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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 06-Dec-2008

Edition: Second



Page: 6

Wordcount: 635

Father’s son captures spirit of a place


Elizabeth Farrelly

FIVE years after winning architecture’s Nobel prize, the Pritzker, the Australian Glenn Murcutt, AO, has received the 2009 American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal.

Murcutt’s selection, although widely acclaimed, has raised a few eyebrows. Not just because he is seen as the Australian architect – after all the AIA has lately taken to awarding foreigners, such as the Italian Renzo Piano and Japan’s Tadao Ando. The eyebrows are more because Murcutt has never built in America, or even outside Australia, and few of his works are bigger or more complex than a large house.

It’s not for lack of asking. Invited a few years back to design the Sonora Desert Museum in Arizona, for example, Murcutt declined, saying; “I wouldn’t have understood the whole essence, the emphasis they put on fire, and death and the quasi-religious things that are significant in generating desert culture”. So he set it as a student program instead.

This insistence on responding to the particularities of place is Murcutt’s signature, and yet he rejects the idea of influence from any Australian vernacular, such as the woolshed or humpy. An unabashed modernist, he rejects also the idea of style, and yet his work has a marked continuity of what can only be called spatial and visual style.

Where does it come from? Much of it sheets home to his father. When Glenn was a boy, his father – mathematician, frontiersman, goldminer, pilot, shearer, inventor, boat builder, musician, house designer and, perhaps, madman – would tie him and his four siblings, after school, to the end of a rubber band and train them in the backyard pool. It made for excellent swimmers and a marked capacity for stoicism, but the effects of this unusual parenting went deeper.

Even now, more than 60 years on, it is virtually impossible to talk architecture for long with Murcutt – and there is no real sense that he wants to talk about much else – without encountering the father.

The father who trekked the mountains from Port Moresby and Lae with Thoreau and Freud (first edition) in his backpack. Who imbued his eldest son with a lifelong belief in Thoreau’s idea of the “honest house” and in doing a simple thing really, really well. And who subscribed to “all the architectural journals you could possibly get”, filling Glenn’s head with the work of Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Gordon Drake, Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I knew all of Wright’s work by the time I was 14 or 15,” Murcutt says. But his mature work shows not a hint of Wright, who preceded him as an AIA Gold medallist.

But other influences are visible. There’s the abstract linearity of Mies van der Rohe; the serenity of Luis Barragan; the symmetry of Pierre Chareau; the textural eccentricity of Sverre Fehn or Peter Zumthor. It is Murcutt’s ability to absorb these eclectic patterns of thought, weaving them effortlessly into the Australian landscape, that offers those raised eyebrows the obvious retort: Think global, act local.

Murcutt said yesterday he was thrilled and surprised by his win.

“I knew I was in the final three but then I got the lucky number,” he said, adding that he was currently designing a mosque for Melbourne.

He said that there was “some excellent architecture going on in Australia at the moment” but called on his colleagues to make their designs as environmentally responsible as possible.

Elizabeth Farrelly’s book on Glenn Murcutt, Three Houses; Glenn Murcutt, was published by Phaidon in 1993.


Wide open spaces . . . a Glenn Murcutt-designed house on the NSW South Coast. Responding to the particularities of a place is his signature. Glenn Murcutt . . . winner of the 2009 American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. Photo: AP


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