it from our time’s “me too” mindset, thinking that people need to know about her, how amazing she was, what she did, how she didn’t get any credit, how she ran everything but how Walter is the one whose name is recognized and who has been canonized in the scholarly annals of architecture.
But as the months ticked by and the words didn’t flow, I gradually realized that I don’t think that’s what she would have wanted. I imagine her, looking at Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and feeling nauseated at all the attention-grabbing and self-aggrandizement. I wonder what she would think of all the architecture websites and instagram accounts, their owners busily inventing hashtags, totting up likes, trolling for good reviews with clients. The absurdity of the real estate market, in which advertisements tout such tautologies as “architect-designed” — as if most houses are just pieced together willy-nilly. The soulless housing developments, the boxy edifices and lifeless, gridded streetscapes. I think she would be in despair. Everything she and Walter believed in — the democracy of housing, of life, the importance of the natural world in the lives of ordinary people, the idea that everyone should be basically equally able to live well and be treated with justice – is no closer at hand than it ever was – and very likely even farther out of reach.
What would she think, then, of a book that fitted nicely into the mindset of this attention-polluted age, a book that focused solely on identifying and rectifying her individual achievement? A work that drew attention to the unfairness of how she has been treated by the historians?
First, I think she would be briefly flattered. She is only human. She would appreciate the recognition. Then she would shake her head. That kind of self-centered ego-worship is what she despised in Frank Lloyd Wright. She, of all people, knew that a building – or any piece of work, like a play – required many people, many levels of different expertise, in order to be realized. It is a collaboration. Each person brings their skill set to the table, and then, if you’re lucky, the thing gets built, the play comes off. So Walter was on stage. So she was in the wings. That’s the way it was. Architecture is still like that. Granted, now computers do a lot of the work that humans had to churn out by hand back then. My unprofessional hunch is that less raw artistic skill is actually needed, now, in architecture. But there’s still plenty of marketing, money management, project management, personnel management and networking. All of those were tasks that Marion shouldered. But she was uniquely gifted in her ability to take the idea of a building and translate it into a two-dimensional drawing that would capture the client’s imagination. She knew that. It won them the Canberra competition, after all. She knew that she was an indispensable part of the enterprise. She didn’t need everyone else to tell her that.
So what would she want me to write?
The answer is, I’m still not sure. The job is to stay true to her faiths and to who she was, to resist the lure of a simple linear recounting of her life as an underappreciated architect and partner to Walter. Now that I think about it, it’s the same thing that happened to her when she decided to write about Walter. The thing grew organically, unable to stay in bounds. Their achievements in architecture turned out to be like so many mushrooms, the occasional fruiting bodies of a vast underground organism of thought, conviction, passion and belief. How could you possibly write about one without the other?
It doesn’t matter that Marion and I are separated by a century or more. This is a joint project, and we will do it together in this house that she designed. It has to be a weaving together of everything that I am with what I have learned about her. We are partners. I have to trust her. She has to trust me. I am the actual physical person who is going to do this thing, at this moment in time, but the thing that will be born will be something that both of us have to say. We are, somehow, uniquely positioned, and uniquely combined, to take this moment and make something of it.