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Glenn Murcutt: "Any work of architecture that exists or has a potential to exist is there to be discovered"

Sydney: September 2013



Born:            1936, London, Great Britain

Education:    University of New South Wales, Sydney (1961)

Practice:       Opened his studio in 1970 in Mosman, Sydney

Projects:       Murcutt/Lewin House and Studio, Mosman, Sydney (2003); Lerida Estate Winery, Lake George, New South Wales (2003); Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Centre, Riversdale, New South Wales (1999); Museum of Local History and Tourist Office, Kempsey, New South Wales (1988); Marie Short House, Kempsey, New South Wales (1975); Magney House, Bingie Bingie, New South Wales (1984);

Books:          Three Houses: Glenn Murcutt Architecture in Detail (Phaidon Press, 2002; The Architecture of Glenn Murcutt (Toto, 2008); Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects: 1962-2003 (Thames & Hudson, 2006); Glenn Murcutt: A Singular Architectural Practice (Images Publishing, 2006); Touch This Earth Lightly – Glenn Murcutt in his own words (Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 1999); Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects (Whitney Library of Design, 1995); Glenn Murcutt: Works and Projects (Thames & Hudson, 1995); Leaves of Iron: Glenn Murcutt: Pioneer of an Australian Architectural Form (Angus & Robertson, 1994)

Teaching:      Professor at University of New South Wales, Sydney

Awards:        Pritzker Prize (2002), Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal (1992); the Richard Neutra Award for Teaching (1998); Officer of the Order of Australia (1996); Alvar Aalto Medal (1992)



You live in a house, which is undistinguished from the outside and if it wasn’t for custom-designed mailbox I could pass by without a notice. Why did you choose to remodel this early 20th century house, as opposed to building from scratch your home as manifesto? 


First, I don’t need a manifesto. I have a very ordinary attitude in life, which is to do ordinary things extraordinarily well. This is what American educator and author John Gardner said: “Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” I prefer to act upon what I feel and that is – I don’t need to display anything. From the street, you would not know I live here. I like that. It is not until you open my door that you might have a suggestion of how I live. Privacy is very important to me. I have no staff. My wife, Wendy Lewin, is also an architect and she practices on her own as well. Sometimes we join our practices to work on particular projects.


Back to the house – I think houses in Australia are too big and I like the idea of living in half of a house with a close relationship to nature. I’ve been in connection to nature all of my life. Weather change patterns are very important to me. I look out of the window and I see birds, wind, clouds, rain… I can plan a compact house just five meters wide. That’s all I need. I would rather have half a house in the suburbs and use the surplus money on maintaining a farm. I have a large farm and a house in northern coastal New South Wales, five hours drive away from the city.      


You are talking about Marie Short House, which you designed for a client in the 1970s and later purchased and altered for yourself, right? Is it true that you own other farmhouses, which you originally designed for your clients? This is quite interesting.


That’s right. If you do your work in such a personal way that your client becomes very close to you, then such occasions could occur. For example, years ago, one of my clients said to me: “How much do you love this house?” And I said, “it is a very important house to me.” So the client said, “that’s all I need to know.” He was about to die. Two years later his widow contacted me and said: “We thought a lot of what we should do with the house. We have no children. We have invited our families to stay with us. They have never come. And if we leave the house to the family they will simply sell it. We would like you to take it over.” So all I want to say is that the way I practice, the most important thing to me is the relation with my clients. I am not about building myself or my clients iconic houses.


Ironically, your houses have become iconic, no doubt about that… I came for our interview one hour early and walked around the neighborhood [the Sydney suburb of Mosman]. What is so special about this area? It is away from the city and away from the water.


Well, this area is on a peninsula coming into the Sydney Harbour. I don’t need to have a grand view of the harbor. A view is essentially a status symbol. A view is nice, but if I want the view, I can walk three minutes to see it. I grew up in a house with a great view over the harbor, but we always had curtains with very small slots for narrow strips of views. I realized then that it is more important to capture different views than to have the whole view. So rather than having a whole view I enjoy seeing trees losing leaves or flowers changing colors in my garden. There is a very close proximity to everything from my house – the beach, ferries, shops, public buses, and I don’t need to have a car.


Your father used to build houses. Was he the main influence on your choice of becoming an architect?


Yes, clearly. He came to Sydney in 1942 from New Guinea where he made money as a gold miner and used it to buy land here. He was a speculative builder. He built houses for sale. Although he was not an architect, he would design these houses and I would work on building them. He had a very good eye for design. He was the first person who brought a Studebaker car and a Vespa scooter to Australia. When I was 11, he built a joinery shop where he had a master crafter from Scotland working on everything in timber. From then until I went into university my father required that I work there every summer. I was building windows, stairs, sometimes kitchen cabinets, components of buildings, trusses, prefabricated systems, models of airplanes, and even real sailboats. So early on, I knew the nature of materials and what various materials are capable of doing.  


You said: “Works of architecture are discovered, not designed.” In other words, every project comes out of its immediate site conditions.


Any work of architecture that exists or has a potential to exist is there to be discovered. In other words, I am not creating anything. My role is to discover – just like Michelangelo would say: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. So similarly, I am not trying to create anything. My role is to discover. I think there is a problem with the idea of creating things. There is arrogance in it. I like the idea of a challenge – it is there, but it is elusive. There is a creative process on the path to discovery. 


I love your explanation about how the same type of tree when growing on a hill or in a valley would look very different. Could you go over such initial site analysis? What questions do you tend to ask before a particular form is achieved?


Oh! I have a whole list of those questions… I teach at the University of New South Wales and this is exactly what we do with my students. I pick a beautiful remote site, a three-to -five hour drive from Sydney and we all go there and analyze it together. They can select a particular site within that area and they have to justify why. I ask them to research the social history, ancient history, modern history; they will look at the flora, fauna, geology, hydrology, geomorphology, water levels, nutrients, why certain trees grow in particular areas. Then they look at the climate throughout the year, sun position, humidity, rainfall, wind patterns… We stay on the site for four days just to collect all this data. That’s why just like trees are different, depending on where they grow, the projects are also very different based on all these factors.  


Who sets the program? Is it always a house?


I do. No, and it is always very specific. It can be a scientific research center for a particular number of people and so on. And, by the way, there is no power supply, no waste, and no water on site. They have to work out the power generation, waste management, and water supply.


You approach architecture as science, right?


Well… I think it is important. One of the great problems today is that architecture has become so much about the novelty and about the spectacular. I am not one bit interested because such architecture dates very quickly. Look at vernacular architecture. I am interested in learning how architecture can be responsive and responsible. I am not interested in sustainability per se because it is too narrow. But I want to understand the best way architecture can be responsive rather than of imposition.   


Some of the clear inspirations on you are works by Mies van der Rohe or Maison de Verre by Pierre Chareau in Paris. Could you talk about the influence on you by Mies? What is it that you value in his work most? He was not very site specific…


Exactly, and there are very few who are. What I like about Mies is the clarity. Simplicity is the other side of complexity. He produced works of great clarity, order, and simplicity.


My father used to subscribe architectural magazines from America and he would always ask me questions, so I had to understand what I was reading. Often I read articles more than once. Even before I started college, I knew the work of all leading architects. And in 1973 I went to America to see some of the projects and architects in person. I met one of my favorite architects, Craig Ellwood in Los Angeles whose buildings represented, to me, the most sophisticated technology in construction at that time. I remember going into his house on a very hot day being amazed at how cool it was inside. I thought – what kind of smart glass do they use in California that it keeps heat out and brings light in… I remember asking him how this was possible… And he unassumingly said: “We air condition the heat.” And, of course, in Australia, we heard of air conditioners being used only in office buildings. Then I asked him – what about your flat roof, does it leak. He said: “Of course, all good buildings leak.” Well… there is a song “It never rains in California.” That’s right. But in my country when it rains it pours, and I can’t afford to ignore that.   


There are houses, which were built with flat roofs, regular thin glass and walls, and without the air conditioner – everything sacrificed in desperate attempt to achieve certain aesthetics.


Clients of some of such projects had to sleep on tiled bathroom floors to escape the heat… This was an issue and it is still an issue. So my encounter with Craig Ellwood represented a turning point in my career… In the very beginning of my career, I had done one flat-roofed house, which was a disaster. After that, I said – never again. It is impossible to get the water off the roof very quickly. In order to make these houses work you need to have huge overhangs, complex window blind systems, perfect detailing, and so on. Anyway, I didn’t want to become my buildings’ service manager for the rest of my life. I wanted to be an architect who could move on to the next project and let these houses to be run by themselves. That was a very important lesson that I learned from Ellwood.  


How do you move from project to project? Is there a conscious progression?


No, I don’t have a conscious progression. In each project, I try and resolve issues that arise before me. Every site is different, particular conditions are different. The progression in my career has been very slow. [Laughs.] But I continue, fortunately.


I read that early on you started collecting catalogs of industrial parts to know what is commercially available, so you could construct projects out of ready-made parts. Could you talk about that?


Sure. Look at my window system in this room. There is no such thing. It does not exist. I assembled it based on various parts meant for pivoted doors. Professional people told me – it will not work. But I said – it will, and it does! I don’t have a frame here, the glass is protected by mohair from smashing against steel and there is some room left for ventilation all the time, all the year round. It doesn’t comply with codes that demand windows be sealed completely. I disagree with that, totally. This window is beautiful and it works. I find familiar components and use them in new ways all the time. I know that many architects have a tendency to make every detail and joint to be different – that is very expensive. So I turned to standard components instead – tomato house glazing, industrial louvers, and many other things that became part of my vocabulary. Still there is room for custom-designed details and articulation such as joints that connect standard components to my buildings, but my reliance on standard parts makes my projects very economical.


Your houses respond to climatic conditions; they are described as “instruments” or “devices with which to sense nature.” But what are other inspirations that are important to you? For example, Jørn Utzon was also inspired by things found in nature – seashells, plants, leafs. Can you relate to that?


Absolutely. Music, light, fauna, flora… There are so many buildings that exclude nature. But I want to smell the rain, hear the rain falling… I am collecting water – nature’s gift, to be reused and to be returned to the land again. To do that one must design a building so nature is the musical score, the occupants are the audience, and the building is the instrument through which it is allowed all these things to take place. The insulation used on the roof can give you a particular sound of the water falling… The way I design windows, they can be opened even when the rain is very heavy – to look at the water coming over the sheet of glass and all the beautiful patterns… Imagine – sitting at the veranda, and seeing the water coming down in layers – how beautiful is that! The most important thing to me is the junction of the rational and the poetic. 


Renzo Piano comes to mind as an architect who had similar upbringing as yours, and his buildings also could be viewed as beautifully detailed musical instruments. Also you share one passion – sailing.


He is a very good friend. He contacted me when he was awarded the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia. I was on the jury then. I advised him on what type of materials could be used there. He was my guest in this house and he stayed in my other houses. I remember one morning I woke up very early and Renzo was already all shaved and dressed up in beautiful Italian clothing, carefully drawing one of the details in my country house. [Laughs.]


You mentioned about the importance of quality of light. Could you explain the difference between qualities of light here in Australia and in Northern hemisphere? Is it actually possible to pick this up by a naked eye?


First, it is the clarity of the environment. We don’t have the pollution that most other places have. So we get the clearer and sharper light. On top of that, the landscape here is different. The plants have developed to survive on less water and huge heat impact. This caused our plants to develop a greater flexibility in their leaves’ stems, as they trace the sun’s movement throughout the day. In other words, light passes through our trees much deeper. We don’t have dense tree shapes; we have much more luminous and lucid tree shapes that allow the light through and reveal the structure. So our landscape is much more transparent. We can see through the landscape throughout the year except in the rainforest. So here, the light separates the elements where as in North America or Europe the light connects the elements. The same is reflected in the shadows, which are more playful and not as dense here.                


Do you ever get inspired by art or geometric forms, as was the case with Harry Seidler?


The greatest artists always have been inspired by nature. Art and nature have a very close relationship. Many artists were inspired by landscape, for example. In the 1930s such artists as Wassily Kandinsky or Josef Albers had a huge influence on architects. Their works were very spatial. But I think that in the case of many architects, including Seidler’s work, architecture does not need to be as complex. I don’t believe space should be so interesting that it takes your attention away from life, from nature. Like a good painting, architecture needs to have a bland background. If you put an artwork within space, they should not compete. If an artwork can’t breathe that means there is something wrong with the space. Even though I consider myself a Modernist, the problem with the Modern movement is that it became too fascinated with itself. Architecture became not just interesting; it was desperately trying to be interesting and complex, particularly in its form. But I like when complexity is taken to a very high level of clarity and simplicity, as in the work of Mies. Subtle is far more interesting to me. Great architecture is a sublime statement of human dignity; it seems to remain timeless in relation to the present. 


When I talked to Kengo Kuma he said that the most important thing in traditional Japanese architecture is the design of the roof. When he designs a house, he starts from the roof. In other words, if an architect can create a beautiful roof and a beautiful shadow under the roof then other things follow. Do you see your designs that way?


I think the roof is incredibly important. As I said, I only have done one flat roof house in my life. Actually, there were two more. I did not learn quickly enough from my first house mistakes, as I was designing my second house around the same time. I’ve done the third flat roof house, but that one was built as a very thick concrete slab which is perfect. That roof was flooded from the day it was finished and the water has been on it ever since, for 35 years. So it is great – that one does work. [Laughs.] But ordinary flat roofs I find to be a great problem.


I think the design of the roof is a determining factor of the planning system. The roof has to define spatial dimension of the house. The shadow, of course, is very important. In Australia, it is very small in winter and very large in summer. And I can also control my shadow with vertical louvers. But apart from getting rid of the water and figuring out the most rational roof configuration for that, and creating a shadow, there is a meaning that the roof has. Shelter is not expressed with a flat roof. Shelter is expressed with a pitched roof.


I read that you built over 500 buildings – more than Frank Lloyd Wright! When I mentioned this to Kenneth Frampton he said – oh no, maybe 50. I assume the truth is somewhere between 50 and 500.


I was just in Italy where I was asked the same question and I could remember 280 clients by heart and recalled twenty more on my way back. Well, the truth is that these are 500 projects, not buildings and most are quite small, mainly houses. But the majority of these were realized. I’ve been very busy. You know, one can be very efficient.


I guess, people can mostly judge by what’s been published.


But most of my works were never published because I never sought publicity, so many people don’t know how much I built. I have many very decent houses that have never been published.


Who decides what’s going to be published?


I don’t choose anything. The writers usually decide what they want to publish. I never initiated publications on my work… You know, I am still trying to think of how many houses I built and I don’t have a clue. I never thought of counting.


Well, that’s OK. That proves how busy you are. Let me ask you this – if I came to your office off the street and said: “I heard you are the best architect in Australia; I want you to design me a house.” What would you tell me?


Typically, clients write to me – they say they liked one of my houses. About thirty years ago, I got a letter from one of the clients who wanted to build a house in a remote and desolate area. At first, I was hesitant because it was hard to get there, so he said he will take me there on a small plane and we’ll have a picnic on the site to see if I am interested. Still he had to wait for two years because I have a long waiting list.


Then I went there to do a survey with the client. He told me afterwards how amazed he was just by watching how much attention I paid to every little detail. I finally picked the location for the house in a specific area overgrown with high grass – it was in the middle of this exposed, windswept, and rugged place overlooking the ocean. The amazing thing was that when the construction started, the builder discovered a foundation of a previous house! That means that the farmer who used to live there years earlier knew where it was best to build his house. Anyway, the client loved this house so much that he sold his house in Sydney and hired me to build another one. 


You are talking about the two Magney Houses built for the same client, right? Did the client have to wait another two years to design the new house in Sydney? 


Sure, he said: “We’ll wait.” And not only I designed their second house, I found the site for it.


Who are your clients?


All kinds of people: school teachers, university professors, farmers, barristers, accountants…


Do you mean middle class families can afford your work?


Of course. You know, in the beginning I had a special chart. I charged my clients based on how much they charged their clients. This worked fine until I started dealing with lawyers. [Laughs.] 


Many architects never heard of you before you won the Pritzker Prize in 2002. Did that change the nature of your commissions in any way?


Not at all. I actually lost one of my projects because it interrupted my work... Nothing changed here in Australia, really. It did internationally, but I don’t work internationally, just teach and lecture. Jorge Silvetti who was the Chair of the Architecture Department at Harvard at the time was on the Pritzker Jury, which I didn’t know. He asked me if I would like to give a talk at Harvard. He said: “It is important that you come.” I thought – Harvard, that’s a good school. I’ll go.


Then after the lecture, I was invited to a dinner with a number of people and then I am realizing that everyone at the table is on the Pritzker Jury… And I thought – that’s all right, so they are interested in my work. Sometime later, I was informed that I won the Prize. I have no idea if they visited any of my buildings… But some of the members of the jury who I saw later told me that my buildings look even better than on photos. 


You work all over Australia, but not overseas. Is there a particular reason why you limit your work close to home?


If you are a nation which is the size of the United States that has every climatic condition from tropical wet and dry, arid and semiarid to Mediterranean, humid subtropical, Marine west coast and humid continental why would you want to work anywhere else? I’ve been invited to work in Finland, Hong Kong, many times in the United States… But that means that I would have to work with a local architect, whereas I typically do everything myself. In any case, I am not a dog to want to piss on every tree possible to show that I’ve done work all over the place. I don’t need that. I just want to do ordinary things well here.  


OK, let’s talk about your work here. Why almost all of your projects are houses? Wouldn’t you want to build a major public building in Sydney?


Well, as I said, I have a long waiting list. Imagine a public client waiting for two years until I have time!


I think you want to be in control of every minute detail. It may cause problems if you are given a large project, right?


I have to be in control and I know that public clients would not like that.


Have you done competitions?


Just once, when I was very young.


Globally architecture today is often indistinguishable from place to place and is homogenized. Many leading architects have been working in very different places but produce similar solutions. Do you have any particular view on this issue? Do you think each place needs to have something unique?


Every place is unique. As we discussed, if you are building in the bottom of a hill or on top of the same hill the solutions should be very different… For example, Can you imagine the German designing Citroën or the French designing Mercedes Benz? No, of course, you can’t! The design language is developed in the minds of different people who think very differently. Spanish, French, and Italian are closer in their languages and in their thinking and British and the Germans also have a relationship. I think English language presents a big problem because it makes many people think similarly. It homogenizes our world.


I think people should retain their language and their way of thinking. I believe the nature of the place should define a particular design. It is irresponsible to design the same thing everywhere. I think the case when a Dane, Jørn Utzon, came to Sydney to design his Opera House should serve as a good example of how architects have to look for unique solutions. His building could not fit as comfortably in Copenhagen and it would not fit in New York either. The Opera House is a perfect Sydney building. Among other things, he understood the phenomenon of sharpness of the Australian light. He could choose for his building’s roof any color, but he chose white – what a silly idea! And not only it was white, but he alternated glossy and flat tiles, and the way he shaped his building is brilliant.      


It is often mentioned that you use corrugated steel. How did you come to use it and is it still one of your favorite materials?


Well, that’s what everyone says. I didn’t say that. [Laughs.] Every material has its place. I love timber because timber is a renewable resource. I love metals because the material allows me to do details and surfaces, which can’t be done in timber. I use also brick when it is appropriate, especially when I work on renovations of brick buildings where a brick wall might have to come down and be rebuilt differently – that’s sustainable. I worry about sustainability because as humans we consume more than the planet can produce. I love using glass. I love to see different colors reflected off surfaces when the sunlight hits the beveled edge of the glass. I do that on purpose, I love capturing and reflecting nature this way.     


What contemporary architects and projects inspire you and why?


Apart from Piano, I love the work of Sverre Fehn who I got to know very well. He was on the jury that gave me the Alvar Aalto Medal in 1992. I love his Hedmark Museum or Villa Busk in Norway. Then Carlo Scarpa is great, especially his Castelvecchio Museum. I love his ideas, the detailing, the progression; it is phenomenal. I love the work of Luigi Snozzi in Switzerland. Also the work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha is great. I recommended him for the Pritzker, which he got in 2006. Of course, Richard Leplastrier is a great architect right here in Australia. Harry Seidler was very good, the best commercial architect this country ever had. Commercial architecture is very difficult to do and he did a very fine job. I have huge respect for all these architects.          


Do you think there is such a thing as Australian architecture?


I am not interested in producing Australian architecture. I don’t know what it is. I am interested in producing architecture of its place. If it is identified as Australian architecture, so be it.