FEATURES • Fall 2002

Australian architect Glenn Murcutt was awarded the 2002 Pritzker Architecture Prize last spring. He heard of his selection while serving as a visiting professor at the University's School of Architecture. Murcutt's distinctly minimalist and environmentally friendly designs thoughtfully merge modern form with nature.

By Liam Otten

Glenn Murcutt is not your typical internationally renowned architect. Where peers like Frank Gehry of I.M. Pei boast mammoth budgets, platoons of assistants, and well-oiled publicity machines hyping projects around the world, Murcutt runs a one-man office specializing in modestly scaled, energy-efficient structures built exclusively in his native Australia.

So some casual observers were surprised by the announcement last April that Murcutt—then serving as the Ruth and Norman Moore Visiting Professor of Architecture at Washington University—had won the 2002 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field's highest honor.

Savvy critics applauded the choice. At 66, Murcutt is widely credited with pioneering a uniquely Australian architectural language, one that combines elegant modernist geometry with "vernacular" Outback forms and materials perfectly suited to that country's rugged yet ecologically delicate landscape.

"Glenn Murcutt has become a living legend," explains architecture writer and Pritzker juror Ada Louis Huxtable. "[He is] an architect totally focused on shelter and the environment, with skills drawn from nature and the most sophisticated design traditions of the modern movement."

Cynthia Weese, dean of the School of Architecture, adds that, "Glenn is a person of great integrity, and we feel very fortunate and honored to have had him with us at the time he learned of his selection. More important, our students were able to benefit from his intense and insightful critiquing—he pushed them just as he pushes himself."

A Work in Progress

Born in London in 1936, Murcutt spent his early childhood in New Guinea, living in a small house that his father, a gold prospector, had build on stilts to protect against floods, reptiles, and other intruders.

The family came to Australia in 1941, with the onset of World War II, establishing a successful joinery shop in Manly Vale.

An astute, intellectually curious man, Arthur Murcutt read widely and was deeply impressed by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe—an enthusiasm he passed on to his son. Glenn earned an architecture degree from the University of New South Wales in 1961 and marked the occasion by taking a walking tour of Tasmania, closely followed by a two-year, 10-country excursion through Europe. The latter trip introduced him to another formative influence, Finnish architect Alva Aalto (1898-1976), whose integration of regional characteristics and attention to climate and landscape prefigure many of Murcutt's concerns. (In 1992, Murcutt was awarded the seventh Alvar Aalto Medal in Helsinki.)

Returning to Sydney, Murcutt went to work for the firm of Ancher, Mortlock, Murray & Wooley until opening his own office in 1969. In the years since, he's designed scores of projects across Australia, mainly private residences, but also restaurants, a local history museum, and a teaching center for the arts—a winery and a 75-room hotel are in in works. Yet despite his prodigious activity, Murcutt has steadfastly refused to practice abroad.

"For me to be building in my country, for the people I know best, in the land I know best, gives me the greatest chance of success," he explains. "It's much more complicated to build in another land. A lot of mistakes can be made."

For example, Murcutt rails against the all-too-common failure of contemporary architects to properly appreciate geographic and climatic conditions. Air conditioning and other energy-intensive technologies are not license to "build any sort of building anywhere in the world," he quips. "I'm interested in a less consumptive architecture."

Murcutt begins each commission by researching everything from local humidity levels and wind patterns to the sun's track at different times of the year. He favors simple, efficient materials like wood, concrete, and his signature corrugated iron; his buildings tend to be long and narrow to better control the absorption and dispersal of solar warmth. Networks of screens and overlapping roofs foster natural ventilation and virtually eliminate the need for mechanical cooling. A fireplace generally suffices for heat.

In the rough-and-tumble Australian countryside, Murcutt often sets his buildings on stilts—floods and reptiles, you'll recall—while offering innovative features like roofs that collect water for irrigation and fire prevention and outdoor reflecting pools that feed external fire protection sprinklers. Glass ceilings frame dramatic sky-scapes yet are shielded by carefully calibrated aluminum and wooded slats, which provide shade in warmer months when the sun is directly overhead, and allow light to permeate during the winter months when the sun drops lower in the sky.

At Washington University

Murcutt is the third architect associated with Washington University to win the Pritzker Prize since its inauguration, by Chicago's Pritzker family, in 1979. Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the 1993 laureate, taught at the School of Architecture from 1956 to 1963 and is designing the University's new Visual Arts and Design Center. Viennese architect Hans Holdein, the 1985 laureate, taught here in 1963–1964.

Last semester, Murcutt and Pia Sarpaneva, visiting associate professor of architecture, led a graduate studio focused on designing a hypothetical interpretive center for Cahokia Mounds, a United Nations World Heritage site located in Illinois just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Established around A.D. 700, the mounds are believed to have been the center of the largest prehistoric community in North America, a city of 20,000 that reached its peak between A.D. 1100 and 1200.

Following Murcutt's custom, students began by investigating climatic conditions, surrounding river systems and floodplains, and the history of the Mississippian peoples. That rigor paid unexpected dividends when the group discovered a clear relationship between the mounds' orientation and the sun's position at equinox and solstice.

"Once you start looking at all these overlays, you start to understand why the mounds are placed where they are," Murcutt points out. "A whole lot of things start to come to life that have not been articulated in their fullness before."

Murcutt also emphasized the difference between conservation and the more suspect concept of "restoration," warning that "it's so easy to destroy what's there." For example, though a layer of clay once covered the mounds, simply re-covering them would only damage actual archaeological evidence while confusing fact with nostalgic fiction. Responsible design should content itself with "holding the deterioration" and amplifying existing characteristics while remaining "distinctly different from what already exists."

That ethos is largely the result of Murcutt's long study of traditional Australian Aboriginal cave galleries, whose nonaxial entrances, circuitous pathways, and deep connection to the land he often cites as planning, ethical, and aesthetic influences. In fact, the architect who puts buildings on stilts is fond of summarizing his architectural philosophy by quoting an old Aboriginal dictum: to "touch the earth lightly."

"I've learned a lot from the Aboriginal people of Australia," Murcutt muses. "I've learned to be careful on the land, to respect the land, and not to allow the land, the mother, to be harmed. I've learned about the eco-tones and eco-zones, those changes in the systems within the landscape, about prospect and refuge, and multiple layers at the openings of buildings, which provide options, like dressing for the summer or dressing for the winter.

"The ability to look out but not be seen, which gives a sense of privacy; to see the horizon, changing weather patterns, and movements of animals and people—these are all very significant things for Aboriginal people.

Liam Otten is a senior news writer in the Office of University Communications.

 

 

"For me to be building in my country, for the people I know best, in the land I know best, gives me the greatest chance of success," says Murcutt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education centre, Riversdale, New South Wales, 1996-1999 (in collaboration with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C. Fletcher and A. Page House, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, 1997-2000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interior shot, C. Fletcher and A. Page House, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, 1997-2000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last spring, Glenn Murcutt (right), the Ruth and Norman Moore Visiting Professor of Architecture, co-taught, along with Pia Sarpaneva (in red), visiting associate professor of architecture, a graduate studio focused on designing a hypothetical interpretive center for Cahokia Mounds, in Illinois.