Architect Profile: Glenn Murcutt

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Built in the 1980s, the Magney House on Australia’s South Coast demonstrates both the modernist and traditional elements that influence Murcutt.
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The Australian aboriginal people have a saying, “Touch the earth lightly.” Sydney architect Glenn Murcutt, who designs environmentally sensitive buildings made of low-impact materials, takes that advice to heart.

Murcutt’s skill in creating small-scale rural homes that harmonize with the Australian landscape won him the 2002 Pritzker Prize–architecture’s highest honor–and garnered international attention for sustainable architecture. Murcutt gives form to a unique national style with designs that draw from Australian culture and history, notably structures fashioned after a sheep farmer’s wool shed. A devotee of Henry David Thoreau, Murcutt pays homage in his work to simplicity and love of the outdoors. “When I consider the magic of our landscape, I am struck by the genius of the place: the sunlight, shadows, wind, heat and cold, the scents from flowering trees and plants, and the vastness of this island continent,” he says. “All these factors make a land of incredible strength combined with unimaginable delicacy. My architecture attempts to convey the character of the Australian landscape, to offer my interpretation in built form.”

Awareness about green building practices is likely to increase in the wake of this eco-conscious Pritzker. The New York Times heralds Murcutt’s award as evidence that sustainable architecture is gaining recognition and that conservation can be as important as aesthetics when considering a building’s overall merit.

From his one-man office–where he works without a computer–Murcutt creates energy-efficient, modernist buildings that interact with their environments. Before putting pencil to paper, he studies the site’s climate, terrain, wind patterns, and areas of sun and shade. Few of his creations require air conditioning because he strategically positions each house so it cools naturally, aided by climate-controlling architectural elements such as walls that open to the breeze.

Murcutt takes cues from nature and the ways humans regulate body temperature. “We layer our clothing, putting more on when it’s cold, taking more off when it’s hot,” he notes. “I think our buildings should equally respond to their climates.” To do that, he envisions houses that produce their own shade and ventilation. For instance, he uses slatted timber or metal screens, similar to exterior Venetian blinds, which reflect hot sun away from the house. He also overlaps roof layers so that cool air moves between them.

“Murcutt’s houses are fine-tuned to the land and weather,” observes architect Bill Lacy, executive director of the Pritzker Prize. “He uses a variety of materials–metal, wood, glass, stone, brick, and concrete–always selected with consciousness of the amount of energy it took to produce the materials in the first place.”

The simple lines and materials of a Murcutt building testify to this architect’s commitment to helping people coexist with nature. “I am not rejecting urbanization or seeking a utopia in the bush,” he professes. “I recognize the importance of a varied milieu. I am opposed to the total taming of the land and loss of wildness. The land appeals for care, and we need to become friends with the landscape and not be threatened by it.”