Glenn Murcutt Speaks In Dublin

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 11 years 13 weeks ago.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, that a great sustainable architect would originate from Australia. The vast continent is home to the oldest civilisation on the planet. The Australian aboriginal people survived for 40,000 years in cooperation with the planet, rather than conflict with it. I wish to use this opportunity to provide some background on the environmental movement, and to re-frame this snazzy marketing slogan of sustainability, in a much larger view. So bear with me.

The 1960s saw a period of intense upheaval in the western world. In how we see things, and how we frame our own perceptions. The environmental movement as we know it today has roots in the large scale affairs like the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and the economic upheaval that followed. A very interesting account of the counter culture and its roots is to be found in John Markoff's book, What the Dormouse Said. In Markoff's book you will come across guys like Doug Englebart, the inventor of the mouse, company executives, scientists, engineers and architects who would embark on LSD trips to unlock the creativity of their unconscious mind. To try to envision the future. They would ask bishops to say mass for them, as they went on their trips. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, was responsible for publishing the first photographic image of the planet from a Nasa space shuttle. At the time, this image was highly classified information. Not many people had even wondered what the earth looked like from space. The idea simply never occured to them. Today, Stewart Brand is a spokesperson for the nuclear industry and a supporter of Al Gore's message. Al Gore has published a book and movie called An Inconvenient Truth. Both the book and movie sport some trully fantastic views of our little planet, and some shocking ones too.

To really understand the origins of the environmental movement, one must appreciate the changes in general psychology and thinking which happened over the later decades of the 20th century. One obvious reference to learn about these changes is E.M Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful. Another important essay which was used by the environmental movement in the 1960s was called The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin. Hardin wrote this essay in dismay over the breakdown of managed commons resources such as grazing areas, forestry and fishing grounds. Hardin was later sorry for the title of his essay, widely cited by academics, because it seems to imply that all commons arrangements are doomed to failure. His essay was responsible for alot of misapprehension in the western attitude towards developing societies and countries. But I also like another book, from the author of Six Thinking Hats, Edward De Bono. In 1974, Edward De Bono wrote a book called Lateral Thinking. In the book, he deals with the limitations of our western critical way of thinking. That way of thinking, passed down to us by great minds like Plato and Aristotle. De Bono offers us some alternative ways in which we can structure our thinking. The lessons of De Bono are sadly under appreciated. Particularly, in areas were they are most needed of all, such as the design of buildings. In design of contemporary architecture, the notion of environmental design is often viewed as a negative constraint. But a lateral thinking technique is implied in Murcutt's description of the Australian landscape. With it's incredible strength and yet, unimaginable delicacy. This way of structuring one's thought, to have two conflicting ideals in the same reality, is alien to our Western way of thinking. But it is the hallmark of how Glenn Murcutt wants to view the world.

MDRDV principal architect, Winy Maas delivered a lecture recently here in Dublin about his book Kilometer Cubed (KM3 for short) and showed us slides for his concept for a 3D city. Maas explained the origins of such concepts, and how the architects of the 1960s made the original concept sketches. The innovators such as Maas today are trying to develop them into blueprints, into workable solutions. Glenn Murcutt says he doesn't believe in holding patents for his innovations. This is strange, because many building technology companies see sustainability as a huge business generator. Already we have architects speaking of fees of many thousands to assess a property for it's eco-friendliness. Make no mistake, sustainability is a clever marketing strategy that will generate revenues. Glenn Murcutt does seem like a nice enough guy though, and an important figure at the forefront of the modern debate. So lets at least give him the benefit of the doubt. Murcutt wants to avoid an architecture of imposition. At the end of his talk, Murcutt quoted Henry David Thoreau, that people can live needlessly, a prisoner in their own house, for all of their lives. Indeed, a question knocking about in AAI circles recently is: Does the Architect give you a new house, or a new way to live?

Frank Llyod Wright was a master of designing houses in many respects. But his idea of prospect and refuge is one that is hard to grabble with at first. Nobody knows how far back this notion of prospect and refuge goes. It is lightly, that caveman in the past looking for a place to set up camp, would have thought about this. But today's builders have forgetten how to use the principle. The theory of prospect and refuge is about giving the inhabitant a safe feeling of being in their own space, but at the same time connected to a wider territory. Murcutt carries around a little compass and a device for measuring heights of nearby trees, buildings and mountains. Murcutt attempts to put the house in a certain relationship with the environment. From the initial site visit, Murcutt is thinking about the inhabitant and how he or she will feel inside their structure. Murcutt showed us slides of how the aboriginal people lived. Owners of Frank Llyod Wright designed houses spoke of this, when they moved out of a Wright designed house, that they felt they were losing a feeling of safety and warmth. A feeling which was difficult to put into words. Many houses today, are not as fine tuned to their situation, and as a result haven't the same degree of comfort when you try to live in them. John Thackara, author of In the Bubble puts forward the suggestion, if we can design our way into difficulty, then we can design our way out of it too. Thackara distrusts the term spatial designer, and prefers the term situation designer instead. The term situation designer does seem to encapsulate more meaning for me.

Thomas L. Friedman, the Pied Piper of Globalism, in his recent book, The World is Flat, talks about the poor living in rural communities in South America. He identifies the problem, that if a rural dwelling person moves to a nearby city, to find employment they lose the holding of their property. Because there aren't any systems of land ownership in place in certain countries. Therefore, poorer classes can remain in a constant state of poverty unable to move upwards. I was reminded of this, when Glenn Murcutt quoted Henry David Thoreau, people remain as prisoners needlessly in their own house, all of their lives. This was once the situation in Europe too. Voltaire commented, that laws change across the landscape of Europe as often as one has to change horses. While many different currencies and systems of trade were in use in the United States even, until the early part of 20th Century. Today, in first world countries, we think of property as something tangible, something solid and dependable. We think of access to property as a fundamental right of humankind. Because in Ireland we have a system of legal property ownership, people flock here in their thousands to work in any form of menial labour. That dream of owning property is so strong. In fact, we don't know how to measure the extent of our wealth anymore. I am reminded of the Japanesse claim of the 1980s, that the land under the Tokyo palace was worth more than the state of California!

What we forget is how much intangibility is involved in property as a concept. A person who has studied this in depth is the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto. De Soto explored the problems faced in developing and former communist countries. De Soto speaks of the failure of formal law and order, and peoples' ability to create property beyond its reach. Creating property is not just a matter of applying new surveying and mapping technologies. Billions of dollars have been spent in poor south american countries to undertake mapping. But with all of the money spent, there is still no evidence that assets were being transformed into capital. There is a lack of any visible chain of title to most property in those countries. Hernando discovered shocking things - like the 728 bureaucratic steps needed to obtain a legal title to a home in Lima, Peru. Instead of fragmentation of property arrangements, by achieving standardisation of property rights, you can advance on to specialised and divided labour. Hence you can get towards a modern market economy. Hernando de Soto tells in his book, The Mystery of Capital, of the most beautiful place on earth, the island of Bali, with its rich paddy fields. Hernando went for a walk one evening through the paddy fields. It wasn't very clear to him who owned what. There were no boundaries between the fields he we was walking through. The local dogs would bark however, to let you know. Without any formal knowledge in legal ownership systems, the dogs had figured it out by themselves. Hernando's advice to developing and former communist countries is simple. Listen to your dogs barking to find what your laws should say. Without a capital formation system, there is nothing left to undergird a modern economic system.

The economist, Ronald Coase wrote an important essay in the 1930s called The Nature of the Firm. Coase was interested in the question of why large corporations take shape at all. Shouldn't a free market system take care of everything? Coase proved conclusively in his paper, that controlled environments, such as those of a modern firm can serve to reduce transaction costs to a minimum. Something the free market by itself was not optimised for doing. Hernando de Soto makes a similar argument about property and laws. Rather than the 728 steps to own a house in Peru, using a strong legal system, you can reduce that to only a couple. De Soto talks about the capacity of property to reveal capital latent in assets we accumulate, as part of the best intellectual tradition of controlling our environment in order to prosper. This was evident in the field system of the Aran Islands long ago. It was an example of a managed commons. It is not a million miles away from the message that Glenn Murcutt wants to convey. But we have to be careful how we focus this notion of sustainability in our minds. If we think that sustainability is only about sun dials, compass readings and wind directions, then we have missed the true message. For all the physicality of solutions presented by Glenn Murcutt or Winy Maas, or any sustainable architect for that matter, we must also consider the complex web of intangibilities that go hand in hand with the physical world we aim to create.