Friday, 16 January 2015

Murcutt is famous enough.....

 ....without gilding the lily.

I honestly don't know what motivates journalists on architectural websites. But I know that when they try to talk up the technical virtues of famous architecture, more often than not they cause more damage than good.

A recent example is an article in Architecture and Design by

If I am going to take a generally positive attitude to the post, I would point out that Johnson surely doesn't mean that Glenn Murcutt's designs are 'simplistic'.  I hope he actually means they are complex, but appear deceptively simple.  That said, it is highly unlikely that the Magney House performs the way Johnson describes.
The areas of glass are so big in comparison to the thermally massive surface areas, that the temperature variation experienced in the house during any single day in either summer or winter would be quite large. Anecdotally, this was confirmed by the only person I personally know who has spent time in the house, and who described it as thermally little different from camping on the site.
Of course, that can be an exhilarating and stimulating experience, especially on a site as magnificent. Perhaps Johnson would be on safer ground talking about those kinds of poetic qualities, rather than measurables.

Magney House interior
Magney House section drawing, south wall
One doesn't have to be a technical wizard to worry about the gap between the rhetoric and the evidence.  Look at the photograph and the accompanying detail drawing, and ask yourself where in fact is the exposed brickwork? The reality of the Magney House, of course, is that there is much more volume (and importantly, surface area) of thermal mass in the concrete floor, then the trivial area exposed of the wall.

Personally, I am also mystified by how you fit in 75mm of bulk insulation into a gap made by a 37mm batten.  Answer: you compress it, thereby losing a lot of its insulation value.  And in a final plea to put the brain in gear, what should one say about the large area of sloping glazing facing south? It is obviously not there because of finely considered thermal performance.
The problem is, as I have often commented in this blog, that people do learn from such articles. But they learn the wrong things. 
Just as Murcutt's equally iconic, older Kempsey Visitor Information Centre – with its meme of sloping glazing and fixed louvres precisely aligned at the angle of the mid-winter noonday sun – has taught a couple of generations of admiring students exactly the wrong lessons about well-designed sun control. Think about it. Murcutt's diagram describes something that is good for one hour in the entire year. A simple bit of vertical grazing with the right roof overhang does a much better job of letting in winter sun while keeping out sun in the summer. But it's not as sexy.

Don't get me wrong, I think the Magney House is an iconic piece of work, worthy of inclusion in any register of important buildings. But emphatically not because it's a great piece of thermal design.  And Murcutt is a great architect with some important, passionate messages.  I just wish that both he and those who write about his work got over the idea that every aspect of his architecture is good.  It's not true.  You can learn more from Murcutt if you can figure out what is great, rather than good.

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