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House, Sydney, Australia by Glenn Murcutt

Tucked in an inner suburb, this house is significant in Murcutt’s oeuvre, otherwise dominated by work in the outer suburbs and rural areas. It clearly demonstrates his continuing allegiance to an uncompromising Modernist aesthetic, but, in its scale and character, it responds as sensitively to its dense urban context as his rural houses do to the natural landscape

Originally published in the AR in July 1987 and first published online in July 2019 to mark the 83rd birthday of Glenn Murcutt (b. 25.07.1936) 

This unusual town house is on a 5.5m wide end-of-terrace plot in a back lane behind Victorian terraces, adjacent to a tiny park used mainly for children’s play.

There was a protracted battle, eventually won, to obtain permission to install windows along the northern boundary. Rather than accepting the conventional end of terrace solution, with windows front and back, garden behind and the odd side window, Murcutt has oriented the house entirely to the northern sun and the park. To this end, he has created a 2m wide service and circulation zone, enclosed in brickwork, along the southern boundary, with rooms and terraces opening off it overlooking the park to the north. Using the natural fall of the ground, he has squeezed a garage and main entry underneath the ground floor, which is raised slightly above the level of the park, forming a satisfying, heavy podium, on which the lightweight steel-framed living areas sit. The lower level entry has the additional advantage of bringing the point of arrival into the house proper, deep into the building, allowing a full 5 m wide living room over the entry and garage.

Drawings final

Drawings final

The terraces are treated like outdoor rooms, one open to the sky and the other sheltered from rain and summer sun by the bedrooms above. The covered terrace is screened from the park by a glass block wall, intended toevoke the filigree texture of the nineteenth-century verandah screens in the area. A horizontal slot of clear-glazed windows allows views out onto the park, recalling Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre, a building that Murcutt particularly admires. The terrace is also reminiscent of the glazed, pierced screen to the covered bedroom terrace in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

On the ground floor, the attenuated plan with central open court gives a clear distinction between kitchen and dining room, which was a client requirement, while retaining the openness that is characteristic of Murcutt’s work. On the first floor, the same arrangement allows a neat and practical separation between children and parents’ domains. Thus, from the park, the house reads as two semi-independent pavilions, which increase in height with the natural slope of the ground.

‘The poetry of Murcutt’s architecture comes from the subtle manipulation of simple elements and refinement of detail and proportion’

Although this urban house looks so different from Murcutt’s best-known rural buildings, on closer inspection the design very clearly relates to ideas developed in his other work. The basic disposition of straight spinal corridor flanked by narrow service zone along the south wall and living areas opening up to the north, is similar to the holiday house at Moruya (AR February 1986). The little double-pitched roof and toplighting to the service zone, on the other hand, revives an idea used for his ingenious office conversion in Woolloomooloo (AR December 1985). The plan necessitates greater circulation area than a conventional terrace house, but this is turned to advantage: the straightness of the corridor and the offset staircases allow long vistas through the house giving a sense of great spaciousness; the character of the corridors changes as they merge into the rooms through which they pass; and the upper corridor becomes a glorious, brilliantly day lit long gallery-the double-pitched ceiling over the whole service zone cleverly recreated by reflection in the glazed clerestory to the service rooms. The service zone, except for the timber staircase, is rigorously articulated internally by the use of Italian terracotta tiles, in contrast with the timber floors of the living areas and brick paving on the terrace. The individual rooms are simple but attractive spaces, especially the living/ dining room opening onto the terrace, the galley kitchen in the form of an enlarged bay window and the delightful 1½-storey children’s rooms, with their mezzanine sleeping balconies, like miniature Corbusian Unite apartments.

Black and white photo 4

Black and white photo 4

The void of the stariwell

Despite the urban setting, Murcutt has not flinched from presenting completely glazed walls to the park. Where Chareau ensured privacy entirely with glass blocks, Murcutt employs his usual aluminium venetian blinds, this time electrically operated. There is no eaves shading, so the house also relies on the blinds for sun protection, with glass louvres behind for ventilation. Murcutt sees his houses as pieces of adjustable equipment that one can finely tune to climatic conditions, like a yacht. In the Maison de Verre it is the internal fittings that are adjustable, whereas in Murcutt’s work it is the external skin. The clients find the house much cooler than they imagined and say that they can ‘drive it really well’ and ‘get any breeze that’s going and lead it through’.

Constructional cross section drawing

Constructional cross section drawing

Constructional cross section

The house has an unusual section. The first floor is set back from the facade, so that the glazing is continuous despite the solid balustrades to the bedrooms, thus increasing the area of ventilation in the living/dining room. The horizontal division of the facade occurs on the line of the first floor window sills, creating the illusion of a very high ground floor. This gives the house an urbane and dignified character reminiscent of a Renaissance house with its tall piano nobile. The scale and dignity of the facade is further increased by the bent monopitch roof. The roof was to slope the other way but the local authority required it to be reversed to reduce overshadowing of the adjacent property-a change ultimately to the benefit of the Murcutt house. The monopitch form also echoes the characteristic roof on the standard end-of-terrace offshoot. Indeed, the whole exterior has a predominantly vertical emphasis that reflects the older terraces in the vicinity. The verticality is balanced, however, by strong horizontals on the park facade, which give it greater repose and unite the two glazed pavilions. The external colouring of the house is a little insipid for the self-confident forms of the building. The earth-bound podium could have been stronger in colour and the steel structure more boldly articulated.

‘In this house he demonstrates the continuing vitality of the rationalist strand of the Modern movement and its capacity to generate an uplifting background for life’

The house dominates and transforms the little back lane park, which appears at first to be its front garden. Some local architects have doubts about this appropriation of a public place. But the situation only arises because it is the only house that chooses to address the park. The neighbours are delighted, as the park is now informally supervised and they feel that their children are more secure.

Murcutt considers himself a Romantic rather than a Rationalist, yet there is a strong Rationalist component in his adherence to largely rectilinear forms, especially in plan, in his continual refinement of certain basic planning and formal types and solutions, and in the rigorous structural discipline of his buildings. The poetry of Murcutt’s architecture comes from the subtle manipulation of simple elements and refinement of detail and proportion. In this house, he demonstrates, even more clearly than in his earlier work, the continuing vitality of the Rationalist strand of the Modern Movement tradition and its capacity to generate an uplifting background for life.

Architect Glenn Murcutt
Assistant Wendy Lewin 
Structural engineer James Taylor

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