Walter Burley Griffin

This article is taken from the long-running series published in Progress Journal, Geoists in History by Karl William

Walter Burley Griffin (1876 – 1937)

“Behind every radical movement you will find Single Taxers. Woodrow Wilson is surrounded by them.”

One of America’s greatest architects, in 1912 Griffin won an international competition for the design of Canberra. His original design was set aside but Griffin was invited to Melbourne in 1913 and there became director of construction of Canberra.

Various disputes led to a royal commission which, in 1917, found in favour of Griffin. He remained as director until the end of 1920 but refused to serve on the committee which superseded him – although his final grandiose and geometric plan was adopted officially in 1925. He then went into private practice in Australia, designing Newman College and the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne and the radical Castelcrag estate in north Sydney, which embodied a number of his Geoist principles.

At the early age of 14, Griffin had first read Henry George’s “Social Problems” and received a lasting impression, and soon after read “Protection or Free Trade”. His acquaintance at college with the hopeless jumble of contradictions which does duty as orthodox Political Economy only made him more firmly convinced of the truth of George’s teachings and, on leaving college, he began to take an active part in their propagation. By his own claim, he always talked Single Tax to those whom he met.

The Geoist perspective gave Griffin a new and wider conception of public or social property, as distinct from what individuals may justly claim, bringing with it a new correlation of individual and social duties. The recognition of these social obligations gave rise to the Garden City and Town-planning movement, which Griffin made his special study. It aimed at the provision of fresh air and sunlight, of comfortable homes amid healthy surroundings, of playgrounds and ample spaces for recreation, so that city dwellers may acquire some of the advantages of a country life, and so that city children may never after be permitted to grow weedy, stunted and deformed.

Griffin keenly perceived the great extent to which the “evil” (as they were called) conditions were (and are) due to unjust taxes and equally unfair exemptions. Griffin knew how this is the root cause which hampers production and enslaves the workers. He proclaimed how taxation on just lines is the weapon to combat these conditions, and to bring about a new social order of health, happiness, peace and prosperity.

He found encouragement in the fact that Canberra, in which he aimed to embody his architectural ideas, began to carry out his ideas of public morality by taking as the source of its municipal revenue the value which the land derives from the public expenditure and social progress of the people of this Commonwealth.

It was largely due to his influence upon the federal Ministry that the future values of the land of the A.C.T. were set up to be retained for the people (later thrown away in a pork-barreling exercise by P.M. Gorton). The land was originally not sold, but let on a 99-year lease. The land rent was set up to be re-appraised after twenty years, and thereafter every ten years.

Griffin designed a Hall and Club Building for the Henry George movement in Melbourne, and was one of the founders of the Henry George Club, an entity set up to provide a permanent home for the Georgist movement in Melbourne.

In his address to Melbourne’s Henry George Commemoration dinner on September 18, 1915: “We, Single Taxers, have been trying for years to follow that line [of radical Geoist freedom], and Henry George has given us our text to carry forward and gives the principle general application. When asked if he claimed the Single Tax to a panacea for all social ills, he said, ‘No: but Freedom is: and the Single Tax will make freedom possible. It is the only ideal that counts, and it would be better to sacrifice everything rather than Freedom’. As Single Taxers and optimists we have the solution to the great problems of this time.”

In a letter to the Minister of Home Affairs in September 1912, he wrote:

“Without being familiar with political affairs in Australia, I cannot refrain from extending congratulations to your Government on the stand it has taken to maintain for the Commonwealth in perpetuity the rental value of the capital site. Failure to do this everywhere is largely responsible for distortion and prevention of natural city growth, nowhere better exemplified than in our own capital, Washington, where speculative holdings perverted the development from a splendid start with far-seeing plan, and where the financial benefits of the nation’s backing are now accruing to private individuals.”