House Master

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Glenn murcutt's tallest building is three storeys high-and that's at the big end. But he joins some giants in architecture this week as he becomes Australia's first Pritzker Prize winner. The Pritzker, the architectural equivalent of a Pulitzer, has previously been given to such luminaries as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano. It's only $100,000 and a copper medallion, but in architecture there is no bigger deal-except perhaps a nice big art gallery commission with the word "Guggenheim" in it.

Murcutt, 65, runs a one-man office. He retains no publicity wheedler. His oeuvre mostly consists of houses in the country. He has never built outside Australia, and not much outside a 500-km radius from his Sydney home. He uses materials commonly associated with the outdoor dunny. To even attract the attention of the Pritzker committee is no mean feat; to win the prize is a bravura performance. It's possible that history helped him out: the Pritzker committee hinted that now was not the time to be honoring big names and even bigger buildings. "Glenn Murcutt is a stark contrast to most of the highly visible architects of the day-his works are not large scale, the materials he works with, such as corrugated iron, are quite ordinary, certainly not luxurious-and he works alone," said Thomas Pritzker in announcing the prize. The events of Sept. 11 may have made many feel queasy about skyscrapers, but more than that, the Pritzker committee seemed to appreciate Murcutt's eschewing of Ozymandian edifices for architecture that "touches the earth lightly," as his credo goes. Big, whether in egos or buildings, is just not au courant.

"I went into a state of shock," says Murcutt of his reaction when he heard of the honor. "I couldn't speak. It was very emotional. I still can't believe it." Apparently he is not alone. There are certainly more prominent architects-Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers among them-who have so far been overlooked by the Pritzker folks. There have even been mutterings that a man who just builds houses does not deserve the prize.

But the Pritzker committee isn't exactly plucking Murcutt from obscurity. Murcutt's brand of regional modernism has long been admired overseas. The Scandinavian architectural community, which awarded him the Alvar Aalto medal in 1992, was among the first to catch on, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit in the marriage of Modernism to an appreciation for the demands of climate. But the Americans were not far behind. Murcutt has held teaching positions at universities across the U.S., landing last year at Yale and this year in St. Louis. So much was he admired at Yale that he was offered a building to design, but he refused it-as he has all foreign commissions. "It's great arrogance in an architect to think one can build anywhere appropriately," says Murcutt. "One can put a building anywhere, but for me it is the nuances in the culture that are important."

Murcutt's best works are close to home for a reason: they are driven by an exquisite sensitivity to that environment. His familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of his milieu breeds anything but contempt. "When I consider the magic of our landscape," he says of Australia, "I am continually struck by the genius of the place: the sunlight, the shadows, wind, heat and cold, the scents from our flowering trees and plants and especially the vastness." Murcutt can rave about the Australian bush with the best of them (his dad was a huge Henry Thoreau fan), but his most successful rhapsodies are built ones.

Murcutt's houses are not environmentally friendly; they're environmentally fraternal. Just as the leaves of eucalyptus trees turn with the sun to minimize water loss, Murcutt's houses move. Just as the leaves have a protective layer on their surface, so do Murcutt's houses. And just as the Australian bush is not dense or solid in the way the robust forests of more well-watered continents are, Murcutt's houses are semi-transparent. He likes to explain them in terms of people dressing. "Sometimes the house is in a big overcoat and sometimes it's in a bikini," he says.

His dwellings are usually vaguely rod-shaped: narrow and long with one side open to the due north, shaded by deep eaves, and the other side solid, containing the plumbing and other house gizzards. The open side has several layers: an exterior venetian blind, whose blades can be adjusted, then insect netting, then movable glass panels and then possibly thermal blinds inside. In the hot weather, the owner throws the house open to catch the prevailing breezes. In the winter he closes it up to retain the warmth. Murcutt is deathly allergic to air-conditioning.

Critics have compared Murcutt's aesthetic-mostly affectionately-to that of sheep-shearing sheds and verandahs, because of his fondness for corrugated galvanized iron, which before he started using it was represented by the atomic symbol UGly. Murcutt uses it horizontally to catch the light and create a texture that changes according to the time, or type, of day. The result is so distinctive that it has been adopted as Australia's architectural vernacular. This is not inappropriate. Murcutt is lucky enough to build in a place where the temperatures are rarely extreme. And he builds among a people who are prepared to be, as he puts it, "very involved with their buildings." He even takes a little nip at the hand that's feeding him. "Although it survived for hundreds of years without it, America is a culture of air-conditioning. In Australia, we have a culture of opening the windows." You can see why he's not eager to leave.

What Murcutt has forged over the past 30 years (fighting, he often notes, local planning authorities all the way), is perhaps no less than one of the most viable avenues for Modernism, and indeed architecture, to travel. Le Corbusier said that houses were machines for living, and Murcutt's houses fulfil that criterion while they reexamine it. Murcutt's machine is at the service of its inhabitants in a way that humanizes it and removes the stench of sterility that came to be associated with the style. Through his intensely local modernism, Murcutt has offered a critique of the way we build and the way we live that is both uniquely Australian and globally applicable. That's probably worth a hundred grand.

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