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Posted 09 June 2009
You could call him Australia’s rock star architect, but Glenn Murcutt, the son of a tough taskmaster who taught him to respect the environment, is less likely to play the celebrity than to see it as his duty to give his knowledge away.

“Son, remember you must start off the way you’d like to finish,” Arthur Murcutt would say. In January, Arthur’s eldest son, now 72, was awarded the American Institute of Architects gold medal, to line his shelves already crowded with awards including the 2002 honour of architecture’s Nobel, the Pritzker Prize.

Murcutt took Australian architecture to the world, says filmmaker Catherine Hunter, who is making a documentary on the architect. “He gives everything, he can’t help himself,” she says. “He’s unstoppable, he’s this force. Long before we started talking about things such as sustainability, Glenn was practising those things.”

The Pritzker jury noted Murcutt was the antithesis of “an age obsessed with celebrity, [when] the glitz of our ‘starchitects’, backed by large staffs and copious public-relations support, dominates the headlines”.

In demand around the world for decades to lecture on his approach - minimising architecture's footprint by using sustainable building materials and efficient energy systems - Murcutt accepts only a modest fee when he gives his two-week master class each winter, where he also mucks in with the 30-odd students and dries the dishes.

In July, Murcutt will give his ninth annual architecture class at his masterwork building, the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre completed in 1999 at Riversdale, one of the properties of the 1100-hectare Bundanon Trust on the Shoalhaven River, where Arthur Boyd lived and painted.

He remains the perfectionist. “I’ve been with him and a group of students visiting a house he’s designed,” says Architecture Foundation Australia convenor Lindsay Johnston, who is helping put together the retrospective Glenn Murcutt: Architecture for Place opening June 13 at the Museum of Sydney, “and in the middle of the thing he’ll be disassembling a door lock because something’s not working.”

But surely Murcutt the man, dressed now in black and gray and peering over his half rim spectacles, a big colourful painting by Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye on his studio wall behind him, has an ego? “Well, every human who is doing something has an ego,” he says. “But there are several sorts of egos. One is that self-referential aspect, which is not me.

“Then there is the ego that is the one of survival, and the driving force. I have a very powerful driving force. But I’m not hanging out for awards. They’re a by-product of my central interest: producing architecture, not merchandise.”

Murcutt works mostly alone at this Mosman home-office, though he does insist on crediting collaborators; in the case of the Boyd Centre at Riversdale, that’s fellow architects Wendy Lewin – his second wife – and Reg Lark. His renovated space is replete with Murcutt touches: recycled timber floorboards screwed in rather than nailed for easy replacement; a modernist simplicity of white walls looking onto a jungle of natives such as Gymea lilies.

He has always insisted on working only in Australia, but within this country he has found the broadest palette: he waxes about one of his latest projects, a mosque in Altona in Melbourne, and what a joy it has been to work with the Muslim community.

Much of his discipline and humility are the influence of his strict upbringing under his Melbourne-born father. Glenn Murcutt was born in London on July 25, 1936, the eldest child of Arthur and Daphne Murcutt – the family were en route to the Berlin Olympics – and spent his first five years of life in New Guinea, where his father ran timber milling and then alluvial gold mining operations.

Murcutt still remembers the home his father built in New Guinea, and his uncle being there too. But some locals hadn’t been been too happy about the family living on their land. “We were the impostors,” he says. “The local Kukukuku people [were] still feared by the rest of the Papua New Guineans ...

"As they came down the hill through the high grass, it looked like a snake in the grass, and my father’s indentured workers would start shaking through incredible fear.

“They were the only cannibals in Papua New Guinea. They killed our neighbour, a German guy, they ate him because he was European and put his head in a bag.”

Arthur found the war a godsend – the family fled when a Japanese invasion loomed in late 1941 – because it sent the family back to Australia. Murcutt says the family departed on a “scorched earth policy”: Arthur dynamited the house, water supply system and swimming pool.

Resettling his growing family in Clontarf on Sydney’s northern beaches, Arthur speculatively designed houses – he favoured ventilation, insect screens and orienting towards the north – and ran a joinery factory where Glenn worked after hours from age 12 to 17 while enrolled at Manly Boys High School.

Eschewing the earlier careers in timber milling and gold mining, Arthur had become “fanatical” about environmentalism later in life. Murcutt recalls being in the family car when another motorist threw litter onto the road. Arthur gave chase and, when they caught the driver, Murcutt shrunk to the floor upon realising the offenders were parents of friends.

That didn’t stop Arthur’s tirade, forcing the rubbish back into their car. “He embarrassed the life out of us,” his eldest son recalls. Arthur would also take a loudhailer to nearby Cabbage Tree Bay before a bonfire night and scream out: “Stop cutting down those trees!”

“When I was nine,” Murcutt says, “my father would take me to adjacent properties that had newly acquired septic tanks put in, [creating] higher nutrients that meant the native landscape was dying, and we would steal some soil.

“He would propagate native plants that could take higher nutrients, either putting boiling water over wattle seeds or putting the Eucalyptus botryoides seeds into the oven and firing the seed and putting them into the soil, then raising these plants until they were about 100 millimetres high, and we’d then quietly go back at night and replant in the areas being destroyed.”

Arthur’s influence was “totally powerful”, strictly making sure the children adhered to a regime of learning music – Murcutt used to play piano – as well as understanding art and reading widely; Arthur subscribed to the US magazine Architectural Forum, which fired his eldest’s imagination.

But he also required the five children, three boys and two girls, to be good at sport to fit into the Australian state school system. “We were very much controlled,” says Murcutt. Each summer morning before school, their father would wake them at 5.30am with a glass of orange juice and take them to the Manly baths for a swim, then insist they practice music for half an hour. After school, more of the same: another swim, a couple of 100-metre dashes, music practice, homework and chores.

One day, when Murcutt was 13 and the middle brother Doug was 10, the pair competed with one another on the Clontarf jetty to see who could catch the most fish. “The leatherjacket [fish] were running, and we said: ‘OK, first to 25’. And Doug beat me. I said, ‘Right, let’s go to 50’, and I beat him.

“We took the fish home and my father said, ‘OK, well you get down and clean them all.’ We did that, and then we had to pack these 90 fish into the freezer. And every night my brother and I ate those fish for about a month. My father taught us you don’t just go and deplete the supplies.”

Murcutt says his father applied the most pressure to him because he was the eldest – “we got a lot of hidings” – but his youngest brother and eldest sister rebelled against their father’s strict upbringing and “consequently, they have far less of an opinion of our father than I do”.

Arthur never got to see his eldest son’s success, dying just before Murcutt started his solo practice in 1969. Murcutt however has had the pleasure of seeing his own eldest son, Nicholas, now 44, from the marriage to his first wife, Helen, become a successful architect as well.

Despite being apprehensive about Nicholas entering the tough world of architecture – they’ve still never discussed whether the family name is a bonus or a burden – Murcutt is pleased by the road his children are travelling. “Like me, they were raised on the prospect that you just do things properly – but do it your way.”

His other son, Daniel, 42, is an assistant library technician, and Murcutt has a stepdaughter, Anna, 20, an international studies student, to his second wife, Wendy, whom he met when she was one of his architecture students. They married in 1997.

Murcutt discovered during the 1980s that his environmental sensibility was similar to a West Australian Aboriginal notion of “touching the earth lightly”. On occasion he has spent 10 days at a time in northern Aboriginal communities, and has an Aboriginal goddaughter Ruby, 15, the daughter of an Arnhem Land elder, the painter and dancer Banduk Marika and painter and teacher Mark Alderton.

Murcutt was invited to be adopted by the family, which he honours as “a very nice connection and a sign of respect”. He’s careful not to overemphasise his knowledge of Aboriginal ideas, however. “A lot of Europeans think they’re experts, and I have a rather cynical view of that,” he says, though he loves the generous Aboriginal notion of “you must give it [culture and knowledge] away in order to keep it”.

He’ll continue to make buildings in Australia until his last breath, he says. Murcutt remains a fan of the philosophy of the 19th century author and poet Henry David Thoreau – one of his father's favourite writers. “I just wanted to do ordinary things extraordinarily well,” Murcutt says, paraphrasing Thoreau's ideas. “I wasn’t looking for the bright lights.”
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