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Penny Lewis talks to the singular Pritzker-winning Australian

19 Apr 2005

Glenn Murcutt runs a one-man practice in Sydney. He designs private residential buildings and works alone, but the quality of work has attracted international acclaim, in 2002 he won the Pritzker Prize. In May this year he is speaking at the RIAS convention in Glasgow. Penny Lewis talked to him about his trip and his practice.

What will you talk about at the RIAS convention?
“I am going to talk about modern architecture, I will be taking about response to place, which includes, climates, culture, technology. I’ll be going from the monsoonal tropics of Australia to the temperate, the various climatic conditions and looking at how they affect the design of a building.”

Have you visited Scotland before?
“I did a competition in Paisley, I’ve been to Glasgow to see the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, I’ve been to Edinburgh and then I drove right up to the north, to Skye and across to St Andrews and that area.”

Have you seen the images of the new parliament?
“That is the one by Enric Miralles? No I haven’t, but he was a great architect and it was a great tragedy that he died at such a young age. I can’t say I knew him personally, as I know some other architects internationally.”

Given that you are seen as modernism with a regional twist, do you see affinities between architects in Scotland and your work?
“The work of Richard Murphy I am familiar with, and I have enormous respect for what Richard is doing. What he is attempting to do is what I am attempting to do in my place.
“He came to Australia many years ago and he has kept contact with me, and we have attended conventions together in the USA. I have known his work for a long time and admired what he has done, particularly in his richness. The work of Scarpa, for example, has given him a great lead into a way of detailing things.”

How do you account for your international reputation – other than the obvious quality of your work?
“To be judged by the quality of your work: What more would you want? “I’d leave that for others to judge, I just got me head down and have been working in the places that I have been working in my native Australia.”

You are a sole practitioner, who manages to be selective in the work you do. It’s an ideal situation. In the UK, it is an aspiration many architects have but find it hard to realize.
“People found it hard to realise when I started. I was told when I went into practice that I wouldn’t last five years, that practices were getting larger and that the idea of a small practice was a thing of the past. It might be, but I have been doing it for 35 years. I have a lot of support from my profession. In Australia, the type of practice that I run has been adopted by many younger architects.”

Why are you so selective about the work that you take on?
“I have seen a number of offices, and have been in offices, where the work has been exceptionally good when they have been small practices, but once the practice starts to get large... This is not without exception, like the work of Renzo Piano and others, where they have been able to hold to the standards in all scales of work. But it is a rare, rare thing for that to happen. One very talented Finnish architect asked the question ‘Are we making architecture or are we making merchandise?’”

You work alone, but you collaborate?
“I do, yes, of course, my wife is an architect and we will work in association. I have worked with other architects in Australia, in collaboration. When I get a job that I am not able to do, when I see a good client, then I send them to a young architect for whom I have great respect.”

One of the factors for your reputation is the precision and elegance of your detailing – where does that come from?
“You know I grew up in a family where a lot was demanded of us for example. I worked in my father’s joinery shop, from the age of about 11 until 17 or 18. I learned to make windows, staircases. I built racing boats. The idea of how things go together. He was a joiner, a builder, a boat maker, and a shoemaker. He made all of our shoes when we were children. He was also an ecologist. Those are the sorts of things that influence you powerfully.”

Much is made of your preoccupation with the idea of ‘touching the ground lightly’ What is the motivation behind that?
“If you understand Australia, it varies from the top to the bottom. Remember this: think of it as the same as going from the western peninsula of Spain to Tel Aviv, and then from North Africa to seven-eighths of the way up Finland. That is the size of Australia. It is huge. It is about the same size as the USA. It means that we have varying climates around the country. We get about 300mm of rain in an hour up North, and we get 70 to 100 mm of rain in Sydney in an hour. Which means that you have to be very careful how you place anything on the ground. In other words erosion is a big problem, the drainage patterns of the ground below a building and the fauna. These are many of the factors that mean that you try and keep the relationship between nature and the building in balance.
“What I am talking about is environmental things. If you build it into the ground, you get much better airflow.”

You have stuck with houses as the basis of your practice. Do you accept the thesis that there is little space for innovation within this building type?
“That is not true. There is so much that one can do in housing. It is really the most complicated of all of architecture. When one has to take into account the human requirement, the physical requirements, the economics, there are so many factors that big architecture really does not include some of these things, which is really what makes it quite alien to the public. Housing gives a wonderful platform to at least address the issues that architecture asks of us.”

Is innovation important?
“It can be. So long as it does not go into novelty, innovation has got to come out of a need, if it comes out of novelty then it’s not going anywhere. You know you can produce desperately interesting ideas, but there is no point in building something that is so desperate. I am interested in the roots of things in terms of ideas: how do you control sunlight properly, what are the systems available, how do you increase the wind velocity over a building? How do I take off the warmth in wintertime, and how do I get rid of it in summertime? There are all sorts of ways of going about this and I have developed slatted louvre systems that, for example, allow sun penetration in winter and exclude it entirely in summer, without moving an item. There is a lot of innovation potential.”

From Scotland it looks as if the architectural profession in Australia is busy, dynamic and producing good, innovative work. Is this a fair assessment?
“If you go back to the 50s until the late 80s, Australia wasn’t a place that the world of architects thought that it might be great to go and see architecture here. That has all changed. Architects are coming from all over the world in droves. That is in itself an indication of the real interest in what is happening here. “I’m the president of the Australian Architecture Association. We aim to broaden the understanding of modern architecture to reach the public. We have 7,000 members, it’s based in Sydney, it’s enlarging, it’s doing things like the Chicago Architecture Foundation, we are the first affiliate member of the CAF, we have events running already.”

What are the issues exercising the passions of Australian architects?
“We are much more interested in the way the city is used, how the harbour interrelates with the city and the activities, what is happening to the future of Sydney Harbour; we have an interest in the buildings of the pre-20th century, and then the whole of the 20th century, and the work that is coming now, is all of great interest to us. What is appalling to us is the development of mass housing.”

You are particularly active in the debate about the future of housing in Australia. What are the issues that need to be addressed?
“The real problem is that there seems to me to be a new international typology of buildings: they are making buildings bigger, the sites are smaller and they are a product of individual subdivisions. If you go back to the 50s, for example, when Utzon designed his housing at Elsenore and Freindsborg, they were for low-income families, but produced real architecture. What is happening is that once you make the subdivision first then you get individual houses on individual sites that have no relationship to one another, there is no sharing of walls, there is no thermal sharing, they are not even considered in relation to the climate in terms of proper sun movements you can go out the house into a courtyard that is cool in summer and warm in winter, you can’t do that with this sort of subdivisions.
“Its starts with the subdivisions, the problem is the subdivisions, which of course you British gave us. At the time was thought to be fantastic because it was back to back housing in the UK and everyone wanted to get away from the back-to-back housing. It provided the possibility of getting the urban nature and the rural nature in the suburb, but of course like most compromises, neither one worked properly.”

I was under the false impression that you live in the outback.
I live within four kilometres of the city centre, some people would argue that I live more on an aeroplane than in Sydney.

Glenn Murcutt will be speaking at the RIAS convention on 5-6 May at Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow Other speakers include Fumihiko Maki and Ken Shuttleworth. For information contact the RIAS on 0131 229 7545

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