Australian architect makes homes that coexist with their surroundings

by Edan Corkill

In 2006 it was the Australia-Japan Year of Exchange. This year, it would seem, is the Australia-Roppongi Year of Exchange. Not only is a huge exhibition of the late Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye being held in Roppongi at the National Art Center until July 28, but Gallery Ma, the specialist architecture forum run by bathroom- fixtures-maker Toto, is hosting an exhibition of Australia’s most famous living architect, Glenn Murcutt.

Superficially, Murcutt and Emily (who is generally known by her first name) could hardly be more different. She was an Aboriginal who lived most of her years in a remote central Australian settlement, and he is a white Australian who grew up, with servants, in New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea) in the 1930s. And yet, the sheer coincidence that now sees them both exhibiting in Tokyo belies a deep-lying similarity: both draw deeply for their work on their continent’s unique natural environment.

Murcutt makes houses, most of them tucked almost imperceptibly into natural environments: retreats in the bush, beach houses on secluded cliffs, full-time residences on tropical monsoon floodplains. With deep awnings keeping out the sun in summer or huge sliding windows opening to turn entire residences into open-air pavilionlike spaces, Murcutt’s architecture is so integrated with its environment that it is as if it evolved over centuries, as part of nature itself.

In some ways, the world over the last 15 years has finally caught up with the 72-year-old architect and his harmony-with-nature creed. In 1992 he received the prestigious Alvar Aalto Medal and the so-called Nobel Prize of the architecture fraternity, the Pritzker Prize, in 2002, with both juries lauding his sensitivity to the environment.

The afterglow from those awards has yet to fade, and earlier this month it brought him to Japan.

You have said, “works of architecture are discovered, not designed.”

Yes, you don’t create architecture. You are like any other scientist or researcher — you discover.

It won’t necessarily be form. It will be space, structure, order, framing, viewing, framing views, picking up wind (and excluding when you don’t need it), keeping warm when you need to keep warm, keeping cool when you need to keep cool. These are all those aspects of design (that must be discovered).

Your architecture is well-known for its relation to the environment, but how does it reflect Australian culture?

When I grew up it was fairly important that you had a separate dining room. The kitchen was separated from the dining room and the living room. That was our culture. It was British culture, and it was aspirational to high British culture!

As Australia developed as a nation, we cast off a number of these inheritances from Britain, but some of the things were very good, like the veranda, which was brought from India by the British. In (the Australian state of) Queensland, the veranda is where people lived in summertime. They withdrew to the center of the house only in wintertime.

It occurred to me in 1974: Why can’t we just live on the veranda? So I modified the space so that at certain times of the year it becomes an open veranda and at other times of the year it becomes an inside space. I developed screening systems — first of all glass, then an insect screen, then on the outside a slatted screen and sometimes outside of that a solid screen. You can open or shut any one of them or any combination of them.

In some ways the veranda has contributed to the development of Australian culture — the barbecues outside on weekends, and so on. Your architecture, too, is almost “precultural” in that it reflects a given natural environment and creates a platform on which Australian culture is borne.

The buildings that I produce are in the realm of Modernism. Modernism is related to open planning, related to structure, technology of the day, that sort of thing. And I am still part of that aesthetic. The platform that I build is a platform where one can live in a very informal way. Yes, my son (the architect Nicholas Murcutt) will tell you, clients who come to me to get work done . . . know in a sense what they are going to get. They don’t know what it will be, but they know it’s going to produce a certain way of living, a simplified way of living, an honest way of living. But, put a dinner suit on and it feels very formal. It can change in accordance to how you want it to change.

This is your first time in Japan, and I believe you have just been to see the Nihon Minka-en (Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum) in Kawasaki, where there are many traditional Japanese houses from different regions around the country. They are probably as responsive to their natural environments as your architecture, right?

There are houses of fishing villages, houses of the mountains, houses of the plains. The houses with few windows are from colder climates, with very low eaves, minimizing the external wall surface, and keeping the roof down low to get the wind going over the top. There is one house that I had seen in a book that was fantastic. It has two roofs that come together, a big gutter that is held by bamboo pieces. Oh, the detailing. “God is in the details,” Mies van der Rohe has said. And god is in those details. Whether it be Buddha or whatever god it is, they’re in those details. Because those buildings have authenticity. That’s important: integrity, honesty, directness.

“Glenn Murcutt: Thinking Drawing / Working Drawing” continues at Gallery Ma in Roppongi until August 9; open 11 a.m. till 6 p.m. (7 p.m. on Fridays; closed Sunday, Monday and public holidays). Admission free. For more information call (03) 3402-1010 or visit www.toto.jp/gallerma.