October 2011

Arts & Letters

Fathers & sons

By Peter Robb
Glenn Murcutt with a model of the house he built for Banduk Marika at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, 2009. © Jim Trifyllis/Newspix
Meeting Glenn Murcutt

It was a long day on the road. We covered 675 kilometres of highway, city street and dirt track, traversing coastal plain and steep hill, driving among trees and city buildings. The distance was broken by short and long stops.

We looked over two houses Glenn Murcutt designed many years ago. One was built among trees and deep green grass in the Southern Highlands and another lay further south on a windswept promontory by the sea. The farmer’s house was matte grey outside, with a steeply curved corrugated iron roof, and glowing with polished wood inside. It kept the great stone fireplace and chimney from a vanished homestead on the site. The kids’ rooms were high lofts away from the main living area. “They loved them,” Murcutt said. The rainwater shower was on the deck outside.

The house by the sea was all white and light with slats to adjust for the varying intensities of the sun. It was up for an annual award for the most enduring architecture in Australian buildings from 25 years ago or more. Jury members had flown in to meet Murcutt there and, while they were consulting, I spoke with the original occupants. Like many of Murcutt’s clients, they were now the architect’s close friends.

They showed me the verandah that was like a room halfway along the house with no outer wall. The sun in winter reached the inner wall where the barbecue stood, and in summer stayed overhead so the whole space was in cool shade. They showed me how rain and dew ran off the roof along a central channel and down wide pipes like pillars at each end into an underground tank that kept the house entirely self-sustaining in water.

It was already dark on the way home when we looked at the phosphorous flashing surf of a very high tide as it crashed over the rocks into the ocean baths at Kiama. We made our way back to Sydney. Murcutt was talking about his elder son, Nick. He described how, about 25 years ago, they’d met up briefly in Paris, where Nick was happily learning to be a chef. Glenn came back to Sydney and was amazed to find Nick there. “I’ve decided to study architecture,” he told his father. Out of the blue.

Some years later Glenn Murcutt teamed up in a personal and professional partnership with the architect Wendy Lewin. Nick had set up his own practice with Rachel Neeson, who was also Nick’s partner in life and became the mother of their two children. The looming intensities of this situation worried Nick. “When the four of us are together,” he asked his father, “can we not talk about architecture?” Glenn Murcutt habitually talks about nothing else. Everything he sees and feels flows into thoughts about making houses and living in them. Glenn agreed, but only “if you ever change your mind, talk.”

After nine months Nick decided he did want to discuss architecture. Father and son began a 20-year conversation that was interrupted last year when Nick fell ill with lung cancer. The healthy and athletic young father who had never smoked succumbed rapidly and died nine months later. The Glenn Murcutt I met was still shattered four months after the loss, still trying to pick up the threads of his work after a year of caring for his son and grieving his death. When Rachel set up a trust fund for their small children, its earliest and most generous contributors were all people Glenn had made houses for.

How do you console a father who has lost his son? It offends the natural order.

“He was a good architect,” Glenn Murcutt said.

“He worked for 20 years,” I said. “Twenty years is not nothing.”

Glenn replied, “Architects don’t mature until their fifties. Nick died at 46.” He fell silent and we sat in the parked car in the night.

If you spend a single day talking with Glenn Murcutt, the man whose profession is things pours out a torrent of words. The first several hours of this outpouring belong to his father, Sydney Arthur Murcutt – Sam to his friends, or sometimes Arthur. Glenn Murcutt talks about the houses he’s made and the places they were built for, the terrain the houses stand on, the play of sun and wind around them, the water, the flora outside them and the people inside. But, at the most unlikely moments, Sam bursts in from the past and takes over the story again.

Sam was born in 1899 and grew up in Melbourne until he found his musician father’s contempt unacceptable. At the age of 12, Sam left home to make his own life. He went outback and became a station hand, a well sinker and a sheep shearer in the area around Bourke. He was once badly beaten by an Aboriginal man and when he recovered took up professional boxing.

Sam passed through adolescence without adult care. When the Great War ended he shipped to New Guinea under its new Australian mandate. From Port Moresby Sam went inland, tried a little prospecting and worked as a builder and plantation manager. Surviving the toughest days of the Depression trading fish hooks for mangoes in Port Moresby, Sam went inland again to run a sawmill and played saxophone in his off-hours.

Then Sam found alluvial gold. By the early ’30s he had a river dredge in place and was making money. He went back to Australia in 1934 and married Daphne Powys from Manly. A few more years back at the mine and he took her off to Europe to see the Berlin Olympics in 1936, with Daphne nearing the end of her first pregnancy. Their child, Glenn, was born in London and left there during the games in Berlin.

The retrieved infant Glenn then sailed across the Atlantic with his parents to New York, where Sam bought a car and drove his family across the continent. The Murcutts followed Route 66 to Los Angeles, and shipped home across the Pacific to New Guinea. The America they saw on their drive was the land of Roosevelt’s New Deal, pulling itself out of the Depression, busy with huge infrastructure projects. Sam was amazed at the scale and intensity of the work he saw, by the amplitude of American visions and the energy put into their realisation.

Glenn Murcutt first knew the little world of the house near the river and the dredge in the New Guinea hills. The Murcutts lived on the Upper Watut River, just below Hidden Valley and 15 kilometres from their nearest settler neighbours. Sam had designed and built their house himself after walking a couple of hundred kilometres inland from Port Moresby. Now the family went in and out on a Dragon Rapide, a little de Havilland biplane whose exceptional lift helped it take off from a landing strip with a 15 degree slope. A Gipsy Moth dropped mail from 20 metres above ground, in a bag with a big red tail that could be seen above the high kunai grass that grew around the house on the edge of the rainforest.

The Murcutts lived on mangoes, pineapples and papayas grown close to home, on milk and cheese from the goats Daphne kept and bread made from the wheat they planted. When Glenn was 18 months old his sister, Nola, was born, and a year later his brother, Doug. He remembers picnics, swimming in the rivers, being bawled out for playing with a scorpion. Daphne was as tough and calm and resilient as she needed to be. One day, while Sam was off dredging for gold, she fired a rifle from the kitchen at some approaching intruders.

Danger was a constant. They kept a vigilant eye on the terrain around them, and not just for snakes and scorpions. The Kukukuku people were cannibal warriors and not entirely welcoming. When they approached the house the only sign was a slight waving movement in the grass that grew higher than their heads. Sam Murcutt’s height and toughness and fighting skills saved his family several times.

Glenn identified as a small child the two essential things he still insists a house must provide: prospect and refuge. The Murcutts were never fearful of the gorgeous and exotic place they lived in, but they were alert to every tiny shift and tremor in the air and grass.

The big fear came when Glenn was five. Japanese forces invaded the New Guinea mainland. At the end of 1941 Sam blew up the mining plant and the house, and the family left the Watut River, packed into a small plane. In Sydney, a place Glenn now encountered for the first time and utterly unlike the world he had known, the hard part of his childhood started, under Sam’s maniacal oversight.

The Japanese fear pursued the Murcutts to Sydney. Glenn was on the Manly ferry one day in May 1942, when he saw a small plane flying high in the clear air over Sydney, higher than he’d ever seen a plane fly before, a speck in the heavens. It was a Japanese reconnaissance plane. The following night three Japanese midget submarines penetrated the Port Jackson defences and entered the harbour.

One made a successful attack and escaped. Another was sunk, the third blown up by its two-man crew when it became tangled in nets across the harbour. The small boy Glenn was rowing his dinghy in the harbour next morning and found a grey felt cap floating in the water, rimmed with strange markings. He took it home. The markings were Japanese and the cap had belonged to one of the two trapped sailors who had killed themselves the night before.

Sam spent the war with the RAAF on Thursday Island. He came back and in short order Gary and Jan were born. Sam’s career as father was getting seriously under way. He started a joinery company, which was soon busy and profitable. His growing children would spend school holidays doing unpaid labour there. With money from the gold mine he bought up a lot of land around Clontarf, on the shore of Sydney’s Middle Harbour, and built a family home on one big block. The home was a long way from any other, and surrounded by bushland. It was big and comfortable and run to a relentless regime. Sam’s large family turned in on itself.

Time begins to blur. Glenn recalls days from his childhood. Sam up at six, squeezing orange juice for everyone. The kids then ran to the Clontarf sea baths, swam 15 laps each and ran home for breakfast. Then off to school, 2 kilometres on foot. They were exhausted all day at school. After school they did serious training at Manly Baths. Saturday mornings were for chores, and each child had a different task. Saturday afternoons were for more swimming training: at least half a mile in the pool Sam had built. The family trained at home in secret and blew the competition out of the water at the annual swimming carnival. Glenn’s brother Doug became a national champion.

Sam went marketing on Fridays, looked hard for bargains and bought in bulk. Eating was programmed. Nuts and raisins provided for snacks, no fridge-raiding allowed. Half an hour every morning and half an hour in the afternoon were for music practice, which all could do at once because Sam had installed seven pianos on the house’s three levels: three grands, including at least one Steinway, and four uprights. Sunday afternoons were free.

Sam’s children heard plenty of railing. “You kids have been raised on a bed of luxury … when I was your age …” His regime was not punitive in intent, although it drove his children to the limit. He was teaching them to survive. “I’m not here just to be loved,” he used to tell them. “I’m here to do the right thing by you. I’m teaching you to stand on your own feet. I’m teaching you how to defend yourselves in a fight.” He used to terrify people with his energy. The eyes staring out of the lean face in an early passport photo still bore through you. Other children steered clear of the Murcutt place, wary of Sam’s working parties, and the kids had few friends.

To survive in Australia, Sam said, they all had to be good at sport. That was a bedrock necessity. They also had to be good at art, writing and especially music. Neither sport nor art was enough on its own; you needed both. Sam, who’d grown up alone in a hard man’s frontier world, was an autodidact who wanted to pass on to his children the things he’d learnt. Sam remembered America remaking itself, and he went on reading about America. On the Watut River he’d read and absorbed the great New England thinkers, Emerson and Thoreau. Individualism. Self-reliance. Life in Nature. He’d read Freud and Jung to understand the mind.

He’d had American architectural reviews flown in on the Gipsy Moth, and was fascinated by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The man who built his own homes wanted to understand the art of making a good place to live. He was fascinated by technology. How to make things, how to improvise, how to use what you’ve got. In 1949 he imported a Studebaker to study its design and began building his own car from scratch. The project lapsed in favour of building a 6 metre boat in the living room.

When Glenn built a cubby house lit with electricity and charged a penny admission, Sam was delighted. “This boy’s going to be an architect!” When Glenn got a place at university, Sam barked, “About time!” And when Glenn began to practise architecture, he already knew how to mix concrete, make bricks, lay drains, knock up a door or put on a roof from his weekend labour at his father’s home and from school holidays spent in the joinery shop. He’d learnt to be self-reliant and wary of partners in work and business.

Something else happened when Sam came back from the war. The hardscrabble despoiler of the earth became, in his early forties, a sensitive environmentalist. Sam planted native when everyone else was putting in begonias. He used to take his children onto neighbouring blocks at night to steal the nutrient-rich soil around the septic tanks. He heated seedpods in the oven and planted the seeds in this mulch. The saplings were accustomed to their rich diet and replanted at night where the soil had come from. He nearly assaulted a neighbour who’d cut down a beautiful native tree. Sixty years on you can see Sam’s eucalyptus trees towering 30 metres over Clontarf.

Around 1950 Glenn and Doug once had a fishing contest and caught 94 leatherjackets. Sam was furious: “Only take what you need from the harbour.” He made them clean and freeze the fish and they had to eat leatherjacket for every meal until the fish were gone.

Sam died at 69 in 1968, having seen and approved Glenn Murcutt’s first professional job, which was a home alteration. Another very early job was a house for his brother Doug, swimmer and musician. Glenn did quite a few alteration jobs in his early working years, and these jobs let him test his design ideas on a small scale. One experiment per job.

He still does them: he transformed the inside of the tiny semi-detached Federation cottage in Mosman where he lives and works with Wendy. Their shared design studio, below the house’s main floor, is about half the size of a small one-car garage. Glenn keeps his files and working library just beyond it, in a tiny lightless space gouged out around the sandstone foundations.

The smallness and austerity of the area where Glenn Murcutt lives and works might have shocked Sam, who thought big and died a rich man. Glenn is not in quite every way his father’s son. For one thing, he has Daph’s open gentle look. Sam’s energy but not the controlling drive. Another difference is that Glenn Murcutt at 75 is quite poor.

He’s happy to be so, but the year without work that began with Nick’s sickness has indebted him. He has a little property – a small farm at Crescent Head on the Maria River and the house he built on it. Some years ago, the dying owner of one of Glenn Murcutt’s most beautiful houses summoned the architect to ask what he should do with his house. There was no real answer, and the owner and his wife ended by gifting the place they loved to its architect. It was an equivocal gift. Glenn doesn’t know what to do with the house he has to maintain.

Murcutt’s working life has seen a flowering of things implicit in his first years. Three years ago he was invited to Japan, for a major exhibition of his work that opened in Tokyo and is now making its long way around Europe. The Japanese saw links between the work of the innovative Australian architect and the values of ancient Japanese design. Murcutt went to Japan in wary apprehension, haunted by childhood memories of the war, and photographs and stories of that time.

The beauty of early Japanese houses – their economy, simplicity, their sense of place and material, the detail and the craft and the harmony of the whole – took his breath away. They were everything he had spent his life trying for. He was glad this revelation hadn’t come earlier: “Japan might have overwhelmed me.” Among the people who embodied his early sense of horror he had found his deepest affinity.

Japan continued a sequence of ways of living and building that Murcutt had found around the whole pre-industrial Pacific rim – its un-European ways of being in a place, the minimal use of light organic materials: wood, bamboo, fibres. The constancy in impermanence that came from using always available and always replaceable materials to make a living habitat.

The child who grew in fear of Japan is also the son of the boy who ran away to the bush. Glenn Murcutt’s feeling for Indigenous Australia has deepened steadily over the years. He’s travelled thousands of kilometres in those regions most distant from urban Australia. One of his most original houses is the one he built for printmaker Banduk Marika at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. She had identified him as the whitefella architect who could make a house her people could live in. Murcutt forwent his fee and, because the government agency refused to subsidise the cost of a wooden house it said would burn down within a year, ended up paying a chunk of the building cost as well. After 17 years, the open and endlessly adaptable house remains a delight for everyone who spends time in it.

Glenn, like Sam, loves glittering fragments of portable wisdom. One favourite comes from an elder of the Yuin people on the NSW south coast, Uncle Max Harrison, who is a regular presence at the Glenn Murcutt masterclasses on the Shoalhaven River: “You’ve got to give it away to keep it.” Glenn said this when I asked why he’d worked so hard teaching around the world instead of designing houses here – Glenn Murcutt may not build outside Australia but he sure has talked abroad. You can see the beauty of the apophthegm, and its good sense about transmitting knowledge and culture. “First develop yourself and then give to others,” was the way Sam used to put it.

The subdued and painful time I expected to have with Glenn Murcutt in the aftermath of Nick’s death didn’t happen. An immensely smiling and affable man opened the door and we plunged into a long day’s talk. Even the pause for tea with tomato and basil bruschetta was filled with words. There were frequent interruptions for laughter.

Toward the day’s end Glenn was listing his awards, the Alvar Aalto medal in 1992 and the Pritzker Prize in 2002 first among them. These late tokens of the world’s esteem seemed minor things to me, beyond the rightness in the award named for the incomparable Finn, who has been Glenn Murcutt’s deepest and most enduring influence. A trace of weariness must have shown on my face, because Murcutt’s amiable voice changed. “I’m telling you these things,” he said sharply, “because you want to know.” The brisk reproof was a delight. For a moment in this day, Glenn Murcutt was Sam and I was his son.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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