Tournament of Books 2015

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, April 18th, 2006


Glenn Murcutt: Buildings + Projects 1962 - 2003

by Francoise Fromonot

Modernism, Minimalism

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Glenn Murcutt, an Australian architect who in 2002 won his field's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, is probably the most atypical of the great living architects. Most "starchitects" design buildings for an international clientele; although Murcutt has been deeply influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, he refuses to work outside Australia, insisting that extraordinary architecture emerges only from a profound grasp of climate, culture, and environment. Most elite architects head large firms housed in slick offices; Murcutt, though, is a sole practitioner who works in a cramped, messy office in a semi-detached house. And whereas most virtuoso architects win and sustain their reputations by erecting major civic buildings, Murcutt has built only a few modest public edifices, including a mining and minerals museum in the outback (!) and a visitors' center for a remote national park; his stature rests almost entirely on the more than 500 clean-lined, ecologically sound houses he's designed for the Aussie haute and high-minded bourgeoisie. These crisp, light-filled, marvelously airy, typically long, lean, and low-slung rectangular homes -- built largely of steel, aluminum, glass, and corrugated, galvanized iron (his signature material) -- are, with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, probably the most environmentally sensitive modernist masterpieces ever built, belying the notion, as critic Anne Whiston Spirn put it, "that ecological architecture must be rustic architecture with sinuous forms, half-buried in the ground, or nostalgic imitation of vernacular building forms." Murcutt has made it his mission to "touch the earth lightly," as he says (borrowing an aboriginal saying), and these limpid structures fairly float upon their sites, as they respond exquisitely to the topography, flora, temperatures, sunlight, views, winds, and rainfalls of their settings and also manage to be jaunty, relaxed, and remarkably livable. Because all his buildings are on the world's second-most-remote continent, and because most of them are private dwellings, they've been seen by fewer people than the work of any other renowned architect, a fact that makes a comprehensive, accessible, well-documented, and amply photographed study of his oeuvre especially crucial. Luckily, this book is among the stellar works of contemporary architectural publishing. Just released in an especially durable and attractive paperback edition, at a far more approachable price (an entirely justifiable $49.95) than that of the hardcover, this work, whose original, French edition won the French Architecture Academy's 2004 Architecture Book Prize, happily marries beautiful but always comprehensible photography (which conveys the unusually complex context in which Murcutt places his structures) with detailed, sometimes witty, consistently precise text (Fromonot, a Parisian architect and a co-editor of the architectural review Le Visiteur, shuns the grandiloquence that infects her profession; her translator, Charlotte Ellis, has done a superb job). Containing two lengthy and perceptive critical essays and chapters on nearly forty of Murcutt's buildings (along with a good number of their plans, sections, and elevations), this book illuminates both Murcutt's work and the art of architecture generally.

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