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Overview of this Section

In 1912 the brilliant young Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin, won the international competition to design Canberra, the capital of the new nation Australia which had been formed just eleven years before.  He later established his “ideal suburb” Castlecrag, situated on a Sydney Harbour peninsula where he designed over 50 extraordinary houses.  Only 15 were built.

The grandest, most elaborate and now carefully restored is his 1929 Fishwick house, which was “ultra modern” and shockingly radical for its time. It is:

  • Widely acclaimed as one of the most important early 20th century residential buildings in Australia.
  • Recognised as highly significant and in the top rank of houses designed worldwide in that period.
  • A prime residential expression of Griffin’s brilliance. A vivid demonstration of his ideas about what constitutes “good architecture” - principles which are increasingly being recognised as having great relevance to this day.
  • A showcase for Griffin’s fresh thinking, creativity and use of new techniques and materials, manifesting his introduction of modern architecture to Australia.


For more information about the high regard in which the house is held by architectural authorities and heritage specialists and its important place in the development of modern architecture, see the 
Prominence and Significance section. 
 

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 is intended to introduce Griffin and his most celebrated Australian house and to guide people who want to learn more to relevant sections of this web site and to other sources.  Highly-detailed information which is suitable for specialist researchers and students is generally presented in attached .pdf files. 

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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 had suddenly become 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, one of the first female architects, 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 with considerable success in the Midwest.  After winning the Canberra competition, his reputation spread widely and his remarkable achievement was lauded by the American press.  He was in great demand as a speaker at meetings of professional groups both there and in Europe.  Soon after he was asked to become the inaugural professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, but declined this honour. 20pixels

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 towns, communities, groups of houses and their landscapes.  In all of these domains he developed, wrote about and promoted his architectural philosophies to which he held firm throughout his 38 year career.  However, in spite of his American success, 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.  In the event, he spent most of the remainder of his professional life in Australia.

A succession of unfortunate events and setbacks such as the outbreak of World War I, the onset of the Great Depression, conflict with reactionary politicians and bureucrats and the conservatism of the Australian society at that time all contributed to a reversal of his fortunes; he died in India in 1937. The Griffins soon slipped into obscurity.

Recently however, interest in Griffin has revived significantly in both America and Australia, largely because his ideas are as relevant today as a century ago, especially for emerging professionals seeking a solid philosophic grounding for their work.  Similarly, Marion’s important role in Walter’s success is now being increasingly recognised along with her creative and artistic skills, especially in architectural rendering.  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 as well as sources of information on Canberra - now a thriving city with some 400,000 residents.  In particular, listed there are some twenty books and other media which prominently feature the house 

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Castlecrag

As well as working to direct Canberra’s development, Griffin established a successful architectural practice in Melbourne.  However, the setbacks mentioned above 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 undeveloped peninsula jutting into part of Sydney Harbour, an area still well-covered with natural wilderness and renowned for its primitive beauty.  On this he created a new suburb, Castlecrag, for which he designed and built a number of both demonstration and speculative houses for his Melbourne-based investors and seven houses for private clients, including that for Thomas Fishwick.

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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 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, to be in harmony with their landscape and 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

Recently, for a number of reasons, the Fishwick house has emerged as one of the most celebrated of Griffin's buildings.  Being an excellent example of his residential architecture, it is the Australian house which most vividly demonstrates his design principles and his powers of innovation and creativity.  Recently it has played a new role in this: it has emerged as the prime vehicle by which his skills are introduced both to professionals and the general public.  It has also emerged as a very important early 20th century house.  Formally listed for preservation by all authoritative Australian heritage bodies, including the national and state governments, it is seen as emblematic of a pivotal period when architecture was moving away from adherence to European and traditional styles into the “modern” era.  Somewhat belatedly, Griffin has been widely regarded as  the country’s pioneer modern architect with his Fishwick house amongst its earliest truly modern houses.  The Prominence & Significance section describes the importance of the house, including the opinions of many experts and heritage authorities.

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The house in 1965.  One of seven pictures of it by Max Dupain, the most famous Australian photographer. 

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.  The section which faces the road is sunk into the natural sandstone, its central section sits on a stone platform the shape of which probably influenced the footprint of the house’s plan, and 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; it 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 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 which in some sections becomes an integral part of its foundations.


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.  Remarkably, there has been a social connection between all its 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.  

Following its restoration, the house has been featured in many books, journals and general media articles as well as some 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 twenty of these creative people, including Australia’s most famous photographer, Max Dupain.  The remarkable variety of approaches they have adopted in responding to the same subject is certainly one of the highlights of this website.

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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