Glenn Murcutt is the first and the only Australian architect to win Pritzker Prize, and a quite a unique recipient one, not only among the winners of the prestigious prize but within the international architectural guild. First of all, he works by himself, therefore, all the recognition and hard work cannot be split between numerous persons, as it happens with all the other esteemed architectural studios around the globe. Then, his way of approaching architecture, paying attention to the Australian particular natural and built context, but also to the psychological function of the buildings, and all of this by using modern means of architecture, makes him a valuable figure for the contemporary architecture. Last but not least, he designs only in Australia, perhaps as a consequence of his diligence, considering building in another environment would mean solid preparation for him, and this would crush with his education from childhood when his father was quoting from the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): “Since most of us spend our lives doing ordinary tasks, the most important thing is to carry them out extraordinarily well.”
“I’m very interested in buildings that adapt to changes in climatic conditions according to the seasons, buildings capable of responding to our physical and psychological needs in the way that clothing does. We don’t turn on the air-conditioning as we walk through the streets in high summer. Instead, we change the character of the clothing by which we are protected. Layering and changeability: this is the key, the combination that is worked into most of my buildings. Occupying one of these buildings is like sailing a yacht; you modify and manipulate its form and skin according to seasonal conditions and natural elements, and work with these to maximize the performance of the building. This involvement with the building also assists in the care for it. I am concerned about the exploitation of the natural environment to modify the internal climate of buildings. Architects must confront the perennial issues of light, heat, and humidity control yet take responsibility for the method and the materials by which, and out of which, a building is made. The considerations, context, and the landscape are some of the factors that are constantly at work in my architecture.”
—Glenn Murcutt, 1996
One cannot properly understand Glenn Murcutt’s architecture, without previously knowing his background and his upbringing, as he had a very interesting story. Arthur Murcutt (born in 1899 in Melbourne) and Daphne Powys, his parents, were traveling to Europe for the Berlin Olympics, but it happened that they were visiting London when their son, Glenn, was born on the 25th of July 1936. Perhaps this foretold a life with plenty of travels around the world. Until the age of five, he lived with his parents in the New Guinea, land which would leave an important imprint on his memory, and later will influence also his way of seeing things and designing. His first home was built by his father and was lifted from the ground, to protect it from reptiles and water coming in, but also as a measure of protection against the Kukuku people who were to be feared of in those times, and the roof was made of lightweight corrugated iron. These two elements will become later in his career, emblematic for his designs. Another interesting memory of his, which will give us a clue of why he is so keen on using metal in his projects regards the planes. Because New Guinea is an island, it is not hard to understand why aviation was the most used means of transportation, and seeing so often the airplanes, he became interested in the materials used for their fabrication and thus became known as the “corrugated Gal Iron King.”
He says about iron:
“I use it because it’s an important material for the things I want to do. It’s capable of giving me that thinness, that lightweight quality, an edge, a fineness, economy and strength, and profile. I’m able to bend it and curve it in two dimensions. I love it because it reflects the quality of the light of the day and the surrounding colors. On a dull day, the building dulls down; on a bright day, the building is bright. When laid with the ribs horizontal, the upper surface of the corrugation picks up the skylight and the lower surface, the ground light—accentuating the horizontal. That’s a material which responds to its environment.”
When his family left New Guinea, they established themselves in Sydney, Australia, and his father opened a joinery shop where he had to spend all his holidays, from 11 years onwards, but in this way, by making casement windows, box-frame windows, Glenn learned to pay attention to details and to observe everything that surrounded him. But the influence of his father did not stop here, he subscribed to Architectural Forum, and thus transmitted to his son the appreciation for Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Charles Eames, Rudolph Michael Schindler. His father was not only interested in modern architecture, but he designed and built himself some of the houses where they lived, and when Glenn was 13, he did a model of their home, following his father’s request. He is grateful for many things to his father, from his teachings about the environment to the ones regarding the psychanalysts Jung (1875-1961), Freud (1856-1939) and most of all Henry David Thoreau, who would later become perhaps his favorite philosopher, imaginably for his contribution to ecology and environmentalism.
Glenn graduated from the Sydney Technical College, in 1961, and a year later he went on a trip to Europe where he visited 10 countries in two years. Here he fell in love with Alvar Aalto’s buildings, which later will influence his creations, especially the details as the attention to details, the materiality, and the esthetic of the form. After he returned from the trip, he worked in a studio, Ancher, Mortlock, Murray&Wooley, until 1969 when he decided to open his practice, a dream he had since he was a student, which is no wonder, after all his experience and training he was lucky enough to have since early childhood.
Glenn Murcutt: “When I consider the magic of our landscape. I am continually struck by the genius of the place, the sunlight, shadows, wind, heat and cold, the scents from our flowering trees and plants, and, especially the vastness to the island continent. All these factors go to make a land of incredible strength combined with an unimaginable delicacy.” The second reason for the use of metal in his buildings could be that he built racing boats, at the early age of 16, and this is where he also became aware of the properties of the stainless steel, and of the importance of the climate (air, humidity, wind and so forth) but also about balance.
The Islamic Society of Newport wanted a modern Australian building for their community, that would become an expression of a continuously growing Muslim population and it encompasses a mosque, a library, a cafe, an education center, sports facilities and it is surrounded by a large outdoor area. For its design, Glenn Murcutt collaborated with the architect Hakan Elevli from the Elevli Plus studio, in Melbourne, but they permanently consulted with the local Islamic architects, imams, and community leaders, to respect the essential traditions, like the mihrab (the wall orientated towards Mecca, where the prayers are being conducted by the religious). The main element that caught attention is perhaps the roof, which has 96 golden apertures, that filter the light, and directs the attention during the prayers, towards the divinity, toward the sky.
Following the example of the Serpentine Gallery, in Hyde Park, London (where since 2000 every year an architect that has never built in the United Kingdom before is commissioned to design a pavilion) the charity foundation Naomi Milgrom, which bears the name of its founder, invites annually a famous architect to create an emblematical structure. In 2019 Glenn Murcutt has been selected, being preceded by the Melbourne-based architect, Sean Godsell, British architect Amanda Levete, Studio Mumbai from India, the famous OMA, and the Spanish architect Carme Pinos. Naomi Milgrom declared she designated Glenn Murcutt considering he is “quintessentially Australian and ahead of his time, Glenn’s thoughtfulness about people, place-making and the environment continues to inspire us all.”
Perhaps the best way to conclude about Glenn Murcutt’s works, who are so well rooted in the Australian land, and so deeply connected to its people, is to say that his buildings do indeed “ touch this earth lightly”, this being a saying in Western Australia, of the native people, but leaving a powerful imprint for the ones that inhabit them.
Marie Short (1974-75/1980) in New South Wales, Australia
Glenn Murcutt’s work comprises mainly single-story houses, that are completely adapted to the particularities of the Australian climate, thus he does not have a certain style, due to its contextualist approach. Nonetheless, there are a few elements that repeat themselves, but which result in a response to the needs of the environment. In this regard, Marie Short house can be named as one of his iconic works, where he uses his innovations, to adapt to the sensibilities of the surroundings and the climate: elevated floor level, cross ventilation for all the rooms, timber structure, pitched roof made out of curved corrugated metal sheets that overlap, metal louvers to control the level of light that enters the house, but also the level of freedom and privacy of the owners and wooden materials for the interiors, that remind us of Alvar Alto’s interiors in terms of materiality, but in terms of simplicity and disposal, to Mies van der Rohe or Philip Johnson.
The house was commissioned by the Aboriginal artist Marmburra Banduk Marika and her partner Mark Alderton, and is one of the most appreciated of his works, due to its innovations. Like all of Glenn Murcutt’s project, the influence of the environment was fundamentally in the design process of the house. Located in the northern part of Australia, in an area with a tropical climate, cyclonic conditions and heavy winds and rainfalls, the site is enclosed by an estuary brook, a beach, and a beautiful lagoon. Therefore, the house must have a strong connection, be open to the natural environment, for the owners to be able to scrutinize the horizontality of their land, so typical for Australia. The building seems to flow, and gently touches the ground just to cope with gravity. We can observe the staircase that leads to the floor, reminiscence from Philip Johnsons’s Glass House, and the daring earthy color of the exterior walls could be a reminder of his fondness of Louis Barragan’s works. The steel frame was prefabricated, along with the other components, such as the Australian hardwoods, and screwed together on-site, in four months.