Echoes of the outback: Peter Stutchbury

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Peter Stutchbury.

Peter Stutchbury. Image: Damian Bennett

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Deepwater Woolshed by Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

Deepwater Woolshed by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image: Michael Nicholson

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Paddock House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

Paddock House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image: Michael Nicholson

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West Head House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

West Head House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image: Michael Nicholson

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Israel House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

Israel House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image: Michael Nicholson

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Garden House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

Garden House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image: Michael Nicholson

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Wall House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

Wall House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image: Michael Nicholson

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British architect, critic and history Kenneth Frampton reflects on work of 2015 Gold Medallist Peter Stutchbury.

When one approaches the work of an architect who has been as prolific as Peter Stutchbury it is difficult to know where to begin an appraisal, particularly when the work forms such an integral part of a local cultural movement that has continued to expand in quantity and quality – so much so that today Australia is the nexus of one of the most vital cultures of contemporary architecture. As Stutchbury himself has made clear through his standard roving lecture, published as “Underpinnings” in 2011,1 there is no single point of departure for his architecture. One can only say that it derives its wide-ranging character from the enigmatic experience of the Australian continent in all its vastness. This is a land where, as Stutchbury points out, 90 percent of the population lives no more than one hundred kilometres from the coast. Continuously inhabited by the species-being for over 50,000 years, this is the Earth’s largest island, wherein the greater part of the landmass remains uninhabitable. At the same time, the bush, otherwise known as the outback, is the mythical and indeed Aboriginal soul of the country, a no-man’s-land of intense heat and occasional torrential rain which finally runs out into the desert accompanied by lightning and thunder, and hence by fire and flood.

Like Glenn Murcutt and Richard Leplastrier, the two Australian master architects with whom he is most closely associated and with whom he habitually teaches a studio course for advanced students every summer, Stutchbury builds the spirit of the outback into his work wherein the exotic flora and fauna of the continent, not to mention its geology, topography and climate, find a responsive echo in his architecture. What all three architects have in common, to a greater or lesser degree, is the myth of the archetypal Australian sheep-shearing shed, traditionally covered with a corrugated iron roof, an observation first celebrated in Philip Drew’s pioneering study of the work of Glenn Murcutt, published in 1985 under the Ruskinian title Leaves of Iron.

However, unlike either Murcutt or Leplastrier, Stutchbury has had the rare opportunity of literally building such a shed, in his Deepwater Woolshed built at The Bulls Run near Wagga Wagga in New South Wales between 2001 and 2005. This is surely one of the world’s improbable architectural masterpieces, which, while it has been recognized as such in Australia, has yet to be acknowledged on an international scale. This is Stutchbury at his best, for here is an ultra-modern work: one is taken back to the heroic aspirations of the revolutionary constructivists at the dawn of the last century. Largely determined by function and necessity, this work presents itself as the undecorated shed par excellence. It is an achievement that has been summed up by its author as a sustainable, shaded, water-cooled, naturally ventilated and largely prefabricated structure – in effect, a demountable dry construction dedicated to the shearing of sheep, while being at the same time something of a remote outback temple, set on the edge of the bush, some 200 kilometres from the sea. Surely one of the most extraordinary things about this work is its ingenious gate system, which affords innumerable possibilities for the herding and movement of sheep. 

Deepwater Woolshed by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image:  Michael Nicholson

If there is one fundamental element that is characteristic of Stutchbury’s work, it is the lightweight shade roof carried on a trussed bracket system that establishes the dramatic profile of most of his early works. As in Gottfried Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture of 1851, there is invariably a play in Stutchbury’s architecture between the roofwork and the earthwork. This syndrome is evident in a wide range of buildings designed by the architect, from the sawtooth, monitor roof that picks up the eastern light – which shaped the roof profile of his Design Faculty Building for the University of Newcastle of 1992 – to the lightweight shade roof of the Paddock House, designed at the turn of the millennium and realized in 2007. Once again, agriculture is an integral part of the entire exercise, for as Stutchbury has written: 

Paddock House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image:  Michael Nicholson

This is a modern farmhouse in an outback paddock interwoven with clusters of hardy eucalyptus trees, a moment of shelter in a flat landscape stretching outwards. The weather here is dry and the earth white. The ground is quickly nourished by infrequent rain, which momentarily transforms the landscape into a soft, grassy plain.  

The family that dwells here breed Kashmir goats and harvest their fine wool. They adhere to sustainable farming practices to fit the fragile ecosystem. The farmhouse nourishes and embraces their life as they work with the land and the animals.2

It is patently clear in this work that Stutchbury subscribes to the Murcutt ethos as set forth in Murcutt’s book, Touch This Earth Lightly. Here in the Paddock House, as elsewhere, this “lightness of being” announces itself in the form of the “flying” shade roof. Ever more exotic variations on this theme appear successively as one passes from one house to the next: from the West Head House of 1991 – designed with Phoebe Pape and situated on a steeply sloping verdant site overlooking Pittwater – to the Kangaroo Valley Pavilion of 1998 and the Reeves House, designed with Sue Harper and completed a year later. 

West Head House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image:  Michael Nicholson

Many of Stutchbury’s houses of this period are touched by what one might call the Pacific Rim syndrome, in that the domestic building tradition of Japan is subtly incorporated in many of them. This often manifests itself in terms of machine-tooled and handcrafted timber furnishings, replete with sliding doors and precision-boarded floors and ceilings, first assembled as a cumulative warm environment in his Israel House of 1992. This trope was  taken to a much higher level of technical and tectonic refinement in the Garden House completed at Seaforth, New South Wales in 2007. It was also taken back to its origin, as it were, with the Wall House built in Shizuoka, Japan in 2009 and designed with architect Keiji Ashizawa. 

Garden House by Peter Stutchbury Architecture. Image:  Michael Nicholson

In the exceptionally tranquil Garden House, Stutchbury created a proliferation of orthogonal timber frames that prohibited the superimposition of a levitating shade roof. Built in two stages, over a fifteen-year period, this single-storey house amounted to a totally new point of departure for Stutchbury – not only because of its open-air plan, articulated about a square court, but also because it employed an ABABA grid of rectangular concrete piers that rose up like so many megaliths to a common datum. The twin Japanese-inspired timber roof brackets borne by these piers in turn carry a system of paired beams, and the entirety of the timber structure has been meticulously machine-finished throughout. This open-air house, partly sunken into the ground, is also layered so as to provide a sequence of unspecified action-settings at different levels throughout the dwelling.

This modulation of space through a trabeated structure accompanied by a terraced earthwork is a totally new paradigm for Stutchbury, often entailing a formal garden, introverted in the Garden House and extroverted in the Reef House in Vanuatu of 2009. One may even see this as an orientalized return to the timeless classical Greek world, totally removed from the “outback” bravado of his earlier domestic repertoire, where each house was another opportunity for a virtuoso display of exfoliated plastic form combined with a flying roof. Thus in the Reef House the dwelling is cradled within a white space-field with the result that the shallow pitched roof is a little more than an addendum, subtly articulated above the syncopated regularity of an all-encompassing trabeated frame.

In the work that follows, the emerging reciprocity in Stutchbury’s vision is between a tensile roofwork, usually of metal, and a compressive earthwork, invariably of concrete. This formula attains its apotheosis in yet another majestic house, the Contour House built on Berry Mountain in New South Wales in 2010. This expansive, single-storey dwelling erected on a ridge with a service workshop and an ample lower living room, both of which are at grade beneath the mass of the main pavilion, is predicated on a plan that is conceptually symmetrical even if the wings extending from the central pavilion are slightly unequal. The pragmatic raison d’être behind this unusual plan and section has been accounted for by the architect in the following terms: “The house is in many ways a barometer of the local climate, designed to be open to the elements in fine weather and sealed down at extreme times of the year – in the depth of winter and height of summer.” 

Stutchbury goes on to note that the compressive earthwork of the perimeter protects the house against seasonal hot winds and accompanying bushfires, whereas the three crowning, semi-enclosed pavilions of the main living floor, equipped with cantilevered decks and over-sailing metal roofs, are essential to the passive auto-modulation of the internal climate of the house via cross-ventilation and shaded solar penetration. 

This is a surprisingly aristocratic house, poised before a breathtaking panoramic view of the ocean, some thirty kilometres away – an aerial belvedere, if there ever was one, in which, in good weather, one loses all sense of whether one is within or without. One may even think of this house as a kind of latter-day Australian Katsura Imperial Villa, rising into view almost as a hallucination. 

At the same time, the architect, as agent provocateur, remains a man of the people, combining in one volatile persona both a leader and a collaborator. This is a figure who recognizes and acknowledges on a daily basis that distinguished works of architecture are never created by a single individual after the myth of genius. On the contrary, he is perennially involved in fleeting collaborations between multiple talents and protagonists, from the essential structural and environmental engineers to small-scale, quasi-industrial manufacturers working away on the edge of things, along with those dedicated young architects refining a given piece at the last minute, in the early hours of the morning. These samurai, along with the stoic contractors and the exceptional craftspeople, are still to be found here and there around the world, despite the rampant, levelling admass consumerism to which we are all subjected. This, then, is Stutchbury, with his leather motorcycle jacket and his silver mane, staking it out on the edge of the bush as a latter-day Kropotkin totally beyond our time.  

Read the 2015 Gold Medal jury citation from the special edition of Architecture Australia.

1. Peter Stutchbury, “Underpinnings,” in Ewan McEoin, Under the Edge: The Architecture of Peter Stutchbury (Brooklyn, NSW: Architecture Foundation Australia, 2011).  

2. Stutchbury, Under the Edge, 75.


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