Glenn Murcutt on the Fires in Australia, Climate Change, and Sustainability in Architecture

Glenn Murcutt on the Fires in Australia, Climate Change, and Sustainability in Architecture

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

Pritzker Prize Winner, Glenn Murcutt joins the podcast to discuss the recent fires in Australia, the importance of spatial understanding over form-driven design, and how he established his award-winning practice.


The recent fires in Australia have been more severe than they have been in the past. Architects like to view themselves as problem solvers, and you have addressed this in previous designs, what can architects do to help prevent these types of things from happening in the future? (2:48) 

“It’s not just Australia, it’s the United States and other nations in the world. If you are a climate change denier then there is no solution. When a fire is coming through at 800 degrees centigrade, there is nothing stopping it. Aluminum burns at 400 degrees, zinc burns at around 550 degrees or so and steel at 1600 degrees, we are talking centigrade. There is no building material that can withstand that except for masonry. In the ecological world, masonry, from the point of view of energy consumption, starts to get quite high. So, it’s a very complicated issue. Architects can’t do a hell of a lot. The whole nation has to do things. The whole planet has to do things. We all have to understand that climate change is real. Look Aaron, this is the first year that we have had fire burn our rain forest down. We have rain forest that are eons old and they’ve never had a burning. Yet, the Euclid forest nearby have burned thousands of times over the years. The rain forest have always survived. It takes thousands of years for a rain forest to establish and continue renewing itself. What can architects do about that? It’s not the building that we need to do something about, it’s the forest that we need to do something about. It’s the climate that we need to do something about. All we can do is be able to build, for example, the house at Mount Wilson had an inundation system and I had a big water storage that sprays over the whole area. Around the house, the roof and the landscape around it. The fires came through. It came right up to the house but it didn’t burn the house. It was a big fire; two houses were lost. The landscape was completely lost. So, what can architects do about it? It’s not our responsibility to do anything about it in terms of the built form. It’s all of our responsibilities to deal with the climate change…”   

You were ahead of the curve as it pertains to sustainability. Where did that notion of sustainability come from and how has it evolved throughout the years? (7:05)

“My father was a builder and we had the most beautiful sites in Sydney Harbor to live on. My father was not an architect but a very good designer. He designed some very decent buildings. The buildings were entirely rational. The belonged to where they were. They had all the possibilities of breathing, ventilation, cooling in themselves by capturing the breezes. If you go back to the early parts of occupation in the United States and we go to the early occupation of this country, we had a very sensible way of building. Look at your buildings in the southern states. Look at them in the fields, way down south with the huge buildings with the empty center in them in the shapes of squares and octagons so they built them so that the ground floors opened up and the cool air coming through the forest… These were beautiful systems that were working with the planet. That’s what I am interested in. I was raised to be working with the planet, not against it. Air conditioning is against the planet, but I know that you have to heat buildings and you also have to cool buildings, but there are other ways of heating and cooling buildings than powering electricity. I’m interested in many of those things. I’m not totally skilled in them but we are doing it. To have chambers underneath a building that takes out the humidity and runs it through pipes under a building and extracts it into rooms, you’re going to drop the temperature enormously because down under the ground you have a constant temperature between one and two degrees. You can then capitalize on it. What a great start to have the air going down into this labyrinth. It’s not about consuming power in the normal sense of consuming power… I’m not interested in sustainability at all. I’m interested in responsibility because it needs to go beyond sustainability. So, when we design buildings, we’ve got to use materials logically, appropriately, related to place, related to space, related to aspect, and also to understand prospect and refuge in our design. So, the design has to be logical but beyond logical it needs to be poetic…”  

I think you are one of the last architects out there that has managed to resist the temptation of the computer. How does the process of working with your hands influence the architecture? (12:40)

When you draw with pen or pencil you can pass emotion in that. You can feel it because you are visualizing what you’re drawing. It’s not just a line on paper, a line represents the beginning of space, and to visualize is the most critical aspect for an architect, to be able to think in those 3 dimensions. The pen or pencil achieve that. It is the same for many people that write poetry… How would you get any emotion out of a mouse? You’re not going to get any emotion because it is totally devoid of it. The real problem is that most of the operators of computers today have last the skill of thinking three dimensionally. Of course, you can design something two dimensionally and extrude it up. You can design that and put a roof on it. In my teaching students, we are talking 50 years of teaching, the students of today are totally computer literate and they are totally unable to understand scale, proportion, materiality. All they understand is form, and all of a sudden, the computer has now made form a discipline in itself. I think this is nonsense. Form is a function of requirements. Form is a consequence of other things. It is not of itself in architecture. We have a responsibility to be able to produce work that is rational and that is also beautiful. I will refer back to, and keep referring back to the junction of the rational and the poetic must be at the core of our work. It is not about form. The computer is a marvelous instrument, but its only an instrument. Like the compass is an instrument or the t-square is an instrument or pens or pencils, but these things are largely an extension of the body. The mouse has no extension of the body. It is separate from the body whereas the pencil becomes very much a part of the extension of the arm. All the muscles in the arm and in the hand, all determine how we draw apart from our mind and our eye. They determine the way that we present our way of thinking…”  

About this author
Cite: Design:ED. "Glenn Murcutt on the Fires in Australia, Climate Change, and Sustainability in Architecture" 29 Feb 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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