‘Truly an enchanted valley’

A stunning new installation at the Museum of Sydney reimagines the Haven Amphitheatre at Castlecrag, a much-loved place of magic and mystery for Marion Mahony Griffin.

Evident throughout Marion Mahony Griffin’s rich body of work – architectural and design concepts, artworks and writings – is her deep appreciation of, and respect for, the natural environment. Her series of Forest Portraits demonstrate how captivated this American artist was by Australia’s native flora and landscapes. In her unpublished memoir, ‘The magic of America’, Mahony expresses awe and wonder at the constant cycle of renewal, the colours, textures and sculptural forms of native flowers, shrubs and trees, and the hidden worlds and mysteries that existed in their ancient energy: ‘practically all Australian vegetation means you are in a world of magic the year round’.1

To walk entranced down the long aisle flanked with great golden brown columns, eyes lifted to dwell on the open lace work fretted vault through graceful fern fronds to blue sky, to walk, to stand, to listen.2

To Mahony, connecting and communing with nature, physically and spiritually, was an essential part of suburban living. Children in particular should be able to experience the ‘magic of a wholesome and richly imaginative outdoor life’.3 The Haven Amphitheatre (originally the Haven Scenic Theatre) stands as testament to this ethos. Set in what Mahony described as ‘truly an enchanted valley’4 on Sailors Bay, this ‘haven’ was, and remains, a special place for the community. It also provided Mahony with a place to express her spiritual beliefs.

The Haven Scenic Theatre was created in the early 1930s by Mahony and a team of local residents, who terraced a section of the valley with stone seating for cultural events and social activities. These included seasonal dramatic performances produced for the Anthroposophic Society, of which Mahony was an active member. Mahony described it as an ‘incomparable setting … one of the loveliest of outdoor theatres in the world … Gracious gums with the stars caught in their hair watch calmly and serenely, so wise in their ancient knowledge that has grown into leaves and branches, from seed to seed, forever nourished by the winds blowing in from across the sea’.5

Creative collaboration

Our new digital installation, Enchanted valley, evokes the essence of this special place, inviting visitors into a fully immersive landscape, presented ‘in the round’ with a sophisticated animated projection and accompanying soundscape. The concept is a bold new initiative for Sydney Living Museums; it’s the first time we’ve used animated projection on this scale, transforming an entire gallery into an immersive space.

To create the installation, the SLM exhibition team collaborated with multimedia and projection collective illuminart, headed by Artistic Director Cindi Drennan, and their team of illustrators, 2D and 3D digital designers, and lighting and interactive effects specialists from around Australia. From the first meeting – held, fittingly, at the Haven Amphitheatre – the illuminart and SLM teams worked closely together, sharing their knowledge, expertise and creativity to produce a richly layered and textured sensory interpretive experience for visitors.

Using cutting-edge digital technology, Enchanted valley remixes the visual language that distinguishes Mahony’s artistic practice – particularly her intricate linework and the intensely coloured and moody silk renditions of her Forest Portraits – into a new medium, that of light. As illuminart’s animator Alice Peacock explains, the project involved ‘creating a whole new world using [Mahony’s] style and treatments by deconstructing her drawings, painting and writings, and then building it back up piece by piece to create a 360-degree environment’. This required in-depth analysis of Mahony’s process and style to form technical and creative methods that reflect her silk painting techniques.

In addition to the visual projection, illuminart worked with SLM’s exhibition team to create playful interactive elements that will delight visitors, with some hidden surprises that only the more curious adventurers will find!

Appealing to all ages, Enchanted valley invites Museum of Sydney visitors to discover and enjoy the mystery and magic in the ‘bit of Paradise on Earth’ that so captivated Marion Mahony Griffin.

  • 1. Marion Mahony Griffin, ‘The magic of America’, section III, p221, verso.
  • 2. Ibid, section III, p144.
  • 3. Ibid, section III, p129.
  • 4. Ibid, section I, p16.
  • 5. Ibid, section I, pp16–17.