Ken Woolley was one of Australia’s most important architects.

Across the second half of the 20th century, he made his mark on Sydney through his many public buildings and home designs, including award-winning Darling Point designs.

Early life

Born in Sydney in 1933, Ken Woolley displayed artistic talent from an early age and was encouraged by his mother to pursue his creative skills.

After high school, he won a traineeship at the NSW Public Works Department and studied architecture at the University of Sydney. Woolley’s skill in drawing helped him win the University Medal and a travelling scholarship.

Woolley travelled to Europe and then headed back to Australia, where his designs began to make their mark on his hometown.

Iconic Sydney designs

While part of the NSW Government Architect’s Office in the 1960s, Woolley worked on one of his first large-scale projects, Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. The building’s undergraduate wing won the Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Sulman Award for Architectural Merit.

As the decades progressed and his reputation grew, Woolley turned his significant talent to designing many now well-known buildings: Ultimo’s ABC Radio and Orchestra Centre, the Park Hyatt Hotel at Campbell’s Cove, the Arc Glasshouse at the Botanic Gardens, the Convention Centre at Darling Harbour, the 2009 refurbishment of the QVB, and the Royal Agricultural Showground exhibition halls at Homebush Bay.

Residences by Ken Woolley

Woolley’s talents were not confined to large commissions. In 1962 his design for his own home in Mosman won the prestigious Wilkinson Award for a House of Outstanding Architectural Merit from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA).

While other architects became known for a signature style, Woolley was recognised for the distinctiveness of each of his designs. This willingness to adapt served him well: his home designs acknowledged and worked with, rather than against, any restrictions such as steep, rocky terrain. Indeed, in an interview he once described the architect’s job as “puzzle solving”. This approach was wonderfully expressed in his Palm Beach house, which embraced the steep cliff face it was situated on.

He’s credited with being the founder of the “The Sydney School” style of architecture in houses. Woolley-designed homes can be found throughout the eastern suburbs – in Bellevue Hill, Double Bay and Paddington, and the landmark Pier Villas on New South Head Road.

Woolley in Darling Point

Woolley’s talent for working with a site is beautifully on display in his Darling Point designs, where his buildings take full advantage of the city and harbour views on offer.
His Darling Point designs include the Bay Terraces at 21 Yarranabbe Road, a neighbouring building at 25 Yarranabbe Rd, and The Point Villas in Thornton Street. All three buildings make the most of their harbourside position.

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Then there’s The Penthouses – a veritable who’s who of art and design. Furniture designer and property developer Harry Sebel apparently commissioned Ken Woolley to design The Penthouses in 1967.

Situated at 58 New Beach Road, this fabulous Woolley building was created to maximise light, views and privacy. The building’s tiered design utilises the roof space of each townhouse as a terrace for the townhouse above. The concept would go on to be used across the city.

“On the world scene it was an important building,” Woolley once explained of The Penthouses, “because it was an expression of some of the principles of modern architecture and housing.”

The Penthouses won the Wilkinson Award in 1968, the first time a townhouse design was eligible for the award, which had previously been restricted to houses.

It was also photographed by Max Dupain (of “Sunbaker” fame) in 1969, and prints still circulate through fine art and photography dealers today.

Ken Woolley passed away in 2015 but his legacy lives on in so many of his amazing buildings, including in Darling Point.

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