Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The man of tin who found gold
Highly regarded at home, architect Glenn Murcutt is now receiving world recognition, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Glenn Murcutt is one of the few Australian architects to have made household-name status. Now, although such over-the-cornflakes cognition seldom goes beyond tagging him “the tin-shed man”, Murcutt has won the big one, architecture’s self-styled Nobel, the Pritzker.
The Pritzker Architecture Prize was established by the Hyatt Foundation in 1979 to recognise a living architect of “consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”. Apparently the late Jay A. Pritzker, then Hyatt president, was so impressed by the effect that the soaring atrium of John Portman’s famous Atlanta Hyatt Regency had on “the mood of our guests and attitude of our employees” not to mention business profile that he decided on
a “meaningful” prize to enhance both creativity in and awareness of architecture.
Since then the prize very meaningful indeed at $US100,000 ($188,000) has been awarded annually to architecture’s great and good, so long as equipped with the prerequisite Y-chromosome. Laureates include Philip Johnson, Luis Barragan, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, James Stirling, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and, of course, the ubiquitous Frank Gehry. With the exception of Barragan (1980), a common factor here is what founding jury chairman J. Carter Brown described as “the glitz of our ‘starchitects’, backed by large staffs and copious public relations support”.
Working alone, without so much as a secretary, Murcutt stands in stark contrast to spinville a fact which the Pritzker jury clearly found hugely appealing. The blurb for the anti-glitz push clearly doesn’t apply to the prize itself makes much of this near-puritanism, applauding the fact that Murcutt’s works “are not large scale, the materials he works with, such as corrugated iron, are quite ordinary, certainly not luxurious, and he works alone”. The booklet features a black-and-white Murcutt looking insightful in battered Akubra and Driza-Bone, astride a tractor during “his other activity, farming”.
And yet Murcutt, continues the blurb, despite working “on the other side of the world from much of the architectural attention”, enjoys “a waiting list of clients, so intent is he to give each project his personal best”. Snakes alive. In Australia!
In fact, of course, HQ America has just discovered what the rest of us have known for years; top-flight architecture can happen anywhere. Gasp. Even here.
The blurb cites French writer Francoise Fromonot’s claim that Murcutt is “the first Australian architect whose work has attracted international attention”. This is a tad fanciful, but certainly Murcutt’s elegant sheds have garnered huge international acclaim over the last decade.
So much that Murcutt now holds visiting chairs at half a dozen US universities and divides a reasonable portion of each year between them, collecting a swag of global gongs en route including the Alvar Aalto Medal (Finland), the Richard Neutra Award
(US), the Danish Green Pin and the Thomas Jefferson Medal (US). For a man who, 10 years ago, predicted a hermitic future for himself, the irony is plain.
Nonetheless, Murcutt professes astonishment at this latest award, to be presented at Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome tonight: “To spend a long part of your career knitting one purl, one plain, operating mainly below radar level, and to be receiving one of the great prizes of the world, is amazing. It’s almost small is beautiful.”
Joern Utzon, one of Murcutt’s abiding heroes, is said to have turned down several valuable architecture awards with the bitter quip, “If you like an architect’s work, you give him something to build, not a medal.” Murcutt, on the other hand, is constantly obliged to decline commissions, including all invitations to build abroad.
“I know it’s old hat,” he says. “For most architects the great interest is to build in different countries. With globalisation now nobody could care less where the work is. But the real question is, as architects, what are you offering these other societies? There’s a level of arrogance associated with it in my view.
“I was invited to do the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, near Tucson. And of course I could have built it. But I wouldn’t have understood the whole essence, the emphasis they put on fire, and death and a whole lot of quasi-religious things, things that are significant in generating desert culture. So I set it as a design program instead.” The intensely place-specific nature of Murcutt’s work compared with Gehry, for instance, who slides blithely between Seattle, Prague and Bilbao, no questions asked is something of a trademark. His buildings are shaped to local landforms and tuned to local climate.
And yet there is a clear modernist discipline running like a conscience through the work. Mies van der Rohe in particular, one of modernism’s high priests, informs Murcutt’s supremely spare, linear planning. And abstract modernism was profoundly based on internationalist precepts. Placelessness, in a word.
Tucked away in some of rural NSW’s most private parts, therefore, and responding to its most intimate, intricate patterns of wind, water, growth and geomorphology, are buildings whose intellectual and spatial content derive from another hemisphere, another era entirely.
But architecture is not philo- sophy, and total internal coherence is not one of the tests. So, what is it about? For Murcutt at 66, after a lifetime of experiment and invention, architecture is still about the excitement of discovery.
Here, as in all Murcutt’s conversation, his father’s influence is palpable. Murcutt snr was a truly extraordinary man. Born in 1899, he left the Sydney home of his mathematician/musician father in 1899, age 11, to cycle 600 kilometres to Bourke, becoming a shearer, boxer, goldminer, adventurer, boatbuilder, musician, philo- sopher, naturalist and inventor by turns, as well as a tireless designer/builder of houses. Oh, and father of five.
After an early, occasionally terrifying, childhood in New Guinea, young Glenn learnt to propagate native plants, mix cement, build boats and swim like a champion, as well as absorbing the works of architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames and Gordon Drake.
Underlying it all was the muscular frontier-romanticism of Henri David Thoreau. Quotes from Thoreau, like the one about doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, and others about the value of individuality and privacy, pepper Murcutt’s conversation.
Hardly surprising then that Murcutt regards the public realm with disdain. He has completed one major “public” building, the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre at Riversdale, NSW, but in a rural setting and with a distinctly private client. Otherwise, his work is principally individual houses.
It’s clearly a sore point, prompting Murcutt to ask and answer his own questions. “This is the old chestnut. People always say, ‘anyone can do pretty houses on hillsides. He’s never had to tackle the really difficult things.”‘
And is there a stock response? “No”, says Murcutt, “I just think it’s a real problem. They’re stating their own insecurity. They can make those statements forever. That isn’t my issue.
“People say, ‘Don’t you want to do a major building in the city?’ I actually don’t know where that question is coming from, other than ego. So the answer is no. And if you want to work internationally, that need is probably something about ego. I think ego gets in the way of design. I don’t have a need for all those things.”
The buildings may be cool and spare, but the man himself is generous. “I’m contacted by people from all over Australia, and internationally, asking about certain things I’ve done shading devices, and working with the sun and the planet. Asking if I’d mind their using it. Of course I don’t. I send them working drawings. There are no patents on my mind.”
So, what is the value of architecture, of a lifetime spent doing it? “It’s a marvellous expression of the process of discovery. I’m very suspicious of creativity. We don’t create, we discover. Creation embodies an arrogance. I think any architecture that ever existed had that potential. Our role is to discover. That’s what I’m in it for, the joy of the path, the discovery.”
FIVE ILLUS: Light touch …
Murcutt on the farm, and some of his home-grown designs.
Clockwise from main picture, the Fredericks house at Jamberoo, the Magney house at Bingie Bingie (detail), the Done house at Mosman and the Magney house, exterior.
In yesterday’s article, “The man of tin who found gold”, about the architect Glenn Murcutt, incorrect details about his father were included.
Arthur Murcutt was born in 1899 and left home in 1912.