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Review: Touch the Earth Lightly

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Gillian Darley reviews an exhibition of Glenn Murcutt’s work at the Lighthouse in Glasgow

Put architecture into a gallery and, more often than not, it dies. Over-lit or over-amplified, contorted with platitudinous text or bent to suit an agenda, it is the most awkward of the contemporary arts, even given the many forms of visualisation and media available.

So to find the work of Glenn Murcutt, that quiet, thoughtful soloist, glowing out of the darkness of the Lighthouse’s reticent yet generous warehouse space is a considerable treat. This show, which began life in Sydney in 2009 under the auspices of the Architecture Foundation Australia, has travelled widely since and concentrates largely on his domestic work, the inaccessible or at least private rural commissions that are the hallmark of Murcutt’s architecture and which form a thread of continuity in his practice.

His drawings are shown here at a scale that allows visitors to study the care of rendition and the powerful working of his disciplined, fluent hand, from first response to the location to the detailed delivery of a structure. They always serve Murcutt’s clearly stated and strongly held principles and methods. These start with his understanding of the setting, the particular gift (or is it testing ground?) provided by the often unadulterated Australian landscape, the topography, climate and varied settings, waterside or forested, agricultural or wild.

This is a language rooted in making-do, its origins in the outback sheep station, outbuildings and farmstead

The site considered, his approach narrows to explore the potential of what might be considered the Australian vernacular. That is a subtle, limited palette of building materials and techniques: corrugated metal, lightweight timber, adjustable and translucent screening, verandahs and porches, the need for shade and refraction. This is a language rooted in making-do, its origins in the outback sheep station, outbuildings and farmstead, with more than a trace of the colonial bungalow about it.

The environmental responsibility – the ‘light touch’ – is always to the fore. It was not until the late 1990s, with the Boyd Education Centre in New South Wales that Murcutt first engaged with concrete as a construction material, only to embrace it as readily as any material he had used.

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Murcutt is often interviewed; he has been, after all, garlanded with almost every international prize on the planet (except the RIBA Gold Medal) and he is a renowned teacher with a winningly articulate approach to the responsibilities that come with the practice of architecture. There are plenty of online offerings available, including his master classes, in which he shepherds seasoned designers towards his own thinking, an approach that one of the participants describes as ‘undressing buildings’. He is also frequently filmed in the act of drawing, in which he teases the design out before the viewer. He is wary of preconceived notions, whether those of the client or his own, and it is the series of moves between initial sketch until final sections that are decisive.

Talking to Richard Murphy in an interview in Amsterdam in 2014 but published to mark Glenn Murcutt’s Royal Scottish Academy Metzstein Architecture Discourse in May this year, he tells of spending long hours in the joinery shop alongside his extraordinarily inventive and able father. Later Murcutt benefited from his father’s advice to always ‘remember to start off the way you would like to finish’. By the age of 18 Murcutt junior had built a substantial wooden boat. Construction is at the core of his practice and the drawings in this exhibition are the proof.

From that early confidence, an acknowledgement of necessities, and the requisite imagination to take the design further, comes his liking for pushing and pulling at the fixed parts of a structure, playing on and with the malleability of louvres and sliding partitions, the absolute antithesis of the sealed, air-conditioned, urban built environment. In a way, this is a metaphor for Murcutt’s life in architecture on his own terms: principled, consistent and, when necessary, intransigent (with more than a dozen court cases to show for it).

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But Murcutt can also surprise. His most recent and undoubtedly most surprising work is a mosque, a handsome drawing of which is included to bring the Glasgow exhibition fully up to date. He gained the commission via his work chairing the jury for the Aga Khan Awards. It is a flowing, low, concrete structure, the roofline marked by a series of 96 lanterns facing to each of the compass points and providing colour, light and ventilation. The scale and complexity of the project have meant extensive collaboration for one who essentially works alone. 

Almost complete now, this commission has, he says, been one of enlightenment and trust. Murcutt has been working closely with Turkish-born executive architect Hakan Elevli and, in the Amsterdam interview, he was optimistic that this new form of mosque, on a site by a golf course in Melbourne, albeit bound by the requirements of traditional Islamic worship, would be able to represent a more outward looking, less introverted Islam, in answer to the wishes of the youthful community which is the client group. As Murcutt told Murphy: ‘My architecture has not changed one bit, but it has developed.’ Surely the most testing commission of his career, Murcutt’s resilience will stand him in excellent stead.

Touch the Earth Lightly, Gallery One, The Lighthouse, Glasgow G1 3NU. Until 27 September

 

 

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