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Glenn Murcutt, the man behind the Australian Islamic Centre’s new mosque in Newport, and his use of corrugated iron, wood and steel make for a powerfully unique voice in the landscape of Australian architecture.
Tomorrow, comic and self-confessed architecture tragic Tim Ross (formerly known as half of Merrick and Rosso) will present the first episode of Streets of your Town, an ABC series dealing with Australian modernist architecture. About time, I’d say, because especially in the 1950s and ’60s we ruled the architectural world, with people like Harry Seidler and Robin Boyd in the forefront. During the war, nobody had been able to build anything. There were no materials and all the money went to the troops. But not long afterwards, there was the building boom we had to have, and because of post-war optimism, Australian homes suddenly looked very, very different from the British-inspired stuff we’d had before. The new houses had wide eaves, large windows, long, unbroken and almost flat roofs, and were made out of steel and a relatively new material called concrete. They were open and light and as optimistic as the period. Self-builders everywhere in Australia aspired to these new buildings, and magazines like Australian Home Beautiful helped them out by selling the blueprints and architectural plans in handy booklets for a few pounds. Inside, new materials like Gyprock, linoleum, vinyl and plywood were used; it was all about indoor-outdoor connections and clean lines.
People like Seidler and Boyd were enormously influential, and their work is still amazing to look at and walk through. But I think Australia’s best modernist architect was, and is, Glenn Murcutt. And one day, when I win Lotto, I will knock on his door and see if he can design me a house. I am not sure if Ross includes Murcutt in his program, but if he doesn’t, you can always go to Melbourne, where the National Gallery of Victoria is hosting an exhibition called Glenn Murcutt: Architecture of Faith. The title refers to the fact that Murcutt has just finished one of his greatest commissions, building the mosque that will be part of the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport. The mosque looks like no other I’ve ever seen. It has 96 lanterns on the roof, painted gold, with windows in them that act like chimneys, eliminating the need for air conditioning. Light is flooding in through coloured glass windows and the prayer rooms are open to the outside world. There is no minaret, but the call to prayer comes through an extension of the roof, and even more remarkable and unique: a set of stairs connects the women’s and men’s sections – because, Murcutt says, the separation of men and women that is now the custom in mosques, is only a cultural thing, not prescribed in the Koran. So if and when the need arises to unite men and women again, the opportunity will be there. The intention of the building has always been to be inclusive, bring people together and come up with a mosque that is not Arabic in its look and symbolism, but Australian: “open, transparent, welcoming, part of a culture that includes migrant groups, not treats them with social and religious prejudice.” In that regard, it is very much a political assignment that Murcutt took on, given the mistrust between the Islamic and non-Islamic communities in this country at the moment.
Murcutt’s use of corry, combined with wood and steel, has led to a cross between the rural vernacular architecture and the modernism of Seidler and Boyd. It is, though, completely and always recognisably Murcutt.
The mosque in Newport has taken ten years to develop and construct, and is an exception in the way Murcutt normally works. Although he has been an architect for the best part of 50 years, usually he works alone. Here he shares the credits with Turkish-Australian architect Hakan Elevli, who contributed his knowledge of Islamic design principles and his connection to the clients, the local Islamic community. Murcutt hopes that their building will influence the national debate. That it will show the Anglos that Islam can be receptive and inclusive, and that it will teach the Islamic community itself that it is living in a modern, open society. This link between people and their buildings is vintage Murcutt. According to modernist principles, he has always been interested in how a structure is used and where it is. Murcutt’s homes, restaurants and cultural centres try their best to sit lightly in the landscape and respond to it. Often, you can look through them, and slats and sliding doors and walls make sure you can always see the sky and the trees around them. Over time, they become part of the landscape, almost transparent, like they have grown there. They are buildings you can breathe in; minimal, but tough, both “functional and poetic”, as Murcutt himself calls it.
They are also built for Australia and rooted here. Most of them look like woolsheds, constructed at least partly from corrugated iron. This is an interesting material for this country, because just as Murcutt was born in London and grew up in PNG and Sydney, our beloved corry is originally also from elsewhere. In 1830, British builder John Manning constructed a portable wooden house for his son, who was getting ready to migrate to the Swan River (Perth). It was a simple timber-and-iron construction, packed in a crate and delivered at the docks. Soon Manning decided to market the idea as Manning’s Portable Colonial Cottages, which was a great success. The building could be put on a bullock dray, taken to its site and erected in mere hours or days. After mining started in the early 1840s, these prefab houses caught on. In the 1850s, Manning got a competitor in Samuel Hemming, who even offered prefab churches, completely fashioned out of corrugated iron. Hemming’s buildings were much cheaper and lighter than wood, and even easier to erect, but they were not very well insulated. Extremely cold in winter, almost unbearably hot in summer, the squatters, selectors, miners and farmers who ended up in them paid a high price for having a roof over their heads. But corrugated iron would remain the quintessential Australian building material. Wherever there was the demand for quick and cheap construction, corry would be the choice.
Glenn Murcutt’s use of corry, combined with wood and steel, has led to a cross between the rural vernacular architecture and the modernism of Seidler and Boyd. It is, though, completely and always recognisably Murcutt, and it is this that has won him not only an Order of Australia, but also the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize for Architecture. And every year, a group of international architects travels to Australia to sit at the feet of the man and learn. For two weeks, he shows them what Australia can do and lets them work together, inspiring cooperation and solutions to architectural problems that people would never have come up with on their own. Murcutt turned 80 this year, but is still going strong. And he needs to, because I haven’t won Lotto yet.