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Mr. Natural

Architects turn out in force to hear the latest from an Australian maverick.

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A cold rain had failed to dampen the turnout for a March 4 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 across Crown Hall. Among the people stuffing the center court were UIC architecture students and local architects Carol Ross Barney, John Vinci, and Helmut Jahn.

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 the big turnout was understandable. A balding fireplug of a man, he spoke passionately, nonstop, for more than 90 minutes, running through six trays of slides. He raged about hyperdevelopment and the often mindless architecture that's destroying the environment and offered an alternative vision--an organic way of building that's mindful of natural resources.

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 often quoted inspirational lines to his son. He also 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 one-with-nature home, and questioned him to make sure he understood the principles of its design. Murcutt's approach to design still echoes that of Mies: "Try and find the really simple answer," he says. That's "simple," not "simplistic."

Murcutt's early Laurie Short House was a classic Miesian steel-and-glass box, though it had sliding louvered screens to control sunlight. But during a 1973 trip around the world he began to see the limits of modernist purity. In LA he visited a Miesian house he'd admired for having "the simplest sort of bony architecture." He quickly saw the downside--its glass walls and flat roof trapped the heat of the sun inside. Insulation could have helped keep out the heat, 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 and energy consumption was on the country's mind.

On the same trip Murcutt stopped in Paris and discovered Pierre Chareau's 1932 Maison de Verre. Its window walls are made of glass block, which is a much better insulator than plate glass, and a series of movable panels allow for natural ventilation. He was also impressed by how the house's steel frame allowed an open, adjustable layout and how Chareau had used well-crafted industrial materials--the floor, for example, was made of white Pirelli rubber tiles.

Murcutt took more ideas from the traditional architecture of Australia, particularly the woolshed. 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 built where they'll 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 also incorporated ideas from the aborigines. "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, agriculture have led to the revived interest in preindustrial 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 within the rhythms of nature rather than obliterating them.

Nature has come to be an integral part of Murcutt's designs. "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 projects 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--it uses 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 rainwater into a central gutter. Sometimes a pool stores the rainwater, which can be used to water gardens or to fight periodic wildfires and which reflects 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 underneath it, sparing the residents unwanted guests. He once spent 24 hours in the Short 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."

Murcutt's house isn't a Le Corbusier "machine for living." It's 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, which he says has "been used once since it was finished."

IIT had invited Murcutt to be its 2004 Morgenstern visiting professor, and he was here 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, where the city has held a competition to design the Ford Calumet Environmental Center. Five firms have already been named as finalists, and the winner will be announced April 22.

Murcutt wanted his 13 students to look over the empty site and design their own visitors' centers. "We went to the site the second day," says one of the 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 of 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 unusual among world-renowned architects in that he's quite happy to be 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 at the lecture. "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."

He insisted he wasn't "rejecting urbanization," and as proof he cited the small, 15-foot-deep 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 the local code said windows were allowed to cover only a third of a roof. He fought them all the way to the Australian supreme court before he won. "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."

At the end of the lecture someone asked how Murcutt's work in the great open spaces of Australia was relevant to architecture in America, and he again pointed to his own house. "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." The important thing, he said, is "understanding the nature of your place."

Most modern buildings in Chicago are designed as if 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. They offer sealed windows, stale air-conditioning on even the most pleasant days, and stretches of plate glass that do in thousands of songbirds every year. 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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Max Dupain, Glenn Murcutt.

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