An architect collaborates with sunlight, wind, and water

Glenn Murcutt got the word while he was in St. Louis on a speaking tour: Bill Lacey was trying to reach him.

Mr. Murcutt, an Australian architect whose houses have generated widespread excitement, knew that Mr. Lacey was secretary of the Pritzker jury. The Pritzker prize is to architecture what Oscars are to the movies.

Murcutt made the call promptly.

But it wasn't until after several minutes of architectural chitchat that Lacey suddenly said, "I might as well get to the point of this phone conversation. Glenn Murcutt, you are the winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize for 2002."

Murcutt's response was several moments of silence. "He really blew me away, for I never thought I'd be so fortunate," Murcutt said later.

Some of his fans might say he's being too modest. In announcing his selection, Thomas Pritzker, president of The Hyatt Foundation, said, "While his primary focus is on houses, one of his public buildings, the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre, has achieved acclaim as well, critics calling it a masterwork."

All of Murcutt's built works reflect his blending of the home to the landscape.

For Murcutt and his wife, Wendy Lewin, who is also an architect, the news that he had been awarded architecture's highest prize was stunning. Ms. Lewin couldn't stop screaming and laughing for five minutes.

"The first person I thought about was my father," Murcutt said. "He had a great influence on my becoming an architect. He really left me an enduring legacy.

"When I was growing up, he always read to me. There was Freud, Mies van der Rohe, and Henry David Thoreau – a variety of doctors, architects and philosophers. What a wonderful effect they had on me."

Building from an early age

Although his father wasn't an architect, he did build houses. When Glenn was in his teens, his father had him building all types of windows and doors. The father rewarded the son with money when he asked a good question or showed some initiative – and he would dock him threepence for an infraction like leaving the lights on.

Murcutt won his diploma in architecture in 1961. He worked for the firm of Anchor, Mortlock, Murray & Wooley until l969, when he began his own architectural firm. In the 33 years since then, travel has expanded his world a great deal, with classes and speeches adding to a worldwide appreciation of his ideas. He has done education centers and small museums, but he maintains that houses are more fascinating to design.

"A big project could take three years," he notes. "I could do 20 houses in the same length of time. That would allow me time to experiment and to find even better ways to control sunlight, wind, and water."

In Sydney, he has brought back the use of storm blinds, which are made of metal and are like Venetian blinds but are for the outside of a house. For sun control, he has provided forms of slated timber and metal screens, which achieve privacy yet maintain the movement of air.

Understanding a site

Most of his houses are free of air conditioning. He has varied the pitch of the roofs of his houses according to the latitude and climate of the site. In some areas, he overlaps the layers of roofs so that the air can move between the layers.

"You have to work with nature. If you don't, nature eventually wins," Murcutt maintains. "The important thing is to understand water, water movement, water tables, sunlight, wind, rain pattern, where water flows. To understand these things is to know where you may place a building, how you might deal with it – off the ground, on the ground, even underground."

Murcutt has designed two homes for Aboriginals. "It took a great deal of time to discover some of their cultural needs," he said. "For instance, in planning the bedrooms in the house, the parents must sleep to the west of the house because the west symbolizes the end of the day, the dying day, and the children must sleep to the east of the parents because it symbolizes the rising sun and the future."

Perhaps nothing fits Glenn Murcutt better than his father's three rules: "Son, start off like you are going to finish up. If you compromise your work, the quality of your client will go down. And, finally, in life we are called upon to do many ordinary things, but the key is to do them extraordinarily well."

Glenn Murcutt will receive the Pritzker Prize in Rome on May 29.

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