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legacy of the Griffins at Castlecrag, Sydney

Walker, M. Kabos, A. Weireck, J. Building for Nature: Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag 1994

The legacy of the Griffins at Castlecrag is a legacy of ideas. Ideas about the relationships between buildings, landscape and people, in the Australian suburb, and about community life. It is also a legacy of dedication and wholehearted commitment to ideas.

Many of the people in Castlecrag are attracted to the broad notions, if not the fine detail, of the Griffins' ideas and achievements. They are interested in the integration of residential areas into the natural landscape, and in the concept of an active community. Living in Castlecrag, experiencing the place and its buildings, provides opportunities for contemplating the Griffins' vision for the area, and for reconciling the myths of Australian suburban life with reality.

Architectural historians have credited Walter Burley Griffin with a major influence on Australian architecture. But the houses at Castlecrag have been more important to architects as a source of inspiration to re-examine their approach to design in suburban bushland areas, than as a source for plan arrangements or the overall form and character of houses. More obviously, the use of stone and decorative details – especially the windows – have been a source of inspiration for details in other houses, as have the fireplaces.

In the analysis of the Griffins' work there has been much discussion about its relationship with the mainstream development of architectural style. While their architectural roots sprang from the same nineteenth century concerns as modernism, their consistent use of ornament made their work recognisably different from the mainstream of Australian architecture.

Griffin believed that architects should think things through a-new and learn by doing. In applying this to his own practice, Walter Burley Griffin dismissed knowledge (on some building regulations) as habit. He invented new details for old problems, but he did not appear to follow through in learning the limitations of his innovative details.

Judged by this criterion, the Griffins' work at Castlecrag was both a success and a failure. A success in that new ideas were demonstrated and a strong community created; a failure in that some aspects were not thoroughly considered, or rather, the lessons were not quickly apparent, or there was little opportunity to apply solutions – about drainage, about building on rocky terrain, about roofs. There are several explanations. In the folklore of Castlecrag, Walter Griffin is depicted as a person interested in new problems and issues, keen to get on with the adventure, rather than re-visit unsolved problems. His approach may have blinded him to the good sense of some Australian practices, such as the verandah. The use of flat roofs, without eaves or hoods to doors and windows suggests an unfamiliarity with the Sydney climate.

Knitlock was a major achievement of Walter Burley Griffin. It was a technique for building houses quickly and cheaply. For many decades this century, architects and administrators sought techniques for building houses in large numbers for the low cost market. Housing authorities in Australia experimented with building systems that were cheap, suitable for public housing, but that might also have appeal to the private market.

In some ways these might be considered a continuation of the timber 'kit homes' that were available from the large timber merchants, such as Hudson and Goodlet and Smith, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But the prefabricated house, in materials other than timber, never became popular; it remained in the public housing domain. Although knitlock, used in flat roof construction, clearly had its limitations, the houses in Castlecrag suggest an un-fulfilled promise. The four foot (1.2 m) module on which construction was based, produced an unmistakable coherence to the form of the house, well recognised and appreciated by their owners.

Just how relevant is the Griffins' legacy today? How pertinent is it to the people of Castlecrag and the occupants of the Griffin houses?

The legacy of the Griffins at Castlecrag is not only the physical evidence of the subdivisions and the houses, but the architectural and planning principles embodied in the estates. The notion of fitting in with the environment is part of the jargon of modern development but is more accepted in words than in deeds. Form follows landscape, as well as form follows function.

Of equal significance is the Griffins' wholistic commitment to the development of community life, an interest that continues in Castlecrag today. The Griffins were unusual individuals and an unusual couple. They used the house as a base for work and community, not a refuge for family life. Their own needs and preference were for a very simple, functional house, and they may not have understood the developing place of the home in the Australian psyche. A place that has made the Griffin houses at Castlecrag an anachronism in harbourside housing, because of their small scale. This has caused conflict between conservation and development, and conflict within the community.

The large number of architect designed houses in Castlecrag is a reflection of the Griffin association, but not of the Griffin principles. Few architects and designers have sought to re-apply the principles. They have not accepted the challenge. Dominant fashions and conventions have prevailed, and continue to do so.

The extent of changes to Griffin houses suggests that the continued compromise of original features in order to accommodate the wishes of owners should be resisted, otherwise the houses and their significance will not be retained. The conservation of the Griffin estates and the Griffin houses should be a major priority for the Willoughby City Council and also the Heritage Council of New South Wales.

The issues and ideas that prompted the development at Castlecrag are enduring questions for Australians. In the planning of new estates many developers may be motivated (as was Griffin) to use land efficiently, but few are successfully building for nature.

To keep the Griffin legacy will require dedication and a greater appreciation of the vision of the Griffins. It will require caution, and some self sacrifice when making changes and building new houses. It will require love and respect for the landscape, and the houses and community life that the Griffins established and fostered.

Reproduced with the permission of the Walter Burley Griffin Society Inc.

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