Glenn Murcutt’s MPavilion a vision of poetry and purity

When Australia's most famous architect Glenn Murcutt draws, he goes into a reverie. "It's a slightly dream-like state," he says.

While sketching designs for this year's MPavilion in Queen Victoria Gardens he found himself travelling across time and space: from a site overlooking Melbourne and the Yarra to a place he'd been 30 years before.

Glenn Murcutt at his home in in Sydney.Credit:James Alcock

"I remembered a wonderful trip to Yaxchilan in Mexico," the 82-year-old architect recalls with detailed enthusiasm. "There were four of us. We hired a pilot and his little single-engine plane. We were flying over the jungles of Mexico and all the jacarandas were out. It was so beautiful."

Flying over 40m high trees, they landed in a slot in the forest. Taxi-ing up toward Yaxchilan they beheld the ancient stone buildings being consumed by the octopus-like roots of the ficus.

One of Murcutt’s sketches for his MPavilion design.

In need of a shady spot for lunch to avoid the intense heat and humidity, and the malaria-infected mosquitoes swarming in the cool forest, they laid a tablecloth underneath the plane's wing.

"It was fantastic," says Murcutt with an architect's particular angle on picnicking. "This white tablecloth that went out in the shadow of the wing immediately established a place for ourselves on the grass airfield."

And as he drew, it struck him. Past and present were coalescing. The pavilion he was drawing was resembling an aircraft wing. The platform was like a tablecloth laid on grass, only transported to Queen Victoria Gardens. And instead of looking at a ruined civilisation, his design opened to the panorama of Melbourne and the Yarra.

"I thought 'my god, this butterfly-like aircraft has brought us here [to Melbourne, too]'. It brought the whole [pavilion] to fruition."

To his delight, here was the promise of a sense of place by the Yarra. But then Murcutt is used to such revelations. He has complete faith in drawing. "It is integral to a way of thinking," he says. "I believe we don't create architecture, what we do is discover it."

Now in his 50th year of practice, Murcutt has received virtually every major architectural accolade.

Now in his 50th year of practice, Murcutt has received virtually every major architectural accolade. In 2002 he won architecture's Nobel the Pritzker Prize – so far Australia's only recipient. From designing more than a hundred alterations and additions, he has progressed to numerous award-winning houses including the Magney House at Bingie Point and the Marie Short/Glenn Murcutt house in Kempsey.

More recently, large-scale projects have come his way, like the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre (in collaboration with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark) and the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport (in collaboration with Hakan Elevli). So why would the practitioner known for being unhurried take on a time-consuming small pavilion?

"Naomi Milgrom," he chuckles. The persuasive powers of the MPavilion founder are renowned. The "cashmere steamroller" she has been dubbed.

Since 2014 she has convinced internationally renowned architects such as Sean Godsell, Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten (OMA), Carme Pinos and Amanda Levete to design a summer pavilion for a wide ranging program of events and talks that run the gamut of early morning yoga to debates on liveable cities, a Milgrom passion. At summer's end the pavilion is relocated to a site around the city.

A render of Glenn Murcutt’s MPavilion.Credit:Two Feathers

"I had my heart set on Glenn from the very beginning," says Milgrom, who is friends with Murcutt and his partner, fellow architect Wendy Lewin. "I was waiting for the right moment to ask him."

Before embarking on the design Murcutt went back to the original definition of pavilion.

"The pavilion is a tent," he explains. "It's not a building as such. In a strict sense it's a lightweight structure of fabric on a frame supported by poles. It's a highly minimal building."

Pavilions have been used since medieval times for entertainment, and as "light temporary or semi-permanent structure" used in "gardens of pleasure", but they often became more ornate. More recently architects have used the pavilion as a testing ground for ideas. So, too, does Murcutt.

"The commission became a wonderful opportunity to experiment with a new material," he says.

For those enjoying activities in the pavilion below, the white translucent light will be 'like being underwater'.

The wing-like roof with its sharp aileron-like eaves is wrapped in two layers of fabric. The external material is commonly used in stadia and has a lifespan of 25 years. But it's the "ceiling" layer underneath that's special. It's made from Ceconite, a fabric used for light aircraft. Stretching the fabric and applying heat tautens it to the subframe. Murcutt chose them for their translucency and their tent-like qualities.

Between the two layers of fabric LED lights will run the length of the roof void, deflecting light off the upper membrane and bouncing light evenly back through the aircraft fabric into the pavilion space. For those enjoying activities in the pavilion below, the white translucent light will be "like being underwater," says Murcutt.

In a sense, the experiment in light and fabrics continues Murcutt's exploration with light in the Australian Islamic Centre. An array of 96 gold lanterns on the mosque roof reflects light into the interior creating a large mosaic of multi-coloured triangles. The spectacular light show abstracts the famous Islamic tiling. Where daylight illuminates the mosque's lanterns, at night the MPavilion's white roof transforms into the lantern.

Murcutt’s MPavilion continues his exploration with light in the Australian Islamic Centre.Credit:Jesse Marlow

Like the roof fabric the rest of the building is white: steel pipe columns, retractable blinds (on the long southern side to reduce cool winds) and the storage alcoves bookending east and west. On the interior the blinds and floor are grey, to "make the white whiter," says Murcutt. "There's a purity about [white]," he says.

Indeed the rectilinear shape and the simple structural support system resembles not just his own houses but the minimalist modern pavilions Mies van der Rohe made famous in Barcelona and later in the United States with the Farnsworth House.

"They are my roots," Murcutt says of Mies's buildings.

Vocal in his opposition to postmodern architecture, Murcutt says he doesn't like showy buildings.

"The last thing I wanted to do is make a building that's what I call a 'fandango'," he says. "They are so over the top and they all want to scream 'look at me'. Melbourne has enough of that. I want to make something you can walk past and think 'gee I want to go back and see it'. I love the junction of the rational and the poetic. It's elusive, but it's worth pursuing."

With a wing-like shape, aircraft fabric and a lantern-like function, Murcutt's MPavilion poetically reimagines a light aircraft. In November we see if it flies.

Glenn Murcutt MPavilion, Queen Victoria Gardens, Melbourne; opens November 14.

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