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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 20-Apr-1989

Edition: Late

Section: Style


Page: 3

Wordcount: 1563



THE search for Australianness continues. An obverse symptom of cultural cringe, the syndrome has long been discernible among architects as a need to invent, discover or (if necessary) filch an architecture that is in some way peculiar to this vast island continent. In recent years, however, it has developed almost to the point of obsession, causing at times even the most wildly derivative buildings to be regarded as somehow very “Australian”.

It is ironic that this trend has coincided with the meteoric rise of that self-consciously imitative decorativeness known in architecture as post-Modernism, and with the concomitant jettisoning of climate as a respectable design determinant.

The benign Australian climate does not necessitate a great expenditure on heating compared with the northern hemisphere. But low-energy climate-conscious building, in this best of all possible climates, holds still untapped the tantalising promise of an architecture that has style as well as Australianness.

There are two kinds of low-energy building, known as “active” and”passive”. Active involves machines – solar panels, windmills and so on; all the devices and gadgetry which have helped make the whole thing seem too technical and inconvenient for most tastes. Passive, on the other hand, is mainly a matter of common sense – of orientation, planting, materials, colours, ventilation, insulation and sensible, responsive design.

The principles are simple. In many cases they were the prime determinants of those centuries-old building vernaculars – Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Malaysian – that we now so fervently admire. Research has given us the means and the materials (of which by far the most useful is ordinary clear glass) to apply the same principles efficiently.

In passive design, though, the research, for Australian purposes, was finished years ago. We have the sun-charts, wind diagrams, temperature calculations, humidity data; we also know that their application, in so benign a climate, can tolerate 25 or 30 per cent error without causing any marked drop in effectiveness. This means the principles of passive design can be applied by the layperson. (Two of the best available books on the subject are Energy Efficient Australian Housing, written by architect Tone Wheeler for the Federal Department of Transport and Construction, and Passive Solar Design in Australia, by Jack Greenland, Steve Szokolay and John Ballinger.)

The most powerful single factor in low-energy design is the orientation of glass to the sun. Because of our dedication to sun and views and because heat loss is not a serious problem here, houses often sport considerable expanses of glass. Glass, however, not only transmits but re-radiates solar heat inwards, causing temperatures to soar.

The primary role of architecture, it may be argued, is to provide beauty. In buildings, beauty is no strictly visual thing but relies at least partly on the internal functioning of the organism, on its spiritual qualities as well as its aesthetic qualities. Islamic architecture, for example – take the Alhambra in Granada – can be breathtakingly beautiful, not least because it provides delicious, gently-wafting cool air, fragrant with the proximity of water in a parching, cloudless climate. (Commercial office towers, by contrast, adopt the opposite course – using air-conditioning to solve the overheating problems caused by glass curtain-walling, then seek to rouge the cheeks of the invalid with ever more decorative facades.)

Australia has not yet developed a comparably appropriate architecture. There have been isolated, sometimes highly successful attempts, such as Philip Cox & Partners’ sail-shaded tourist village at Yulara, but even they have not given energy consciousness mainstream appeal.

Far from nurturing the possibilities of cool and shade, Australians in general still have not shed inherited northern-hemisphere attitudes to sun. Blissfully ignoring its potential for invasion and even damage, they continue to bake stoically in shadeless red-roofed suburbs.

Of course, you cannot be expected to live without windows (although in really hot climates, shutters are a viable alternative). The best and most obvious way of preventing solar overheating through glass is to shade it. Sun angles are high in the north and low in the east and west; high in summer, low in winter. Judicious positioning of overhangs, awnings or deciduous planting can easily exclude fierce summer rays, while welcoming the low winter sun.

Western sun is the fiercest and most problematic since truly precipitous eaves are necessary to prevent its pouring in. West-facing windows should therefore be as small and as few as possible, or shaded with planting, external vertical louvres or shutters. Internal curtains and shutters, while effective against winter and night-time heat loss, are much less useful in combating heat gain. The trick is to stop the stuff hitting the glass – once it touches glass, it is in.

The other two main principles are to do with insulation and ventilation. Clearly the best form of ventilation is the opening window, known in architectural argot as the “user-activated environmental interface”. The best windows (casements or pivots) can be angled to catch the cooling breeze. It is as well to remember that air needs a way out as well as a way in, or cross-ventilation will not happen.

Insulation covers not only the familiar (and effective) notions of stuffing fibreglass and polystyrene into ceilings and walls, but also the business of what a building is made of. There are two main approaches. In tropical climes, the best and traditional approach is to build lightweight, thoroughly-ventilated structures of materials (such as timber) that hold no heat. The chastely screened, latticed and stilted Queensland vernacular style may look decorative but is in fact also perfectly adapted to its hot, moist coastal environment.

Inland Queensland, on the other hand, is hot and dry; the vernacular has spread inland but there, is no longer tuned to its environment. Inland, as in the Mediterranean or Middle East, ideal building materials are stone, mud or concrete which, being dense, do not conduct heat. Such materials stay blissfully cool during hot days and re-radiate absorbed heat to the interior during cool nights. This property, called thermal inertia, can be particularly effective in inward-looking courtyard houses, with small windows in solid masonry walls turned to the sun and an airy, even water-cooled interior.

In a benign climate such as Sydney’s, however, either approach can be successful; or even a combination of the two, giving, perhaps, a house with a solid masonry core (centred perhaps on the hearth or study) and airy, screened rooms surrounding. Pale (reflective) external surfaces and tiled masonry (heat absorbent) floors help, but none of it needs commit you to radical hippiedom or underground domes, as architect Glenn Murcutt’s delicate touch has shown.

Murcutt, master of the elegant climate-responsive house, is also one of Australia’s most Australian architects. Using a characteristic palette of lightweight materials, external louvres and ventilated self-shading roofs that operate like permanent parasols, he has produced a clutch of houses, warm in winter and cool in summer, whose supreme refinement of plan and detail instantly dispel any expectations of the rough round furriness that so typified 1960s woodbutchery, and tarred energy consciousness with a similarly sloppy brush.

“Climate,” says Murcutt, “is the basic mechanism which I build in.” He stresses the importance of “trees, water, earth, light, sun, shade, warm air, cool air” as the essential ingredients of environmental richness.

“Australians seem to think they need air-conditioning, but this is rubbish. As far as I’m concerned, air-conditioners, awnings, and things like that simply cover up the architect’s inadequacies,” he says.

Having read and travelled, Murcutt is, of course, fed by ideas from abroad but in responding particularly and acutely to the Australian environment, he has produced buildings that stand apart, unlike anything else anywhere.

As Vitruvius, the first architectural theorist, wrote in the first century AD: “If our designs for private houses are to be correct, we must at the outset take note of the countries and climates in which they are built.”Murcutt is not the only one

doing it in Australia, but his work above all suggests that there is hope for architecture here, if only we can stop following fashion, and start listening to the place.


Two Illus: Climate control …

Tone Wheeler’s elegantly sun-shaded house(above) and a farmhouse by Glenn Murcutt Pictures by MAX DUPAIN


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