Friday, June 15, 2007
we know this is old, but in catching up on our news after being gone to europe we found probabaly one of the best articles [ever] about australian architect glenn murcutt:
[apologies for the pasting, but for some reason the link is now archived]
The Native Builder [new york times]
Having lived to testify, I can assure you that Glenn Murcutt is not as bad a driver as everyone says he is. Not quite, anyway. On a sunny afternoon toward the end of the Australian summer, he piloted his wife’s MG down from Sydney through the New South Wales countryside, where several examples of his architecture — a few houses and a small arts center — lie scattered about the countryside like so many jewels in the grass. “I’ve had a number of accidents, but I’ve never wiped the car out,” he said, and in truth, the ride was less frightening than exhausting. But it was a trial, an erratic wending through a lovely green landscape, full of sudden accelerations and stops, tight turns and lane dodges, lost directions and carefree distractions, all of it magnified by his tendency to stay in third gear whether we were going 10 miles an hour or 50, to drum his thumbs on the steering wheel and to talk about everything, all at once.
At 70, Murcutt has the vitality of three 20-year-olds, plus the guileless self-absorption of a 10-year-old. Clad in an oversize suit jacket, and with an odd and paradoxical manner of quickened repose, he looked like a small owl, and he talked pretty much the same way he drove: ceaselessly switching this way and that among topics, explaining his practice, relating elements of his life story, pointing out features of the landscape, the climate, the way the water ran, the local flora (“by the way, that’s a stinging tree; if you walk into that the pain is terrible”), his mind in a kind of constant third gear while he zoomed down long lengths of architectural theory, darted up cul-de-sacs of autobiography, paused to note the position of the sun in the sky and accelerated unevenly through a discussion of the Pritzker Prize, that most lucrative and high-profile of architectural awards, which was bestowed upon him in 2002. “I’m an extraordinarily private person,” he had told me. When I asked him how it felt, then, to win such a public honor, the first thing he said, under his breath and almost despite himself — despite his gratitude and delight — was, “It made me sick.”
It may be easiest to explain who Glenn Murcutt is and what he does by explaining what he isn’t and does not do. To begin with, he doesn’t build outside Australia — never has — and so many of his fiercest fans have never actually seen his work. He has no staff, no draftsmen or model-builders, not even a secretary. He works out of a neat semidetached house in a suburb northeast of Sydney, with no one to keep him company except his wife, Wendy Lewin, who collaborates with him on some projects but otherwise pursues her own architecture career at a drawing table right next to his. He has no e-mail and no cellphone, and he rarely picks up the land line in his office, preferring, instead, to be sent faxes, which he writes on and sends back.
What he does do is design buildings that are uncommonly responsive to the environment in which they sit, to the indigenous physiognomy of the landscape, the angle of the sun, the path of the wind, the shapes of the leaves on the trees. By mixing together Australia’s vernacular style with the clean lines of classic Modernism, he has created an architecture that’s both true to the place and unexpectedly rigorous, like a bow and arrow made out of titanium. The recent widening of his reputation owes a lot to the profession’s gradual conversion to the gospel of environmentalism, but he remains stubbornly autonomous and openly wary of catchphrases and clichés. (Of “sustainable architecture” he noted: “Most of it is bloody awful. Much of it isn’t architecture, and some of it isn’t sustainable.”) But the Pritzker is a machine for star-making, and as a result, this most resolutely local of architects has slowly acquired an international profile.
We drove (hastily, erratically) through an area called Kangaroo Valley, a magnificent landscape full of steep, green-sided mountains, sudden meadows and small savannas where tall trees mark the winding water table, until we arrived at the Fletcher-Page House, a small residence Murcutt built in 1996. It stood about midway down a plunging slope, overlooking a spectacular glen and the rising hillside opposite — an intricate splinter of a building, with a simple shed roof of corrugated iron, stretches of floor-to-ceiling windows and, inside, a long corridor running against one wall, from which the living areas split off one by one. The house was so narrow that sunlight streaming through the clerestory on one side shone on the grass on the other, and it came equipped with all manner of membranous sliding windows, screens and shades, which the owners, who were obviously delighted with the place, happily opened and closed for me. From the outside, it seemed to float slightly above the land, like a metallic dragonfly, and when I walked down the hill a ways and looked back, it seemed to have disappeared to a bladelike presence. A Murcutt home, in quintessence: It was simple, it was light and nimble, and it seemed autochthonous.
Murcutt began his career as a more or less straightforward Modernist, designing spare, orthogonal buildings with simple materials and a lot of glass. Mies van der Rohe was the master, and his Farnsworth House, built in 1951, was the model: austere to the point of puritanism, its plan so open it redefined the idea of domestic space, the Farnsworth House was an avatar of the International Style, and true to the name, Murcutt found it so adaptable to Australia’s culture and climate that some of his earliest projects look like knockoffs. Mies provided the principles: legibility, lack of adornment, undisguised materials. But it was Alvar Aalto who eventually set the tone.
Aalto was a Finnish architect who took the forms of high Modernism and softened them, adding natural materials, earthier colors and curvy lines that integrated his buildings into their natural surroundings, rather than plunking them down like boxes in meadows, as even the best Modernists sometimes seemed to do. In the early ’60s, Murcutt went on a sort of Grand Tour of Europe’s architecture; Finland was almost an afterthought, but the effect of Aalto’s naturalism was immediate and lasting. “I saw the longevity of his ideas,” he told me. “It was about light, prospect and refuge, space. He understood materials, the relations of spaces to materials. They were a fantastic discovery for me.” As if to return the favor, the Aalto Medal was bestowed on Murcutt in 1992.
Still, these are influences that almost any architect of Murcutt’s generation might acknowledge. He will mention, on top of them, Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet’s Maison de Verre in Paris, a somewhat eccentric but widely beloved building that mixed industrial materials, craftsmanship and sheer ingenuity to create a sort of Outsider Modernism; the Spanish architect José Antonio Coderch, who brought intellectual rigor and honeycombed complexity to Mediterranean villas and housing projects; and some lesser-known figures like Gordon Drake, who built a few mutable, nature-friendly houses in California in the ’40s and early ’50s.
But Murcutt’s mature style started with an unexpected swerve, born of a good long look at his native home and its history. For the Marie Short House, which he began in 1974, Murcutt started tapping into the forms and materials of the woolsheds that dot the New South Wales countryside. Long and narrow, raised on stilts and oriented to make the best of the sun and winds, with curved roofs to protect them from rain and open plans to keep the air circulating, the woolsheds were an untutored response to the demands of the Australian climate. To Murcutt, they were a template for sensible design, and he soon began working on variations on the woolshed, fashioned out of modern materials and customized for human life.
By the early ’80s, he was adding in aboriginal ideas of orientation and communal space, principles less strictly architectonic but every bit as influential. Since then, he has expanded his inventory of elements to include organic forms like bird-wing roofs and leaflike iron fringing on the eaves. Sometimes, as with the House in the Southern Highlands, begun in 1997, his buildings seem to bristle with louvers and vents, overhangs and gutters. Sometimes, as with the Marika-Alderton House, a residence in Australia’s remote Northern Territory, or the Simpson-Lee House, with its two corrugated iron structures joined by a path beside a reflective pool, they’re so spare and open that they seem self-effacing.
What all of Murcutt’s work shares is a conception of architecture as minimal intervention, yielding buildings so efficient, and so deft in their design, that they hardly feel like buildings at all, though they provide all the comforts of more conventional edifices. At their best, they’re as controlled and powerful as a sonnet: dozens of considerations seem to click neatly into place, yielding a single, surprisingly simple structure.
Driving through Kangaroo Valley that morning, Murcutt quoted Thoreau’s call for “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” but he also launched into disquisitions like this: “It takes one megajoule” — roughly equivalent to the energy contained in one ounce of gasoline — “per kilogram to process timber from the forest into a sawn log. It takes another 4 megajoules per kilogram to put that timber into the final stage of a table or a chair. A kilo of steel takes 43 megajoules, so we’re talking about 8 or 9 times the energy costs. The trick with all these materials is to use them only where it’s necessary.”
In conversation, he tended to toss around analogies to explain how his houses work. Like human bodies, he said, their forms and materials play an interlocking role, bone to sinew to muscle. Like ships, they need to be worked to function at their best, louvers and slats raised and lowered like sails to make the most of a breeze. But the most extended and startling metaphor he offered proposed the building as a kind of hurdy-gurdy, with stops and levers and wheels and cranks, all designed to keep it in tune: “Think of the building as an instrument that’s picking up all these sounds. So it’s addressing the hydrology, it’s addressing the geomorphology. It’s addressing the typography, the wind patterns, light patterns, altitude, latitude, the environment around you, the sun movements. It’s addressing the summer, the winter and the seasons in between. It’s addressing where the trees are, and where the trees are will tell you about the water table, the soil depth, climatic conditions.” And if this sounds improbably confident, consider this: The day we stopped by the Fletcher-Page House was sunny and bright, with temperatures in the upper ’80s; but the house was cool and comfortable, though it has no air-conditioning. In fact Murcutt has used air-conditioning in his buildings only twice in his career, and many of them have no heating system either. It’s a waste of energy, he insists, and if you build properly, you don’t need them.
If you ask Murcutt about his career, he’ll describe all these things: his education and influences, his principles and practices. But there’s one experience that figures larger in his life than school or travel: his early childhood, which was spent in Papua New Guinea, in a setting not just rural but almost primeval, many miles from the nearest white settlement. And there’s one figure whose teachings and example meant even more to him than Mies’s: his father, who died when Glenn Murcutt was 33 and who nevertheless occupies his son’s imagination as vividly and completely as if he slept in the next room.
Arthur Murcutt was the sort of man who might loom over anyone’s life, most especially a son’s. After dropping out of school at age 11, he worked as a sheepshearer, then moved to New Guinea, where he spent some time as a shoemaker, palled around with Errol Flynn before the latter went to Hollywood, and eventually took up gold prospecting. At 34, he married a bright and sensitive girl of 19; Glenn was born two years later (he’s the eldest of five) and spent the first six years of his life living in the New Guinea bush among a fearsome and by many accounts cannibalistic tribe called the Kukukuku, watched over by a father who seems to have been almost as threatening.
Arthur Murcutt drove his children, enforcing a regimen of physical and mental training designed to ensure that they never got soft: exercises, drills, competitions and cross-examinations — in truth he sounds like a martinet, the sort of man who inspires either perfect loyalty or profound loathing. In Glenn’s case it was the former: only once, in several long conversations about his father, did he betray any ambivalence: I asked him if he still found himself working to please the man. “No,” he said. “When he died, it was a huge loss, but it was also a great relief.”
Beyond that comment, telling as it may be, he speaks of his father as an eminence to whom he owes everything and of his early years as an unmatchable lesson in being alive to the natural world. “Our early survival was entirely related to observation,” he told me. “Listening, seeing, smelling, touching.” A swim in the river, for example, was more than a bit of recreation. “We learned to read the water; to read the depth of the water, the way our bodies work in water. And air and water work in very similar ways. So to understand this was to understand currents and wind patterns. Then you understand topography, because topography defines the way wind will go.”
Later, in the narrow white living room of his modest Sydney residence — as safe and sane a place as ever was — he revisited those first years of his life as if he’d only recently left them behind, leaning forward in his seat, his eyes glowing behind his glasses. “It was a very amazing experience,” he said. The local tribesmen would come around: “You see, they were only about 1.49 meters high, and the kunai grass was 1.55 meters high, so they were just below the grass level. But you could see the grass moving, like a snake, and when you saw that you knew there were Kukukukus on the way. We could also smell them coming if the wind was blowing our way. Daybreak and sundown were the most likely times that they would attack, and we would be very observant at those times of the day.”
It was a childhood fit for a boy’s adventure magazine, coupled with a pioneer’s exigent home-schooling, and among the more formal subjects Murcutt’s father taught was architecture, using copies of American design journals that he had shipped in. The children were tested on these too: nature and culture, each an opportunity for an education both wild and disciplined (when the Murcutts came back to Australia at the start of World War II, wealthy from the New Guinea gold mines, they moved into a house with seven pianos).
Glenn got his degree from the Sydney Technical College, attending classes at night while he apprenticed with a local architect. Soon after graduating, he went off on his own. “I was the King of Alterations and Additions for the first 15 years of my practice,” he said. He designed a house for his brother and a small country house for a young couple and taught at the University of New South Wales architecture school. His annual income put him in the lower ranks of the middle class until he was 60. “In those first years I couldn’t afford to register my car, so I had it up on blocks,” he told me. “I had to take the bus and sneak in the site so the builders didn’t know I didn’t have a car.” Even now, with a worldwide reputation and a three-year waiting list for new clients, he lives like a schoolteacher.
Still, there are advantages to being known mostly to students and some colleagues. Because Murcutt has only recently started receiving widespread attention, he has thus far escaped concerted criticism. What little there has been has focused on the fact that his work isn’t scalable: he has a firm belief (Thoreau again) in both privacy and individuality, which for the most part translates into single-family dwellings in suburban or rural environments. Such commissions are as difficult to design as any other building, but their benefits don’t spread far: he has never designed an inner-city apartment house, for example, and it’s unlikely that he ever will.
But what he does build he builds exceedingly well. At 70, which is after all midcareer for an architect, he carries on exactly as he always did, in stubborn seclusion and keen concentration. He still stands on an empty site and watches the trees, judges the wind, measures the rainfall, and he still approaches his work with a mixture of open-mindedness and obstinacy. Riding back from Kangaroo Valley, I suggested to him that perhaps his buildings — perhaps all buildings and all art — already exist in a kind of Platonic space and that the architect’s job is simply to coax them into reality. He answered with a fierceness that belied the gentle process he was describing. “I’m telling you this,” he said, his voice rising. “This is my statement: Any work of architecture that has been designed, any work of architecture that has the potential to exist, or that exists, was discovered. It wasn’t created. Our role” — and the “our” seemed to refer to everyone on the planet — “is to be the discoverer, not the creator.”