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Aerial view of Peter Stutchbury's Hill House

Perhaps due to its isolation, the uniqueness of its climate and fauna and flora, or the richness of its Indigenous cultures – along with wealth indicators such as a high standard of living and predominantly suburban population – Australian architecture appears remarkably particular. This is especially the case when it comes to this country’s most common and essential building type — the single-family dwelling. Designing a house is the key focus of local architects: Unlike their peers in Europe, Asia, and most other places with the exception of North America, by and large they have grown up in houses and their extended families and friends reside in houses. According to World Population Review, Australian homes are the largest in the world after the U.S. and Canada.

Australian architects demonstrate a deep and thorough understanding of the local terrain, climate, materials and resources. These qualities distinguish Australian residential architecture for its noteworthy regional approach. What I am referring to is a desire on the part of the country’s leading practitioners to design houses not merely as containers for living in but as instruments attuned to nature, to specific sites and lifestyles. These outstanding structures are conceived to fit in splendidly and to sing along with their context, metaphorically speaking. They celebrate the weather, the land, the views, and various modes of living. Sydney architect Peter Stutchbury has elevated this regional tradition to a level that can only be described as an art form.

Stutchbury’s houses and, increasingly, larger-scale projects — such as tourist and cultural centres, student housing, university facilities and memorials — are poetic solutions for connecting with site, history and culture. Typically, the architect identifies one strong idea in each project, which is clearly expressed in its name — Hill House, Night Sky House, Sunset House, Edge House, Invisible House, Wall House, Verandah House, Between 2 Valleys House, Hawks Nest House, and so on. These titles speak quite directly of either the site condition or the key spatial organization. I particularly like these buildings for their ability to turn pragmatics into spaces, surfaces, and details that enhance otherwise mundane activities into beautiful rituals and even romance.            

Australian architect Peter Stutchbury

Peter Stutchbury was born in 1954 in Sydney into a family led by a renowned engineer father and a philosopher mother. He graduated from the University of Newcastle in 1978. Before establishing his own practice in Sydney in 1981, the architect spent time in Papua New Guinea studying variations of the longhouse. He completed dozens of buildings throughout Australia — some with his own hands. Stutchbury is a professor of architecture at his alma mater and together with Glenn Murcutt and Richard Leplastrier is one of the principle “masters” of the Architecture Foundation Australia master classes. Stutchbury was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2015. In the following conversation, the architect discusses his upbringing; lessons he learned in Papua New Guinea and in a number of African villages where he studied Indigenous building techniques; and the starting point in his design process – which includes trying to embody in his buildings a spiritual experience beyond people’s imagination.      

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You had a fascinating upbringing. Let’s begin there.

Peter Stutchbury

My mother’s family ran, and still runs, an outback property — 100,000 acres out in a semiarid desert located 10 hours west of Sydney by car. Our closest neighbour is half an hour away. It takes three-and-a-half hours to get from one side of the farm to the other by motorbike. It’s a remote and significantly untouched landscape, with just 5,000 acres cultivated with crops using natural fertilizers. It was a spiritually deep and naturally profound place for me as a child. We also had a little holiday house on one of Sydney’s waterways, where I used to ride a surfboard and sail regularly.

Our family home in Sydney was alongside the Lane Cove National Park, which is a river park in Northern Sydney that flows into the harbour. It’s the only national park within the city, and it’s right in our own backyard. That tapestry of experiences informed me about weather patterns and nature in general. When I reflect on that, nature was my teacher. My childhood was principally learning from natural systems, which is radically different from how children grow up today, spending so much time on computers.

Hill House, shown here and top of article, was designed by Peter Stutchbury Architecture in 2005.
Hill House, shown here and top of article, was designed by Peter Stutchbury Architecture in 2005.

Your father was an engineer who built power stations and your uncle built a farmhouse on the farm you just described.

My father was well-known for building this country’s power stations. He ran a local company for a parent conglomerate in America, which he visited regularly. Under his eventual management over 15 years, it grew at least ten-fold. He became one of the key thinkers in this industry. He grew up in a less fortunate family; he started by sweeping the floor in the machinery shop.

My mother was and still is a philosopher. She is 99. She took a caregiver role in her life, caring for her family, the elderly, and later for blind children for 36 years – she taught them how to sew. And she was eventually awarded the Order of Australia for her service. In simple terms, her philosophy is truth and honesty, care and understanding of others, and forgiveness. She was the one who took us — my brother and I — to the farm. When I asked, “Why?” she said, “The city gives us knowledge, but the country gives us truth.”

The farm was originally run by my aunt and uncle. He was also a builder and he built a very clever house there, which had many verandas where we spent most of our homestead time. He died early, and his wife, my aunty, ran it. We would visit to assist her. Each school year, we spent holidays there.

Night Sky House, completed in 2020, features a parabolic vaulted ceiling.
Night Sky House, completed in 2020, features a parabolic vaulted ceiling.

Where did the idea of pursuing architecture professionally come from? In one of your interviews, you compared the house you grew up in to a theatre in terms of its relationship with nature. How so?

The house I compared to a theatre was the one that my parents built alongside the national park in Sydney where I grew up. My father was inventive: He would spend time in his garage every night after dinner, designing and creating practical outcomes for daily problems. He was a maker. After he retired, for 11 years, he won or placed in the regional, state and national car restoration championships. He realized early in the life of our home that our conventional European house was not occupying its place sensibly. He built what was essentially a shaded glass box, quite big — about 10 metres by six metres — with a porch alongside a woodland forest. We called this addition the sunroom, and I can assure you, it was. [Laughs.] We spent at least three-quarters of our time in this room. I often slept there. To me, it became a pair of magnifying glasses for the landscape beyond.

In retrospect, that single room taught me as much about architecture, in terms of a built form, as any other room in my life. It had a window system with no mullions, just plain sliding glass. You could open the whole back of the room onto the garden overlooking the national park so that all the sounds and smells came in. While the rest of the house was a solid brick enclosure, this room was a breathing lung. We had a few divans, game tables, and a piano in there. My mother was a great pianist. She could regularly be found playing while the kids would be drawing or frolicking alongside.

One of my mother’s brothers was a missionary in Papua New Guinea — he would come to our house, to the sunroom, and tell stories about Papua New Guinea Indigenous hunting, marriage ceremonies that lasted weeks, and how people obtained water or constructed a village. Those stories lit up my imagination. I don’t remember ever being disappointed by that room. I used to go there when it was raining; the rain would pour on three sides. It felt like being under an umbrella. It was beautiful, like a theatre.

The ceiling and walls of Night Sky House are made with recycled bricks, some of which were removed in a seemingly random pattern to allow sunlight to filter in.
The ceiling and walls of Night Sky House are made with recycled bricks, some of which were removed in a seemingly random pattern to allow sunlight to filter in.

After graduating from the University of Newcastle in 1978, you spent time in Papua New Guinea to study variations of the longhouse. What were some of the lessons you gained from that experience?

Even before getting there, nature was my reference. I lived a life of surfing the ocean and equally lived in the open landscape of the desert. Spiders and eagles were my teachers. When I was at the university, I asked myself, “What sort of architect am I?” The only reference that felt comfortable was nature. It was my key inspiration. Of course, I considered the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and I was impressed by their language, which reinforced my thinking. Richard Leplastrier, who was my professor, opened doors of thinking and respect that nurtured me. I designed a place to house Australian animals, which involved traveling to different zoos all around the country. I designed and helped construct two small enclosures at the famous Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, a city about 300 kilometres northwest of Sydney.

A stunning – and accessible –skylight in Night Sky House connects the grounded home to its namesake inspiration.
A stunning – and accessible –skylight in Night Sky House connects the grounded home to its namesake inspiration.

You were still a student at that point. How did you find a real client?

I wouldn’t call the zoo manager a client. I was helping the zoo to get the project built, really. I simply went ahead and reached out. Based on my experience, if you reach out, most people will respond, just like I responded to your idea of having this conversation. I reached out a lot, and still do. The following year, my final at university, I reached out to Australian Aboriginal people, being one of the early architectural students to show interest in their culture. My thesis on how Aboriginal people adapt to the Australian condition was one of the earliest theses on Aboriginal structures. That was very natural for me to keep trying to understand Australia — first its animals through my observations on the farm, studying how they adapt and survive, and then the original Australian people. Inspired by my uncle’s stories, I had a yearning to visit Papua New Guinea to study Indigenous architecture, which has been developed over thousands of years of thinking and refinement.

I originally went there to help my uncle build a church for his mission. I ended up staying there for a couple of years, paying careful attention to how the people constructed their structures — both physically, spiritually and socially. A longhouse is a beautiful concept for a social building that accommodates several families. It would typically be 100 metres by 20 metres. Some of the end elevations look like the back of a turkey; they’re designed to resist the local winds. All the rafters and other members are put together in such a way that allows the whole building to be easily dismantled and reassembled elsewhere after anywhere between three and 25 years. I grew to adore those buildings for their honesty, integrity, directness, and beauty. I still draw from that experience today. Those lessons were very powerful for me.

The church I built was indirectly influenced by the longhouse model. It taught me that there is no standard to architecture, really. The standard is not standard, essentially. The standard is where you put it, why you put it there, and whom you put it there for. So, the church became an intermediary between different design patterns. There are at least five variations of longhouses. If you were to be tribe-specific, others may be offended if you haven’t referenced their design. Each tribe had its own style. So, the church was a careful assimilation of various principles. A decade later I took that experience to Africa to study Indigenous construction in villages in Kenya and Swaziland, now the Kingdom of Eswatini. I continue to study Indigenous housing around the world, whether it’s an igloo or a Bedouin tent. They all display an explanation of place and culture in its purest form.

The Basin Beach, like many Peter Stutchbury projects, defies categorization.
The Basin Beach, like many Peter Stutchbury projects, defies categorization.

You built some of your houses with your own hands. What did you learn from that experience?

I am able to teach my students what timber feels like, about its grain, tree age, density, smell – its characteristics. I couldn’t effectively communicate that if I hadn’t spent 10 years building. I learned how to put buildings together by building them. I learned how far timber spans; I understand the difference between steel technology and timber technology; I understand the permanence of concrete. The experience of building was essential to my education. My uncles on my mother’s side were builders; my uncles on my father’s side were engineers and his uncles were joiners and cabinetmakers. When I was 16, I was already working on some of the family projects, including loading bricks on trucks and pushing wheelbarrow loads of cement across narrow planks to pour the footings. I ran a furniture-making business throughout my university years. I still rely on the knowledge acquired through my building experience to communicate effectively.

Over the years, we have completed over 160 projects — all of them have original thinking about their placement and connections with nature. My clients are people who are willing to take a risk. They put their fortunes on the line to build a house. I am impressed when they express themselves creatively: Those are the projects that result in our best works. They are, in part, a consequence of knowing how to build and how to hear.

I’ve been following a path of connecting with “place.” Not blindly: I have my teachers — Richard Leplastrier and Glenn Murcutt who are also close friends. There has always been a very small audience for these kinds of projects, but we persist. I have also become good friends with a range of remarkable architects — Marusa Zorec, Bijoy Ramachandran, Rick Joy, Marina Tabassum, David Strachan, Niall McLaughlin, and Marlon Blackwell. I am constantly moved by their work. It informs and guides the way we can think, but it doesn’t dictate our design ethos. There is enough strength and capacity for what we do to maintain a personal balance and design ethics. Nevertheless, a similar philosophy about architecture unites these individuals: a conviction that we need to start putting a lot more respect into places and people. Here in Australia, finally, Indigenous people are beginning to be given the respect they have always deserved.

The Basin Beach House's all-wood kitchen.
The Basin Beach House’s all-wood kitchen.

Philip Goad, the Melbourne School of Design professor and authority on modern Australian architecture, said of you, “He invents while he builds.” Could you talk about your design approach, process, and how you typically start a project?

We did invent while we built. That was in the good old days. [Laughs.] These days, I facilitate inventiveness at the design stage, so it can happen in the process of formation and resolution of our buildings. Time has educated our perception; answers are more obvious. Knowledge accumulates — unfortunately, it takes years for that to occur. Most architects in my office are young, and they are very enthused to learn from those with experience.

The starting point: I always spend a great deal of time at the site. I need to comprehend the place. If it happens to be an urban site, I mentally take all the other buildings away. Australia is a young nation, and in most cases, a site has had just one previous building. It’s not too demanding to strip the site to its landform and be informed by that land. I try to understand the spirit lines of the landscape. That is my training. There are spiritual lines in our landscape — some are strong and some are less so – and I always try to discover them, initially. Then I pick up the qualities that compose the site and massage them into the design musings. It may feel inappropriate to place a timber building on a rocky site, for instance. I try to find the origins of place and facilitate people. That way, when they are in the building, they can feel the qualities of that place. Then I look at how the building relates to the atmosphere around it. If I study it enough, it eventually becomes very clear.

Early on in my career, I was often criticized because our buildings were all different. My response is very simple: landscapes are very different, and people are very different. I am also interested in continuing a regional character of architecture — one that is refined over time. This can also mean using the latest technology to benefit the idea.

Wrapped in metal panels, the Verandah House creatively mediates between indoors and out.
Wrapped in metal panels, the Verandah House creatively mediates between indoors and out.

When you describe your work, you use such terms and concepts as “direct and straightforward;” “unfinished edges,” or “fragile edges;” “a connection with the past;” “uplifting,” “joy,” “romance;” and “thinking sensibly.” What would you say your work is about and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?

I don’t try to achieve any sort of architecture. We do try to connect users with places. Architecture is for learning, not for referencing. A building is successful to me if the people who occupy it feel personal ownership and if it fully acknowledges where it is and what it needs to be. As a visitor, when the architecture facilitates an understanding of the locality of that place on a deeper level, then it has gone beyond the mechanics of a building. That’s what I hope unites all of our works. I think great works of architecture are memorable because of the experiences had inside them, not solely visually, but also, in a way, spiritually. That’s what we chase — to embody a spiritual experience beyond people’s imagination.

“Spiders and Eagles Were My Teachers.” In Conversation with Peter Stutchbury

The Australian architect on building houses with his hands, forsaking “typology,” hewing to Indigenous principles and more.

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