Glenn Murcutt, Architect

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As befits both its subject and its impeccable production standards, there is some beautiful writing in this handsome boxed ‘collector’s edition’ folio. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa reflects on Murcutt’s architecture of ‘humility and dialogue ‘in deep communion with its place’; an architecture that offers both prospect and refuge, dual comforts that are perhaps hardwired into the human consciousness. David Malouf, much of whose internationally-recognised writing draws, like Murcutt, on the distinctive Australian experience ‘ aesthetic, cultural, environmental ‘ references Murcutt’s ‘tough lyricism’, the self-imposed constraints born of his respect for landscape coupled with an almost romantic response to the sensuality of nature. Noting Murcutt’s idiosyncratic ‘singular’ mode of working, Malouf suggests that the ‘slowness’ this imposes in itself echoes the ‘timelessness’ of nature, a conscious rejection of ‘machine time’.

Kenneth Frampton discusses the influences at play on Murcutt’s life and work, but it is Murcutt’s own words ‘ part of his Pritzker Prize address in Rome in 2002 ‘ that most directly reveal the man behind the buildings. We learn for example that the architect’s famed predilection for solitude was a reaction to the chaos of his childhood environment:

I grew up in a family of five children. There were seven pianos in a house of three levels. The noise was terrible. There was always something being designed and built around the house ‘ canoes, racing skiffs, houses. I learned I needed silence, much silence, to work. This was a very important lesson for me. The amount of noise made me want silence.

Murcutt also needed good clients and he acknowledges their patience and commitment in the Pritzker speech. In this context the inclusion in the folio’s bound volume of correspondence between Geelum and Sheila Simpson-Lee ‘ clients for the Mount Wilson house ‘ and Murcutt was inspired. Murcutt must have thought his ship had really come in when in October 1986 he opened the initial letter of approach, a six-page closely typed missive that is, in its own way, as eloquent as writing by more practised contributors to the book:

Dear Mr Murcutt,
We write to ask if you would consider building us a modest-budget weekend/vacation house at Mt Wilson ‘ Under consideration is a ‘ house on the rim of the Blue Mountains National Park at Mount Wilson ‘ which would be a sanctuary for a retired couple of intellectual and reclusive disposition; where they might enjoy a change of scene, feel closer to Things That Matter and distanced from those that do not, and Get Away From It All in an active constructivist rather than escapist sense.

The letter goes on to outline their wish for a ‘minimalist pared down approach’, their desire for the preservation of the natural vegetation, a description of the site and the lengths they had gone to in researching the kind of architecture they wanted. They reference Philip Drew’s pioneering Leaves of iron. Glenn Murcutt ‘ (1985) several times as a seminal influence in their choice of Murcutt.

If ever there was a meeting of like-minds between client and architect this, on face value, appeared to be it. But all was not smooth sailing. Indeed, we learn that at the first presentation of drawings ‘Murcutt was dismayed to be told by by Geelum that they had asked for a house of lightness and he had delivered a ‘battleship”. Despite these early tensions, a productive and prolonged dialogue was initiated that saw the completion of the house in 1993. It went on to win the Wilkinson Award from the NSW Chapter of the RAIA in 1995, but missed out on a national award, a controversy made much of at the time. In this context we can enjoy Sheila Simpson-Lee’s glowing ‘Client Response Survey’ and the inclusion of a Sydney Morning Herald article drawing attention to the national award jurors’ neglect to visit the house as part of their assessment process. This revealing narrative about the gestation of one of Murcutt’s most significant designs is for me, admittedly a non-architect, one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.

However, the story is still further elaborated through the inclusion of a selection of drawings for the Mt Wilson house in one of the eight folders that are the complementary component to the bound volume. Each folder is devoted to a project nominated by Murcutt and includes superb quality black & white and colour photos, many by Max Dupain, Anthony Browell and Reiner Blunck. The real gems, however, are the working drawings and sketches reproduced in actual size. For the Simpson-Lee house we are treated to an early concept sketch ‘ possibly the ‘battleship’ that so bothered Geelum’ ‘ in the architect’s beautiful freehand style, to the graceful, steel-framed pavilion design resolved 18 months later in October 1989. The final drawing in this folder, a transverse section characteristically densely-loaded with Murcutt’s extraordinarily-detailed specifications reveals, as Frampton’s accompanying analysis points out, that the construction principles for the house were already well in place almost five years before it was actually completed.

For a range of audiences there is much to savour, reflect on and revisit in this very fine folio with its meticulous presentation, best-quality materials and hand-finished bindings. Ever the perfectionist, Murcutt himself must be pleased! But just a warning ‘ don’t think you are going to be able to read this book in bed. It demands your full attention, proper handling and a good solid resting surface!

Glenn Murcutt, Architect
Kenneth Frampton, with David Malouf and Juhani Pallasmaa
Boxed set in an edition of 1000. 01 Editions, Sydney, 2006
AUD$1650 ‘ info@01editions.com.au

01 editions
Pritzker Architecture Prize
Glenn Murcutt on Wikipedia
Arthur & Yvonne Boyd Education Centre