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Essay

The Architecture of Glenn Marcus Murcutt
By Kenneth Frampton
Ware Professor of Architecture
The Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation
Columbia University, New York

“I’m very interested in buildings that adapt to changes in climatic conditions according to the seasons, buildings capable of responding to our physical and psychological needs in the way that clothing does. We don’t turn on the air-conditioning as we walk through the streets in high summer. Instead, we change the character of the clothing by which we are protected. Layering and changeability: this is the key, the combination that is worked into most of my buildings. Occupying one of these buildings is like sailing a yacht; you modify and manipulate its form and skin according to seasonal conditions and natural elements, and work with these to maximize the performance of the building. This involvement with the building also assists in the care for it. I am concerned about the exploitation of the natural environment in order to modify the internal climate of buildings. Architects must confront the perennial issues of light, heat, and humidity control yet take responsibility for the method and the materials by which, and out of which, a building is made. The considerations, context, and the landscape are some of the factors that are constantly at work in my architecture.”

—Glenn Murcutt, 1996

Seventeen years serve to separate the award of the Pritzker Prize to Glenn Murcutt from the first comprehensive monograph on his work; Philip Drew’s Leaves of Iron published in Sydney in 1985. Despite its somewhat indifferent distribution, this book had the effect of consolidating the nascent Murcutt myth which was by then already an indicator of the resurgence of Australian architecture. Just over a decade before, that is to say, by the earlier 70s, Murcutt had already established something of a reputation as a designer of elegant Neo-Miesian houses culminating in his single storey, steel framed Laurie Short house, built in the Terry Hills near Sydney, a work which already departed in significant ways from the abstract purity of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1950) by which it had been inspired. Apart from its empirical spatial organization, this distanciation was never more evident than in two seemingly inconsequential but nonetheless telltale features; first, the relatively intimate use of terra-cotta and brick paving, a treatment reminiscent of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, New Canaan (1949), and second, the provision of sliding louvred screens on the eastern façade in order to shield the living room and patio from the low-angle sun.

The three and a half month world tour that Murcutt undertook in 1973, beginning in Mexico City and Los Angeles, traversing the States and going on to Western Europe with a stop-off in Mykonos before returning to Australia, had a catalytic impact on the rest of his career, most decisively perhaps because of three experiences; his passing encounters with the Californian and Catalan ‘regionalists’ Craig Ellwood and José Antonio Coderch and the epiphany of Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris (1932) that in effect demonstrated the possibility of evolving an astylistic architecture in which tectonic invention was inseparable from poetic form. One should also mention in passing the one other French influence that deeply affected Murcutt’s parti pris in the mid-70s, namely, Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale of 1949.

Murcutt’s brief contact with the Greek island vernacular took him back to his roots, to the relatively primitive environment of his childhood in New Guinea, to the nature writings of Thoreau much cherished by his father, and above all, to the realization that a revitalized Australian architecture would have to be grounded not only in its greatly varying climate and landscape, together with its exotic flora and fauna, but also in the repressed Aboriginal culture that was to have such a decisive influence on the evolution of Murcutt’s domestic architecture. It was this plus a profound respect for the traditional Aboriginal ethic of “touching the earth lightly”—the moral principle of not disturbing nature more than is absolutely necessary—that led to Murcutt’s conception of a new Australian domus in the form of a long and narrow, light-weight, roof work, comparable in its sheltering function to the bower of a tree or, in more morphological terms, to the turned up collar of an overcoat that shelters from the wind while subtly opening its front towards the sun.

Lastly, there was the ubiquitous, long forgotten, corrugated iron roof vernacular of the Australian outback to which Murcutt turned immediately after his world tour to create the louvered Maria Short farmhouse at Crescent Head, overlooking the Maria River in 1974, his second house for the Short family in less than two years. In this canonical piece, he succeeded in combining the Semperian primitive hut of 1852 with the tectonic refinement of Mies’ Farnsworth House, along with a vertebrae approach to basic structural frame taken from Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale. It is just this somewhat unlikely conjunction that inaugurated a spectacular series of light-weight, single-storey houses, elevated clear of the ground, framed in either timber or steel, or in a mixture of both and invariably roofed and/or clad in corrugated metal. It is important to note that the linear room arrangement and the shallow depth derived from the need to maximize cross-ventilation for every room while simultaneously deploying the roof overhang and the back of the house, facing south, in such a way as to eclipse the noonday high summer sun and to admit at the same time in winter. Over the next fifteen years, he would build well over thirty houses in this unique “outback” manner, ringing the changes on every conceivable frame, truss, louver, vent, gutter, down-pipe, and roof profile, varying from mono- to double-pitch, to arcuated form before arriving at the metal-roofed but otherwise totally timber-clad, Marika-Alderton House, completed in East Arnheim Land in 1994 ...

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