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House Plan: Alan Dunlop on Murcutt's Kempsey House

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In the latest instalment of the AJ’s series looking at influential housing plans, Alan Dunlop chooses Glenn Murcutt’s Kempsey House in Australia

In an age of specialisms, where a single hand rarely carries out a project from concept to completion, Glenn Murcutt is an exception. Recognised as Australia’s greatest architect, he works alone and has done since 1970. All Murcutt’s projects are hand drawn with plans and sections meticulously detailed. He says ‘the computer, which we all use, is a tool but it is not a design instrument.’

Murcutt is a polymath, renowned for individual houses built in some of Australia’s most rural locations. He rarely builds in cities. His exploration of the opportunities and challenges inherent in each site are explored through drawings which often include transverse sections across mountains, valleys, waterways and open vistas. None of this effort is wasted, with diagrams and drawings informing his actions. These sketches are subtly layered and driven by setting, morphology and a sense of place. 

Murcutt came to international prominence in 1974, with the building of the Kempsey House in New South Wales, which he subsequently bought in 1980 and extended in 1984. Now known as the Marie Short House, the setting is sub-tropical and temperatures can be extreme.

The house if built from local timber and the plan is pared which reflects his philosophy. He says architecture is as ‘complicated as you perceive it, but where there are no restrictions, except your own perceptions’. His drawings demonstrate structure and delineate clearly what is solid and void, what is open and what is enclosed. The house is orientated to catch the breeze and protect against penetrating sunlight. It is split along a central axis that separates sleeping and living space and raised off the ground to counter tropical rain and to deter reptiles.

His subsequent portfolio includes other exceptional houses but it is the early Kempsey House which consolidated his design approach and is a masterclass for every architect and student of architecture to resist form- making for its own sake and to promote sensitivity to context and setting in their work.

Professor Alan Dunlop of Alan Dunlop Architects

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