The Crag
Castlecrag 1924-1938
By Wanda Spathopoulos

Brandl & Schleinger,
ISBN 978-1-876040-87-1

“Ithaca itself was scarcely more longed for by Ulysses, than Botany Bay by the adventurers who had traversed so many thousand miles to take possession of it”, wrote Watkin Tench of his companions on the First Fleet. Governor Phillip’s 1786 Commission had instructed him to build castles. Fitting their vision of the new into the old, settlers named the rocky outcrop above Middle Harbour as “Edinburgh Castle”, below which, in 1905, Henry Willis built “Innisfallen”, one of many would-be castles strewn around the continent. The newcomers’ lament that the local flowers were scentless and the birds songless had its parallel in the regret that settler Australia would never support a literary culture because it lacked ruins.

Walter Burley Griffin (WBG) and Marion Mahony Griffin (MMG) placed themselves in the middle of these matters when they launched the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA) in 1920. On one hand, they promoted and protected native flora and fauna; the women on the estate were blocking bulldozers forty years before Kelly’s Bush. Yet the Griffins wrote of “pulpit rocks, grottos, cascades and glades” -  the metaphoric language of the European landscapes, erased in the 1940s by the maligned Jindyworobaks.

 In giving the name “Castlecrag” to the first of the estates, the Griffins signaled a fondness for castellation which did nothing to overcome the prejudice for the Old World. Their promotional material boasted: “In keeping with the idea of a Castle (Castlecrag) the roads and public reserves on that promontory have been given appropriate names – such as Sortie Port and the Battlement in the cases of highways, and the Turret and Keep in the case of reserves”.

The vocabulary of fortresses points to a more substantial puzzle - what was Modernist and what conventional at Castlecrag? Modernism and Post-Modernism are more easily distinguished in relation to architecture than to the other arts. The Post-Modern got started in the 1970s as a return to ornamentalism, adding decorative touches to the streamlines of Modernist office- and apartment- blocks. WBG had built decoration into his simplified house designs by combining rock with his knitlock cement tiles. The hewn surfaces were not the sheer concrete of Corbusier.

Bernard Smith contends that the arts of the past 150 years cannot go on being called “modern” for ever, a circumstance which has led him to propose “the Formalesque”, the eponymous title of his recent book. However scholars evaluate the degree of Modernism in Griffins’ architecture, their faith in the geometric as a sign of the spiritual makes Formalesque apposite.

As the two-year old Wanda Herbert, the author of The Crag moved with her family to a temporary dwelling on the GSDA in 1924. Forebears on her mother’s side occupied “Innisfallen”. Her marriage to a Greek doctor gave her the surname Spathopoulos and a perspective on the Greek dramas performed in MMG’s Haven Senic Theatre.

Spathopoulos writes spaciously, rich with anecdotes, foibles and incidents to enchant her readers as we are shown and not told. Her sense timing is keenest when she relates how delivery men were bogged for three days after scorning advice from a mere woman, her mother, Grace Herbert.

“Why do trivialities nick our memories?” Spathopoulos asks. One answer is that deep within such materials is a view of Castlecrag as not so much a community as a scatter of bleak houses, traversed by Mrs Jellybys. The author introduces her parents as easy going and affectionate. Edgar Herbert was a social reformer, trained by the YMCA at Springfield in the US, who became the promoter of kindergartens, free libraries and playgrounds for children. Not until the family is impoverished during the depression do we glimpse how like he was to “The Man Who Loved Children.” He remains a concerned parent, cutting their once-weekly piece of fruit between the six of them, and burying their own night soil because he is unable to pay the rates.

This catalogue of selflessness is disturbed by the image which Spathopoulos develops of her mother. A doctor pushed Grace into having all her teeth extracted as a relief from neuralgia but, because she could not afford false ones, she pretended for years to like nothing more than mashed potatoes. She escaped washing up after Marion’s parties only by staying at home. Then, she disappeared for two nights, to be located in a hospital. In later years she read nothing but light romances, declaring that she knew more than enough about reality.

The Crag will be of value to researchers beyond architectural history, providing building bricks for studies of ballet, theatre, fashion, interior décor, gardens and swimming. Biographers will welcome the glimpses of those who passed through Castlecrag, whether as residents or visitors, such as the librarian Ida Leeson, Bohemian Bee Miles and restaurateur, Pakie. More detailed is the picture of “King” O’Malley, owner of the house where the author lived while her father built their Griffin-designed house himself.

Foremost in the portrait gallery are the Griffins. In discussing their marital tensions, Spatholoupos repeats Marion’s remark from Rudolf Steiner that antipathy is one mark of true love. Their temporary separation coincided with Marion’s conversion from Theosophy to Anthroposophy, the cult which Steiner had founded in conformity with his notions of racial superiority. Walter was less convinced that East and West must not mix, which helped him to move to India, to where MMG followed.

Spathopoulos does not mention Steiner’s notion of “the castle within” but she almost accuses WBG of being “wrapped in a kind of naivety that protected him against any intrusion on his inner realm.” As a designer of houses, he was for fireplaces and flat roofs, against verandahs, but flexible on fences and pets. Indeed, he was flexible about his flexibilities – sometimes accommodating a client in seeming defiance of “the Covenant”, and at other times refusing to follow their prime stipulations. In keeping with the traditions of their profession, the Griffins were slack about on-site safety.

The Crag includes 28 pages of photographs, but no listing. Nor are there maps of the harbour, the estate or the neighbourhood, though four floor-plans of houses are provided. The book includes a complete bibliography and a surfeit of reference notes. The Index is extensive but uneven, with all the references to Anthroposophy but not to those for Theosophy, and it wants subject entries, such as for theatre and swimming.

The Crag is an easy read, if a long one; those inclined to skip the Greek sections will miss the insights from counterpoising antique and tourist Greece with the make-believe one around Castlecrag between wars. Spathopoulos concludes: “Everything, everyone mingled. The Castlecrag amphitheatre and Epidauros. Walter and Marion, Lute, Orestes and Iphigenia, Prometheus, Antigone … They were all alive in me, all part of my mythology. Yet I said that when I first came to Greece, I came in search of the gods.” As a child, she had been dimly aware of the Aboriginal occupants but knew nothing of their mythology: “If we had, our subconscious source of imagery would have been quite different. We were absorbing the land and its spirit, but were still unable to voice our impressions except by translating them into European terms.”