Did you know that Walter Burley Griffin (who designed Canberra) also designed the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag? I’m embarrassed to say that this was news to me, although as a migrant, perhaps I am forgiven. So, Castlecrag is my destination today in the hope of finding some architectural treasures designed by Walter Burley Griffin.
Neatly dressed students from North Sydney Boys High School stand aside, allowing other passengers to board the bus before them. Although some seem too young to be high school students, their conversation about algebraic equations goes way above my head. They all call out “Thank you” as they alight from the bus. An impressive group of future leaders.
The Castlecrag Shopping Precinct
Castlecrag, a peninsula jutting into Sydney Harbour west of the Spit Bridge is nestled between Middle Cove and Northbridge. A line of cars edges forward slowly at the traffic lights eager to leave the suburb. Sitting on the sidewalk eating a late breakfast, I watch as impatient drivers in expensive cars run the red light and hoot when others are too slow.
Breakfast in Castlecrag
The other patrons of Four Saints and the adjacent Back and Forth include women in exercise gear, smartly dressed office workers grabbing a bite before going on to the office, and well-groomed dogs lying at the feet of their coffee drinking owners.
Two women stop to pat the Golden Retriever at the table next to mine. One says “he’s the most popular dog in Castlecrag”. There is community feel as people stop to chat. If nothing else, Burley Griffin has achieved his aim of developing a sense of community.
Walter Burley Griffin’s Vision
Walter Burley Griffin’s idea was to build following the contours of the land. He envisioned houses blending in with and respecting the natural environment and delivering views of the surrounding beauty. I am expecting lots of sandstone and flat roofs.
Burley Griffin Houses
The first two homes on my list do not disappoint. Both were designed by Burley Griffin, are built from sandstone and have flat roofs. As they are listed as having regional and state significance, the more recent alterations are sympathetic to the original plan.
Nearby an ‘island’ native garden is part of a Neighbourhood Bushland Regeneration Project. The sign with Q-codes and numbers located near the path in a garden bed refers to the Willoughby Council map I am following. The signage will make things easier.
Glenaeon Rudolph Steiner School
Over the road, the Glenaeon Rudolph Steiner School has strong heritage links with Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin and recognises the values they espoused.
There is so much to see that it’s impossible to describe everything. I slow down and look at the various homes and their unique features. One, a large Tudor style home behind a low sandstone columned wall has a rather incongruous terracotta flying dragon on the apex of a triangular gable. A white double storey home has an unusual sandstone entrance.
Felstead house, built with Burley Griffins patented “knitlock” system is another low-rise home that blends into the environment. The owners have managed to obscure the house from the road with clever native plantings and a large sandstone garage. The tourists and architecture students craning their necks to see the architectural features of their home must be quite annoying.
Down Sunnyside Crescent is a lookout across to Middle Cove. Houses nestle into the downward sloping land, blending into the environment. Further along Edinburgh Road another path branches off between houses. There, someone has made their own private space complete with chairs, milk crates for tables and even a board game.
Spring has sprung in Castlecrag. Flannel Flowers bloom as does the Kangaroo Paw and Christmas Bush. Across the way at Q-code number 9 I can just make out the privately-owned heritage listed mansion, Innesfallen Castle in Castle Cove.
Helpfully, a signpost points to Tower Reserve where a huge conglomeration of rock towers over surrounding houses. Around the corner a set of stairs leads up the “Tower” to a broad view of the harbour. I think that is Seaforth across the way, and beyond that, the sea.
The route continues to Fishwick House which has been described as “one of the finest houses in Castlecrag”. Perched on a rock, the sandstone features are quite something.
The Haven Amphitheatre
The Haven Amphitheatre is smaller than expected. Until not too long ago, This was the site of an open-air theatre and the venue for Christmas Carols. Now, the area is awaiting restoration. An information sheet pinned to a picnic table explains two possible options. Hopefully the project won’t take too long, and the community can restart the theatre program.
A young man walks down the stairs and looks around. He used to live nearby and says “Things have changed. There are less trees and the houses are different”. I leave him to reminisce.
Hoping to walk along the foreshore to Sailors Bay Park, I follow a path to the right of a private home and end up down at the water where the incoming tide laps the rocky foreshore. Yachts bob on the water and council workers repair a stone wall.
Castlecrag is a pleasant mix of bushwalking (the tree canopy provides welcome shade) and fascinating architecture but right now, I am struggling to find a way through the bush. A very young brush turkey, not much bigger or different in shape from a half size rugby ball lands in front of me from above. It stands stock still anxiously looking around. I walk on and then am startled by the predator that was hunting the chick. A large furry grey cat runs off, the bell around its neck tinkling.
The Glass House and more Griffin Houses
The path seems to have ended, and I return to the street and pass “The Glass House” designed by Bill Lucas. The glassed living area, while set back from the street, is nevertheless very exposed. I am not sure I could live here.
In The Barbette there are three more homes designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Like the home in Edinburgh Road, they are difficult to see hidden as they are behind tall garden plants and trees. One has a large orange “Asylum Seekers are Welcome” sign hanging at the driveway entrance.
Another “wow” moment greets me at number 3 The Bastion. The curved castle like appearance all in sandstone is impressive. It has recently sold and I notice packed boxes piled up through the open front door. A grey cat weaves itself between my legs purring as I write up some notes.
Further up the road, the Guy House at number 23, is completely different with its almost box like shape and detailed window frames. Both these homes are also Griffin Houses.
A grey haired woman wearing long navy shorts and a white T-shirt sees me looking at the sign to Lookout Reserve which I have now walked past four times because I am not concentrating. “Nice day for a walk” she says. When I reply “yes, but it is getting hot”, she asks if I want a drink or something. How thoughtful of her.
The Paperbark Tree in Lookout Reserve was planted by Marion Mahony Griffin. Does that make it nearly 100 years old?
There is a walking track between houses from The Lookout Reserve to the next street on my list. Tracks such as these were part of Burley Griffin’s design for Castlecrag. They facilitate walking to the shops and transport and further promote a sense of community. The path takes me past not particularly private backyards. But then perhaps not too many non- residents like me even know about these tracks.
Numbers four, eight, twelve and fourteen on The Parapet are the last Walter Burley Griffin houses on my list. I am seeing them in reverse order. Again, not all are easy to see, which after all was Burley Griffin’s intention. That the homes in Castlecrag should blend into the environment.
My walk through Castlecrag is pretty much over. All that remains is to return to Edinburgh Road to the shopping precinct for a late salad lunch, this time at Back and Forth before catching the bus and train home.
Summing up a Castlecrag Discovery
Exploring Castlecrag has shown me a suburb that has been carefully designed to promote community and lessen the environmental impact. I discovered a whole new style of architecture and added to my knowledge of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.