Glenn Murcutt: Buildings + Projects 1962-2003 By Françoise Fromonot. Thames & Hudson, 2003. 256pp. £39.95
Glenn Murcutt: A Singular Architectural Practice By Haig Beck & Jackie Cooper. Images Publishing Group, 2002. £39.50.
(Distributor 01394 389977) The bungalow is a product of colonialism, as Anthony King showed in an excellent book many years ago. As a housing type, it was introduced by ex-colonials returning from India, and began its chequered history here.
It was also re-exported to colonies and other countries that looked to Britain, including Australia, where it was reinvented in a variety of idioms.
Sometimes it bumped up against indigenous versions of the single-storey house, as in Ireland, where the notion of adding upper storeys to ordinary dwellings had rarely been a consideration, save in a few urban centres.
In colonies where there was a tabula rasa approach to the existing land and population, it offered a ready and consistent image of independence. For settlers in Australia, the bungalow soon became the norm and led to the Neighbours-style suburbs of cities like Melbourne and Sydney, though often with a carefully disguised basement or attic level slipped in that barely showed on the exterior.
Glenn Murcutt is the Australian architect who has worked away at, and effectively mutated, the bungalow typology in a sustained manner for the past 40 years. His interests and output are astonishingly focused, revealing a dedication to making dwellings that he feels are closely suited to the environment and way of life in his country. Most of his projects are located in Sydney or along the New South Wales coastline, with a scattering in the hinterland elsewhere in Australia. The majority are for privately owned single houses.
Despite having won the Pritzker Prize (2002) and other awards, Murcutt is not someone who promotes himself or writes much on his work. This reticence only adds to his appeal in the eyes of admirers. Now there are two substantial monographs: one by a brace of Australian academics, Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper, and the other in translation from a French architect, Françoise Fromonot. In many ways the two books are very similar - they contain more or less the same projects, and make much of reprinting Murcutt's intense and now decidedly old-fashioned working drawing sheets (characteristically, he abhors the use of computers, and mostly works on his own or with one assistant).
What emerges is a set of elegant projects, with the emphasis on craft, pragmatism and consistency. Murcutt is the king of the oneman practice, coming up with seemingly endless variations on a theme (it is stated that he has designed around 500 houses to date). He has specified the same exteriordoor system since 1969, and shows a similar loyalty to his favourite door handles, light switches, taps, fireplaces, etc. He uses the same engineers again and again, and so on.
In the outer suburbs or countryside, designs conform to his trademark approach:
a thin linear plan of enfilade rooms, over which floats an articulated and tilted roof plane. Coated corrugated iron is the preferred roofing material.Windows and doors have multiple layers, with screens to keep out insects and horizontal slats to cut solar gain.
Murcutt detests air conditioning, and because of his environmental concerns prefers to cross-ventilate against the stifling heat.When it comes to the few non-domestic projects, such as the Local History Museum in Kempsey or the unbuilt Broken Hills Museum, it is essentially the same architectural form on a slightly larger scale.
The only alternative in Murcutt's work comes when he has to deal with denser inner-city sites in Sydney, where a stylish modern terraced arrangement is used.
Fromonot deals openly with the criticisms made of Murcutt. By insisting on handling everything to do with design and site supervision himself, he limits himself to a domestic scale and has to rely on wealthy clients to make it pay (most of the houses outside Sydney are weekend or holiday homes).
Murcutt's reluctance to delegate means that he is never likely to build outside Australia, and since he produces exclusive private houses, few people will ever see his work in the flesh. Because of his open references to Aboriginal culture, opponents in Australia accuse him of creating a false romanticism about the outback to sell to well-to-do professionals.
Murcutt is cuttingly dubbed 'the poet of the bush', little more than a mythologist who helps to fuel endless suburban sprawl.
Yet both these books make a strong case for his importance. Murcutt started out as a Mies devotee (Alison Smithson reputedly called him 'the timber and tin Miesian'), but the refinement and simplicity that he took from Mies have since been slowly modified through the incorporation of materials and details felt to be more appropriate to Australia. It is hard to think of any other architect who treasures quite so much this slow drip of change in their work. His sensibility is that of a quiet revolutionary; indeed, Murcutt's favourite quote comes from Thoreau, the desire to do 'ordinary things extraordinarily well'.
Beck and Cooper suggest that Murcutt has redefined the verandah of the classic bungalow in such a way that it has become the whole house itself, and that hence he creates 'inhabited verandahs'. The better read is Fromonot, simply because she tells you more about his personality. Her intriguing take is that what Murcutt is aiming at in his repeated variations is a fusion of Farnsworth House and the Australian woolshed. Now there's a heady mixture.
Murray Fraser is a professor at the University ofWestminster