• The Little house seen from its driveway, garage at left (Max Dupain).

3 Riverview Road, Clareville, NSW, 1964–65

In 1964, Arthur F. Little
(Snelling’s builder for the Bibaringa and Roslyn Gardens apartment blocks)
asked him to design a new family residence on a waterfront property at
Clareville. At 11,000 sq ft (1,022 sq m), this was one of Sydney’s largest
houses of the 1960s. Snelling’s project summary, found in his 1964 photographic
portfolio, explained the architectural composition:

Viewed from Pittwater the house appears firmly attached to the steep grade even though the living floor level is some 15 ft above the ground. By design the sub-structure of the building is constructed of dark brown bricks, which merge into the natural landscape. The light-coloured balustrade above creates the illusion that the house starts upwards from this strong line. Even the boathouse has been completely buried underground, and the front painted earth colour to further extend this thinking, and so not to appear as an ugly appendage and afterthought.

Built on a long, west-facing site
that sloped down to the water from a ridge near the street (east) boundary, the
residence terminated a generously landscaped driveway. Cars swung either into
an open parking terrace for visitors (retained by a sandstone wall) or into a
four-space carport near the front door. The carport structure also included a servant’s
suite and a toolroom. For visitors arriving by road, the first impression of
the Little house was of shallow-pitched shingle roofs, dominated by tall eucalypts
across the site, and the harbourscape beyond. Snelling wrote:

The roof of the house is constructed using massive timber beams on a 6’ module and is covered with hand-split cedar shakes. These shakes have weathered silver grey and are in harmony with the trunk colours of the native eucalypts. The verticality of the trees form a strong counterpoint to the sweeping roof with its low, 12’ overhangs to the north and west.

Spanning a gulch between the carport and the house, connecting the roofs of both buildings, Snelling exposed a dramatic construct of cedar posts and angled beams; the latter measuring 14 x 5 in with some beams extending to 40 ft. Apparently inspired by exposed portal frames at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West camp in Arizona, this sequence of posts supported a double array of beams that descended in opposite directions from the two roofs, framing a spectacular series of triangular voids. Fifty-six beams supported the 17-ft high roof of hand-split cedar shingles, and the house’s 2-in-thick ceiling of cedar boards.

Generous eaves provided shade and allowed rainwater to spill into a spectacularly landscaped moat wrapping around the east (entrance) and north sides of the house. Crossed by a wooden bridge to the front door, this incorporated waterfalls to a curvy pond (filled with koi carp) beside the swimming pool deck. Probably Snelling’s most successful water garden, and clearly influenced by the water strategies at Richard Neutra’s Miller house (1950–51), this was lit at night with wall lamps and tropical-style gas flares, enhancing outlooks from the guest and main bedrooms.

Providing textural contrast to the stained cedar woodwork were walls of sandblasted sandstock bricks (convict-made, according to an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly). All floors, outdoor terraces, and even the carport were paved with Italian travertine marble; softened by thick rugs and carpets in the living and bedroom zones.

  • The Little House bar and billiards room, with an indoor garden (Max Dupain).

Internally, the L-shaped house was planned around a central lobby, which descended several steps to the large living-dining area, which was sunlit by an east-facing clerestory. The living zone included a “conversation pit” with built-in sofas oriented around a brick fireplace. Its semi-circular opening contrasted the rectangular openings of Snelling’s heavy-lintelled stone fireplaces in other houses. Transitions between the living area, its west-facing terrace, and the pool deck were carefully orchestrated.

Snelling told a reporter from The Australian Women’s Weekly that he preferred to compose window outlooks to see one-third land and two-thirds sky “to combat sky glare and eye fatigue”. He positioned the pool deck three steps below the living room and terrace, and extended the roof over the terrace, to form an “eyebrow” to crop views of the sky and create shade.

In the south-east corner of the house, a large kitchen faced a skylit, indoor garden, with a back-illuminated white glass panel screening views of a neighbouring house. Kitchen finishes included exotic palaquium timber cabinets, and stainless steel benchtops and appliances, and Spanish terracotta floors. Doors led from the kitchen north to the living-dining room, west to the billiard room and its orange vinyl-upholstered cocktail bar, and east to the staff quarters. Facing north from the south-east corner of the pool deck, two bedrooms shared  a bathroom. From this corner, a concrete staircase descended to a guest flat. Beneath that, a boatshed opened to the water and a long jetty.

  • The living room terrace and steps to the pool deck (Max Dupain).

The Little house exemplified Snelling’s desire to integrate his architecture with artistic landscaping, water features, lighting, acoustics, furnishings, and site-specific artworks. A sculptor friend of Snelling’s, Gerard Havekes, was commissioned to create several metal and stained glass mosaic panels. These were installed on both leaves of the front door, on the wall beside the living room fireplace, and on an outdoor feature wall of the pool deck. Also memorable were various special lighting effects that seem to reflect his early exposure to camera lighting and set design strategies in Hollywood.

His outdoor lighting strategies, which won a commendation in the 1966 awards of the NSW Illumination Engineering Society, included gas flares on poles around the carp pond and  floodlights uplighting gum trees along the driveway. Beside the letterbox at the driveway entrance, he installed Wright-influenced cedar “light trees”: timber columns of different heights, surrounded by layers of wooden flaps that were angled outwards to allow concealed fluorescent tubes to cast light down in dramatic patterns. Other outdoor lighting strategies included underwater lights in the swimming pool, and spotlights under the roof eaves to illuminate the rock gardens and moat.

Interior lighting strategies (which were not commended) included a cluster of oriental brass pendant lamps in the entry lobby and fluorescent tubes mounted along the base of the main clerestory, which strip-lit the roofline like a lantern welcoming visitors at night, and reflected light off the ceiling into the living room.

More than his rectilinear and flat-roofed houses of the 1950s and early 1960s, the Little residence exposed Snelling’s increasing daring and skill with rooflines and cross-sectional spatial planning. Contrary to his earlier care in selecting colour-matched bricks with smooth faces, he now accepted the 1960s Sydney trend for exposing rough and colour-variegated sandstock bricks. Like younger members of the “nuts and berries” group within the post-war Sydney School (e.g., Ken Woolley, Bruce Rickard, Bryce Mortlock, and Peter Johnson), Snelling became influenced by the styling tactics of Scandinavian and British modernists, overlaying his early 1950s strategies from Wright, Neutra, Harris, Drake and other California modernists.

Sources

—Architecture and Arts. 1966. ‘Residence, Clareville Beach Sydney’, April, pp. 18–19.

—Australian Women’s Weekly, The. 1966. ‘House of the week’, 29 June, pp. 41, 43.

—Building: Lighting: Engineering. 1966. ‘AF Little home commended’, December, p. 20.

—Building Materials. 1966. ‘The luxury and longevity of red cedar’, April/May, pp. 41–43.

—Construction. 1966. ‘All smiles – they won big light awards’, 15 November, n.p. (Clipping in Sydney: SLNSW MLMSS 8801/01.)

—Daily Mirror, The. 1966. ‘New homes to be on view’, 9 May, p. 20.

—Daily Telegraph (Life of Sydney). 1966. ‘New homes to be on view’, 11 May, p. 27.

—Hailey, Shan. 1966. ‘Magnificent out-of-town family home’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 June, pp. 40–41, 43.

—Mingay’s Electrical Weekly. 1967. ‘Top designs win IES awards’. 16 June, n.p.

—Pemberton, Gary J. 1984. Douglas B. Snelling: A Monograph of His Works (B. Arch dissertation). Sydney: New South Wales Institute of Technology.

—Philippine Architecture and Building Journal. N.d. ‘A.F. Little residence’, p. 8.

—Seaboard. N.d. ‘Australia designs dramatic western red cedar post & beam house’, Vol. 8, No. 4, cover. Vancouver: Seaboard Lumber Co Canada.

—Sunday Telegraph. 1966. ‘What a gem of a home’, 6 November, pp. 85–86

—Sydney Morning Herald, The. 1966. News item on National Trust visit to Little house at Clareville, 11 May, p.17.