GLENN MURCUTT: PRITZKER ARCHITECTURE PRIZE
Talent, vision and commitment – and a
consistent and significant contribution to humanity and the built
environment through the art of architecture. Only a very select group of
architects have met these criteria and been awarded the Pritzker Prize.
Given annually to a living architect, the Pritzker Prize will be
presented to Glenn Murcutt on 29 May at the Campidoglio, Rome. Murcutt
is the first architect from this part of the world to receive this
honour. Two different and personal accounts, one by Haig Beck and Jackie
Cooper, and the other by Phil Harris and Adrian Welke, describe the man
and his architecture, while Elizabeth Farrelly and Murcutt in
conversation reflect on his aspirations, his commitments and his
Citation from the Jury
Glenn Murcutt is a modernist, a naturalist,
an environmentalist, a humanist, an economist and ecologist
encompassing all of these distinguished qualities in his
practice as a dedicated architect who works alone from concept
to realization of his projects in his native Australia. Although
his works have sometimes been described as a synthesis of Mies
van der Rohe and the native Australian wool shed, his many
satisfied clients and the scores more who are waiting in line
for his services are endorsement enough that his houses are
unique, satisfying solutions.
Generally, he eschews large projects which would require him
to expand his practice, and give up the personal attention to
detail that he can now give to each and every project. His is an
architecture of place, architecture that responds to the
landscape and to the climate.
His houses are fine tuned to the land and the weather. He
uses a variety of materials, from metal to wood to glass, stone,
brick and concrete – always selected with a consciousness of the
amount of energy it took to produce the materials in the first
He uses light, water, wind, the sun, the moon in working out
the details of how a house will work – how it will respond to
His structures are said to float above the landscape, or in
the words of the Aboriginal people of Western Australia that he
is fond of quoting, they “touch the earth lightly.” Glenn
Murcutt’s structures augment their significance at each stage of
One of Murcutt’s favorite quotations is from Henry David
Thoreau, who was also a favorite of his father: “Since most of
us spend our lives doing ordinary tasks, the most important
thing is to carry them out extraordinarily well.” With the
awarding of the 2002 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the jury finds
that Glenn Murcutt is more than living up to that adage.
The Pritzker jury for 2002 was J. Carter
Brown (chair), Giovanni Agnelli, Ada Louise Huxtable, Carlos
Jimenez, Jorge Silvetti and The Lord Rothschild.
“The architecture of Glenn Murcutt
surprises first, and engages immediately after because of its
absolute clarity and precise simplicity – a type of clarity that
soon proves to be neither simplistic nor complacent, but inspiringly
dense, energizing and optimistic. His architecture is crisp, marked
and impregnated by the unique landscape and by the light that
defines the fabulous, far away and gigantic mass of land that is his
home, Australia. Yet his work does not fall into the easy
sentimentalism of a chauvinistic revisitation of the vernacular.
Rather, a considered, serious look would trace his buildings’
lineage to modernism, to modern architecture, and particularly to
its Scandinavian roots planted by Asplund and Lewerentz, and
nurtured by Alvar Aalto.”
Jorge Silvetti, Pritzker Juror
An architecture of integrity –
Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper
Marie Short house,
Kempsey, NSW, 1974-5, extended 1980. Photo Anthony
Murcutt guest studio,
Kempsey, NSW, 1992. Photo Anthony Browell.
Ball-Eastaway house and
studio, Glenorie, NSW, 1980-83. Assistants Graham
Jahn and Rad Milatich; Alex Tzannes, site visits.
Photo Anthony Browell.
“A bottle of brandy came out and friends drifted in. It was
about two in the morning. Most of the arrivals were students.
Vincenzo was an architecture student living in the Vucciria. He
talked eagerly about Glenn Murcutt. He said he would have given
anything to work with Murcutt in Australia. I told him quite
gently Murcutt had no assistants, that he always worked alone.”
Somehow it’s quite natural to find Murcutt’s name cropping up in
Peter Robb’s richly conspiratorial book about Sicilian politics
and history. Glenn Murcutt is known far beyond Australia. He has
become an international cultural figure, feted from Scandinavia
to North America. In 1992 he was awarded the elite Aalto Medal,
becoming one of only eight architects in the world to hold the
rare honour. And now the Pritzker Prize, his induction into
architecture’s version of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Imagine any of the other recipients of this high-profile
international prize attaining such recognition by running a solo
practice for thirty-five years.
But for most of his career, Murcutt has worked alone, with
no staff. He is notorious for pulling the phone out of the wall
when he’s busy, and a few years ago his engineers gave him a fax
machine to ensure they could communicate with him during these
periods of withdrawal. Murcutt certainly isn’t a loner and he
welcomes collaboration; he’s worked with Troppo, his wife Wendy
Lewin, Reg Lark, and also his son, Nicholas Murcutt. But his
preferred singular mode of practice allows him greatest control
over what he does, and clients wait patiently until he can
attend to them.
“Moving inland into the hills of Sicily, where the villas are
bigger, more costly and solid, the new houses look more and more
like dreadful fortified bunkers. As they are. There is no
grimmer or more palpable expression of the social ethos in
Sicily…[The houses] are the ultimate expression of fear and
mistrust of your neighbours. Thinking this now…I saw the amazing
appeal the Australian houses of Glenn Murcutt must have had for
the student Vincenzo, sitting so airily and lightly and modestly
on the earth, minimal, essential and open to the world around
them. From Sicily such houses seem models or dreams of another
world, another way of living, and seeing this, I realized as I
hadn’t earlier the politics of Vincenzo’s enthusiasm.”
From Sicily, an island doomed by a diabolical system of social and
political bondage, an observer would naturally look with longing
towards the open, free, easy way of life embodied in Murcutt’s
architecture. His buildings are light and airy and minimal, and
they speak of a cultural and social ethos that is enviably
casual and encourages direct engagement with the environment:
safe, not fortified behind thick walls: “another way of living”
indeed. Nevertheless, it is curious just how few Australians
choose to live this way, freely and openly embracing their
surroundings; instead the majority mediate the outside world via
air-conditioning and swaddle their houses in stylistic
iconography. Murcutt, it should be remembered, has fought some
deadly battles against reactionary local authorities locked into
“contextual” planning paradigms based on historicist pastiche.
While his architecture is far from popular among Australia’s
mainstream, Murcutt has defined contemporary Australian
architecture to the rest of the world, and in significant ways
to Australia too. The universal appeal of his work lies in its
rigour, simplicity and clear response to place. He does not draw
on the vernacular but operates from rationalist premises. His
buildings have an existential quality: ideologically based,
experientially nuanced, meticulously thought through. Murcutt’s
appeal to architects is unequivocal. Good designers everywhere
recognise the absolute integrity of his aesthetic: it is pure
rationalism: functional, rigorously responsive to climate, no
redundancy in any of the members, everything honed down to its
functional and aesthetic essential. Architects see that and wish
that their own work might be less compromised. And when they
study his drawings, they see the building drawn into life: every
bolt, every screw-head aligned, the grain to the timber members
correct, the sanitary fittings exactly as they will be
installed. Murcutt allows nothing to cloud the clarity of his
vision of the building. His architecture is not driven by formal
invention. It’s just rational. This clarity enables architects,
wherever they are in the world, to imagine themselves practising
with the same rigour and integrity, responding to their own
place, materials, practices, and philosophical imperatives.
Glenn Murcutt is an architectural Everyman, which is why he is
so universally admired.
Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper are editors
and publishers of UME. Their forthcoming monograph,
Glenn Murcutt: A Singular Practice (Images Publishing, due
May 2002) is a joint collaboration with Glenn Murcutt.
Introductory quotations are from Peter Robb, Midnight in
Sicily (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996), pp. 84, 227-8.
Glenn Murcutt’s a top bloke (but a crazy driver) –
Phil Harris and Adrian Welke
Nicholas farm house, Mt
Irvine, NSW, 1977-80. Photo Max Dupain.
Magney house, Binji
Binji, South Coast, NSW, 1982-84. Photo Anthony
Someone should slow down this fella’s mind
– and his car. (Or maybe we’re just not used to Sydney traffic.)
We all know, “Draw and Drive, you’re a Bloody Idiot!”. With our
subject, “Debate and Drive” can be worse; and don’t let the
debate get on to councils. Glenn Murcutt was a hero of ours at
university. Remember the 1970s Nation Review? There must
have been a six-page spread on the Mt Irvine and Jamberoo houses
and Glenn’s approach to a new-but-old Australian architecture,
complete with bits of working drawings. At Troppo Year 1, in our
shopfront office, we had made a mobile of it (and hung it
alongside the Troppo t-shirt and showbag, then popular with
Melbourne schoolgirls on tour to the Top End). It was at this
time, late in the dry season of ‘82, that the fellow himself,
replete in outback khakis and with sweaty brow, popped his head
in the door. We still don’t know if he was looking for a t-shirt
or wanting to hit us for copyright on the mobile. Either way, he
was clearly thirsty. Once ensconced with a cold one in the
garden of the Hotel Darwin, we got down to things regionally
architectural. And after that modicum of GM pep, for us rather
friendless, low feeearners in the blockwork-and-concrete,
post-Tracy-trauma architectural world of Darwin, things never
really looked back.
To practice architecture is a full commitment, dealing with
people’s dreams and bank balances. To practice on the edge,
pushing council guidelines and new approaches to construction is
an even fuller one – if you’re to pull it off. And to do this as
a sole practitioner is inconceivable to those who consider sleep
a basic. Add to this, the demands of learning institutions and
the public at home and abroad and its not surprising to know
that Glenn doesn’t get to the footy often.We witnessed Glenn’s
return to his Mosman office after receiving the Alvar Aalto: the
endless loop of fax paper draped over the kitchen chair was
enough to have one running back to the airport. But, despite the
despair, a hasty retreat was not for our hero: more battles,
more magic awaited his hand.
And more young architects and students awaited his
generosity of time. His record of patient collaboration with
younger practitioners speaks for itself. But, to work with Glenn
is to work with a friend, and unavoidably a family friend: he
can never remain a mere work associate of the bloke/sheila with
the briefcase. He also likes to gather old friends, to reminisce
of the days of student struggle, and to share evolving journeys
into the architectural future. He doesn’t forget people, be they
his oldest teacher, or your kid. Even to less-old friends (and
that’s us), no details are secret (yes, neither architectural
nor personal); advice is at the end of a phone or fax (but
definitely not an e-mail!). And it’s free and wise.We have
ferociously adopted his dictum of recognising an insideoutside
continuum: design in section, and design from the inside out…
Think of how passage is made through the space by you and by
every other type of user, by light, by air; in different
circumstances; at different times of the year, the day, the
night. And find dynamic, kinetic ways to respond broadly and
He talks of builders, tradesmen and suppliers as his allies
and co-design-developers: more brains, more experience to bring
to a project: more wisdom to learn from. To be out bush with
Glenn is a delight. Not only is he always seeking to know more
about the way in which a landscape works in an ecological way,
but he seems to just love being there, among the colours, the
light, and the forever-changing, interplaying natural elements.
Like a pig in shit, really.
Seeking to understand Aboriginal ways of relating to these
settings also recurs as an around-the-campfire-or-table theme.We
had the pleasure to travel with him to “visit country” with
Kakadu’s Big Bill Neidje at Cannon Hill. Under the ledge of an
escarpment outlier, the little whitefella with his floppy hat
and bifocals and the grand man of that country, Bill, were
oblivious to the rest of us as they slipped easily into
discussing the state of the “World”. The surrounding rock art –
another Murcutt passion – was just a lead-in, but seemed
momentarily more alive. This was a meeting of earthly
reassurance, of kindred, strong spirits: for those brief hours,
the planet seemed to be in safe hands. And maybe it’s this sense
of a bigger order of things, and the humble place that things
man-made play in it, that enable even his smallest projects to
reach brazenly out to the Great Outdoors though a very big
“frame”. A whole operable louvred wall: why not? A roof that
lifts up to the tree-tops: why not? Small in square metres
maybe, but big in confronting ambition.
We guess it’s an understatement to say that Glenn’s not
afraid to preach. If something is simply not logical, just or
appropriate, he’s not afraid to say so. A quick study of his
RAIA awards jury work in the NT reveals his redefining of
categories to become Territoryrelevant; his on-the-night
awarding of the outdoor awards venue (not much more than a
banyan tree); and the co-awarding of a client as project
designer. (Bloody fun nights those!) Maybe this “preaching” is
more correctly “enthusiastic hypothesising”. This a sound,
scientific approach to developing knowledge: set out your
thinking, your ideas, your perception of truths, and then amend
them according to resultant experience and that of others. Yes,
of course to hypothesise is to risk being wrong and attracting
the knockers. But, in any case, just watch audiences respond to
his thinking, his speaking, his passion: to give wholeheartedly
of yourself, to bother to seek to energise others, to move
thinking on, is a special community-minded attribute, and…
bloody brave. We are with you, Glenn: go on folks, get out on a
limb, too: the air feels pretty good out there.
Phil Harris and Adrian Welke, Troppo
Murcutt and the architecture of discovery –
Elizabeth Farrelly and Glenn Murcutt
Minerals and Mining
Museum, Broken Hill, NSW, 1987-89. Assistant Reg
Lewin. Photo Glenn Murcutt.
Woollahra, Sydney, 1983-6. Assistant Wendy Lewin.
Photo Max Dupain.
Paddington, Sydney, 1986-90. Site assistant, James
Grose; landscape architects, Andrew McNally and Sue
Barnsley. Photo Anthony Browell.
Yirrakala, East Arnhem Land, 1991-94. Photos Glenn
Mount Wilson, NSW, 1989-1994. Photo Anthony Browell.
Arthur & Yvonne Boyd
Education Cntre, Riversdale, NSW. In collaboration
with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark, 1996-99. Photos
Kangaroo Valley, 1997-2000. Photo Anthony Browell.
E. M. Farrelly: So, this is pretty
exciting, isn’t it? Architecture’s Nobel?
Glenn Murcutt: It is exciting. Not to recognise that would
be to deny reality. To spend a long part of your career knitting
one purl, one plain, operating mainly below the radar level, and
then to receive one of the world’s great prizes is amazing. It’s
almost small is beautiful. And out of the blue, too. Quite a
EMF: It’s not just the Pritzker, is it? You’ve received quite a
few awards recently?
GM: Well, I got the Thomas Jefferson medal in the US, last
year. And the year before that the Richard Neutra award, for
practice and teaching, and the Green Pin, an ecological award
from Denmark. Last week I received another international reward
from Denmark, which is called “Making a Difference”. And the
Kenneth F. Browne award for Asia/Pacific architecture, for the
EMF: Plus, there are various chairs and things?
GM: Yes, I have a visiting professorial chair at Yale. And
one at the University of Washington, St Louis, which runs ten
days at a time. There is a visiting distinguished architect
position at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, just for a
short time, a studio at Cornell later this year, a masterclass
at the University of Technology, Lae, every three years or so,
and next year the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. I’m all
over the place, it’s a whole new world for me, it’s just
EMF: So this must feel like a crowning achievement –
retrospectively, though, which project are you most proud of?
GM: I don’t suffer the problem of pride too much. I’m
always worried about the next step. Of course, every client
wants to think their’s is my best work. But one of the most
important projects was working with Wendy and Reg on the Boyd
Centre. It is also a public building. That is important. In
every building, though, I’ve tried to research something.
Whether it’s wind, light, sun, ventilation, prospect, refuge,
path, security. Every building has something that helps build
vocabulary. But there are clearly certain buildings whose
clients have enabled me to go further than otherwise. For
example, the Simpson-Lee house at Mt Wilson is a very important
building for me, and it’s important for those who have visited.
Although it wasn’t good enough for the National Jury to visit.
EMF: They didn’t even bother to see it?
GM: No, they didn’t bother to see it. It won the Wilkinson
Award, but they didn’t even bother to see it. But that’s
EMF: Is there anything that stands out as the most difficult?
GM: Most difficulties are really when one hasn’t fully
understood the aspirations – or lack of aspiration – of a
client. Often lack of aspiration is what kills a job. If the
client doesn’t have the energy and perception to drive the best
from the work, then it won’t come.
EMF: Have you ever got to the point of sacking a client?
GM: Yes. But not often. I try to do it before I even start.
EMF: I imagine it helps shorten the waiting list. How long is
GM: Put it this way, Wendy and I have enough work on,
together and independently, to keep us going for at least five
EMF: All in Australia?
EMF: Do you have aspirations to work elsewhere?
GM: No, I don’t need to. I turn those invitations down.
Working in America would be hell. They sue at the drop of a hat.
I’ve been invited to work in Finland, which might be nice, but
then you have to have an associate and if they are any good,
they won’t want to do somebody else’s documentation and site
inspections. So it’s out of the question for me. I know that’s
fairly old hat. With globalisation now nobody could care less
where the work is. But the real question is what are you
offering. In architectural terms, what are most of these
architects offering other societies? There’s a level of
arrogance associated with it, in my view. I’m not saying we
can’t build in other places, of course we can. But you do have
to consider who is being knocked aside in that country, what we
know about that country that they don’t know, and why we do it,
other than making money? Why is everybody into China now? Not to
help the Chinese. It’s more take than give, and I’m not
interested in that. That’s not my way at all.
EMF: But you’re clearly comfortable teaching overseas?
GM: Teaching is different. One is talking principles, and
principles are about questions. The answers vary, but the
questions are the same. Culturally, climatically things shift.
What is the significance of entry, from Mexico to Spain to
Scandinavia? What does it mean to arrive? In Scandinavia entry
is largely about keeping the cold out; while here in Australia
we think much more about taking our clothes off. We are always
preparing for the summer, the Finns are always preparing for the
cold, thinking about putting clothes on. While they think about
low light, we think about the high light intensity – very
different psyches. But there are huge overlaps between these
essences. Probably my closest friends are Finns.
EMF: Why is that?
GM: There is a spiritual similarity. You can’t talk to a
Finnish architect for more than five minutes without mentioning
place and nature. In Finland there are five million people and
thousands of lakes, so everyone has a potential escape. And
because the winter is cold, going to nature when one can becomes
extremely important, the quality of light is very important. But
teaching is about principles, about placement, hydrology,
geology, geomorphology, the place history, climatic conditions,
meteorological conditions; we talk about water table, rainfall,
humidity, wind patterns; we talk about animal tracks, insect
movements. Or, in an urban context, wind conditions, pollution
levels, sunlight and humidity levels. All these are questions of
principle, so these things you can teach. It is a common
language. For example, the Finns love big windows and they love
to use screens. I realised that the screens are to break down
the level of light, light reflected from winter snow – just as
we use screens a lot now to break down the summer light. Or, for
example, Aalto’s s-chairs I use a lot, with the strapping. Why
use them? A strap allows the air to flow around your body. It’s
very comfortable. The Finns do it because in winter their houses
are heated, giving warm air – same thing reversed. So I am
starting to realise that opposite solutions are not dissimilar,
and it’s a very interesting idea. I was invited to do the
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson. I said that I actually
do not understand the subtleties of the US society, but I set it
as a program at Tucson, where 50 percent of the people speak
Spanish, and there were students from Europe, Mexico, South
America and North America, and elsewhere.
EMF: Were the proposals noticeably different?
GM: Yes, and different from anything I would have done. I
could have built a museum, sure. But I wouldn’t have understood
the whole essence. They put such emphasis on fire, for example,
and death, and a whole lot of quasi-religious things that I
wouldn’t have understood at all, but were significant in
generating desert culture. Utzon is able to fuse elements from
other cultures in a way that makes them his own. Take the
Elsinore and Fredriksborg housing, for example. You have Chinese
principles, Roman piles, Danish bricks, the idea of privacy and
public realm and Utzon puts it together in a way that totally
belongs to his place.
EMF: But Utzon built here, of course, in Sydney.
GM: I am not denying the ability to transfer ideas, but I
am simply saying that there are few brilliant people in the
world and I’m not one of those. Utzon is. To me, he’s just
incredible. I have such admiration for the guy. I think this
country did an appalling thing to him. I still feel embarrassed.
I met an architect who lives in his Frederiksborg scheme and he
said he just thanks God for Utzon every day.
EMF: So, do you ever have any regrets about being an architect?
Do you wish you’d done something else?
GM: Every time the phone rings and takes me away from what
I want to do. Architecture is a wonderful, fantastic activity.
The biggest difficulty is that societies are so conservative.
Councils especially. I find councils very difficult. I know they
have to respond to community needs. But if the community is so
conservative, it makes it impossible for architects to move
beyond conservatism, impossible to produce something relevant to
today, and tomorrow.
EMF: You have had a battle with Mosman Council over your own
house recently, haven’t you?
GM: Here was a building entirely within the LEP profile,
which if anything increased the sunlight to everybody; entirely
within privacy issues, entirely within materiality; modern yes,
with changes at the back, but the front was basically unaltered.
We finally got an approval, requiring us to discharge stormwater
onto the street, although we all know, internationally, we
should keep water on site the better, rather than taking every
piece of dog shit to the harbour. And this drainage requires me
to drill through the roots of native trees, while placing a
$15,000 bond on those same trees, because they hide the roof
lights from the street. The council guy said, “we’re going to be
changing our stormwater rules and we’d like you to make
recommendations, but these are the rules now and you have to
comply.” Is that ludicrous or not? It’s madness. I’m amazed
people put up with it.
EMF: Depressing isn’t it?
GM: For any young architect working in this country who
hasn’t got the spirit to fight it, you put your tail between
your legs, go away and accept mediocrity, total mediocrity. Yet
this country has some of the brightest and most talented people
in the world. Utzon showed us how. The Opera House is as good
today as thirty years ago, but everyone was outraged at the time
– we should build more hospitals and so on. All the conservative
voices came out – yet it brings in $2 billion a year to this
country. This is a nation terrified of change. I think we now
have the worst federal government ever. I am disgusted. I can’t
tell you how angry I feel about this. What embarrassment it
causes me internationally! I was challenged and challenged in
Denmark, I’m challenged in the US, I’m challenged in Italy,
challenged in every country in the world. And I feel so
disgusted by what are clearly lies and manipulations of the
truth. I nearly go berserk. They’ve cut education, they’ve cut
culture, they’ve cut everything that really matters in life. It
has been an intellectually defunct government. Barren to the
EMF: Why is it like that, do you think?
GM: I think we are still an insecure race of people, far
flung. Insecurity is the basis of our conservatism. When we
become secure in the knowledge that we can do very good things,
then change can happen. Wonderful change.
EMF: Do you see it changing?
GM: A few of us have tried. I haven’t had a lot of court
cases for nothing. I think it requires a lot of people –
architects – who will drive change. But some things are getting
worse. For example, this integrated consent system is a really
significant issue. It requires so much information up front that
we essentially eliminate the design development phase.
EMF: Is practice harder now than it was?
GM: Yes. It’s much harder for me now than 25 years ago. My
buildings fail the bureaucrats’ environmental tests. They
perform wonderfully in summer and winter but have to prove it
repeatedly, wasting time and money. And I’m still having
problems with councils over aesthetics. Ken Done had to paint
his house of natural tones – so he argued that yellow was a
natural tone and so was blue. But he really wanted to paint it
white. What colour is it today? White. So this is stupid. You
either get angry, mad or depressed. I get shattered each time
initially, then angry. I haven’t let them beat me. But any
architect who is sensitive or doesn’t like fighting – they put
their tails between their legs and go away depressed. And I
don’t blame them. I think scale, typology, morphology,
materiality – these things should probably be within council
control. But aesthetics should be off their agenda. We should
accept change in our built environment. I think there is a place
for an environment that is dynamic and evolving; what doesn’t
evolve, dies. It’s extremely important when you look at the work
of Sverre Fehn, for example, or Carlo Scarpa. Both combine the
modern with the old so they are clearly distinct, but the
relationship is powerful and joyous, reinforcing both.
EMF: What about the heritage/conservation question?
GM: This is another issue. The Burra Charter should prevent
replication, which debases the original. I learnt enormously on
the Aga Khan jury. We were advised by one of the foremost – if
fundamentalist – thinkers in archeology, for whom restoration is
a dirty word; conservation is the only thing. Conservation
reveals the original work in its entirety, allowing it to
breathe and clearly distinguishing new from old. If there is any
confusion, it’s out. Now, this was fundamental for me as juror.
There was a fantastic project in the awards which was overruled
because our specialist picked where some panels were repainted
to match the originals. This guy is in charge of the sphinx and
pyramids. When the sphinx was crumbling they finally repaired it
in plaster, which needs replacing every five years, in order to
maintain the point of decay, and clarify the difference.
Conservation is about holding it where it is. This gives the
principle of age, of time.
EMF: And do you agree with that principle?
GM: I think it’s very sound. For example, in Sverre Fehn’s
Museum at Hamar it is very clear what is old. [The Hamar
Bispegard Museum, Norway, Sverre Fehn, 1970, built on the site
of a fourteenth century bishop’s manor.] At the entrance, all
the stones are falling down and Fehn put this sheet of glass
right across, a big square of glass, which ends at the doors.
It’s very clear, which makes for a much richer solution. But in
this country it’s not allowed. There is this conservatism, this
lack of understanding, this ignorance. At root, it’s ignorance.
EMF: What is the solution do you think?
GM: Education. If design was taught from a very early stage
– not design as aesthetics, but design about the shaping of a
rock in a river, the structure of plants. If we look at that,
then look at bridges and catenaries, and teach the principles.
If we looked at aesthetics as principles, not just what you
like, but the core of truth behind natural structures, kids
could start to assess and analyse.
EMF: How important is drawing? What will happen when architects
can draw only on screen?
GM: The mouse only makes repetition easier. When we lose
the ability to draw, we lose a part of our ability to think. As
my engineer pointed out to me, there is no way I could design on
computer because to take a line to go from A to B, you first
have to define point B: when you draw, your hand and mind takes
it there. It’s a totally different process. We are smart enough
as a race to develop instruments to make our work easier, but
not smart enough to fit our instruments to the way we should
develop. We allow instruments to dictate the way we think.
Before the theodolite, we built according to topography, water
flow and gradients. So the historic streets of Dubrovnik or
Italian hill towns were linked by staircases and it all worked
in a very human, carved way. Then theodolites came along and we
ended up with grid patterns. We let the instrument do our
thinking for us. The computer is no different. It promotes
certain ways of thinking and practice.
EMF: Speaking of straight lines, you once said you’d been
trying to escape Mies all your life. But the Miesian quality of
your plans is still evident. Very orthogonal, very disciplined.
Are you ever tempted by curves or fanciful geometry?
GM: Sure. In the Boyd Centre we changed the geometry, very
distinctive, different geometry. The hotel project Wendy and I
are working on in Victoria currently has shifts in geometry all
over the place. Even the little entry deck to the flat at
Kempsey had a shift in geometry. They do appear. But I won’t do
things for the sake it. I think of the difference between
Aalto’s curves and those of almost every other architect is that
Aalto knew when not to use two curves consecutively. He knew
that a curve was always followed by a straight line before
another curve, as opposed to curve upon curve upon curve, which
can be very syrupy. I could never allow myself to do that. I
don’t think it works spatially. But can I say that Mies, almost
unconsciously, is still my conscience. Every project begins in
an unbelievably confused and complex way; and it’s by working
and working at it that I try to find that essence – that
simplicity which is the other face of complexity, as opposed to
the simplistic which just omits complexity.
EMF: Do you have a standard design process then?
GM: Sure. I just keep at it. Trying to resolve plan and
detail. The details are part of the whole thinking process right
from the outset. My drawings have details all over them at the
EMF: And elevations? Do you have them on your mind throughout?
GM: I hardly ever go to elevations until near the end.
Although once I start on them, I do go back over, manipulate a
few things. But I do have them in mind. I’m always trying to
understand how the water will move across the roof, asking
whether I should put in the diagonal gutter, or a monopitch
EMF: What do you do first? Do you have a way of getting into a
GM: Yes, a very clear way. Avoiding it until I have to. But
I’ve known for a long time what I want to do and I’m thinking
about it a lot. When clients come to me I see them once or twice
to see if I’m the right architect, and then there’s the wait
period. It allows the project to sit in my mind, and them to
write their brief.
EMF: Is that hard?
GM: Many clients find it difficult. Some clients are very
lucid, but even so it makes an enormous difference to their
thinking, and they often actually change through the brief
writing, as well as the wait period. I’ve had clients start off
with spa baths and technology everywhere, with space for this
and that, but as costs rise they have to be tighter, and the
result is a much better building. The trouble is that these days
both Wendy’s and my buildings lack fat. So to cut the fat out is
very hard. To make spaces smaller or finishes more economical is
very hard. It’s hard to go past bagged brickwork and gyprock. I
like the lack of fat as an idea. I like a lithe building. I love
the quality of emptiness.
GM: The silence. It can have a serenity. In Barragan’s
words; “any work of architecture that is designed without
serenity in mind is, in my view, a mistake – and when serenity
possesses joy it is ultimate”.
EMF: What is the quality, do you think, that endows a space
with “serenity” rather than just emptiness?
GM: In part it’s avoiding confusion and clutter. I hate
clutter, although I’m the world’s most cluttering person. I love
light and space and connectedness with landscape, the outside,
the sky, the plants. I find those connections really important.
Here we are in your typical suburban house now, this is a middle
suburban sort of house, there is basically nothing wrong with
it. [Murcutt and Lewin are living in a rented house while their
own house is renovated.] I can understand why people say, what’s
wrong with them, they’re marvellous, we can go out the laundry
door, to the backyard and have a barbie, I can understand that,
but there is more to life than all of that. I’d give anything to
be able to smash holes in the back here, open up parts of it,
have doors that breathe to the outside, allow the outside to
come in and breathe in and out, one has to have lungs in the
house, space, ability of the outside to move in and inside to
move out, They are very important issues for me.
EMF: You said once that you thought the city unredeemed. And of
course your best-known projects are rural or semi-rural. Do you
ever yearn to work on complex city projects? I still wonder what
might have happened if you’d completed work on the Customs
House, for example.
GM: In the CBD the answer is yes, but can they wait three
years, five years? But the whole problem for me is the
frustration of bureaucracy, and the question of turnover. Each
project is a small experiment. I’ve built at least 500 buildings
so far: how could I get that level of experimental feedback with
a single building taking five years? I’ve been contacted by
architects internationally about things I’ve developed, like
shading devices, and whether I’d mind their using it. Of course
I don’t – I send them working drawings. There are no patents in
my mind. But look, 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.”
EMF: And do you have a stock response?
GM: No, I just let them run with that. They are really
stating their own insecurity about their own compromises. Behind
all these barbed statements lies a level of anxiety. And when
people say all I’ve done is design pretty houses on hillsides,
anyone can do that – well let me see all these pretty houses by
all these people on the hillsides, and I’ll tell you if they’re
pretty or not. That’s about it, a few pretty colours. They can
make those statements forever. That isn’t my issue. And when
people say “don’t you want to do a city building, or a major
building in the city?” I actually don’t know where that question
is coming from, other than ego. It can only be ego that drives
that sort of question. I have a great interest in doing
architecture but often one big building can destroy the
possibility of many other buildings. So the answer is no. They
say, “why wouldn’t you want to work internationally?” I say, “I
don’t need to do that.” If you want to work internationally,
then you probably have a need to do that. 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. I still hold to that old
statement of my father, that in life most of us will do ordinary
things, and the important thing is to do those ordinary things
extraordinarily well. And be able to go to the beach where
nobody knows who you are. Therefore ego is not a big thing. Ego
has many sides to it. One side of ego is driving force, that is
very powerful for me, a driving force. But the egotistical side,
the ego of self, is far less important. For me the question is,
is it worthwhile? Apart from financial benefit, is it worthwhile
for my spirit? Why do it? Why? We’ve got one life. One needs to
give the best of oneself. The Boyd Centre was a much better
project for us than the Customs House. Big urban projects, like
undergrounding railways in Barcelona, would be great. But I’m
not good at compromise. On the other hand I don’t feel I’m an
arrogant person. I just feel my time is being wasted.
EMF: You must find domestic projects involve compromise,
GM: Of course we compromise on houses, but I wouldn’t want
to waste my time on a bigger thing where all my time is being
compromised. And I think that, as architects, each of us has a
responsibility to give the best of ourselves. If we design
things we know are a terrible compromise, it’s a very painful
experience. My father gave me some very good advice when I
started off. He said, “son, now that you’re in your practice,
remember you must start off the way you would like to finish.
And secondly, every compromise you know you are making, that
represents your next client.” It’s very easy to be bad in
architecture. It’s a very hard occupation in which to do good
work and any good work is to be admired.
EMF: People often twin you with Richard Leplastrier, as Sydney
exponents of beautiful and thoughtful domestic work. How do you
view that parallel?
GM: I agree with it. We’ve done things differently in life,
but we have in common a love of place and architecture. I feel
enormously warm towards Richard, with an immense respect for his
EMF: You didn’t study together though did you?
GM: No, we taught at Sydney University together. We
coincided in teaching and we just found that, whilst our work is
very different, there is a similar belief. As Coderch [Josep
Antoni Coderch] said to me in 1973 you must put into your work
firstly effort, secondly, love, and – very Spanish – finally,
suffering. I share with Rick that dedication, care,
responsibility towards the work, the love of it, most of the
time, and the difficulty of it, the painful side of suffering.
Coderch taught me another thing. He said, “for every new project
I am very nervous.” I was 37 at the time and that was the first
time I ever heard any architect admit to being nervous in
starting a project. I’d never told anybody I was nervous, but I
always was. Here was the father of Spanish modernism, still
nervous at the age of 70! Now I’m only four years off that
myself and realise what an incredible truth it was. It released
me. That, together with the House of Light by Pierre Chareau,
released me. I realised that it was essential to be nervous. It
was essential for me to have seen that modern architecture can
be open-ended and not dogmatic. Ecology now has become a
generally important issue, but it has been with me since almost
the first days of practice.
EMF: Why is that, do you think?
GM: I was raised that way. I was always taught about
erosion. My father propagated native plants in 1946 and 47,
putting seeds in the oven and pouring boiling water over them,
then he’d surreptitiously go back and plant these plants as a
means of reafforesting the hillside. He would orient buildings
to the winter sun and the breezes, he ventilated and built
curtain walls in his buildings. And we helped him. Why did I
start this way? I had no alternative; it was the other
conscience. So Mies is one conscience and my upbringing is the
other conscience. I got a book in Denmark the other day on Craig
Ellwood, with a note from Neil Clark, the author. He’d found a
letter I’d sent to Craig in Ellwood’s files, asking to visit
him, which I did. There was also my response to that visit. I
had asked Ellwood how he dealt with heating and cooling his
building. This was 1973. Was there some smart glass in America I
didn’t know about? He looked at me as if I was mad, and said,
“we have tinted glass and we install air conditioning.” I felt
so stupid. This is in Neil’s book. So right from the outset I
was clearly interested in response to place. It’s nothing new.
EMF: What would you say is the relationship between ethics and
GM: It’s a subject not taught at university – the ethics of
decision making, projects we should and shouldn’t do. I believe
it’s very important we make a decision about the projects we do
and don’t take on. I wouldn’t design huts for the detention of
people in Australia, for example. To me that is unethical. I
wouldn’t have a bar of that.
EMF: Even if you could make them better?
GM: Even if I could make them better. Because once we
accept the detention, that is a given. We shouldn’t accept it.
We should say, how can we clear people very quickly? There is no
need to hold these people for this long.
EMF: So, do you feel you need to approve of your clients?
GM: If you went fully into it, you might, if you were
totally fundamentalist about the ethics, you would investigate
the background to the client’s wealth.
EMF: But you may not end up with many clients?
GM: That is true. I know Ted Cullinan in England was
invited to work for a big computer company that had been
involved in warfare systems, and he refused the project. I know
the client, too, and he confirmed it. I haven’t investigated my
clients’ background to that extent. I did come unstuck with one
client, whom I should never have taken on because he is,
frankly, a bully.
EMF: Isn’t it an irony inherent in small, one-off domestic
projects that you work generally for the rich?
GM: That’s not true. Everyone says this. I have done
Aboriginal housing for no fees. I did a garden-shed house for a
school teacher with no money, also for no fee. And I’ve often
done things twice without charging fees as well.
EMF: But architecture does cost money, on the whole?
GM: No, architecture doesn’t make money. It’s about the
only occupation that would do a thing twice without charging
EMF: If you had to try and encapsulate the point of
architecture, the purpose of a lifetime doing it, what would you
GM: The only purpose is to live so that you end each day
saying, “Well I’ve achieved something today.” But architecture
holds a remarkable series of issues. We deal with people, with
building, with materials, with clients, with art, we deal with
structure, life style, food preparation, bathing, sleeping,
privacy, prospect, sound, acoustics, music, finishes, colours,
access, vehicular movements, street patterns, landscape. What
aren’t we dealing with? Money, too – is there another such
occupation? At its fullest level architecture is an
extraordinary occupation. It can be extraordinarily rewarding
emotionally and extraordinarily unrewarding financially, which
is fine, as long as we survive. Of all those people who make all
the money in the world there are very few that I can say I
really respect what they do with it. It’s not about buying
racehorses. Not for me. It’s outside of all that.
EMF: What is it about then?
GM: It’s a marvellous expression of the process of
discovery. That is what it is. It’s an incredible process on the
path to discovery. It’s like a scientist on one level, who
doesn’t know the answer but knows the path to it, the path of
discovery. I am very suspicious of creativity, very suspicious
of it. I think that any work of architecture clearly had the
potential to exist. Our path is that of discovery. Our role is
to discover. We don’t create, we discover. Creation embodies an
arrogance, an elitism, something you are gifted with. I don’t
see all that. It used to be thought that if you could draw
beautifully you were creative, if you were artistic you were
creative. No, I’m saying that is the path to the discovery, the
work finally is the result of that discovery. That is what I’m
in it for, the joy of the path, the discovery.
Elizabeth Farrelly is an architectural
critic and author of Three Houses by Glenn Murcutt
(Phaidon, 1993). All drawings are from the Glenn Murcutt
Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
Special thanks to