Architecture Foundation Australia

Wisdom of the Elders

photo © Anthony Browell

photo © Anthony Browell

I stood on the grass under the trees in the Botanic Gardens of Sydney, the traditional land of the Cadigal people, with Glenn Murcutt, Aboriginal Elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Peter Stutchbury, and a gathering of people for the launch of Uncle Max’s book ‘My People’s Dreaming – an Aboriginal Elder speaks on life, land, spirit and forgiveness’ i The event took place with glimpses of Utzon’s Opera House through the tree-tops and with the tall buildings of Harry Seidler, Renzo Piano and many others looking down on us from the city centre across Macquarie Street. Richard Leplastrier was there with us as well, in spirit, although he was in Japan on his way to Denmark. Glenn, Uncle Max, Peter and Richard, with Professor Brit Andresen from Norway and Queensland, have become a close family, privileged with each other’s company and engaged in, one could say, spreading a teaching of thought and action that is commonly rooted in the accumulated wisdom of these two great men, Glenn and Max, now our Elders.

Gathered in the Botanic Gardens we were surrounded by threads and symbols, which give several cues for a short essay on the life of and works of Glenn Murcutt and his place in the trajectory of Australian and World architecture.


‘Mother Earth births everything for us. Father Sky carries the water and oxygen for us to breathe. Grandfather Sun warms the planet, warms our body, gives us light so we can see, raises the food that the Mother births and raises most of our relations, all our plants and trees. Grandmother Moon moves the water and gives us the woman-time and our birthing’


Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Aboriginal elder of the Yuin people  ‘My People’s Dreaming’

Glenn speaks often botanically, as he did in his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, his knowledge and observation of the natural environment is extraordinary. To walk over a landscape with Glenn and to hear him identify and discuss the plant species with their botanical names, is to have revealed insights into geology, rainfall, water flow, wind direction, solar access, bushfire threats, the movements of the seasons, wildlife, scents, so it is that his buildings are, first, ‘grounded’ on the reading of the land, of the landscape. Walking with Uncle Max over this same ground is another, parallel and complementary journey. He will speak of the hillside and the trees as his family relations, of the traditions and journeys of his ancestors, of reading the land, of spirit lines, of totems, of sacred places and of the landscape as a source of food – “When I take people out in the bush, I ask them to look around and tell me what they see. They say, ‘We just see the bush, Uncle. What do you see?’. I say, ‘I see a supermarket!’”

‘We just see the bush, Uncle. What do you see?’. I say, ‘I see a supermarket!’

Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre, Riversdale, West Cambewarra, New South Wales, Australia, by Glenn Murcutt with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark – 1996-99:

photos © Anthony Browell

photos © Anthony Browell

It was not until the late 1970’s that Glenn developed an interest in the culture of the Aboriginal people of Australia and from 1983 this culture fired his imagination. Philip Drew’s book ‘Leaves of Iron’ ii published in 1985 articulated an underpinning to Glenn’s work in this regard. Since then he has become an ardent collector of Aboriginal art, and has made several privileged trips to areas of Australia with rich indigenous traditions. He has drawn from Aboriginal culture, respectful strategies for oblique approach and entry to buildings, adopted, for instance, in the Simpson-Lee House (1988-94) and, then, he had the opportunity to design the house for Aboriginal leader Banduk Marika and her partner Mark Alderton, in the far north tropics of the Northern Territory.

Down through the Botanic Gardens, on Benelong Point, jutting into Sydney Harbour, Utzon’s great Opera House is a reminder of Glenn’s great respect for, and love of, Scandinavia and its architecture, his inspirations drawn from Utzon, from Aalto, Asplund, Lewerentz on his early and later travels to Europe, and personal friendships with such as Juhani Pallasmaa the late Sverre Fehn, that have informed much of his work from the early buildings with Allen and Jack Architects at the University of Newcastle and right through his career to the Boyd Art Centre ‘Riversdale’ and continuing. His favourite chair is still an Arne Jacobsen designed Fritz Hansen Series 7 on which he sits at work.

Palm Garden House, Northern Beaches, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1974-76 by Richard Leplastrier:

photos © Michael Wee (taken from Murdoch Books 70/80/90 Iconic Houses by Karen McCartney, 2011)

photos © Michael Wee (taken from Murdoch Books 70/80/90 Iconic Houses by Karen McCartney, 2011)

At the opening of an exhibition of Glenn Murcutt’s drawings and buildings at the Museum of Sydney, just across the road from the Botanic Gardens, in June 2009, (originally shown at the Gallery Ma in Tokyo in 2008) iii , I posed the question – “What would be the international perception of Australian architecture, if we had not had Glenn Murcutt?”. Penny Seidler, widow of another great Australian architect Harry Seidler, was not overly impressed. What I should have said is that Harry Seidler, who came to Australia from Europe and America in 1948, having studied under great men such as Gropius and Breuer, brought World architecture to Australia – whereas Glenn Murcutt, in his time, has brought Australian architecture to the World.

Not all within Australia are unequivocal. None would question Glenn’s integrity, but some see his work as too comfortable, less than cutting edge, perhaps of the past. I gave a lecture in Mexico some years ago – an overview of Australian architecture – and I cast the scene in two camps – the “Touch this Earth Lightly” (Glenn learned of this now famous Aboriginal saying from his friend Brian Klopper) camp from the east coast, who draw their inspirations from the ground through the soles of their feet, led by Glenn Murcutt and, then, what I called the “Radical Avant-garde”, mostly centred on Melbourne in Victoria, who draw their inspirations through the crowns of their skulls out of the ethersphere, more concerned with international trends, styles and theoretical positions. Glenn says he is not interested in theory, he is interested in doing. He, also, is committed to the use of the hand to draw and to “discover” as a path of exploration, and is deeply suspicious of the use of computers. “Drawing with a pencil, the hand can discover the solution before the mind can conceive it”.

‘Drawing with a pencil, the hand can discover the solution before the mind can conceive it’

(edited from an essay published in AREA #107, Milan, 2009)

Lindsay Johnston is Director of the Architecture Foundation Australia and former Dean of Architecture and Design and Head of the School of Architecture at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is convener of the annual Glenn Murcutt International Architecture Master Class, curator of the exhibition‘Glenn Murcutt – Architecture for Place’ currently touring Europe, and has recently published the book ‘Under the Edge – the architecture of Peter Stutchbury’