Touching the Earth Lightly, His Reach Is Subtle but Profound

(Illustration By Roger Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, February 14, 2009

One of American architecture's highest awards just went to Glenn Murcutt, who designs suburban and rural homes only in Australia. Glenn Murcutt? Few Americans have heard of him or would recognize a Murcutt-designed house.

Yet last week, at a black tie gala at DAR Constitution Hall sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation and the American Institute of Architects, Murcutt received the AIA Gold Medal.

The medal, the highest honor AIA bestows on an individual designer, has gone in the past to such well-known names as Michael Graves and I.M. Pei, but it's not reserved for the famous. Rather, it's "in recognition of a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture."

Murcutt is well-known in the academic and professional worlds, if not among a general audience. In 2002, he received the Pritzker Prize, regarded as a kind of Nobel Prize for architects. For decades his homes have been published in U.S. and international architectural journals, and architecture faculty and students around the world routinely analyze his designs.

Nevertheless, the modest, 73-year-old Murcutt prefers to remain below the radar. Inspired early in his career by Australia's vernacular architecture, he has spent nearly 40 years designing residences as a solo practitioner based in Sydney. He still uses pencil and paper to design.

Still, lots of architects spend decades designing homes and other buildings that are published and win awards. What differentiates Murcutt's work and makes it so significant, so lastingly influential on architectural theory and practice, that it merits the gold medal?

Consider the notion of a "significant body of work." Many architects can take pride in a record of work substantial in size, diversity and design quality. They can boast of satisfied clients whose projects succeed functionally and technically, satisfy financial goals and are deemed attractive.

But to be judged "significant," a portfolio of projects must do more. It must consistently exhibit aesthetic excellence coupled with purposeful, creative invention in solving multiple, often difficult design problems. These include demanding clients, tight budgets, challenging site and climate conditions, obstructive regulations, and labor and material limitations.

Achieving exceptional beauty in composing architectural form, innovating technologically, and responding sensitively to contextual forces make such a body of work influential and worthy of study.

Motivated by strongly held beliefs and embodying immutable design principles, Murcutt's work rises to the level of significance.

Looking at any single Murcutt-designed house reveals attributes found in all his houses: geometric unity and simplicity; systematically modulated form; visibly expressed structural skeleton, structural components and connection details; spatial transparency enhanced by fixed and operable walls of glass to exploit views and merge the inside and outside; and planar or curved roof surfaces floating overhead to provide shelter from sun and rain, but also to impart visually a strong sense of psychological shelter.

Murcutt strives always to employ what is offered by the natural environment and regional industries, indigenous materials that are readily available and affordable: native woods, standardized and recycled metal products, glass, concrete and locally produced masonry.

Designing houses in Australia's climate and landscape, Murcutt follows an Aboriginal proverb -- "touch this earth lightly." Thus one of his houses, compactly configured, is carefully placed and oriented to capture daylight and views, and also to capture and control sunshine and wind for natural heating, cooling and ventilation as seasons change.

His transparent, post-and-beam framed homes, which reveal by design how they are assembled and supported, yield not only architecture that touches the earth lightly, but also an architecture that feels light and weightless. Indeed, some of Murcutt's homes could be disassembled and moved simply by unbolting structural connections linking columns, beams and walls.

Knock-offs of Murcutt's houses, beautiful as they are, will not appear anytime soon in American subdivisions, just as Frank Lloyd Wright's homes have never been replicated widely. Nor will his buildings serve as templates for most types of construction.

Yet Murcutt's principles of sustainable design -- ecological sensitivity, energy conservation, use of replenishable and recycled materials -- are embraced far and wide. And his artful compositional strategies and detailing tactics have much to teach about design, no matter what the building type.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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