Overview of this Section

The Fishwick house is amongst the most important of the almost 200 buildings created by Walter Burley Griffin during his 37-year career in America, Australia and India.  It is held in the highest regard by academics and other specialists in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and design as well as by related professional associations and heritage authorities.  Further, since its mid 1990s restoration it has emerged as being amongst the foremost examples of his work, being featured in a large number of books, magazine articles, documentaries and other media addressed to the general public.

This section has four parts.  Initially, it illustrates the extent and variety of productions and events which have led experts such as the Walter Burley Griffin Society to classify it as “most celebrated”.  Examples described below include a very large, beautifully boxed, 830 page architectural reference book released internationally, a television documentary hosted by one of Australia's best-known media personalities, the standard textbook for the country's art and design students, images assembled by the more than 20 specialists who have produced photographic and art portfolios in the house and a variety of glossy coffee table books.

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Watercolour panel created in the style of Marion Mahony Griffin.

The second part of this section examines the reasons for this celebrity.  It is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon.  The house certainly had its critics and was ridiculed - a mortgage assessor even described it as “freakish”.  It was also in a very poor state of repair before its fortunes were reversed in the mid 1990s by the restoration of the house and its surrounding landscape.  This led to the increasing recognition of its importance beyond being simply a widely listed heritage building.  Three factors have contributed to this, all previously unexplored: the unparalleled extent to which the house demonstrates Griffin’s creativity, technical inventiveness and innovative architectural and design skills, its central place in the birth of modern architecture in Australia and its emergence as the prime conduit or vehicle in introducing Griffin’s ideas to a broad audience. 

A good measure of the importance of the house is the uniformity of favourable judgements on its qualities by experts such as academics, architectural historians, practicing architects and writers on architecture and design.  A selection of their opinions is included in the third part of this section.

The experts' opinions are underscored by the findings of formal heritage assessments, the most important of which are reviewed in the fourth part of this section.  The house has been listed by all authoritative heritage bodies in Australia, including the major heritage protection organs of all three levels of Government.  This makes it almost certainly the country's most widely listed early 20th century residential building. 


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4a2Famous Australian photographer Max Dupain's photograph of the house in the 1960s when it was generally considered of little importance.

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“Most Celebrated” 

There were some specialist authorities such as architectural historians and heritage experts who appreciated the qualities of the house even when it was in a poor state of repair.  For example, in 1994 the Walter Burley Griffin Society of Australia, formed several years earlier, said of it:


"The house is the most celebrated of the Griffin houses in Castlecrag, because it demonstrates the Griffin ideas applied for a client with the will, the means and the enthusiasm to implement them." [1]


The first book specifically on Castlecrag was published by the Walter Burley Griffin Society.  It showed the newly built house on the cover.

Since then, there has been a remarkable development in Australia of interest in the house, not only in academic, heritage and professional circles but also among those in the general public who appreciate modern architecture, good design and effective community development.  Following its mid 1990s restoration the house has been featured in 15 widely distributed books, four glossy magazine supplements, chosen as the setting for four TV and two radio documentaries, illustrated prominently in two major museum exhibitions and appeared in many journal, magazine and newspaper articles.  This interest has not just been confined to Australia.

Internationally, it was chosen to illustrate Griffin’s work in an authoritative, UK produced book on the world's best 20th century architecture, described below, and has been featured in a number of books published in the US and Germany on the Griffins' place in the history of architecture.  See the Books & Media section for details.  The following five examples have been selected to illustrate the variety and scope of this exposure:

 Architectural reference book.  Phaidon Press UK, one of the most respected international publishers of architecture and design books,  in 2012 released its authoritative reference work: 20th Century World Architecture.  Massive in size and having 830 pages, it comprehensively reviews “the finest built architecture from around the world in the 20th century, juxtaposing architectural icons with regional masterpieces”.  It describes and reviews 760 residences, apartments, commercial and industrial structures and public buildings from almost one hundred countries which are considered to be “of outstanding importance”.  The house is one of only 134 single residences included in the book, where it serves to introduce Griffin’s most important architectural concepts.  It is the only Australian house included which was built in the first half of the 20th century.  Also, the Fishwick house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie house are the only two presented which were designed by early 20th century Prairie School architects from the American Midwest. [2]
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4b2Phaidon Press’s reference book of "outstanding" 20th century world architecture devoted a full page to the house.

Television documentary.  The six-part TV documentary Building Australia was produced by the History Channel with assistance from the Australian National Trust and funded by Screen Australia’s National Documentary Programme.  The series was first screened on cable television and later on free-to-air channels by the ABC - the country's national broadcaster.  The presenter of the series was John Doyle, one of the country's best-known and popular media personalities.  It “uses the history of individual houses as a way to explore the architectural and social history of Australia”.  The Fishwick house was chosen to represent the period in the early 20th century when architecture was transitioning from being derivative of overseas styles or schools to become truly Australian.  The house exemplifies Griffin’s important role in introducing modern, fresh creative thinking and use of new technologies as well as his “visions for the Australian residential community”.  To view an extract from this series open .mp4 Video Clip from "Building Australia" [3] 10pixels wide

The History Channel produced a TV documentary on the evolution of residential architecture in Australia.  An entire segment was centred on the house.

• Educational Textbook.  For more than four decades, the standard Australian textbook for senior secondary art and design students has been the Handbook of Art.  Its chapter on Australian modernism introduces the concept of modern architecture specifically through describing the Griffins’ ideas and principles: “amongst the first of the modernists to work in Australia, they introduced to the country a new concept of modern living.  They believed that the landscape and architecture should be in harmony with each other”.  The book illustrates Griffin’s work with a photograph of the house which appears both in the text and on its cover. [4]  

4b4Australia's standard art and design textbook features the house.  It also appears on its cover along with other objects of no small prominence.

• Photography.  Twenty-one professional and specialist photographers, artists and cinematographers have worked in the house including Australia’s most famous photographer, Max Dupain.  They have assembled distinctive portfolios of its exterior, interior, native garden and surrounding landscape.  For brief outlines of each of their approaches to architectural photography and examples of their work in the house see the Images of House section.

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4b6The rear of the lounge's fireplace with its “window” which necessitated its having two flues.  Both of these Dupain images typify his austere, stark photographic style.

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4b5The front of the fireplace.  Dupain has caught its massive central structure and the harmony of its finely hand-shaped local sandstone blocks.


• Coffee table books.  As well as being included in many academic and educational books about the Griffins, the house has been extensively illustrated and described in some lavishly produced publications which were promoted to the general public.  For example, a book aimed at visitors to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Private Sydney, showed the interiors of thirteen of the city’s “outstanding houses” which it said were “truly inspiring and each chosen for its characteristic style”.   

The house was featured in two beautifully illustrated books on Australia’s gardens: Australian Gardens for a Changing Landscape and Garden Voices.  It was also prominent in a widely distributed colour magazine “100 Amazing Sydney Homes” produced by The Sydney Morning Herald, the city's premier newspaper. [5]

4b7The house has appeared in many coffee table publications.  This is one of a series, each set in a major world city.

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Reasons for Prominence

It is reasonable to ask how the Fishwick house has come to be in the forefront of Griffin's most notable buildings, especially since it does not always make a favourable impression on people who first see it from the street.  Its street front is certainly unusual; first-time viewers might describe it as strikingly different, intriguing or perhaps imposing, but they might also wonder how such a building could have come to generate such a level of attention.  There are three main factors which have prompted this: its capacity to demonstrate Griffin's technical inventiveness and creative skills, the important place it holds in the birth of modern architecture in Australia and its emergence as the conduit or vehicle by which Griffin’s ideas and principles are introduced to a non-specialised, broader audience. 

• Showplace for Griffin's inventiveness and creativity.  The house allows visitors to appreciate the virtually unaltered mature work of Australia’s first internationally acclaimed architect built not long before his untimely death.  Its extraordinary appearance, unusual and atmospheric interiors and the nature of its relationship with the landscape have made it a prime residential showplace for his innovative and creative talents.

The Fishwick commission gave Griffin one of his last opportunities to fully express his firmly-held ideas on what constitutes good architecture and landscaping.  He delivered a building with exceptional architectural qualities owing nothing to traditional styles.  Certainly in Australia it is the most forceful and dramatic demonstration of his commitment to organic architecture.  Its interiors reveal his mastery of space, light, colour and atmospheric nuance and are packed full of highly unusual and intriguing design ideas.  As the pre-eminent Griffin expert Professor James Weirick noted, here he delivered his Australian residential showpiece: 

“In November 1929, Griffin had a house in construction at Castlecrag which would be the principal expression of [his] approach to domestic design... dramatically sited ...rising from the cut rock-face of the cul-de-sac.  In rough hewn sandstone and reinforced concrete, this two-storey house was at once a citadel and a luxury villa.” [6] 

While the house's exterior makes a strong impact as a most unusual building, its interiors are extraordinary with each room having a unique layout and design features.  Some of its qualities are less tangible but make a strong impact on the viewer's senses.  Examples are the many abrupt ceiling height variations, changes in the intensity and colouring of the available light when moving from room to room and the intrigue of entering the tunnel-like entrance way with its highly unusual repetitive panels of mirrored glass.

Some visitors, however, take increasing delight in the building's less obvious qualities.  For example, close examination will reveal the variety in the chisel marks left by different stonemasons as they carved the sandstone blocks for the walls of the lounge and dining room.  Also not immediately obvious is the way that the flights of the main stairs are echoed in the corresponding wall of the entrance hall thus providing a design which some people find to be redolent of Art Deco. 
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Many tradesmen have made their mark distinctively throughout the house.

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4c2Some of the house’s most interesting and pleasing features are not immediately apparent.


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4c3The entrance way’s atmosphere is subdued, even claustrophobic, relieved by a bright light ahead...

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4c4...which proves to be exterior light finding its way through the “window” in the lounge fireplace.

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4c5Ephemeral shadowing effects abound, particularly when the sun is low.


 10pixels wide 10pixels wide 4c7Unexpected view lines and lighting conditions give the house great character.

●  Important role in the birth of Australian modern architecture.  The second factor underpinning the significance of the Fishwick house is that it has become emblematic of the emergence of a fresh, distinct and truly Australian architecture.  The Griffins arrived in Australia at a time when residential design was very conservative or derivative in style.  There were a few Australian architects attempting to react to the winds of change, mainly coming from Europe, but Griffin showed the way to an unashamedly local architecture which was more responsive to local conditions, more self-confident and more “Australian modern”.  In the last two decades, his 1929 Fishwick house has emerged as a bold and important symbol of the beginning of that process.


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The house blends into its surrounding landscape, in great contrast to neighbouring buildings which are generally unsympathetic to their environment.


4c8The newly-built house stood alone while serried rows of red-roofed Californian bungalows lined the nearby peninsula.  Note the unfinished Harbour Bridge.

While it seems to be the accepted truth that modern architecture was brought to Australia in the early 1950s by the famous Sydney architect Harry Seidler, a very strong case can be made that it was Griffin who deserves this accolade.  Since this is a complex and no doubt controversial subject, it is examined in detail in the .pdf. House as Emblem of Griffin’s Modernity. Its main points are:

•    Soon after WWII, four decades after his arrival in Australia, Griffin had become regarded by the country’s most authoritative architectural experts as Australia’s first “modern” architect, some even describing him a “prophet” and a “deity”.

•    Griffin was unquestionably modern in outlook.  He promulgated the latest ideas from the American Midwest, then a hotbed of “organic architecture” and was also closely involved with the latest ideas emerging in Europe.  As early as 1914 he went to Vienna explicitly to meet Otto Wagner who was the figurehead of a group of forward thinking Europeans who rejected established and traditional styles of architecture, mostly against strong resistance.  The pair even worked together to plan an international competition for a new parliament house for Canberra, explicitly demanding a building based on modern ideas without any influence of imported or derivative styles.

•    Griffin publically rebuked Le Corbusier’s notion that houses should be “machines to live in” because that clashed with one of his own strongly-held principles.  In his writings and lectures, Griffin insisted that a house should not only be functional but also strive to create a delightful atmosphere by the use of light, colour, textures and spatial variation.  In short, it should appeal to the emotions.  Also, slavishly adopting the tenets of any architectural school or tradition was anathema to him.  He argued that each house required fresh thinking based on the client’s needs and the form of the landscape.  It also had to be in sympathy with its surroundings, nature and the community.

•    In recent years many well-respected books, magazine supplements and documentaries intended for general audiences have recognised Griffin’s pivotal role in the birth of modern Australian architecture.  Most have chosen the Fishwick house to illustrate this because it provides a vivid demonstration of his introduction of new ideas, his principles of good design and his use of the latest materials and technology.  Consequently, the house has emerged as a distinctive emblem of Griffin’s modernity. 


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Exemplifying organic principles, the house was built from locally quarried sandstone and sunk almost two metres into its stone platform.

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4c10The DNA of the Fishwick house is from his “Solid Rock” house of 1911, especially in the use of reinforced concrete slabs as roof terraces.



4c11aGriffin's 1929 Fishwick house and 1912 Melson house both vividly demonstrate his adherence to the organic architectural principle of tightly integrating a building into its landscape.

Vehicle to Griffin’s enduring ideas.  
The third factor underpinning the house's significance is that it is playing an important part in the revival of interest in the Griffins, especially in revealing his views on good architecture to non-specialist audiences.  After Walter's death in India and Marion's embittered return to the US Mid-West, the Griffins became virtually unknown for some thirty years.  A revival of interest in their lives and works grew slowly during the 1970s and 80s.  At first this was confined to academic historians; however from the mid-1990s this revival has gathered pace and is spread much more widely amongst people interested in design, landscaping and community development.  For more on this development open .pdf The Griffins' Changing Fortunes.  Coincidentally, the fortunes of the Fishwick house have followed a very similar path: initially prominent as Griffin's most lavish and inventive Castlecrag house, it was soon ridiculed and became poorly maintained by successive tenants.  Following its restoration by the current owners in the mid-1990s, the house has become the prime vehicle by which non-specialists are introduced to Griffin's ideas.  Its decline into obscurity and rise to prominence is detailed in the attachment .pdf House's Changing Fortunes.     

As a thoughtful, enquiring young architect rubbing shoulders with some of the most progressive architects of his era, Griffin soon developed a set of concepts on the essentials of good architecture, landscape development and community building.  He consistently adhered to and espoused these throughout his career, unlike many other prominent architects.  These ideas and principles are increasingly respected and continue to resonate today, especially with students and emerging professionals seeking a philosophic underpinning to their work in order to guide their architectural careers.

Briefly, he believed that a building should respect its surroundings, be designed with regard for nature and the community and relate strongly to the landscape in its siting, form and use of materials.  Each design should arise from satisfying specific needs or solving problems, rather than being derivative of accepted styles or architectural schools.  Further, in contrast to the emerging European Modernists’ strict adherence to functionality, he believed that good design should influence the viewer’s emotions. For more on his views open .pdf Griffin’s Ideas and Principles.

Because the Fishwick house very effectively captures people’s attention, as well as embodying Griffin's most cherished ideals and illustrating them well, it has emerged in Australia as the prime conduit or vehicle for spreading his beliefs more widely.  Since its restoration in the mid 1990s there have been 25 significant Griffin-related productions and events in Australia which were addressed to general, rather than academic audiences.  The house and its qualities have been prominently featured in almost all of these.  As the attachment .pdf House as Vehicle to Griffin's Ideas shows, in three quarters of them the house plus a few others were chosen to play this role but, significantly, in almost half the Fishwick house alone served to illustrate Griffin's ideas and principles.

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Experts’ Opinions

While formal evaluations of listed structures by heritage bodies are generally thorough and well-researched, it is often true that personal value judgements on a particular house by experts such as academics, architectural historians, practising professionals and writers on architecture and design can be more informative.  This is because, rather than considering the house in isolation against a set of prescribed criteria, experts are able to make comparative judgements, giving different weights to the various qualities of the house relative to others.  Such value judgements are often perceptive and illuminating.

Because the house has been widely described and discussed there has been a variety of interesting statements about its importance and place in the development of architecture, particularly in Australia. To review a selection of these, grouped by subject, open .pdf What Experts & Authorities Say.

Following are statements about the house by four of the most highly-respected Griffin authorities: the most acclaimed academic expert in America, his equivalent in Australia, the biographer and historian who wrote the definitive and award-winning biography on the Griffins, and the Australian Walter Burley Griffin Society which works to protect his legacy and has a particular interest in his Castlecrag houses.

• Paul Kruty is Emeritus Professor of Architectural History in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He is the author or editor of eight books on the Griffins and their works.  He has lectured extensively and presented many academic papers on their place in architecture, especially amongst their pioneering "Prairie School" mid-west American colleagues in the early 20th century.  He is also a board member of the American Walter Burley Griffin Society and the editor of its journal.  In supporting the house’s listing by the Australian Heritage Commission Kruty stated:

"Because of its design qualities and prominence among the Griffin houses in Castlecrag, the Fishwick house has always had a high level of local significance.  Following its restoration, in my opinion, it ranks among the most important Griffin buildings in both the United States and Australia.  As a well restored, outstanding example of his residential architecture, I believe it has significance at an international level.” [7]

• James Weirick is Professor of Landscape Architecture, Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of NSW, Director of the university’s Master of Urban Development and Design programme and past President of the Walter Burley Griffin Society of Australia.  He is a regular media commentator and presenter, especially on Canberra and Castlecrag.  He has spoken and written very favourably about the house on many occasions, considering it “simply one of the best things he did” [8] and "the principal expression of [his] approach to domestic design". [9]  In a documentary on the Griffins produced for the Powerhouse Museum, Australia’s most prominent institution of technology and design, Weirick said:

“The houses in Castlecrag were very small except for the Fishwick house in The Citadel which was the only one which had a client with a substantial budget; [it] is a very, very significant house.” [10] 

• Alasdair McGregor is a qualified architect, author of several biographies on prominent Australian historical figures and accomplished artist and photographer.  (See some of his work in the Images of House section.)  In his biography on the Griffins, Grand Obsessions, which won the 2011 National Biography Award, he describes the house as:

“...by far the largest of all the Castlecrag residences, the only one to have been blessed with a substantial building budget...Set in sublime isolation - even by Castlecrag standards...Griffin sited it masterfully...In this house of inventiveness, the dining room even sported the fanciful touch of two overhead fish tanks.” [11]

• The Walter Burley Griffin Society was established in Australia in 1988 by a group of people aiming to promote a better understanding of the lives, ideals, vision and works of the Griffins and to protect Walter's remaining buildings.  It brings together residents of the community they created, as well as scholars, architects, urban planners and members of the general public who are interested in the Griffin legacy.  The society has an off-shoot in America, maintains an excellent website, publishes a regular journal and has hosted many specialist and public tours.  Its latest book, “Visionaries in Suburbia - Griffin Houses in the Sydney Landscape”, devotes ten pages to the house which include a detailed essay and many historic and contemporary photographs.  It states:

“Following its careful restoration over many years, the Fishwick house has emerged as one of the most significant and celebrated early 20th century houses in Australia.  It stands apart from Griffin’s other houses in Castlecrag in the nature of its relationship to the surrounding landscape, through its size and complexity of design, and because of its many innovative technical and decorative features.” [12]

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Heritage Significance

Every authoritative heritage body in the country, including the relevant organs of the federal, state and local governments, has evaluated and favourably assessed the significance of the Fishwick house.  It is one of only six houses from the first half of the 20th century to be both on the Register of the National Estate and listed by the NSW Heritage Council.   

National level.  As part of the evaluation process for possible listing on its Register of the National Estate, in 2002/2003 the Australian Heritage Commission undertook a thorough assessment of the value of the house.  Its lengthy formal report was most positive and explored many different aspects of its significance, considering such elements as its historical, social, aesthetic and scarcity values.  In releasing the report, the relevant cabinet minister of the Australian government at that time said of the house:

“The Fishwick house is an inspirational creation and one worth keeping for the generations ahead.” [13]

State level.  Soon afterwards, a similar investigative process was undertaken by the NSW Heritage Office as it considered listing the house on the State Heritage Register.  Its formal report also stressed the importance of the house in the development of modern architecture in Australia:

“The Fishwick house is aesthetically significant... as its form, massing and architectural and decorative detail demonstrate the distinctive style developed by Griffin and [it is] an excellent example of innovative architecture developed during the inter-war period.” [14]

The NSW Heritage Office's detailed assessment document has recently become very important because it, rather than its national counterpart, now has the prime responsibility for the heritage protection of the house.  For extracts from this open .pdf State Heritage Register Report.

Local level.  Being part of Griffin’s Castlecrag Estate, the house is also formally heritage-protected at Australia’s third level of government through the Willoughby City Council.  This local authority devotes considerable organisational and financial resources to protect and promote heritage items within its provenance.  In 2000 an illustrated panel on the house's restoration was mounted in council's chambers; the house subsequently won the council's Heritage Restoration Award. 



Members of all the major heritage organisations and architecture and design bodies, as well as specialised academic and professional architectural groups, have visited the house - some many times.


4f1The house won Willoughby City Council’s Heritage Restoration Award.

 The significance of the house has also been recognised by its listing with the major non-governmental heritage and architectural bodies.  The level of their interest has been demonstrated by the many tours of the house and its garden which have been organised for their members.  Examples of such organisations are the Historic Houses Association of Australia, Sydney Living Museums (previously known as the Historic Houses Trust), the National Trust, the Australian Institute of Architects (previously designated  "Royal"), the Australian Association of Architects, the Art Deco Society, the Australian Garden History Society and the Walter Burley Griffin Society.

These heritage, historical, architectural and design bodies all value the house, not only for its historical association with Griffin, but also for its own qualities.  Its modern history and the authenticity of its presentation have also been important.  The virtually unaltered state of the house, its thorough restoration, its re-established native gardens and the well-protected curtilage have been widely acclaimed.  These are often described to their visiting members as providing a rare and most valuable opportunity for appreciating Griffin’s work as he intended it to be: a unique house created for its setting and wholly integrated into the local landscape so that the building, its grounds and the contiguous Griffin-designed reserves and pathways became a seamless whole. 

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Footnotes in this Section

1. Building for Nature Walker et al 1994. p62

2. 20th Century World Architecture 2012. p33

3. Building Australia 2013.  Part 5 of this documentary produced by Screen Australia in conjunction with the History Channel.

4. Handbook of Art Hopwood & Fry 2009. p266

5. Private Sydney Reed Burns 2000. pp74-85. Australian Gardens for a Changing Landscape Reed Burns 2008. pp48-53. Garden Voices Latrielle 2013. pp58-69. 100 Amazing Sydney Homes. Magazine supplement to The Sydney Morning Herald 2003.

6. Walter Burley Griffin - A Re-View Weirick 1988. p11

7. From the testimonial by Emeritus Professor Paul Kruty in his 2002 submission to the Australian Heritage Office supporting the listing of the Fishwick house.

8. Professor James Weirick quoted in Eight Great Houses Allenby 2002. p30

9. Walter Burley Griffin: a Re-View Weirick 1988. p11

10. James Weirick interviewed in film documentary “Castlecrag” produced as part of the Powerhouse Museum’s exhibition Beyond Architecture which ran from July 1998 to May 1999.

11. Grand Obsessions McGregor 2009. pp419-420

12. Visionaries in Suburbia Watson ed. 2015. p94

13. Press release from Dr David Kemp, then the minister responsible for the federal Department of Environment & Heritage 2002.

14. From NSW State Heritage Register report December 2006.


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