Published  28/07/2015

Royal Scottish Academy Metzstein Architecture Discourse: Glenn Murcutt

Royal Scottish Academy Metzstein Architecture Discourse: Glenn Murcutt

Architect Glenn Murcutt, winner of many international awards, presented an inspiring discourse on his philosophy, which has pioneered a new relationship between architecture and landscape in his native Australia

University of Edinburgh
19 May 2015

The Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture hosted its second Annual Metzstein Architecture Discourse with an inspirational presentation by Australian architect Glenn Murcutt. Professor Isi Metzstein OBE RSA, after whom the award is named,was a respected architect and inspirational teacher at both the Mackintosh School of Architecture, where he taught for most of his life, and Edinburgh University.

Australia’s most eminent architect, Murcutt is the recipient of many international awards, including the Pritzker prize, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland Gold Medal, the Alvar Aalto Medal, the American Institute of Architects Gold medal and the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Architecture. He has spent a productive life in his home country, despite travelling extensively to lecture, and has kept close friends in the international architectural world. As he approaches his 80th birthday, Murcutt believes that this will probably be his last lecture outside Australia; the packed lecture theatre, booked up months in advance, included those who had travelled from London, Ireland, the Faroe Islands and France.

His lecture was a tour de force: impassioned, uplifting and inspiring. His master classes in Australia have become legendary, with students and practising architects travelling from all over the world to attend in the building he designed at Bundanon, on the south coast of New South Wales, the property that Arthur Boyd gifted to the people of Australia, after painting hundreds of visionary works of art there that capture the quintessential spirit of the Australian landscape. Murcutt’s designs have become synonymous with Australia, defining that country’s contemporary architecture with many followers. The Sydney-based architectural historian and critic Philip Drew described Murcutt’s museum at Kempsey as “the first Australian building”.

Murcutt is extraordinary for having worked alone for most of his life, with only the occasional assistant: no secretary, no email. His mobile phone is reserved for family and builders, not clients, although he has forged close friendships through his schemes, such as that with artist Ken Done. The Done house in Mosman, the same Sydney suburb as Murcutt’s home, was my first experience of Murcutt living and it was glorious – a building in perfect harmony with its surrounds. Murcutt has designed exclusively in his native country, and his buildings have pioneered a new relationship between architecture and landscape and, in particular, a heightened awareness of local ecology and climate, of immediate relevance and importance today.

He has enjoyed a long dialogue with his greatest friend, Finnish architect and philosopher Juhani Pallasmaa, whose poignant reflections epitomise the zeitgeist of architectural discourse. The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, Pallasmaa’s 1996 reflection on architecture, perception and self, has become a core part of the canon of architectural education throughout the world; The Thinking Hand shows the moral force that architecture should assume. It came as no surprise, then, to hear Murcutt talk about the seminal role of drawing in his design process. Indeed the exhibition, Glenn Murcutt – Architecture for Place, which opened at The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture, on 25 June and runs until 27 September 2015, focuses on a selection of Murcutt’s built work and demonstrates his working methods through his drawings. The State Library of NSW, in Sydney, has acquired 13,000 of his drawings.

Murcutt’s lecture was a resounding plea for young architects to refuse to create what he described as “silly buildings”, those structures that could not be justified, for their acceptance of mere “facadism”. He believes passionately in moral opinions in architectural design, where universal truths dominate fashion.

“Absurd facile facades,” he says, come into being when the design process is dominated or dependent on the computer, resulting in “very many silly buildings”. He continued: “It is not possible to make buildings without understanding the fundamentals of architecture and the history. Drawing is a very important part of architecture. If you learn to draw, you learn to discover; any architecture is there to be discovered, it has the potential to exist not by the creator but by the discoverer. That is very important: there is nothing faster than to draw; it is the fastest way to get rid of silly ideas. Every line drawn by hand feels the space. How can you feel space with a mouse?”

To illustrate the necessity of an authentic creative process, Murcutt recalled a radio interview in 2008 with Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate 2001-2003, in which Collins was asked whether he wrote long-hand or at the computer. Collins replied: “I always compose with pen or pencil only because the screen to me makes everything look done, frozen, complete rather than fluid. Writing on a page makes everything feel provisional for the moment. Because I don’t know where the poem is going and I don’t want to know until I get there. It always feels as if the poem – as I’m writing it – is written as some kind of understanding of itself.”

Murcutt impressed on his audience the importance of low-environmental-impact design in a country as vast and ancient as Australia. Australia’s Aboriginal methods of construction reveal to architects a great deal about appropriate design. Aborigines knew how to survive in extreme and diverse conditions, having lived there continuously for 42,000 years as opposed to just 227 years of European occupation. The architect must be sensitive to local history and to the complexity of every site. The physical conditions to consider range from: the climate, the sun’s path (different in the southern hemisphere, thus European architecture was not a natural fit), wind patterns, extremes of heat and cold, the daylight hours at different times of the year, and how to harness energy. The architect must address them all. Flora and fauna will also determine how a building is designed (buildings on stilts or platforms keep inhabitants safe from crocodiles in parts of northern Australia). The choice of sustainable materials will safeguard the future of the natural forest habitats and, in turn, for the astounding number of ancient species of insects, birds and animals.

Conditions on the coast in Australia are vastly different from those inland and require to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Further, the architect must acquaint him or herself with the altitude, the varying seasonal patterns, the hourly and daily seasonal conditions, in order that the inhabitants can live in harmony with the natural environment. “Fresh air, the daylight hours, how sunlight should enter a building [are key factors for human existence]. A building should enable natural sounds to be heard: those of storms, of cyclones, of winds. There is nothing like the sounds of the Australian landscape, of 300mm of rain falling on a tin roof, in an hour. Observing sound and observing the silence after a storm, hearing insects sing, the frog’s croak, birdsong at daybreak, native tree-climbing animals, are all important. The airflow into a house, the movement of air, the perfume of plants after moving across water enables serenity and joy its ultimate form.”

Architects must choose materials according to the sustainability of the rain forests and their ability to achieve structural and thermal performance, stressed Murcutt. Production and growth are important so that regeneration from plantation-grown timber can balance the use of natural resources. In the assembly of buildings, the architect must be mindful of the retrieval and reuse of materials by ensuring that timber is screwed together not nailed. The use of glue in manufactured plywood has caused problems and must be reconsidered. Water or the lack of water, in Australia’s arid regions, requires the creation of systems for both rainwater and for fire-fighting. Bushfire patterns; the necessity of non-flammable materials, securing gaps, appropriate refuse waste management with responsibility for the environment must all be included in the architect’s remit.

Most architecture, Murcutt argues, removes people from the natural rhythm of nature. “Humans and nature require to be in balance: the rhythm that once existed in sync with nature. Sustainability is essential, devoid of any emotional relationship with the environment. Architects must address not only the issues of sustainability, but aspects, too, of human life and experience. As architects, we must address not designs that have only low impact on the environment but the issues that foster human health, performance and productivity/natural daily patterns and cycles of nature. It is my view that an architect’s role is to discover solutions, beyond sustainability for a respect for the land taking into consideration: place, culture, climes, flora, fauna, technology and time. Architects must work towards a clarification of the ‘essential,’ towards an architecture of response rather than an architecture of imposition”. 

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