Despite international fame and reputation, Glenn Murcutt’s existence is much less the life of rock star than one of monastic simplicity. The residential designs for which he is famous are rigorous, even austere, yet peerless in relationship to place. His drive and self-discipline is reflected in design work notable for its robust delicacy. Burnished into their settings with a jeweller’s eye, Murcutt’s distilled steel clad houses in the city and bush have given him international celebrity.

Yet for all of this, he is frequently embroiled with suburban councils keen to maintain old habits and the status quo. His latest house in New South Wales’ Kangaroo Valley is typically anti-status. In an age of the design posture, it is a beguiling example of architecture with a principal aim of tranquillity and serenity. Paradoxically the calm resolve of his work can hardly be claimed of his working life.

Murcutt’s Perfect Pitch

A new Glenn Murcutt project is much like a new David Malouf novel, Peter Sculthorp musical composition, or Peter Weir film.  His work has such a strong narrative that despite its usually modest dimensions, it ends up as epic. When there is a problem - and architecture is really just a sequence of problems requiring solutions - he arrives like the white-knight in lightweight, fully operable armour. Corner him in suburbia and he does it all again generating the most with the least. He likes to remind you: “It takes enormous effort. It’s like the economics of fractions, you can have six-eighths, or three-quarters. I look for three-quarters every time.”.

There is probably a general perception that architecture is easy now given his unstoppable success with so many of world architecture’s major prizes. One would imagine this should give him the necessary gravitas and design ‘credits’ and free him of justifying his actions to the planning appeals court. But there is no such ‘Get out of jail’ card for Murcutt to play. He is about to head back to court once again and it makes him furious.

It’s not so much that he feels ‘above it’, but that he needs to constantly repeat himself and spend the time and emotional energy “arguing with 25 - 40 year-olds with little grasp of truly sustainable planning and design. They’re mostly bone-headed,” he groans. “I can’t believe that in this era, when we should know better, I’m required to explain what is so patently obvious. In this instance, the issue involves a dumb regulation, so I’ll fight it.” In this instance it’s all over a central courtyard he proposes that will radiate daylight throughout, rather than rely almost solely on a crummy south facing back yard aspect.

Murcutt rails against outdated regulations and planning orthodoxy to the point that his version of green and sustainable design is frequently at odds with local council planners.

It is easy to picture him recalling the lines of the Australian actor Peter Finch in his penultimate role in The China Syndrome when he throws open the window and cries out in despair: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”.

For an architect who has influenced contemporary architecture around the world, it is galling that he needs to explain, defend and prepare for another council stoush. “They’re wrong. These people talk green and sustainable but in effect they are telling me I have it wrong. Well so far 12 out of 13 court disputes have been on my side, so I guess that says something.”

It’s easy to forget his international recognition. What began with Finland’s Alvar Aalto medal in 1992 opened the floodgates for awards and these include architecture’s answer to the Nobel Prize, The Pritzker, North America’s Thomas Jefferson Medal, Richard Neutra Award and Denmark’s Green Pin Award for Architecture and Ecology. Such recognition, you would imagine, might spare him from dealing with junior planners grappling with new ideas but stuck with outdated regulations. 

When he’s not in court he’s notching a staggering number of air miles on a continuous loop between Australian, North America and Europe. He works like a bee, pollinating ideas at many of the world’s leading universities. And when he’s not doing this he’s sought after as a juror for many of the world’s major architecture competitions.

“All of these awards and juries,” he points out, “result largely from my work that deals with environment issues. In dealing with the environment you’re going to produce a different sort of building than the one we understand is a box and councils want boxes. Here I am at nearly 72 still having to fight with authorities. I’m dealing with 25-40 year old planners who have no understanding of the implications of what they are hoping to enforce.”

He acknowledges he’s “a big target now” for local councils. That’s a hell of a lot of wasted time. You have regulations that place a lot of importance on environmental factors. He’s a lot like the anthropomorphic super battery in the television advertisement that refuses to surrender; refuses to flatten and drives itself first across the line time and again. He could be re-named after a well-known battery except it’s a sponsorship tag that fully belongs to BlueScope Steel. After all, it is this maker’s brands such as Zincalume, Custom Orb and Mini-Orb with which he has enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship for the past three decades.

His work has so seeped into the nation’s collective design consciousness that when a new project is realized, it no longer has quite the same surprise value. After all, it was only a few decades ago that a steel clad house was regarded as a down-market move. But such days are gone. Murcutt could have used guard dogs to keep at bay the stream of high profile clients who have persisted and demanded his services. Invariably he has resorted to his streamlined, sleek, steel shells that alternately gleam and dissolve into their bush settings.

Kangaroo Valley has a mythical, almost Utopian ring. It suggests a time of pre-history, certainly well before white settlement when Aboriginals and wildlife co-existed in a fine ecological balance. It is a place that deserves the lightest possible footprint. When Glenn Murcutt works in such a place, the results inevitably realize the possibilities. He teases, coaxes and squeezes the maximum from the circumstance.

“Kangaroo Valley is very difficult environment because the design discipline has to be self-imposed. The greater the number of constraints there are the easier it is. Here there is a pretty clean slate and the last thing you want to do is ruin it.”

One architect dismissed Murcutt’s work by saying: “Anybody can build pretty houses on the hillside. My answer to that is that I haven’t seen that architect build a pretty house in his whole career. Building in the landscape is much more complicated than most people understand.”

The Kangaroo Valley house typifies his view of green architecture. “One of the real problems is that you can produce green buildings but you don’t necessarily produce
green architecture. First and foremost it must be architecture. It can’t be some ad hoc, horrible added extra.

So successful is his architecture, that his principles have been absorbed into the local and international vernacular and widely imitated. The resistance towards a bush block villa designed with a floating steel skin, once an anathema to a public groomed on the bluster of brick and tile, has all but evaporated.

The Kangaroo Valley House is every bit the Modernist ideal of lightweight steel pavilion atop a grassy knoll. Almost too simple, with its distilled restraint and direct design language, there is the familiar kicked-up Zincalume roof that functions just like a bushman’s broad-rimmed hat. Its economy of line, spare composition and ordered materials and form create a taut, fully three dimensional experience. In a Murcutt design, the composition and scale of elements - from the width of timbers, size of glazing through to external blinds and, the now almost trademark steel shell work as a complete compositional force.

“When I first used corrugated galvanized iron on the Kempsey Farmhouse in 1974, I was able to achieve certain aero-dynamic responses by bending and curving steel. That was the first time I really understood how it could transcend the more typical use for sheds and water tanks. By the time I arrived at designing the Bingi House in 1983, I better understood steel’s fantastic potential to modify air flow through positive and negative pressure across inner and outer surfaces.

At Kangaroo Valley he also uses reverse construction placing flat sheet and timber boarding on the outside backed by the  insulated thermal mass of concrete on the inside to achieve optimum winter warmth and summer cool. “That sclerophyll skin on the outside with mass on the inside is a very logical way to produce buildings in the climate from temperate down to cool temperate. Even with a little extra weight on the inside, the effect is a house of supreme slenderness.

“I love that bone-like quality of steel; that thin, shell-like aspect provides a really satisfying economy of means. I dislike the lead balloon attitude to building. Many of our houses use steel as shelter to allow the rest of the house to be fabricated and constructed. The steel frame and cladding becomes a frame of reference for everything else. If the steelwork is accurate you don’t get mistakes, but rather a very systematic way of building.

“Architecture in the rural environment has special obligations,” he argues. “It isn’t just a matter of lifting something that works in one place and putting it somewhere else. You
really need to understand the importance of ventilation, collection of water and transfer of light and air. These are all heightened in the rural environment. To produce a suburban building in this sort of place is madness and carries real costs.”

To the uninitiated, he appears the perfect luddite. In some ways time has stood still for him. “The main thing that has changed,” he enthuses,” is my resistance to change. I’m not into mobile ‘phones or email.” And he still prefers the pizza like size and sound quality of the vinyl LP record player in preference to CDs. When he catches up with soul-mate and fellow starchitect Renzo Piano at his Kempsey, NSW farmhouse (Piano refers to Murcutt as  “my Australian brother’) the two revel in the extraordinariness of ordinary pleasures. “Technology has nothing to do with having a great time,” he says as they sit on the pavilion deck in patterned light and wind up the volume to the soundtrack of their favourite opera in a scene reminiscent of Herzog’s eccentric genius Fitzcarraldo.

Don’t even mention Bluetooth or you might as well be discussing some type of fish or aggravating dental condition. “What I know is that my time is paramount, so my time comes first. I was speaking with my engineer the other day and he had 1500 emails to read. How would I go dealing with that kind of thing? I couldn’t. I receive letters or faxes, that’s about it. What it means is that the very serious people are the ones that persist and make contact with me rather than just on some impulse.”

He regards himself blessed as a free spirit. “I love the diversity of my work. I haven’t gone out aggressively trying to make an empire. I haven’t asked favours of people who write about me or gone to magazine publishers seeking anything. Ever. The diversity I enjoy is marvellous.”

He recently chaired the jury for the Aga Khan awards and the Peace Park at the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey and the international ‘Living Steel’ award 2006 in Belgium. He was sole juror for the Oscar Tusquets Blanca Foundation Decada Award Barcelona 2006 and Buenos Aires 2007. He has professorships at Yale, Austin Texas, Seattle, UCLA, Dublin, Aahus Denmark and Sydney. “These are ways that I’m able to convey an attitude rather than a way of how to do things,” he says keen to highlight “the important distinction between thinking in a certain way, rather than doing something a certain way.”

His originality makes him a mighty drawcard at architecture symposia. As a one-man presenter at Portland, Oregon he drew a standing ovation from the 7,500 strong audience. It’s a reaction he finds humbling and one no other Australian architect has ever experienced. In Taiwan he attracted an audience of 3,500 and in Dublin he consistently won crowds of more than 1,000. “I’ve never played to an empty hall, I can say that,” he muses. “But you do learn as much from teaching as from doing because you must be able to articulate what you do and in so doing becomes the clarification of the essentials. And that is exactly what I practice.”

Those with the gift make such design appear quite effortless. Yet the results speak of a lifetime’s observation, experience and learning. Here, in this deep, quiet twilight of Kangaroo Valley is a fashion-resistant wafer of steel and glass. It resonates with the technique and poetics in the best spirit of such a place.

Peter Hyatt

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.