by Pooja Suresh HollannavarFeb 15, 2023
Australian architect Peter Stutchbury runs his under-20-people innovative practice out of Newport, a suburb of Northern Sydney in the Northern Beaches region. During our recent conversation, he told me he learned as much from spiders and eagles, as well as from surfing the ocean and living in the open landscape of the desert, as he did from his university professors, exploring the aboriginal culture and building techniques, and from such masters of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The architect was born in 1954 in Sydney in the family of a renowned engineer father—he started his career by sweeping the floor in the machine shop and became responsible for building Australia's most notable power stations—and a philosopher mother. She is 99 now. She used to take the family, including Peter’s brother, to the farm, which was run by Peter’s aunt and uncle. This outback property—100,000 acres out in a western district semiarid desert, located 10 hours west of Sydney by car, with the closest neighbour being half an hour away—was a spiritually deep and naturally profound place for young Stutchbury who spent anywhere from six weeks to three months every year there. When he asked his mother why they went to the farm so often, she pointed out, “The city gives us knowledge, but the country gives us truth.”
The family’s home in Sydney was also profoundly connected to nature, sitting right alongside the Lane Cove National Park, which is a river park in Northern Sydney that flows into the harbour. Additionally, the family spent their time at a little holiday house on one of Sydney’s waterways, a perfect spot for surfboarding and sailing. It was this extensive experience of living close to nature that informed Stutchbury about weather patterns and natural systems.
While studying architecture at the University of Newcastle, Stutchbury studied how animals adapt to Australian conditions and how they live at local zoos by traveling all around the country and designing and helping to construct two small enclosures at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, a regional city 300 kilometres northwest of Sydney. His thesis was on Aboriginal architecture, one of the first in Australia. Upon his graduation in 1978, the architect spent time in Papua New Guinea to study variations of the longhouse. He established his practice in 1982 in Sydney and since then completed many dozens of houses throughout Australia—some with his own hands—and Joynton Avenue Creative Centre in Sydney. Projects he is working on now include the Aboriginal Tourist Center in central New South Wales, a memorial to the Aboriginal persons who were killed defending their country, and a lodge for storytelling at another remote location in the Northern Territory.
In 2015 the architect was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal. He teaches at his alma mater and at the Architecture Foundation Australia along with his colleagues and mentors, seminal architects Glenn Murcutt and Richard Leplastrier. In the following interview with Peter Stutchbury, we discussed his tendency to focus on one element or idea that has an overarching influence on each project, being inspired by insects (among many other creatures and natural phenomena), having a romance with his buildings, trusting his intuition, chasing accuracy in thinking, and, ultimately, seeking serenity in his architecture.
VB: Many of your projects seem to be focused on one strong idea. Even the way they are named—Hill House, Night Sky House, Sunset House, Edge House, Invisible House, Wall House, Verandah House, Between 2 Valleys House, and Hawks Nest House—they speak of either the site condition or key spatial organisation quite directly. Do you agree?
PS: This is an interesting observation. Some years ago, my Aboriginal elder explained to me that our emotions aren’t controlled by our heads; they are controlled by our hearts. Our hearts point to where the centre of our universe is. Knowledge feeds into our hearts.
When we first started designing our houses, they would be called Edwards House, Jones House, or whatever the client’s last name was. But then I recognised that it is more about the significant quality of that place that stays in our awareness. For example, on our family farm, we have a small gorge between two sandstone ridges where I take my guests. That’s a very powerful image and experience that people remember. So, I tend to think about one element or idea that has an overarching influence on the project. It may be as elemental as a horizon.
VB: One of your roofs was inspired by a ballet dancer’s movements. What are some of the other examples of images that you used for your inspiration?
PS: There is a house we did a few years ago called Basin Beach House, which sits on the oceanfront on the edge of the beach. The neighbouring houses are traditional European-looking buildings. As I considered this European typology, I thought, this is just so inappropriate to that sand dune location. It was difficult to step to one side and reconsider an appropriate type. I went to an elevated place that overlooks the site from 400 meters away. I overlooked the site and mentally took all the buildings away to imagine what was there originally, realising that the most sensitive structure there would be a tent, something that’s lightweight. Then I reflected on a Bedouin tent, which I always admired. It is designed for wind direction and wind pressure, which is perfect for this site. So, I studied the tent, and that’s how I designed the building, reflecting on the wind, the sand dune, the headland, the ocean, and the whole place.
VB: I read that even insects can be inspirational to some of your designs.
PS: Insects have developed over hundreds of millions of years. There is an incredible sophistication in their features. Try to blow them off your skin, and they do not move. Their ability to resist wind is remarkable. An ant can carry up to 40 times its weight. These insects have refined survival techniques. The house that was inspired by an insect is called Dragonfly House. A dragonfly puts its legs forward, its head down, and lifts its wings up into the wind to stay on a rock. This is similar to the Bosavi people’s longhouse because that’s the best form against the incoming high-velocity winds to hold the roof down.
Another house refers to Butterfly on the Rock. The idea there was that it was a lightweight building with a certain degree of impermanence. Perhaps in the future, the butterfly will go away, and something else will take its place. We constructed a big, strong platform with bedrooms, bathrooms, and a living area. On top of that, we placed a lightweight building that housed the kitchen and dining area. This area accommodates change. That sand dune is such that the only permanence is in the form of stone platforms. The animals that occupy the platforms are insects, mollusks, and crabs. The Butterfly House, to me, was a junction between the land and the sky. It was inspired by its place—a voluminous bay with perimeter mountains. Buildings inspire me through their intelligence rather than their innocence.
VB: I would like you to elaborate on a few of your quotes. You said, “If the building is not uplifting, it is not going to do you any good, no matter how comfortable it is. That’s where architecture comes into play.”
PS: Well, you have to be patient with the building. It’s not that you come in and suddenly lightning hits you. Great work can be a slow revelation, equally immediate curiosity. Ultimately, you have to trust your intuition, not just what critics tell you. It’s like looking at artwork. It may be considered good because of its technique, as an important stage in the evolution of an artist, as a reflection of a particular moment, and so on. But, I believe, great architecture is timeless from start to finish. For example, just the other day, someone who visited the Night Sky House, a recent building, called me and said, “I could not tell when it was completed. There are parts of the past sitting comfortably with today.” He said, “It changed my way of seeing a building.” These are the qualities that remind us that architecture is an art form. You can be fortunate, but typically we slave over the initial thinking until it is clean, until it has its poetry—which is legible—and you no longer need to edit. I don’t think it is a demanding proposition to walk into a building and sense its poetry.
VB: “You should always have a romance with a building. That’s what allows you to free yourself from day-to-day routine.”
PS: Romantic relationships are forgiving. They are full of ups and downs, questions and answers—an extended roller coaster. So, yes, absolutely, romance with a building allows access to its secrets.
VB: “Buildings have a storytelling capacity.”
PS: Any building is the weaving of its story and its making. A building should reassure the visitor that there is something to discover. If you are constantly distracted by the effects, you may miss the strength of the whole. Conversely, if you feel calm and have a general sense of well-being in a place, I think slowly the revelation will appear. It is like sitting on a rock in nature, observing what’s around you, and finding composition at the heart of a place.
VB: “Beauty is the most important part of architecture.”
PS: Putting beauty into the built form is a real act of romantic confidence. People of the world understand beauty. But the ability to trust how to get there in a building is a journey where a truly creative spirit finds expression.
VB: Then you said, “I am very keen on discovering simple elevations.”
PS: One should never be seduced by an elevation. One should approach an understanding of a building through a section and have that further supported by a plan or vice versa.
VB: When I talked to Kengo Kuma he said that the most important thing in traditional Japanese architecture is the design of the roof. When he designs a house, he starts from the roof. In other words, if an architect can create a beautiful roof and a beautiful shadow under the roof then other things follow. Can you relate to that?
PS: If you look at our buildings, we have a very strong reputation for our fifth façade, which is, of course, the roof. It creates unique space, particularly with houses. Some years ago, we designed a house for a distinguished Japanese fashion designer; it is called Wall House. It is built on a large oceanfront site alongside two of his other houses; he named them a Geisha House and a Samurai House. When he chose us, I asked why. He said, “You can connect me with nature.” I spent days on the site and in his company before starting to compose a design.
I have great respect for many exceptional Japanese architects. Much of their architecture is about light and shadow, which is beautiful. It’s not where the spirit of our architecture originates. If the building needs shade, it will have a big overhang, but it will not have a big overhang just to make its elevation look better. I value architecture that has no waste. Traditional Japanese architecture has no waste; everything is there for a reason. For example, I recently reduced the size of one of our houses by 50 square meters because I thought it was too wasteful. Personal philosophy contributes to a building. Every room should have a special quality without sacrificing the whole. I have to rely on my ability to imagine space to compose. You don’t put an unmanaged opening where the weather inhabits. There should be an architecture of understanding, not misunderstanding. We chase accuracy in our thinking.
Working on the house for the client took five years. I formed an association with a local industrial designer/architect specifically to build the house. We built a detailed 1:50 scale model to study every detail. Its most romantic element was the roof, designed as a floating cloud over the building without visibly touching the structure, to reflect the drifts of clouds passing by this oceanfront location. After our presentation, the client leaned over the model, looked from the top, and said, “Oh, the roof, it is so beautiful.” He stared a while longer and then finished his thought, almost apologetically, “It is too beautiful. I don’t want people to come to look at the roof.” [Laughs.]
Then I went back to my hotel a bit mystified, and even though that roof was beautiful, I eventually changed that roof design to one of immeasurable subtlety and connection. It is quite remarkable. Ironically, the new roof picked up the spirit line of the site. Everything inside the building, including sinks, plumbing fittings, and light fixtures, was designed by our Japanese colleague and us. In a way, it was designed in parallel with our client’s approach to his apparel. He was meant to spend weekends there but ended up living there much of the time.
VB: Is there a conscious progression in your work? Is it about improving certain aspects, elements, or details?
PS: I don’t think so. I think there is conscious honesty, which means we do learn from our mistakes, and we try to appropriate buildings so people understand them. We don’t design for ourselves; we design for our clients, the people who will use the building. A good design exhibits historic refinement. And, of course, I have been blessed with remarkable teachers and mentors, particularly Glenn Murcutt and Richard Leplastrier, and such friends as Marusa Zorec, Bijoy Ramachandran, Rick Joy, Marina Tabassum, David Strachan, Niall McLaughlin, and Marlon Blackwell. I am constantly moved by the work of these and some other architects. They have all helped me to ultimately seek serenity in our work. If your work can promote serenity, it gives one a moment when comprehension is possible. Whereas, if the work is busy, serenity can elude even the sharpest of conductors.