Designed to make a minimal impact on the local eco-system, Glenn Murcutt’s Education Centre in New South Wales has an intuitive feel for place and nature
Originally published in January 2000
With two Sydney colleagues whom he taught as students and who have both worked with him on several occasions,1 Glenn Murcutt has just completed his first public building since the Kempsey museum.2 As with Murcutt’s houses, it is wedded to the site. Riversdale is an isolated private estate bounded by the river Shoal haven near Nowra, three hours’ drive from Sydney; it was formerly owned by the artist Arthur Boyd,3 who went there to imbibe the Australian wilderness- one of his principal sources of inspiration.
Three rural buildings stood on this large tract of agricultural land, including the barn Boyd used as his studio. Skirted by the bush, open grassland slopes down to the river. The brief required an open art-teaching centre with accommodation for resident artists and 32 young students both from Australia and round the world.
Picking up on the notions of initiation, discovery and experience of the landscape emphasized by the teaching programme, the building is conceived in terms of an itinerary revealing the place bit by bit. Playing on the natural features of the site, the arrival sequence from the only access point is laid out as an oblique, linear, uphill approach route, to delay the moment the centre first comes into view. The two main functions- communal activities and dormitories- take distinct forms: refectory and veranda are grouped beneath the roof of the lofty great hall, with north and east elevations giving onto the view, while bedrooms and washing facilities are aligned in a long, thin range originating behind the hall, to which it is linked by the kitchen.
The complex dominates the valley from a flattened area above the flood level, at the intersection between the cultivated and the natural landscape. lt is separated from the existing buildings by a terrace where the future 350- seat amphitheatre is to be sited, giving axial views of the river. A transition between the scale of the landscape and that of the living quarters is provided by the white soffit of the inverted roof slope, which signals the gap leading to the bedrooms at the rear. The itinerary continues south along this passageway, terminating in a spectacular flight of steps with concrete flank walls which momentarily cut off the view and compress the visitors before immersing them in the landscape 3m below.
Conversely, the dormitory range highlights topographical variations: at the southern end, it dramatizes the drop in ground level and draws attention to the slope. Verandas slotted between rest-units act as open-air studios -vantage points where people can meet and work in osmosis with the panorama. Windows, bays and the great hall capture the different scales of the near and distant landscape.
‘By skilful framing of views, the building provides an instrument for reading the landscape’
Separated in plan, the residential units are united by a shared roof; the continuity of the range is punctuated at regular intervals by verandas, recessed bathrooms and the shaft of light upon which the roof floats. Consistent dissociation of the various elements- building from roof, living quarters from circulation, open from enclosed areas- gives a measure of transparency through the building linking the grassland landscape to that of the bush.
To institute this dialogue between scales, the architects have modelled the interstices as much as they have the volumes, by exploring relationships between the unity of the building and the discontinuity of its parts. And they have sought to make the building limits dematerialize progressively at the interface with the natural environment: the finely honed roof structures, the sun breaker fins projecting from the walls of the dormitory range, the hovering thin metal roofcovering. Elements of this peripheral order define a transitional layer between the interior and the outside- a virtual threshold between nature and intimacy.
The building is contained at each end by two major events: the sculptural triangular concrete staircase and, above all, the entrance canopy to the great hall, the silent monumentality of which is reminiscent of Asplund and Lewerentz’s chapel at the Woodland Cemetery or, indeed, Utzon’s canopy for the Kuwait parliament building. Murcutt and Lewin freely acknowledge their Scandinavian references and their deep affinity for a Nordic Modernism, combining functional rigour, plastic expression, the cult of nature and a taste for materials and detail with the total experience of place.
Their concern to express orders of construction is reflected in the choice and distribution of materials. Concrete, which none of them had used before, was required to achieve fire separation between the bedrooms. Cast in situ and left exposed, it contributes the richness of texture, the brilliance of surface and the unity of mass sought to create a physical presence in this immense site. Yet the building is designed to make as little impact as possible on the local eco-system. Pile foundations allow the ground to drain naturally, all sewage and rubbish is treated on site and the effluent channelled away from the centre through an irrigation system.
Rainwater is collected and stored in a concrete reservoir in the basement and, where appropriate, recycled timber has been used- the structural members are of recycled native Australian hardwoods, for example. The building has neither heating nor airconditioning. As with most of Murcutt’s projects, the location and orientation of glazing, sunbreakers and canopies, combined with natural ventilation achieved by overdoor openings and slatted wall planes, are designed to allow the building to breathe and to create comfortable conditions adapted to the climate.
1. Reg Lark was Murcutt’s assistant for the Broken Hill Museum project (1987-1989, unbuilt) and the Done House (1991). Wendy Lewin became Murcutt’s associate five years ago. in connection with a project for the renovation of the Sydney Customs House (1993-1994, unbuilt), and for the design of the Opal M1ne Museum at Lightning Ridge (in progress).
2. Nearly 20 years, if calculated from the first phase of the museum (1979-1982), and over 10 years if calculated from the second phase (1986-1988). Murcutt has been involved with very few other public projects and none has been built In October 1999, the Boyd Centre won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Build1ngs -the RAIA’s most prestigious federal award.
3. Boyd died on 24 April 1999, when building works on his Foundation had just been completed. Born in 1920, Boyd came from a famous family of Australian artists. He was a potter and a painter and divided his time between Australia and England. Murcutt, Lewin and Lark’s client was the institution in charge of managing Boyd’s legacy to the State.