I met Glenn Murcutt first in a remote little village in Italy’s northern Val d’Ossola, and later in the eternal city. The mountain hamlet of Canova and Rome represent two extremes of Italy, so listening to how one of today’s greatest architect views the vast range of Italy’s built heritage is an enticing proposition. It has to be said that both the locations and the weather - summer - were conducive to our relaxed conversation.
Murcutt started his latest Italian “Grand Tour” in the little mountain hamlet of Canova. He visited the restoration and reconstruction work by Ken and Kali Marquardt, who over the last 25 years, together with students and lecturers from Italian and North American universities and a long-standing group of friends, have turned several formerly abandoned villages of the Val d’Ossola into active workshops (www.canovacanova.com). Knowing Murcutt’s particular sensitivity for landscape and materials, a mutual friend, Carol A. Wilson of FAIA, had invited him to come and see the work for himself.
Murcutt was impressed by the ruins of the mediaeval village of Ghesc that Paola Gardin and Maurizio Cesprini, young and enthusiastic promoters of traditional materials, first restored and now live in, turning a pile of stones into an open-air laboratory on vernacular architecture.
Murcutt understands full well that to restore means listening to the stories houses have to tell. Buildings carry with them their different incarnations; they reveal the changes and traumas they have undergone. Sigmund Freud understood this perfectly when in 1896 he likened archaeology to psychoanalysis in his essay “Saxa Loquuntur” (“Stones Speak”).
We have seen the development of an aesthetic of time-honoured materials. Stones smoothed by the centuries and the imperfections of natural materials are more highly valued than the flawless new surfaces of buildings built only after demolishing earlier constructions. The architectural restorers of the mountain village of Ghesc call for a halt to the occupation of more land. At the same time though they promote the use of the most sophisticated technology available as a diagnostic tool in the recovery and restoration process.
As an Australian, Glenn Murcutt is perfectly at home in these themes and this rustic setting. As a boy he loved the wild, experiencing it both through the books of Thoreau but also at first hand under the guidance of his father when living in the remotest part of Papua New Guinea. Yet he advocates, in his characteristically down-to-earth yet sensitive way, that failure to restore architecture and turn it into a contemporary building is a missed opportunity.
By combining vernacular Australian building traditions with clean classic Modernist design, Murcutt has created buildings that while perfectly in keeping with context, nonetheless implacably assert their presence. They can be likened to an old wooden bow with a titanium arrow.
For Murcutt, what is being done in Val d’Ossola remains “unfinished”. He sees there a very Italian quality and, however, becomes a pathological drawback: an unwillingness to see recovery and restoration as including contemporary materials and functions. For him, these remote valley villages should boast glass and steel windows and doors, connecting add-ons, and new roofs to pull the architecture out of the past into the present. The veil of history should be “lifted”, the aura of reliquary and souvenir dispelled, and the buildings allowed to become full-fledged components of the present.
This sort of thinking reminds me of Murcutt’s own architecture. It also prompts the thought that perhaps the rapport that we Italian architects have with history is similar to Murcutt’s rapport with nature: for both it is a return to our origins, our roots; for both it is a rapport with our body and sensuality. With the difference though that Murcutt seems decidedly more geared to awakening the senses rather than standing back to admire their beauty. I think Murcutt has in mind the distinction the Greeks made between “bios” life in the sense of our body, and “zoe”, our relationship with a wider dimension, nature. I get the impression Murcutt not only loves places where man has left his mark but strives to go beyond cultural and historical events and cancel out the difference between past and present, seeing the landscape in terms of a deep creative drive.
Hence his plea that restoration has to be functional to those who will live in the restored building, which is in turn key to bringing economic viability back to these mountain valleys.
We met up in Rome a few weeks later. That morning on Rome’s Gianicolo, I couldn’t find him. It was he who found me, suddenly appearing from out of nowhere. I was thinking about the fascination the American Academy has had for so many architects - from Louis Kahn (1951) to Donlyn Lyndon (1978) – and how from within its precincts, perceived reality is made up of the sweet smells and colours coming from the garden and brick walls. Murcutt opened the conversation with just this, putting things into perspective. After a week, he was already fed up with Rome, especially the historic centre. He had had it with a city apparently stifled by its great past. There was a need, he exclaimed adamantly, for change so as to keep up with the times. “I come from a huge new continent like America but one that contains one fifteenth of America’s population”; a place where people are “counted like flowers in a vase”, considered one by one.
Perhaps Rome isn’t the right place to feel like that.
At this point, he explained, we had finally found the right distance and perspective to be able to talk of architecture and other things.
He told me about his approach to design. His architecture is all about relationships despite the fact that he works absolutely alone and has no desire whatsoever to bear the responsibility of a large practice. He focuses on every last detail of the context in which he will build, noting all possible aspects to do with the climate, technology and the people of the place. Adopting this approach, he says, Australia is the only place where he can work. He tells me that a client may wait even three years for a plan. But those three years are not wasted. They serve to verify and consolidate the relationship. Sketches and thoughts, a first meeting in the client’s home, a fact-finding meeting to get to know each other and choose each other. They might even become friends. He even had the widow of a former client suggest he buy the house he had designed years before to ensure it would survive in an appropriate manner.
When Murcutt goes to the location of a new building, he takes a whole day to take the place in: plants, bushes, the orientation of the oldest trees, the shape of their leaves, watercourses, and the angle of the sun through the seasons. He studies the animals, even the insects, collecting a wealth of information. Sometimes he will make a “surprise” discovery, like when sinking the foundations for a new building, he came across the remains of an old homestead.
Murcutt underlines how his approach is never to make “finished” drawings. His client must always feel that changes can be made. He works on the basis of hand drawn sketches so the client won’t feel caged in but able to intervene at any time.
After much deep thought about architecture, he notes, there was a monumental moment when he turned 77. I asked him whether it prompted him to consider if his consolidated career also reflected his private life. He replied that he felt privileged for the way he had been able to live. Then his eyes misted as the inconsolable sorrow he carries with him welled up: the death of his architect son, Nicholas, three years before.
He recalled his father several times with equal tenderness and admiration for his inventive spirit, a true educator for him and his brothers. As well as his father who died when he was still a young boy, Glenn recalled his teachers and friends of today. He admires Renzo Piano for projects like the Padre Pio church, stone slabs juxtaposing steel. But more than anyone else, Murcutt reveres Alvar Aalto, “the architect of architects”, he calls him emphatically. More than Mies and the much loved Farnsworth House. On the subject of his great loves, Henry Ciriani once suggested that if he looked at the photos he had taken as a young man and their viewpoints, he would get a better insight into why he was passionate about certain things like Aalto’s church at Imatra or Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp. It would make the illogical logical. He also recalled Albini’s great work amidst the architecture of Genoa, which brought us full circle back to the historic context, the underlying theme of much of our discussion.
We had talked at length about Murcutt’s own in-depth investigation into the meaning of architecture as he travelled widely, seeing places and cultures and building extensively, always following his own sensitivity. We were now back to the question of historical architecture.
I think Murcutt sees history not as a book but as a musical score to be played. Sticking too close to history is, to use his own colourful phrase, like “kissing a brother or sister”, a person you are very fond of but someone you haven’t chosen to be fond of, and someone for whom you have not developed a physical passion. My immediate reaction to that remark was that for our culture it made reference to an incestuous relationship. Which perhaps in fact sums up the tendency of Italian architecture to turn in on itself, a self-destructive process described by the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne in his “The Marble Faun”. For Hawthorne, Rome becomes a lifeless body, a place where time disintegrates. In his own way, Sartre expressed this when he exclaimed during a concert at the Coliseum: “Tourist, my brother, you prefer Shadow to truth, because Shadow is more elegant”.
Returning to the question of Rome, I asked Murcutt what he would “do” with the city were he to be courageous enough to tackle the Coliseum or the Pantheon. He replied: “The Pantheon, no. The Pantheon is not to be touched. I would do something about the Coliseum though… I would work with metal, I would create a screen”.
I immediately had a mental vision of the sort of thing his infectious energy would put in place to revive the Coliseum. It brought to mind the intense book by Philip Drew, “Touch this Earth Lightly. Glenn Murcutt in his Own Words”. In it this Australian tells the story of his travels and how he works with a clarity that few other great architects have equalled. Now talking about Italy in 2013, he seems to paraphrase the title of the book published in 1999.
Perhaps we in Italy are shy of introducing the “new” into ancient buildings because we know that as architects we have feet of clay. But even outside our historic centres there is a substantial lack of architectural vision. The outlying areas of Rome and other cities have been waiting for decades for decisive action by politicians and architects. For it is there that much work is needed. While we could do more than just simply preserve our ancient monuments, touching them lightly, we are not yet ready to make this leap for fear it might transform, even deface our built heritage, even if it would drastically reduce land occupation. Is historical architecture doomed to remain marvellous ruins, hermetic talismans of a distracted inattentive country?
The conversations with Glenn Murcutt
took place on June the 24th in Canova
and on July the 26th in Rome
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