Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The drought has spared Glenn Murcutt. All around the architect's country retreat the grass is lush and green, the eucalyptus forests in good health, and the nearby river is running smoothly. Parts of Australia have been hard hit by six years of drought, but here at Kempsey, Glenn Murcutt and his family benefit from regular rains and a refreshing sea breeze.

Around five kilometres from the coast, set in around 640 acres of New South Wales farmland turned nature reserve, Murcutt's country home sits on a headland, raised on modest stilts, looking down on the Maria River and flood plain grasslands below. When it rains hard here the run off can be severe, while the snakes, rats and reptiles make for higher ground and shelter. These are all good reasons for raising up the timber house, as well as encouraging natural ventilation under the house.

This has been Glenn Murcutt's second home for the last 27 years, shared with his wife Wendy Lewin – also an architect and Murcutt's only occasional collaborator – and their two grown up sons Nicholas and Daniel. Murcutt's sons – one now an architect himself and the other a librarian – spent part of their childhoods at Kempsey and learnt to ride here. They still come up as much as they can, to this rural enclave, five hours drive from Sydney to the south. As work allows, Murcutt himself tries to come once a month for four days, travelling up from his main home and one man office in the suburb of Mosman, near Sydney.

'It's an entirely rural area and we have always got rain, which can be phenomenal,' says Murcutt. 'It makes the landscape rather English in some way, with its greenness. This was once considered one of the great dairying areas of New South Wales. It is very beautiful and for me it has the sense of being quite remarkable. Some people who have been here have said it's my paradise....'

The house itself, raised in its first incarnation in 1975, respects this rich setting absolutely. Like all of Murcutt's work, it is characterised by sensitivity for the environment and the idea of 'touching the earth lightly' – an Aboriginal saying which, along with touches of Thoreau, Murcutt is fond of citing. Constructed with largely local timbers, the house is made up of two wings, sitting side by side, yet slightly staggered, with a gently curving corrugated metal roof like a small silver hill.

Being more than 10 km from the nearest main road meant the house escaped the attention and bureaucracy of the planners, but also meant that the house needed its own waste management system and its own water supply. The house has mains power, but that's about it, and even then Murcutt has carefully buried the cables as part of his conservation programme for the farm.

'I have restored a lot of damage to the farm and regenerated the wetlands and the flora, which is also remarkable,' says Murcutt. 'Also, on any one day we have up to 15 or 20 kangaroos around the house and eight or nine wallabies. And we have a beautiful lake, fed by springs, which is laden with water lilies. That's to the north east of the house and in the summer you get the perfume of the water lilies carried over the breeze.'

Strange as it now seems, given Murcutt has made the house so much his own, the architect did not build the house for himself. It was designed for Marie Short, who bought the farmland with the hope of raising cattle. She first asked Murcutt to design her a house on a spectacular site overlooking the sea, until Murcutt encouraged her to leave the land untouched, selling it to the government as national parkland. Having bought the farm at Kempsey, she then asked him to convert and extend an existing farmhouse.

'The builder had given us a price and was ready to start within three weeks,' says Murcutt. 'I went up to the farm and looked at the costings and said "we could build a new house for all this" and just leave the farmhouse the way it is. She said "why don't we?" We both walked to the same place, where the house is today, and said this is where the house should be. I left on a Sunday and the following Friday I came back with the drawings 60% completed. It was a risk – a young architect's silly sort of a thing to do – but I presented the house to Marie and she said, " fantastic, let's go".'

Having been up to the area many times over 18 months or so, Murcutt knew the setting, the weather patterns and the landscape intimately. The house – Murcutt's first country house – was a considered response to the setting, the climate and the land. Like so much of his work, it mixes Modernist ideas and principles with the vernacular flavours of barns, cabins and wool sheds, as well as the practicality and simplicity of a straight forward design that could be easily constructed by local builders.

'I knew exactly what to do here,' says Murcutt. 'It released within me ideas that I'd been working on for a long time. Here all of a sudden was an opportunity to fulfil a lot of thinking. It was a turning point.

'There was another thing that Marie said, which was that if she decided to ever build another house on the other side of the hill, then I'd like to to move this house into the forest so that my son could have it and could it be designed so that it could possibly be moved? To do this, I thought, I've got to be able to bolt the whole thing together so that you can then pull it apart and change it, which is what I did when I bought the house seven years later.'

Cattle farming did not ultimately suit Marie Short, nor an intermediate owner. But when Murcutt got a call – in 1980 – revealing the house was for sale again, he quickly put together a loan and made the Marie Short House his own. He added three additional bays to each wing of the house, reusing all the original components. One wing is devoted to a large open plan kitchen and dining room opening to a veranda at one end and cradling the master bedroom at the other. The second interconnecting wing holds a sitting room with fireplace, two further bedrooms and another veranda at the opposite end to the dining terrace. The house maximises natural cross ventilation – via a triple skin of louvres and insect mesh, placed at strategic points in the building – while also using louvres to mitigate the summer heat coming through the roof lights.

With a simple backdrop of brush box wooden floors, hoop pine ceilings and walls, as well as decks in eucalyptus wood, Murcutt has furnished the house with largely Scandinavian pieces by Kukkapuro and Aalto, an acknowledged influence. Not far from the house, Murcutt has also converted an old machine shed into a guest studio.

The only problem with this earthly paradise seems to be the lack of time Murcutt has to appreciate it. Despite turning down all foreign commissions and retaining a solo practice, the demands upon Murcutt's time are many. He has a three year waiting list of clients wanting houses designed by him, while the Pritzker Prize winner is often enticed away through teaching and lectures; he is, after all, a highly influential figure for the green movement, having quietly followed his own considered path of ecological sensitivity for decades. All the while, the house at Kempsey is a constant siren, a private retreat for a private man, even though – back in the 1970s – he never expected it to become his.

'It felt very easy for us moving into the building,' says Murcutt. 'Unless we design houses that are appropriate for our clients but equally appropriate for ourselves then we are missing the point. It's important that you give the best of yourself and of course that should be something that you would like yourself.'