Glenn Murcutt: an interview

This 1986 interview with Glenn Murcutt was commissioned by Tension, a Melbourne cultural magazine which had a relatively short life.  The impetus to give it another airing now comes from the relative obscurity of those circumstances and from the worth of Murcutt’s themes and interests developed in his responses.

Short House, Kempsey NSW 1974-75 (ABC)

Metcalf: Your work is significant for a blending of seemingly disparate ideas: I speak of the opposition between the Australian vernacular and a line of more rational thinking derived from European masters such as Van Der Rohe, Chareau and Aalto. Are you conscious of this?

Murcutt: First of all you have to realize all of this has been a hell of a surprise to me – the attention mean. I am a loner, working very much in an isolated situation. It was not until 1973 that I visited the ‘House of Light’ in Paris (Maison Dalsace, 1932 – Architect Pierre Chareau), this time getting inside, that architecture really opened up something for me. That was that architecture was nothing to do with dogma, with all the statements that I’d heard from Corb, Mies and the others. The only slogan that I’d be prepared to put up is that architecture is essentially open-ended. There are lots of ways of going about solving problems.

Metcalf: You mean technique?

Murcutt: The technique of how things are done in response to real things.

Metcalf: So how do you relate Chareau’s technique to your work in Australia?

Murcutt: Well, it goes back again to my interest – through Dad – in landscape as a child. His interest was phenomenal when I think about it. In the late 1940s he re-afforested, not just his own land, but the foreshore reserve around Clontarf (a Sydney harbour-side suburb). He used to go and plant trees of the indigenous species.

Metcalf: He taught you about landscape and husbandry of it?

Murcutt: Custodianship in a sense; how to look after it and why it was the way that it was. Relating that to my interests later on, it was simply looking at ‘place,’ looking at how things fit in and relate to and were not alien to the environment. The ‘House of Light’ showed me the same thing in another way. The link is my father who was an inventor in his own way. He’d see an ordinary problem and say “… this is the way it’s been done but there is an easier way.” He loved making things and contraptions as well as devising new ways of doing things.

Metcalf: There has been some interest for a while in the possibility that there might be an Australian idiom in our architecture. What are your views and where do you see yourself in this?

My view is that there is an architecture that belongs to Australia, which is not to say that there is an Australian architecture. There is an architecture that belongs to various parts of Australia and this can be seen, historically, throughout the country. Each area should respond to its own particular case.

For too long there has been too much said about an ‘Australian architecture,’ really there are very few people in this country who are interested in an Australian architecture. If one sits down self-consciously and tries to produce an ‘Australian architecture,’ one will fail. My view is one should be sitting down to produce an architecture that responds to where it is and, as a by-product of that, if it so happens to be ‘Australian,’ fantastic! To set about and try and produce an ‘Australian architecture’ is, I think, frankly a bit odd. We are European and we have a European culture.

In my work I’m not trying to deal with a Ned Kelly image of Australia or a Melbourne suburb image. I’m trying to deal with Australia as Australia was, or might have been before we ruined it, and that’s in the landscape. It’s not a ‘nuts and berries’ thing to me – it is very real. We have all been trained as architects to keep our eyes open, but sadly our eyes are largely only open to details. That’s fine but the eyes in this country haven’t really been open to the landscape, the light levels and the climatic conditions that exist.

Metcalf: Is it that you find people are too busy looking at one another rather than getting on with their own work?

Murcutt: Yes, particularly when you are young. Working in an office situation where you have to have other architects as your critic when you are growing is hard. You are the whole time being forced you are being pressured from all sides. I remember as a young architect, aged 28 or 30, working in an office and trying to design something. I’d be experimenting and people I have great regard for would say, “Are you serious?” I’d think to myself “God, I really was, but how can I say I am serious, they’ll think I’m a fool.” So what I decided to do was to get out and isolate myself so I could develop. I suspect one of the problems is that there is not that ability for sensitive persons to be able to withstand the onslaught of a degree of viciousness within the profession – it’s tough.

Metcalf: Let’s now be specific about your work. How would you say you are affected by the building site in the rural and urban situations?

Murcutt: Take the rural situation and talk about scale for a moment. Talk about movement of scale in arrival: when you go into the country you get into a car at some stage travelling to say 100 km/hour and its forest land, or a driveway, almost invariably lined with trees. The whole of this proximity of landscape to your speed of travel, position of travel, is much closer. Therefore your speed seems to be reduced; there is what I call a scale of movement. Then you get out of the vehicle and move to the house and so you’re breaking down the change, the scale of movement and the change of light going from the outside to the inside. There is a big change in scale from the human ant in the landscape to the human giant in the built environment.

I have worked with the ‘veranda room’ – not ‘veranda’ – the veranda room through which I pass almost always to go into the house. You come into this covered area which may be insect screened, so the light level drops a little, then you come into the house and the light level drops further, and then go into the bedrooms and bathing spaces and the light level is dropped even further. It is a graded progression.

In an urban situation you are in a car or a train and somehow you are much more vulnerable in a physical sense in relation to other people. One is definitely more vulnerable in the urban situation. Again, there needs to be a scale breakdown coming into the dwelling. I feel the thing we lack here is that transitory space between the outside and the inside and it is not the entrance hall. It is that zone, that garden that you come into. The great disaster in this country has been the aim of having that metre of space each side of a house and the setback line at the front where every building stands up to attention. To me it’s a disaster and yet it was the nicest of aims – to give a rural quality to an urban dwelling. The reality is that it is neither one thing nor the other.

Planning is disaster in this country. It has given us the suburban sprawl. The best thing that could happen, in my view, is to almost compulsorily reduce the land size so that we are required to build right up to the boundaries. The way we build now we don’t really have to think about what we are doing; every usable external space becomes a leftover as opposed to something that is immediately considered as an integral part of the internal planning.

Metcalf: You are advocating a more enlightened system of subdivision and planning.

Murcutt: Exactly! You can go to the Greek Islands and have these fantastic streets where you get a building that is very bland. I am much more interested in an architecture that says nothing much to the street except “… I am very private. I have a wealth of richness and experiences inside.” I’m also saying something about society because the society doesn’t make demands on us to be more enlightened.

The rural thing has taught me something about the urban thing and that is that you can produce many of the same things I most enjoy; gardens and courtyards, which means, in the urban thing, your own private living. It all varies extremely from say from the coastal rural house to the urban house though. In one you are producing things for climatic reasons and in the other for defensive reasons. There is a different sense of place in each of these situations.

House at Bingie, NSW 1982-84 (Glenn Murcutt/AP)


Metcalf: Let’s now talk about your working methods. How do you, first of all, decide on which commissions to take?

Murcutt: The very first thing I establish is to get clients, or accepted clients, that give me room to move. If I like the people then it’s really the basic criteria.

Metcalf: How do you establish that?

Murcutt: I have quite a lengthy telephone discussion about their basic aims and then how long they can wait for me because if they can’t wait for a year and a half then I can’t take them on. Beyond that I can tell by the general aim that they’ve often known about my work for some time through friends who I’ve done work for or through publications. They come to me already knowing my work and there is no greater way of getting clients.

Then I always meet with them at their present residence because I need to go and see how they live, what their general interests are, and what their relationships with me might be. I then say; “Right, let’s go and look at the site.” After we have spent some time together I can then say’ “right, I’ll take you on,” or: “no.” If I’m not the right architect then I will see what I can do to refer them on. I know what I can do and I know what I can’t do. If someone comes to me with a particular notion o9f a style of architecture I know I can’t achieve, I have to say there are other architects who are much better at that than I am.

Metcalf: Once you have taken the commission and established that important relationship, can you say how you proceed, what kick you off in designing a building?

Murcutt: Fear… fear of not being able to achieve what is required by the site. I was given confidence by Coderich in Spain ten years ago who said, at age 73 and doing beautiful work: “Every time I take on a new project I am nervous, I am extremely nervous with just a sheet of paper and a pencil.” I thought because my nervousness existed that I am hopeless, but seeing a man of his ability still like that at 73 made me realise that it is a necessary ingredient of performing at one’s best. Remember also that I’ve got up to a year and a half lead time. No longer do I have to sit down and work out what I am doing in five minutes. I have a longer ‘working in’ period. I meet with the clients again and extract the brief and we meet again to see where the site is going to be. So I’ve got a brief and I’ve determined the site.

In determining the site I’ve got to find out about wind patterns, the sun and shade patterns, water table level, soil conditions, rainfall etc. What are the hot and cold winds, are we on the coast? I get diagrams from the local weather bureau and all these things start to build up a picture of where I might be able to build.

Then I’ll walk over the site with the clients. Sometimes they select the right place from the outset, or I’ll say: “Look, I don’t think its good enough.” Sometimes I’m like a water diviner wandering about until I say: “Here it is!” Quite often we’ll establish it and find that there’s already been a house there; many of our forebears had an intuitive sense of where to put a house.

At any time there might be ten or so projects at varying stages. You’ll be going through them, working them up and every now and again you’ll think of something and jot it down as what’s go to be done. I don’t have to make decisions overnight and that’s the failure of modern things. My way of working is evolutionary and that is very different to the way almost everybody else works. It is my circumstances that have made it that way.

Metcalf: I can see that it’s not possible to work that way under normal circumstances – in large projects for example. You therefore avoid larger buildings because architecture, as you see it, is not possible. Can this situation be changed?

Murcutt: I’d say the scale of projects I’ve chosen are the scales I thought I could handle as a young architect. Now, while I’ve got to work within client’s budgets, they are also responsible for those financial means in that they have to show a 15% return, therefore their investment is largely an environmental one. You can compare that to probably those same clients in their commercial activities. That’s very important to me.

The commercial, corporate client is usually made up of many people and they all want a finger in it. Very often only one member of that body wants you as architect, but you have to please the lot. Hopefully the others will put aside their personal concerns about the architect so long as the job shows a return.

Well, I find the return factor to be a false factor. I don’t see it as anything whatever to do with the real issue of where and how we build. It tends to structure – very often – an immorality. I believe it is the architect’s task  to do more than just design a client’s desires. If a client asks me, on a beautiful site, to do something that I believe is very wrong, then I believe it is my responsibility to say so. My form of protest is to say I won’t do it and I have done that.

I’m not talking about gum trees or rock outcrops; I’m really talking about an urban environment which has a whole lot of other issues attached to it. In fact one has to go a lot further than merely taking a block of land and working with the status quo in this situation: we get our floor space ratio, site cover and benefits that can produce a building envelope which can go a dozen different ways, but finally it’s all decided at the corporate level on an economic basis.

I think you just take a city like Sydney and say: “Look, there are sections that just have to change.” Who pays for it I don’t know so what I am saying is totally unrealistic, but if you ask me what I would do in an urban situation, I would love to start with real things. In Sydney I’d love to have a look at the scale and the topography from the harbour side to the ridges, the wind patterns related to that. I can assure you I can produce a highly satisfactory envelope in one week that would allow a maximum number of people to enjoy sunlight. I believe each of us has the right to sunlight and we also have a right to natural breezes – I see these as absolute rights. Consequently I can see a development that creates a relationship between buildings in plan; the higher they are the further back you go before the next one starts. In other words the angle between the top of one building and the base of the next is the winter sun angle. Buildings would enjoy a ‘breathing’ to the north. Sydney has very few things that have really been considered.

Metcalf: We would need a rather totalitarian political regime to achieve your aims.

Murcutt: Exactly, so you can’t do it. The machinery is just not there so I can’t see how I can do it. I don’t get involved in it because all I’d be doing would be to contribute to the mess that is there. I’d dearly love to some bigger buildings, but not so massive that I would lose control and become alienated.

Metcalf: Finally, what changes do you see as being important to raise the architectural standards?

Murcutt: I’d go back and examine the educational institutions, working through from Kindergarten to the end of High School. To hell with gaining a certain high score to get into Architecture School, to hell with gaining and even higher one to get into Medicine. I know there has got to be criteria for admission, but we just don’t do enough with developing a child’s imagination. We are, most of the time, developing two dimensional human beings. It is a tragedy because the imagination is there to be used. I was slow at school and barely survived the system, but I used to spend a lot of time day dreaming, just thinking and wanting to build things. Now, to me, that sort of thing should be at least half of our education. Art is the only thing that you get at school and basically it is two dimensional because you spend a lot of time talking about the history of art. I mean to hell with the history of art, what about the imagination of the child immediately?

I’m not suggesting there are other places that do it better – it is a universal problem. And let’s face it: out of any community, out of any graduating year of say 50 architects, you’re lucky to find four or five who can really design.

We have got to improve the standards of architects; we also have to improve the standards of perception of all people who’ll put pressure on architects to perform to the standards that the population wants. Unfortunately though, our educational system produces mediocrity. If you are going to produce a mass of half-educated people, that mass is going to demand of architects, a half-educated approach to things.

Furthermore, because the educational system hasn’t sponsored the arts, the society doesn’t want the arts. Why then would they want an architect? No wonder we have only 2% of all housing being designed by architects. If the educational system went right back and educated our kids to be creative, to think, and to understand that art is a very important part of our well being, you would have an improvement. We would get a demand for and an appreciation of the environment.

Finally, we may then get a clientele that understands the issues involved in putting a building together, who understand in other words, that architecture and environment is an evolutionary thing, an experimental area of work.









5 thoughts on “Glenn Murcutt: an interview

  1. Fascinating that this interview took place 15 years ago and is still so relevant and provocative, thanks for a great post!!

  2. Loved the interview Andrew.
    In particular I am very much reminded of William Creek Station. I used to drive up the borefield road on Friday nights when my shift at OD mine ended. Peddle to the metal on that dusty old road. At 140Km/hour movement becomes a rhythmic rocking and swaying with careful adjustments of the wheel and the occassional heart wrenching unexpected slide, desperately fighting the urge not to do something.
    Then I was there and ducking under the veranda roof and through the door into the bar. The big wide expansive world does expand and contract in response to scale, or my perception of it. I always liked that the William Creek Station would welcome me progressively and the graded light is exactly as Murcutt describes.
    I always approached that place at dusk and the sun would be going down, a really magical time of day, entering that place was both comforting and protective. It also acted as a strong brake on emotion and stress, letting time slow down, and allowing me to adjust while my eyes adjusted to the darkness before I ordered the first of many beers.
    Who is going to interview you Andrew?

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