A Sense Of Discovery – Castlecrag Courtyard by Downie North
Architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin left an indelible score upon Australia’s built landscape. The pair’s architectural legacy, established through the first half of the 20th century, stretches from suburban Victoria across the breadth of Canberra and into Sydney, but nowhere is its impression quite so resonant as in the Sydney bushland peninsula of Castlecrag, which they called home for a number of years. Recently, local studio Downie North coaxed many of the Griffins’ ideologies into contemporary relevance with a new modernist-inspired rendition on the ridgeline of the craggy rock from which the area takes its name.
Characterised by rambling native gardens of banksias and eucalypts that veil a soaring 180-degree panorama with views of the city, Middle Harbour’s green waters and out through the heads to the ocean, Castlecrag is emblematic of the rich ties that exist between nature and place. Many of the houses in the area are ideally sited so as to recede and enable breathtaking views, with Castlecrag Courtyard no exception. Shaped by a similar methodology to the Griffins’ unification of architecture with the Australian bushland and local topography, Downie North’s design reinstates midcentury gestures such as flat roofs, stepped massing, integrated joinery, expansive windows and natural materials in a way that adheres to the studio’s own design philosophies as well as the daily patterns and rituals of the client.
Reminiscent of modernism’s edited lines and clean compositions, a departure from the ornamentation that dominated residential designs preceding the period, Castlecrag Courtyard employs harmonious pro-portions and an overt alliance between architecture and landscape so modernism is identifiable yet essentially changed.
Catherine Downie, Co-Founder of Downie North, recalls that “when the client first approached us, the initial conversation readily unveiled that the existing house had little connection to the site and constrained how the family lived.” At the beginning of what developed into an enduring client-architect relationship, the realisation that a courtyard house would unlock the site led to the unfolding of a design, cultivating “a robust and functional house that would be a cradle for a family of five.” Reminiscent of modernism’s edited lines and clean compositions, a departure from the ornamentation that dominated residential designs preceding the period, Castlecrag Courtyard employs harmonious pro-portions and an overt alliance between architecture and landscape so modernism is identifiable yet essentially changed. “The client asked for a concrete house, so right away we had a very strong, raw material to work with,” explains Daniel North, Co-Founder of Downie North. “We added timber, sandstone and minimal steel, reducing the palette to a materiality that is refined and elegant.”
From its façade, oriented north onto the street, Castlecrag Courtyard presents as a modular arrangement of concrete, timber cladding and screening surrounded by botanicals. There is an equanimity between each interface, which means no one materiality dominates – such that the design becomes a consequence of this trilogy. Immediately, the notion of adaptation arises, a device enabling the home to remain agile to its context, slipping into it rather than seeking to alter it for its own benefit.
Given the site’s aspect, a sense of lightness is harnessed by its profound natural elevation, and “it felt only appropriate to ground the house by establishing a platform upon which the lighter elements were perched,” says Catherine. As a result, where the greatest sense of refuge is required– the bedrooms and bathrooms – the scale becomes intimate and cocooning; “there is a sense of the building wrapping around and embracing you.” Conversely, in social spaces like the kitchen, dining and living areas, “the scale is more expansive, which frees up one’s movement,” opening the house up to the outside and giving the impression of the building “almost dissolving.”
The brief called for a calm space for the children to study, a shared space for enjoying meals together and accommodation for extended family. Downie North was able to observe and manifest the family’s daily rhythms via a program that orbits around the central courtyard. “Sectionally, the house is a platform that extends the line of the natural ground towards the Middle Harbour and the ocean beyond,” Daniel explains. “This sets up a bilateral relationship between the smaller-scaled, more intimate moments in the native garden while generously opening up to the sky and horizon.”
Joining the two sides of the house is the courtyard that becomes the design’s raison d’être, weaving the botanical expressions of Castlecrag into the built elements of the home so they help define its experience. Catherine reinforces the sentiment, reflecting that “from the outset, the landscape was considered a key character of the design.”
Complementing the accord between form and landscape, Castlecrag Courtyard’s material curation purposefully reflects the tones of the surrounding native context, finding applications that seek to converse with and celebrate it in novel ways. Imperfections articulate the means of construction, becoming a device to unite progeny and outcome, complete with marks of the hands of the maker. “The materials were each selected for their inherent beauty and timelessness, their propensity to echo mid-century modernism,” says Catherine.
At the lower level, honed blockwork, terrazzo flooring, cedar batten doors and polished plaster walls are to be found. Then, the platform features burnished concrete flooring, crazy-pave sandstone, off-form concrete walls and blade columns paired with Oregon board form-concrete ceilings. Ascending to the first floor, the materials shift to white brick and the spotted gum used in the flooring, cladding and batten screens that are framed within steel reveals, softening and lightening the form.
This linear narrative between nature’s generous bounty and the practicality of applying its gifts to the built environment ultimately gives the impression of this home being both of and in nature. “As such, the house will begin to have its story writ on its façade, which creates a rich, natural texture,” concedes Catherine – another layer upon which Castlecrag Courtyard integrates gently into its craggy, lush surrounds.
A natural consequence of so reverently conversing with the native environment is the cultivation of sanctuary that rests easily upon built environments providing protection within. Upon entry, “you are invited to sit and slow down, protected by this generous concrete eave, as if the house is reaching out to welcome you,” Daniel says. Just like in the natural world, navigation is guided in a meandering fashion, with architecture leveraged to foster paths of movement throughout. “Entering the foyer area, sliding timber batten screens attenuate the view and encourage one to move deeper within,” she describes. “Movement is directed along a spiral path, so that you are turning back towards this central courtyard while also having your view directed to a different corner of the house, another corner of the site, meaning that one is always discovering new vantages and unexpected details. There is an oblique sense of discovery even across well-worn tracks.”
Through such moves, Castlecrag Courtyard exemplifies how architecture may bridge the psyche and the heart, coming together so intuitively that it feels like it has emerged as a part of its environment, rather than having space carved out for it. It is a building that scaffolds the lives of those who live within it, covertly nurturing and celebrating everyday patterns by virtue of its deeply considered programming, its deference to its frame of reference – in this instance, the landscape – and a tangible intention to rest lightly upon its skin.