Glenn Murcutt – Internationally Recognised Australian Architect

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The Glasshouse will host a fascinating and informative exhibition of works by internationally recognised Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt this month. Lindsay Johnston, Convener of the Architecture Foundation Australia and one of the exhibition organisers, provides an interesting insight into the exhibition and Glenn Murcutt’s achievements …

Tell us about the Architecture Foundation Australia and what it does …

The Architecture Foundation Australia is a not-for-profit cultural association with a mission to further education and awareness of architecture and related disciplines. The Foundation organises educational events for practicing architects and architecture students, which includes the annual two-week residential Glenn Murcutt International Architecture Master Class – now in its 11th year.

What is your position with the Foundation?

I am, what we call, the ‘Convener’ of the Architecture Foundation. I am Secretary and Public Officer. I am, basically, responsible for all the organisational and administrative aspects of our activities. The exhibition ‘Glenn Murcutt: Architecture for Place’ is our first venture into exhibitions.

What is the Architecture Foundation Australia’s association with Architect Glenn Murcutt’s exhibition?

The Architecture Foundation, as an Incorporated Association, has members who elect a committee each year. Glenn Murcutt is our Chair. He has also been the central personality in the educational programs we offer, although there are now many activities that we undertake in which he is not personally involved.

So who exactly is Glenn Murcutt … and what’s his background?

Glenn Murcutt is Australia’s most internationally well-known architect and was recipient in 2002 of the Pritzker Prize – considered to be the ‘Nobel Prize’ of architecture. He received an AO in 1996, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Institute of Architects in 2002 and of the American Institute of Architects in 2009.

He is up there among the ‘rock stars’ of the architectural world, yet he has won this acclaim through his very low-key practice devoted to, what he says, “Not doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things extraordinarily well”.

He generally works alone from his home in Sydney, working in collaborations with other architects when necessary. He has no staff, no secretary and still does all his own drawings by hand – no computers.

What is Glenn most renowned for in architecture?

Glenn tells of his early travels to the USA and seeing houses designed by famous architects whom he admired, but being concerned that these houses were not well suited to their hot or cold environments. He was then alarmed to learn that these houses basically relied upon air conditioning to make them habitable. Since then, he has been committed to designing beautiful houses which relate well to their place, landscape and climate … hence the title of the exhibition ‘Architecture for Place’.

After early influences from the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and German American Mies van der Rohe, Glenn made a personal creative leap into his own personal language of architecture in the Marie Short House near Kempsey, NSW, 1974-75. This house, which he recalls having dreamed rather than designed, pursued the geometric rigour of van der Rohe, but brought into the architectural vocabulary the great Australian traditional material, corrugated iron.

He also responded to the coastal environment by raising it off the ground, building with lightweight low thermal mass materials and, importantly, introduced permeability to the external walls. This meant that ventilation and light could be manipulated through the operation of adjustable louvers, moving away from the conventional verandah around the edges of a dwelling and transforming the whole house into a verandah – it has been called ‘the Verandah House’.

Working with the environment obviously plays a big part in Glenn’s work?

He responds to the different environmental and climatic conditions. He explains that, for example, his houses in the Blue Mountains or Kangaroo Valley, NSW, are not lightweight and raised off the ground like the Kempsey house, but use concrete slab on ground floors with high thermal mass, that can be used to store warmth in winter or ‘coolth’ – coolness – in summer.

He tells the story that he failed ‘Sunlight and Shade’ during his architectural education, but now he has encyclopedic knowledge of solar angles and orientations at different times of the year. His houses are carefully worked out to admit welcome winter sun and exclude unwanted summer sun. He pays particular attention to cross ventilation, and close examination of the detail of his houses reveals ingenious ‘flaps’ that open and close by hand in living areas and bedrooms to allow air movement crucial to human comfort. His other trademark is, of course, the ubiquitous corrugated steel water tanks that collect rainwater for personal use and fighting bushfires.

How do you feel Glenn’s international experiences – including his childhood in Papua New Guinea – have influenced his work?

Glenn’s early childhood in Papua New Guinea – up near Wau, where I have actually visited – was definitely as fundamental to his future career as was the influence of his father, Arthur, first gold prospector and later home builder. New Guinea at that time, just before the second world war, was a threatening environment with, first, the risk of being attacked by the local tribes and, then, by the Japanese invaders.

Glenn attributes his sense of awareness of his surroundings to the need to be aware of what is happening 360˚, including from behind. Glenn’s father – a hard man – seems to have been a man ahead of his time, who subscribed to American architecture magazines and built unusual houses for himself. He certainly opened Glenn’s mind to architecture and has passed to Glen tremendous frugality and technical prowess.

What awards has Glenn won over the years?

Some of the big ones I have mentioned previously. He has received about twenty-five Australian Architecture awards including the Gold Medal. Other international awards include the Alvar Aalto Medal, Finland; Richard Neutra Award, USA; the ‘Green Pin’ International Award for Architecture and Ecology, Denmark; and the Asia Pacific Culture and Architecture Design Award.

What building is Glenn most famous for creating?

Glenn is more famous for his whole body of work and for his extraordinary humility and commitment to what has been called ‘singular practice’. He has also eschewed fame and has consistently refused invitations to undertake projects overseas – by his own insistence, he has never worked outside Australia.

The Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre, ‘Riversdale’, 1996-99, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River near Nowra, NSW, was referred to as Glenn’s “Master Work” by the chairman of the Pritzker Prize jury in 2002. It is one of his few public buildings and was done in collaboration with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark, whom he would insist that I mention in this regard.

What does the exhibition comprise?

The exhibition originated at the prestigious Gallery Ma in Tokyo in 2008, where it was curated by Professor Tom Heneghan and quite a team of people from universities in Sydney. The Architecture Foundation contributed towards the cost of the beautiful architectural models that were made in Australia. We then discovered that there was no plan for the exhibition after Tokyo and stepped up to acquire the rights to the exhibition – and bring it to Australia. It has now toured to the Museum of Sydney, the Gallery of Australian Design in Canberra and the QUT Art Museum in Brisbane.

The exhibition, apart from showing many of Glenn’s wonderful buildings through images by leading photographer Anthony Browell, focuses upon Glenn’s drawings – conceptual and technical – and through them, on his methods of creativity and working. He says, in the 12 minute video that accompanies the exhibition, “Architecture is not created; it is discovered – the hand will find solutions before the mind can even comprehend them”, thus celebrating the value of hand drawing as a path of discovery. The video has been made especially for the exhibition by Catherine Hunter and Bruce Inglis, who made the fine documentaries on Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd.

Thank you Lindsay.

The Glenn Murcutt: Architecture for Place exhibition is on view from 3 December until 30 January 2011. Entry to the exhibition is free.

The Exhibition Opening is at 6pm, Thursday 2 December. Cost is $10 ($5 Friends of the Glasshouse). Focus readers can RSVP until 1 December by calling 6581 8888.

For more information on the Architecture Foundation Australia, visit: www.ozetecture.org

Interview by Jo Atkins.


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