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Overview of this Section

In 1912 the brilliant young Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin, unexpectedly won the international competition to design Canberra, the capital of Australia which was a new nation created just eleven years previously by amalgamating the six separate British colonies on the continent.  He soon moved to Australia to supervise Canberra's construction but became increasingly frustrated by political and bureaucratic interference.  By 1920 he had cut all links with his new city.

He then formed a property development company to establish his “ideal suburb”, Castlecrag, which was situated on a beautiful natural peninsula jutting into an arm of Sydney Harbour.  During the next thirteen years he designed over 50 extraordinary houses for this new community.  Unfortunately, only 15 were built.  The grandest and most elaborate was his 1929 Fishwick house, now carefully restored. 

Most Australians would know the name Walter Burley Griffin because of his association with Canberra.  But few of them, and just a handful of people in other countries, would know the extent and nature of his architectural work in America, Australia and India, let alone the growing respect in which he is held by professional and academic architects.

 

This section of the website is intended to introduce Griffin and his immensely talented architect wife, Marion Mahony Griffin and outline the design, landscaping and community-building concepts underpinning their establishment of Castlecrag.  it also introduces the unique qualities of the Fishwick house which have led it to become his most prominent, significant and celebrated Australian residential building which holds a special place in the evolution of modern architecture in Australia.

 

This introduction also directs those who want to learn more about the Griffins, Canberra and Castlecrag to relevant sections of the site.  Highly-detailed information which is suitable for specialist researchers and students is generally presented in attached .pdf files which are listed at the top of each of the site's eight sections.  Other supporting information is provided through footnotes at the end of each section.  Links  to other recomended sources are also included.

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The house sits at the top of its block which drops through five terrace levels to the neighbouring bushland reserve system.

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The Griffins

Through winning the international Canberra design competition while still in his mid-thirties, Griffin suddenly became the most prominent member of the radical group of architects from the American Midwest, now known as the Prairie School, which strongly influenced the evolution of modern architecture around the world.

Both Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, the first female registered US architect, had worked influentially in the Oak Park studio of the now famous Frank Lloyd Wright. [1]   Early in his career Griffin had been influenced by Wright but soon set up his own practice in Chicago. He met with considerable success both in residential and town planning assignments.  Importantly, this independence gave him the opportunity to develop his own ideas about what constitutes good architecture.

  

After winning the Canberra competition, his reputation spread widely with his remarkable achievement being lauded widely in the leading newspapers across the country.  He was soon in great demand as a speaker at meetings of professional groups across North America and in Europe.  Soon after he was asked to become the inaugural professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, but declined this honour.

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The Griffins

The Griffins in Castlecrag in 1930, the year the Fishwick house was completed.


Griffin had a broader range of interests than most of his colleagues, seeing himself as a creator of entire communities incorporating clusters of houses within carefully planned landscapes.  In all of these domains he developed, wrote extensively about and promoted his architectural philosophies to which he held firmly throughout his 38-year career.  However, despite jeopardising his promising American practice, he and Marion moved to Australia in 1913, having decided that it was essential that they should be on site to direct the formative stages of the development of their new city.  As it happened, unexpected events led him to spend most of the remainder of his professional life in Australia.

A succession of unfortunate setbacks such as the outbreak of World War I, the onset of the Great Depression, conflict with reactionary politicians and bureaucrats and the conservatism of the Australian society at that time all contributed to a reversal of his fortunes.  He then pursued what appeared to be fresh opportunities in India where he once again began to make progress professionally.  However, following an accident he died there in 1937.  After World War II, interest in the Griffins and respect for their works had almost completely disappeared.

Recently however, interest in Griffin has revived significantly in both America and Australia, largely because his ideas are as relevant today as they were a century ago, especially for emerging architects seeking a solid philosophic grounding for their work.  Similarly, Marion’s creative and artistic skills, especially in architectural rendering, are now being increasingly recognised along with the important part she played in Walter’s success.  For more on Griffin’s ideas, their importance and the way they are clearly manifest in the Fishwick house, see the Prominence & Significance section.

For further general information about this fascinating couple open .pdf The Professional Lives of the Griffins. Also,see the Books & Media section for recommended reading on their lives and works in America, Australia and India.  In particular, listed there are some twenty books and other media which prominently feature the house as well as sources of information on Canberra - now a thriving city with some 400,000 residents.

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Castlecrag

As well as working to direct Canberra’s development, Griffin established a successful architectural practice in Melbourne.  However, the frustrations of Canberra caused him to compromise his principles to such a degree that by 1920 he had broken all ties to his emerging “garden city”.

He formed a property company which bought an entire undeveloped peninsula which jutted into part of Sydney Harbour in an area which was well-covered with natural wilderness and renowned for its primitive beauty.  On this he created his new suburb, Castlecrag.

 

To begin with, he designed and built a number of demonstration and speculative houses for his Melbourne-based investors, most of which were quite small.  Progressively, he was also commissioned to build seven houses for private clients, also mostly modest in scale.  An exception was the extordinary two-story house he designed and built for Thomas Fishwick, the local representative of a large British heavy machinery manufacturing company.

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The peninsula suburb of Castlecrag in Sydney’s Middle Harbour showing Griffin’s Castlecrag Estate.


Far from erecting as many buildings as possible on the estate in order to maximise shareholders’ returns, Griffin had a very much more expansive vision, as described by David Van Zanten, the leading American expert on Chicago’s Prairie School:

“Walter Burley Griffin described himself as a ground planner rather than an architect...to him single buildings were only part of a larger design environment...His conceptions embraced sociology, economics, technology and town planning as well as aesthetics...Taking all these factors into account, he sought to create simple rational design solutions.” [2]

Castlecrag’s road plan, building blocks, public reserves, community facilities and house designs were all developed following Griffin's firmly held and comprehensive vision.  The buildings were planned to respect the natural environment, be in harmony with their landscape and built to be in sympathy with neighbours’ interests.  For more on this open .pdf Griffin's Ideas & Principles

In all, Griffin designed over 50 Castlecrag houses of which just 15 were built and 13 remain. Each was unique, being based on fresh thinking about the site and the owners’ needs; faddish trends and architectural “styles” played no part in their designs.  Where possible, an “organic” approach applied: local materials were used and structures were subordinated to their natural surroundings.  For more on the suburb and its development open .pdf The Griffins’ Castlecrag Legacy. [3]

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The Fishwick House

Following its careful restoration in the mid-1990s, the Fishwick house has emerged as one of the most prominent, significant and celebrated of Griffin's buildings.  In Australia the house is formally listed for preservation by all the country's authoritative heritage and architectural bodies and protected by the relevant national, state and local agencies of government.  In addition to its obvious connection to the designer of the country's capital city, such bodies regard it as emblematic of a pivotal period when architecture was moving away from adherence to European and traditional styles and beginning to find an Australian voice in the modern era.

 

Somewhat belatedly, Griffin's place as the country’s pioneer modern architect is becoming more widely recognised.  This is because his fresh thinking, creativity and use of new techniques and materials are manifestations of his introduction of modern architecture to Australia.

 

The Fishwick house is an excellent example of his residential work, being the local house which most vividly demonstrates his design principles and his powers of innovation and creativity.  Recently the house has played a new role in this: as an excellent showcase for Griffin’s skills and ideas, it has emerged as the prime vehicle by which these are introduced the general public.     

 

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The house in 1965.  One of seven striking images of it by Max Dupain, Australia's most famous photographer. 

From about the mid-1990s, architectural historians began researching the Griffins' place in early 20th century architecture more broadly.  Interest in their lives and works has also become more widespread amongst the general public with the release of internationally distributed books and documentaries and the establishment of Griffin societies in Australia and the US.  Following these initiatives, the Fishwick house has been described by authorities as having international significance and in the top rank of houses designed in the first half of the 20th century.  For more information about the house's important place in the development of modern architecture, see the Prominence and Significance section.  

The house, built from sandstone blocks quarried locally, is on a steeply-sloped, elevated site with expansive views across bushland to a picturesque, quiet arm of Sydney's harbour and the distant Pacific Ocean.  Its structure is remarkable.  Its section fronting the road has been sunk almost two metres into the natural sandstone.  Its central section sits on a stone platform the shape of which appears to have influenced the footprint of the house’s overall plan - especially its prominent semi-circular element.  Its rear section drops over a small escarpment to foundations on the lower terrace level.  Undisturbed segments of bedrock are embodied in its structure so that it is literally part of its landscape.  Internally, Griffin’s creativity is clearly manifest; the house incorporates some 40 design elements which would at the time have been considered “ultra-modern”.  The Architecture & Design section provides details of the building, its interior and its grounds.  To see Griffin’s design in detail open .pdf Original Griffin Plans and .pdf Original Griffin Elevations.

 

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An architectural elevation shows that at street level the house was sunk deeply into the natural sandstone. The building then crosses a rock platform before dropping to the terrace below.

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The house's walls are of locally quarried sandstone blocks while in some sections undisturbed stone forms an integral part of its foundations and walls.


The condition of the Fishwick house progressively deteriorated over some 40 years.  However, unlike most other Griffin houses its structure was basically unaltered, its fabric was generally sound and it retained most of its original fittings, hardware, ceramics and decorative glass.  It was therefore considered a very good subject for a mid-1990s restoration under the supervision of a heritage architect.  This generated a great deal of interest in the house particularly amongst academic and professional architects and those interested in town planning, design and the development of the modern Australian home.  The 
Restoration section outlines the approach taken in restoring the building, interiors, gardens and surrounding bushland.

Now standing for approaching 90 years, the house has had only three owners although it was rented for many years.  It has been remarkably "closely held": there has been a social connection between each set of successive permanent residents.  For more on its occupants open .pdf Social History of the House and .pdf Thomas Fishwick's Puzzling Investment.

Because of its history, heritage significance, unusual design and striking interiors the house has attracted many tours by heritage groups and visits by academics, professionals and students.  It has also occasionally been opened for public viewing, attracting large crowds.  Visitors are generally provided with an information sheet which includes room descriptions and plans.  To see this open .pdf Tour Group Handout.  

One of the highlights of this site, and perhaps its most unusual feature, is its images section which is organised around the creative individuals involved, twenty one in number, rather than their subject matter.  Following its restoration, the house has been featured in many books, journals and general media articles as well as documentaries and exhibitions.  Consequently, many professional and specialised photographers, cinematographers and Australia's leading architectural artist have created images of the house and its landscape.  See the Images of House section to view examples of the work produced by these creative people, including Australia’s most famous photographer, Max Dupain.  The variety of approaches they have adopted in responding to the same subject is remarkable.

The websites of both the Australian and American Walter Burley Griffin societies are excellent sources of additional information.  For access to these and other relevant sites see the Links section. 

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Footnotes in this Section 

1. Marion Mahony worked professionally in the Oak Park, Illinois office of Frank Lloyd Wright for 14 years. Walter also worked there briefly in 1902 before setting up his own practice. They were married in 1911, the year before their jointly developed submission won the international competition to design Australia’s new national capital, Canberra.

2. "Walter Burley Griffin: selected designs" David van Zanten 1970. p8

3. For details of Griffin’s Sydney houses, including a comprehensive essay on the Fishwick house, see “Visionaries in Suburbia” Watson (Ed) 2015.

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