Force of Nature
 -by Lynn Becker

It's standing-room-only at IIT's Crown Hall as Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt lectures on bringing nature back to modern architecture.
(Originally published in slightly different form under
 the  title "Mr. Natural" in the Chicago Reader,                                             March 19, 2004)



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A cold rain failed to dampen the turnout for a March 4th lecture by renegade Australian architect Glenn Murcutt. "I don't think I've seen the room so full in some time," said Donna Robertson, dean of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, as she looked out over an upper core of Crown Hall so crammed with bodies that latecomers were reduced to absconding stools from student worktables. . Students from rival UIC's school of architecture were out in force, and Helmut Jahn, Carol Ross Barney, and John Vinci were but a few of the Chicago architects in attendance.

The lure of a dinner honoring Murcutt after the lecture shouldn't be discounted, but as Robertson pointed out, "Helmut doesn't go to just any dinner party."

As soon as Murcutt began to speak you could understand the big turnout. A balding fireplug of a man, Murcutt's small voice has the strength of granite and the stamina of a long-distance runner. He spoke nonstop for over 90 impassioned minutes, exhausting six trays of slides in the process. "I am stirred to the point of anger," he said, "when I see what continues to be done by so-called progress - the destruction of the flora, the displacement of the fauna and all of it with the blessing if not active collusion of our subdivision regulations." He shared his vision of an alternative way of building that responds to nature, not by destroying it, but by making it a central component of design.

Murcutt was born in 1936 on a stopover in London during his parents' trip to the Berlin Olympics. His father, who'd grown rich prospecting gold, read extensively. He would take a volume of Jung, Freud, or Thoreau with him each day as he went to the mines, and he would ply his young son with inspirational quotations.

One of his father's quotes from Thoreau finds it's way into most of Murcutt's lectures. "The civilized man has the habits of the house. His house is his prison, in which he finds himself oppressed and confined, not sheltered and protected. He walks as if the walls would fall in and crush him."

Arthur Murcutt was determined to help his son find another way. He introduced him to the work of architects ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright to Philip Johnson to Harry Weese. When Glenn was 15 his father gave him a magazine article on the new Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe's own essay on a house at one with nature, and questioned him to make sure he understood the principles of its design. Murcutt's own approach still echoes that of Mies: "Try and find the really simple answer," he says. "Simple," not "simplistic."

Murcutt's early Laurie Short House was a classic Miesian steel-and-glass box, although with sliding louvered sunscreens. But a 1973 trip around the world began to reveal to Murcutt the limits of modernist purity. In LA he visited a Miesian house he'd admired as having "the simplest sort of bony architecture." But the glass walls and flat roof trapped the heat of the sun inside. Insulation could have helped, but the house didn't appear to have any. He asked the architect, Craig Ellwood, how he dealt with this problem. "He looked at me as if I was really stupid and said, 'Why, we air-condition the buildings.'" This was at a time when the Arab oil embargo had created acute gas shortages.

On the same trip, while in Paris, he stumbled upon - by chance or fate - Pierre Chareau's 1932 Maison de Verre. Here the window walls were composed, not of plate glass, but of glass block, a much better insulator. A series of movable panels afforded natural ventilation. Murcutt was impressed by how the house's steel frame allowed for an open, adjustable layout and how Chareau had used well-crafted industrial materials-the floor, for example, was made of white Pirelli rubber tiles- as an architectural way of "solving problems beautifully." Murcutt's own Bilson Restaurant contains an homage to Maison de Verre's frame and glass block facade.

Murcutt began to draw on the traditional architecture of Australia, with the woolshed being a prime example. The typical woolshed, where sheep are sheared and fleeces processed, is high enough that hot air can rise and cool the building through convection. The sheds are usually positioned to catch breezes, and while the walls appear almost solid from the outside, they actually have small gaps that let in air and daylight, but keep out heat. As Murcutt says, "The farmer knows how to build."

He has also turned to the ideas of Australia's original inhabitants. "Aboriginal people have been dismissed by Europeans for 200 years," he says. "Thank God, they are now being recognized as having a wealth of information. Recent discoveries of the traditional forms of medicine, technology, and agriculture have led to the revived interest in pre?industrial knowledge. And the field of vernacular architecture opens up an abundance of concepts that can be of use today." He was especially struck by the aboriginal belief in "touching the earth lightly," an ethic of disturbing nature no more than absolutely necessary, of understanding and working with the rhythms of nature rather than obliterating them.

Nature has grown to be an integral part of Murcutt's design. "Landscape in Australia is remarkable," he says. "The flora is tough, durable, and hardy, yet supremely delicate. The sunlight is so intense that it separates and isolates objects. The native trees read not so much as members of a series of interconnected, related elements, but as groups of isolated elements. The high oil content of so many of the trees, combined with the strong sunlight, results in a foliage shimmering silver to withered grays, with affinities to the pinks, browns, to olives."

His buildings, he says, are "my interpretation in built form" of that
landscape. Of the more than 500 houses he's completed, only two are
air-conditioned. Energy-efficient double-skin facades are now a hot
innovation in curtain-walled skyscrapers in Europe, but Murcutt developed a triple-skin facade decades ago, with adjustable louvers on the inside, insect mesh, and slatted blinds on the exterior, to keep heat out and cool air flowing in. He also uses panels that slide apart to open up rooms to the outside, and "butterfly" roofs, whose raised wings bring winter light deep into the interior, provide shade in the summer, and drain precious rainwater into a central gutter to be stored both for daily use and to fight periodic wildfires. Sometimes a pool stores the rainwater, and it's used to reflect sunlight into the house.

Mies raised Farnsworth House off the ground to protect it from the flooding of the Fox River. Murcutt built his 1974 Marie Short House on high ground, but he raised it anyway, so that during a flood snakes, insects, and lizards could take refuge beneath, leaving the house above a "dry, reptile free platform for human habitation."

He once spent 24 hours in the house, moving to a different section every two hours. "It was a wonderful experience for me," he says. "I was in command. I was able to direct the wind to enter or to exclude it. I wasn't enslaved by the building. I could hear the frogs and the crickets. I could tell the day was coming by the sounds of the birds waking. The moon came through the skylight. Patches of blue entered the room. I was able to experience 90 percent of the outside environment while being inside. I could open the house and be cool, or close it and stay warm. That's what a house should do....You modify and manipulate its form and skin according to seasonal conditions and natural elements."

John Wellborn Root once compared the character of a good building to the character of a gentleman. Murcutt takes it to a biological level. His house is not LeCorbusier's "machine for living," but an organic second skin that sweats and breathes, heats and cools, "responding to our physical and psychological needs in the way that clothing does," he says. "We don't turn on the air-conditioning as we walk through the streets in high summer." We remove clothing when we're hot, put it on when we're cold.

Murcutt's emphasis may be on nature, but he's no Luddite. The blinds on his 1994 Simpson-Lee House are electronically controlled. He says his 2001 Bowral House in New South Wales had the "largest solar installation at that time." The client insisted that he also install air-conditioning. According to Murcutt, "This has been used once since it was finished."

IIT had invited Murcutt to be its 2004 Morgenstern visiting professor, and to give a two-week studio workshop for 13 students. "It was in a phone conversation that he proposed the general thrust of his workshop," says Robertson. "He said, 'I need a site.' I offered him the first site that came to mind." It was Hegewisch Marsh near Lake Calumet. Robertson says that in and around the site, naturalists have recorded "295 bird species, 10 of which are on the state's threatened list. The city's interest is in drawing attention to the Calumet area, which is sort of a forgotten resource within the city." Five firms have named as finalists in the city's Ford Calumet Environment Center competition to design the project's visitor center, with the winner to be announced April 22nd.

For Murcutt's studio workshop, the exercise for each student was also to create, within two weeks, a design for a visitor's center "We went to the site the second day," says one of his students, Matt Hohmeier. "By looking at the site we determined an approach which responded to the environment of the site- where the sun is coming from, where the wind is coming from, the quality of the soil." Murcutt had an unconventional criterion for the siting the center. "He wanted us to take the approach where you take the worst part of the site, the most messed up part of the site, so that you can then change it. That's kind of a different approach-some architects want to put up the building on the best part of the site."

Murcutt is unique among world-renowned architects in that he is, quite happily, a one-man band. "No staff, no secretary, no receptionist, no e-mail-I try to work largely below the radar level," he says. "I like to be able to work on planes." He estimates he's been out of Australia at least 120 times. "My clients know where I am. I get faxes at my hotel."

His work style hasn't crimped his practice - he has a five-year waiting list. "Don't keep running after clients," he advised his young listeners. "Take on no client who wants it yesterday. They'll drive you into the ground. They want every inch of your blood."

Murcutt blames government planners for much of what's wrong with the
current urban landscape. "Look at this Mickey Mouse stuff!" he exclaimed as he showed a slide of a jumbled Sydney subdivision not unlike some you might find in Chicago's suburbs. "Could you live in that and survive? This is poverty of spirit and barrenness of mind. This is the absolute death of architecture when we see this sort of stuff-and it sells."

"There's only one question to ask as architects. Do we want to produce architecture, or do we wish to produce merchandise?"

"I am not rejecting urbanization," Murcutt insists, and as proof he cites the small, 15-foot-deep, semi-detached cottage in Sydney he recently renovated for his wife and himself. He wanted to add a series of skylights across the length of the roof. "The planners were terrified," he said, "because you can only have dormer windows one-third the length of the roof. Who the hell gave the planners the direction to give us this?" To secure approval for his design, Murcutt had to fight 13 court cases, all the way up to the Australian Supreme Court, where he finally won. "We beat the planners," he exults.

"I've got beautiful light coming into all the bedrooms," he said. "I've got beautiful ventilation coming into all those bedrooms. I've been able to facilitate rooms that speak to the landscape in my own small, urban back garden."

John Vinci observes that Murcutt's "philosophy and approach to architecture is not unlike that of my mentor, Alfred Caldwell." Caldwell was a legendary landscape architect and lecturer, designer of the recently restored Lincoln Park Lily Pool. (Once, when destitute, he cashed in a life insurance policy to ensure that native plants were purchased for his Park District designs.") Add Mark Schendel of Studio/Gang, "I think that there is a great admiration and perhaps envy in this part of the world -and in Chicago for sure - for (Murcutt's) solo approach and for the high quality of the work. That's the reason he came to the attention of the Chicago Pritzkers and their elite prize jury." Murcutt was the winner of the 2002 Pritzker Prize, the equivalent, for architects, of the Nobel prize. All of Murcutt's work is in Australia, and he's the only winner whose buildings were never visited by the jury.

At the end of the lecture, Murcutt was asked how his work in the great
open spaces of Australia was relevant to architecture in densely urban America, and he again pointed to his own house in Sydney. "That is much more my scene," he said. "It is not the Chicago scene, absolutely, but it does relate in that urban sense in that one little building." It's all about "understanding the nature of your place."

Most modern buildings in Chicago are designed as if that nature didn't exist, as if there were no strong lake breezes, no howling winter winds from the west, no seasonal variations in the height and intensity of the sun. Far too often, there's only sealed windows, stale air?conditioning on even the most pleasant of days, and dead songbirds done in by the deceptive transparency of plate glass. Mayor Daley is a big supporter of green technology, and local architects are beginning to catch on. But when you look at Murcutt's work you see just how far we have to go.

 Glenn Murcutt's Top Ten Favourite Phrases


© Copyright 2004-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.