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Murcutt Master Class

August 6, 2010

Been away from the blog for a bit while attending the Glenn Murcutt Master’s Class in Sydney, Australia.  Of course that should actually have been the time that I was actively blogging instead of off the radar… but time and internet access were both severely limited while there.

Shoalhaven River at Riversdale Retreat. Shoalhaven Mountain, and our site, is on the left.

The program is two weeks long, with the first one spent exploring a site along the Shoalhaven River about 150 km south of Sydney.  It is a stunningly beautiful location.  The students, 33 in number, were broken into 8 groups. Each group was asked to select their building site from somewhere along the top of nearby Shoalhaven Mountain, based on desire and environmental context.   After selecting and gathering site information, the second week was spent working in Sydney developing a design scheme with the assistance of recently graduated and some not quite yet graduated students from Australia and New Zealand.

Riversdale Retreat Center by Glenn Murcutt & Co

The program was great.  The tutors were interesting, alive and engaged.  They love the work they are doing and the opportunity to pass along their thinking.  We got to tour some amazing work designed by the tutors and I felt that I gained a lot from the attention they paid to site selection and thinking.  You can’t bring their designs back verbatim… they don’t match the needs of our environment or building code requirements here in the US.  But that is to be expected.  What you can bring back is the way of thinking about how those two forces, environment and requirements, can meet in the middle to create something of real quality and energy.

The downside was that it turned out to be absolutely the worst group project experience I have ever had.   There was so much resistance amongst us to communication, sharing design concepts and ideas, and frankly, to thinking outside the boxes we brought with us.   The difficulties were exacerbated by a crit we received just two days before the final.  The group had already bifurcated into two because of communication issues, leaving myself and two others trying to combine two underlying schemes within the context of the themes we had taken away from the site.  We were attempting to create courtyards or rooms in the forest while forming linear elements to direct flow through the site and onward out onto the mountain.  Meanwhile, we had goals of transparency in the forest, engaging with the light (particularly the lovely late afternoon sunlight high in the treetops), and paths leading to the ancient aboriginal ways on the mountain.   We were struggling, things were not working terribly well, but we did have an underlying concept that I think was coming through.  To complicated and cluttered?  Sure.  But something we could stand up and talk to regardless.

What happened in this next-to-final crit, however, was completely inspirational while at the same time turning our dysfunctional design process into a complete disaster.  The reviewers, en-mass and meeting with frustration regarding the cluttered qualities of our design-to-date, pulled the building elements up off the site model and began free associatively rearranging them.  One would try moving something here.  Another there.  A third would not like the result and move everything back to another position.  The end point was simple and well organized.  I liked it a lot.  The problem was that it no longer incorporated the concepts which we had intended to be included in our design.  It had no courtyard.  It wasn’t transparent.   It didn’t connect to the aboriginal paths.  And most of all, it wasn’t ours.  It was a great starting point to work from and I loved watching the process by which it was conceived, but it was not an end point and we had very little time in which to take it further.

My teammates were happy with the new scheme as it had been handed to us.  I, meanwhile, was coming down with a brutal cold that had been being passed around the students.  When I suggested changes to recover some of the elements I felt had dropped out, I was met with silent resistance.  The arrangement was was fine.   Could we put some spacing between the sleeping elements so to break the building form up and admit transparency?   No, that wouldn’t really work because there were five units in each building and that didn’t divide evenly.  This little row of rooms felt like a Motel 6 to me… No, they’re fine.

Richard and Glenn at final reviews

I’m afraid that at this point I met my Waterloo.  I took my fever back to the hotel and shivered through the night and the next day, recovering enough to drag myself in for final crits on Friday.   That morning at breakfast I told some friends that our scheme was dull, wasn’t ours, and looked like a motel.  Those exact words were used by the reviewers in one of the most humiliating crits I’ve ever stood up for.  Worst of all, a visiting architect from the US showed up for crits and whom I would have much rather have impressed than not.  Why did I stand up?  There actually wasn’t a drawing or a thought in the final scheme that I would lay claim to.  I stood up because I realized that my inability to add anything to the project was just as much a part of the group failure as my fellows inability to hear what I had to offer. Am I saying that if they had just listened to me everything would have been fine?   Very unlikely.  Of what I am certain, however, is that by leading change I could have helped to make it our project again, and our success or failure.

I know that I find it particularly hard to work in groups.  I hate the feeling of design by committee, and a lot of the other groups had problems similar to ours.  I feel that creative individuals need space to compose their thoughts and ideas before sharing them in a group. This is the case for me and a part of the process unfortunately not supported by teammates who felt that all design thinking needed to be done altogether all the time.  At the same time, I recognize that I don’t have all the bright ideas.  I like hearing other people’s thoughts and building with them.

Sunrise at Riversdale.

I don’t know where this leaves me in terms of the whole program… was it a success for me or a failure?   I’ll probably still be figuring that out for years to come.   My suspicion is that I actually gained a lot from the experience.  I know in my heart that I did my utmost to make this group work together, and I am proud of that effort.  Where I failed I learned that I need to listen more closely to my inner voice and speak that voice outward more clearly.   It deserves to be heard.  And that voice needs to be a lot less conciliatory and compromising.  In retrospect, I should have stated flat out that the final schema handed to us Wednesday afternoon was unacceptable without making it our own and, if it still didn’t change to have refused to stand up with it in the end.  Instead, I kept my unhappiness more or less to myself (although it never really stays within does it?  I radiated it for days.) and remained a participant in something that was less than I was.  And here I am, whining about it in a blog weeks later.  If, in the future, I am able to act on these lessons, then indeed the Murcutt Program will have been a success and worth every painful step along the way.

– Brian –

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Stubbs permalink
    September 1, 2010 10:42 pm

    I’ve found group projects to be either great or horrible. Little in between. That said, if you have a little project on which you want to join forces, count me in.

  2. Scott permalink
    April 16, 2011 12:29 pm

    Thanks for posting this Brian. Its a really honest look at the class. Your experience sounds an awful lot like mine in New Zealand. The good news is that in time, the group work faded and the deeper lessons came out. (although I clearly had issues at times with the results of the group work at the gmmc, as well.)

    You should write a follow up post in a while, to see how your reflections have changed.

    • April 17, 2011 8:38 am

      That’s a great idea Scott, especially as memories of the program have been stirring recently as calls for applications to this year’s programs have been coming out.

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