A new documentary film on the life and work of Australia’s most famous living architect, Glenn Murcutt will be screened on ABC TV next month. ‘Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place’ documents the uniqueness of the Pritzker Prize-winning Australian architect who has literally put Australian architecture on the world map.

Architecture & Design caught up with the director of the documentary, Catherine Hunter to discuss her time spent with Murcutt making the film and what insights we can expect to uncover about the Pritzker Architect. 

From a documenter’s perspective, what was it like to watch Glenn conceptualise, design and deliver the Newport Mosque – did it meet your expectations?

It was an incredible privilege to be able to observe Glenn working on the Newport Mosque. What surprised me was how it was such a collaborative process between the builder, Mohammed Haddara, and fellow architect Hakan Elevli. The design was not fixed at the outset but was constantly evolving.

l am not sure I had any expectations when I set out. I simply hoped to make a film that would be an appropriate record of a man and his achievements. In the end, the film became as much about the Moslem community with whom he was working as his own architectural story.

Why does he consider the mosque his most challenging project to date?

It is a complex design on so many levels – but one that began with the need to investigate the traditions of a mosque and then work out how many of those traditions were fixed and how others could perhaps be reinterpreted e.g. the minaret. And rather than it being a client of one or two people, the client was in fact a community of more than 1000! And within that community were the elders with their very traditional expectations of what a mosque should look like and the younger members who wanted to be progressive and be seen to be part of this country and this century.

Newport Mosque. Photography by Tobias Titz

What did you find out about Glenn that you didn’t know?

What I found out about Glenn is how intimately involved he is with the whole process. I witnessed his regular visits to the mosque site (once or twice a month for two days at a time) and how it was a constant working out of the design along with the need to keep his clients informed about the design and progress. He would attend community meetings in halls and in their temporary mosque and if there was an impatience with how long the process was taking, Glenn would explain what was happening and by the end of his speech, there would be huge applause and conviction. 

The documentary also looks at the seminal houses he has designed and what I realised is that his houses are getting smaller and smaller — there is a sense of nothing unnecessary, nothing surplus to requirements. I was lucky enough to stay in three of the houses and so I got a sense of how well they do work, that they are indeed finely tuned instruments that negate the need for air-con.

Glenn is obviously a source of inspiration for young Australian designers, yet he is scarcely seen or heard! Why is this? What message do you think he is trying to convey by these actions?

He believes in operating below the radar and always has. It was an early lesson from his oft-quoted father and he also prefers not to talk about projects while they are still being built — there is the sense that failure is quite possibly just around the corner! As he says, he is always nervous until a building is finished.

I think he regards his public persona as a teacher which has been a big part of his working life. More recently, he became a jury member and now chairs the Pritzker Architecture Prize which takes up a huge amount of time.

Glenn Murcutt. Photography by Jesse Marlow 

What did you set out to capture with the film and did you achieve this?

When I started making the film, I was not aware of the mosque. It must have been in the very early stages of discussion. I was just seeking to capture what drives Glenn and what was it that put him on the international stage.

I hope we have illustrated what the Pritzker Prize jury encapsulated so well when they described Glenn Murcutt "as a modernist, a naturalist, an environmentalist, a humanist, economist, and an ecologist, and that’s all before they even get to the word architect.” Overall, it is his sense of humanity that drives everything he does.

What lessons will be taken away from the film? Are they more pertinent to design community or to consumers?

My hope is that people will get an understanding of the complexity of architecture which so often goes beyond the design process. In this case, it not only involved a building but the necessity of grasping the needs of a religious community whose greatest desire was a place of worship that reflected their living in this country. In other words, the lessons of Glenn’s work are pertinent to a design community but in a wider sense will show a community looking forward and seeking to put down deep roots in this country. In that sense, I believe the film has an important message of tolerance and acceptance that is both timely and relevant in today's Australia, in fact in today's world.


Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place will be screened on ABC TV on 6 December 2016 at 9.30pm AEST

The Australian Institute of Architects are also holding a public special preview screening of the film on Friday 2 December, 2016 at 6pm. Purchase tickets here.