Listening to Glenn Murcutt talk about architecture gives you a sense that this is not only somebody who understands deeply the intricacies of architectural design and construction but who also understands the landscape within which a piece of architecture sits, a person who can look at the contours of the land and explain how they have come to be and how they influence the winds and how that might inspire a response from architecture to create a ‘sense of place’.
The Glenn Murcutt Masterclass has been convened annually by architect Lindsay Johnston since 2001 and brings together Glenn and fellow masters Peter Stutchbury, Richard Leplastrier and Brit Andresen each of whom are leaders in the approach of 'architecture of place' and ‘Australianness’. The course is held for the first week at one of Glenn’s few public buildings, the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre followed by a second week in the city. It is a course that offers a rare opportunity of mentorship with outstanding Australian architects.
The course was run as an intensive two week group studio, designing a building on the same property as the education centre. The course commences with a welcoming ceremony and a walk of the landscape with Glenn and Aboriginal Elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison to gain insights into 'touching this Earth lightly', an ancient aboriginal wisdom that Glenn has come to adapt to his design approach. In addition to the design project, visits are also undertaken to eight houses by Glenn, Richard and Peter. An interesting an unexpected aspect of the course is the coming together of different cultures – the course has 32 participants, of whom only a handful were Australian so there was much insight to be gained from architects from The Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania and the Middle East.
In addition to the opportunity to speak one on one with the masters throughout the two weeks they each gave various talks about aspects of their work or projects where inspiration and wisdom is passed on. From the course I took away two themes in particular - Responsibility and Integrity. Responsibility was raised first by Glenn who discards the notion of sustainability, a ‘theme’ which is often treated as more of a sales pitch than anything else. Responsibility, Glenn says, encompasses sustainability but also goes beyond to include responsibility to the environment, responsibility to the clients, responsibility to the place and responsibility to the materials, right down to the way that the building is put together so that at some point in the future if the building is not needed anymore it can be disassembled, recycled and reused with a minimum of fuss. The second theme was integrity. Integrity from the architect, integrity from the client, integrity from the builder, as well as integrity of cost, material and quality. With these themes kept in mind, architecture that improves people’s lives has the opportunity to be created, making places of sanctuary, made from the heart.
The highlight of the masterclass was the opportunity to visit a number of projects by the masters. None of these were particularly ‘showy’ houses, made from mostly raw materials such as corrugated steel, concrete and hardwood timbers. But these are houses of divine warmth and made with such craftsmanship that some are closer to being pieces of furniture than they are houses. The owners of each warmly invited us into their homes to tell us the story of how each came into being and their experience working with the architects, each of them now appearing to be more ‘friend’ than ‘client’.
The masterclass ended with a barbeque at the house of Richard Leplastrier, if you can even call it such a thing - novelist Peter Carey called it an ‘extraordinary campsite’ and Glenn Murcutt once called it ‘like a Swiss watch, just an exploded one’. The house is a platform, one large room that serves most of the functions of living and a large deck that serves the others. In the centre of the deck is a timber bath tub heated by a wood fire. There is no glass in the house, just openings that can be open or closed to open the house up to the breezes, or to ‘batten down the hatches’ in the brunt of winter. It’s not the sort of house that everyone would want to live in and there would be times of discomfort that come with living like this, but what it does achieve is an exploration of the idea ‘how little do we really need?’, and if the price to pay for living with such a strong connection to the landscape, with the Pittwater as a living room, with Kookaburras as dinner guests and that timber tub for bathing is a month or so of being a bit cold… I think it’s probably something I could get used to.
So after my two weeks with the masters I have come away invigorated. A connection between the built and natural environment is always something I try to make an important part of my designs so that the occupants aren’t locked away in their homes with the environment ‘at arm’s length’. This course has reiterated for me just how special the solution can be when an architecture is designed to have a ‘sense of place’.