In Focus: Indigo Slam On the Chippendale Walk

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The Chippendale Walk resumes this month on Saturday 20 June. In Focus this month features an article written by Carmen Galan, a passionate AAA volunteer tour leader, who is talking about one of her favourite buildings on her Chippendale walk - Indigo Slam designed by Smart Design Studio.


Meeting Point: Chippendale Green, O'Connor Street, Chippendale NSW 2008
Time: 10.00am - 11.30am
Date: Saturday 20 June 2020
Tickets: $30 (public) / $25 (Seniors) / AAA Members Free
Note: High school students walk for Free (to book contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)
The Chippendale Walk does not visit the interiors of Indigo Slam, only the exteriors.

Numbers are strictly limited, Click here to secure your place on the tour.

By Carmen Galan

Indigo Slam, designed by William Smart of Smart Studio Design, is the residence of art collector and philanthropist Judith Neilson. It was completed in 2016. The name is borrowed from a Robert Crais mystery novel. A copy of the book is said to be buried beneath the front entrance.

Facing north, fronting Chippendale Green and Central Park beyond, Indigo Slam elegantly rises in folds and peeling curves and counter curves of white sculpted concrete pinned before glass, steel and oxidized brass armoury. It is bold and poetic. It emanates weight and lightness. ‘In many ways it reads like a sculpture in the city’(1).

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White Rabbit Gallery around the corner, is an earlier collaboration of Smart and Neilson, the gallery’s founder. Smart converted a 1940’s three-storey brick warehouse, the former Rolls Royce service workshop, to a four-level exhibition space for Nielson’s collection of Chinese contemporary art. The exhibitions draw from more than 2,000 works by 700 artists.

Judith Neilson, a dynamic figure in the art world, established the Judith Neilson Chair of Art and Culture at the UNSW; built Phoenix Central Park, a multidisciplinary performance arts centre and established the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

From the outset, William Smart felt a house for the extraordinary Judith Neilson could not be a conventional house, it would need to be inspiring.

The initial brief, a hand-written note three lines long, required the house last 100 years and be the most beautiful house in Sydney, if not the world.

Longevity, durability and beauty informed the materials and artisanal methods and finishes: The walls are unpainted waxed render. The floor is pale pressed-brick paving. 

The need to hold regular events for 50 to 200 guests informed the space.

The house is arranged over three levels plus a basement cellar. On the ground floor is an entry foyer, a dining hall to seat 60, a commercial kitchen and a staircase that links all areas. Four bedrooms each with en-suite take the first level and a personal living area with dining for 16 and a sky-lit private kitchen inhabit the second level. The staircase runs the breadth of the back south wall saving views of the park for the living areas. Across a courtyard towards the back street is a guest apartment above a three car garage.

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William Smart developed a language of peeling and folding for the house and applied it to every aspect of the design. It was expressed on a card ‘which was cut and folded and run through everything like a triangular grid on a Frank Lloyd Wright house’.(1)

Applied to the exterior, the peeling and folding performs architecturally by shading windows along the ground floor, providing a balcony for the bedrooms above, and a scoop on the upper level bounces light down to the upper rooms which can close to create privacy from the neighbouring apartment buildings.

At the entrance, the name ‘Indigo Slam’ is notched into the Corten steel sliding gate, legible only from the side view.

A reflection pool by the front gate bounces light on the wall and up into the ceiling of the ground floor rooms where it creates an “ever-changing beautiful light”(3). A poem etched under the water anticipates the interior.

“Look at the light, all the time it’s changing
Look at the light, climbing up the aerial
Bright, white, coming alive jumping off the aerial
All the time it’s a changing,
And all the dreamers are waking.”

Light plays an immense role in the feeling of calm and clarity throughout the house. The interior is pared back, monastic, filled with diffuse light. Smart attributes much of the inspiration to “projects like Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church, and the beautiful austere spaces by John Pawson.”(1)

The experience of circulating through the house is punctuated with moments of surprise and drama created by the use of compression and release, moving from small spaces to large. A dramatically high portico opens into a spare beautiful foyer which leads to a low ceiling corridor (the corridor height is a measurement of Neilson standing with arm extended above her). The compressed corridor releases to a soaring stair hall, 14 metres high, flooded with soft light cascading from multiple sources from three storeys above.

The peeling and folding language is carried through the staircase balustrades and handrails. The handrails are wrapped in white leather. The stairs have a very shallow rise. On the first level landing, a glass bridge ‘without structure’ (1) crosses an internal void to the private suites.

The detail of the interior is influenced by a further requirement of the brief that devices be operated manually, not electronically. A mechanical system was designed to operate the windows and oversized timber vertical shutters. Panels, connected by rods, open and close in series and are operated by geared winders. The winders, made of brass, were produced using lost wax casting and show ‘Indigo Slam’ in relief. Smart estimates there could be as many as 1,000 components in the system.

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All the hardware for the house was custom made, including a beaten copper bath. Similarly all the furniture, over 160 pieces, was designed by Khai Liew and made with his team of antique specilaists in his Adelaide studio over a four year period. It includes the grand dining table, to accommodate 60 people, fashioned from a single tree which was halved and sculpted to shape.

High level environmentally sustainable design principles were incorporated extensively. Solar panels cover the steel roof. In the basement, geothermal bores 100 metres into the ground efficiently control heating and cooling.

The court yard design is based on the concept “a companion for a thousand years’. The planting is of two Gingko trees standing together, side by side like two companions. A space will be maintained between the trees to keep them as individual figures. The Gingko tree is said to be the oldest of trees in existence.

The guesthouse facing Dick Street employs the same peeling and folding language in a vertical orientation, directing views down the street, away from neighbours directly in front. The architecture draws alignment from the traditional terraces in the street.

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William Smart has garnered a host of awards for Indigo Slam including the AIA Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture (National) in 2016 and in the same year, the AIA Wilkinson Award for Residential Architecture (NSW) and the AIA Emil Sodersten Award for Interior Architecture (National) in 2017.

Time will tell how the building weathers its first 100 years, but there is no doubt, Indigo Slam is architecturally extraordinary and one of the most beautiful houses in Sydney, if not the world.


1. University of Queensland School of Architecture, 2017 UQ Architecture lecture series with William Smart - (25 May 2020)


  • Image 1: Indigo Slam streetface (Photographer: Vanessa Couzens)
  • Image 2: A reflection pool bounces light up the wall of Indigo Slam (Photographer: Vanessa Couzens)
  • Image 3: Indigo Slam living space (Source: Smart Design Studio / Photographer: David Roche)
  • Image 4: The grand dining hall with a dining table that seats 60 designed by Khai Liew (Source: Smart Design Studio / Photographer: Sharrin Rees)
  • Image 5: The glass walkway linking the stairs to the first level private suites (Source: Smart Design Studio / Photographer: Sharrin Rees)
  • Image 6: The ensuite with its copper bath (Source: Smart Design Studio / Photographer: Sharrin Rees)
  • Image 7: The guesthouse located at the rear of Indigo Slam (Photographer: Vanessa Couzens)