Outsiders say that architects spend too much energy giving each other prizes, but when Glenn Murcutt won the Pritzker Architecture Prize this year, you could almost hear the cheers. They came from architects throughout the world who admire his work, hail the timeliness of its selection at this cultural moment, and applaud the the man himself.
In one sense, Murcutt represents the architect as strong individualist—a countertrend these days. In fact, to hear him speak, it is clear that he is a fighter for principles as much as designer. While all of our responsible professional conversations tout collaboration, groupthink, and complexity, Murcutt practices architecture alone, out in the boonies, from a single small room. Although he and his wife, the architect Wendy Lewin, have worked together successfully on architectural projects, and Murcutt has joined forces with other talented firms, it is his singular, prophetic voice from Down Under that demands attention.
What could be more “out there” than rural Australia? In fact, at a recent summer course at Harvard featuring architects who practice outside the centers of fashion, every head nodded when Murcutt’s name came up. Brian Mackay-Lyons, whose life and work center on another semi-remote terrain, Nova Scotia, summed up the sentiment in the room when he described Murcutt as a mentor for himself and for others like him. “He’s my man,” he said.
Architects around the world admire Murcutt’s tough adherence to design ideals focused on specific place. The late J. Carter Brown, who chaired the Pritzker jury, encapsulated the winner’s accomplishments in plain language: “He is an innovative architectural technician who is capable of turning his sensitivity to the environment and to locality into forthright, totally honest, nonshowy works of art.”
Murcutt has managed to blend contemporary architectural language and thought into structures that comfortably inhabit the Australian landscape. His presentations evoke the vivid contrasts and rich natural settings of the native provinces that he builds in. Although he has witnessed a proliferation of imitators, no one makes a Murcutt house better than Murcutt. Typically, in response to the landscape, the structures stretch horizontally, narrow shed-like forms perched just up off the earth, fully open along one dimension to admit light and air. Like articulated dragonflies, they appear to have zoomed in and alighted there.
A passionate environmentalist, the architect’s concern extends to the materials he chooses to use, including galvanized iron, stone, glass, brick, and concrete. Few of his houses contain any forms of mechanically tempered air, relying on orientation and prevailing breezes to do the work. Overhanging roofs, jalousies, operable window walls, and other strategically placed openings are accompanied by small stoves to take the chill off.
Unlike others who have broadened their palettes to encompass all types of work, who say “yes” to almost any job, Glenn Murcutt has limited his range. Houses for private clients have provided the bulk of his commissions, with only the occasional exception. The Boyd Education Center, produced in collaboration with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark, has been hailed as a masterwork of congregate living, an unapologetically Modernist essay set in a fragile landscape.
Formally, Murcutt’s work manages to incorporate regional influences without appearing regionalist. Informed by Mies and other Modern masters, spare and rigorously unsentimental in his designs, Murcutt has avoided the vernacular trap that lay at his doorstep. By aligning his projects with larger intellectual currents and interlacing the fabric of design with strong ideas, his work stands apart, both resolute and as light on the ground as he describes it.
How fitting that this tractor-driving, hardheaded, generous man, who never gave an inch, should be singled out at Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome. Sometimes awards can give a message, and the Pritzker for Murcutt cuts to the architectural core.