Primacy of the setting

Jenny Brown April 07, 2012

Veteran Peter Stutchbury has turned working to the conditions into an art.

If you don't know his work, the fact that Sydney architect Peter Stutchbury's mainly residential buildings have been celebrated in the first monograph published by the non-profit Architecture Foundation Australia should tell you that he is one of the most important architects working in this country and, more recently, abroad.

He's just returned from lecturing in Norway and has just been to see a building he designed in Russia for conditions that can get down to minus 48 degrees.

In the new publication Under the Edge: The Architecture of Peter Stutchbury, the Russian house is hunkered down in deep snow, as a mainly steel building that has the ability to trap, retain and redistribute heat throughout its interiors.

Spare, simple, sustainable and site responsive, the Torovo House is very much a Stutchbury structure. That it is in such a different setting to the coastal Sydney and sub-tropical locales in which his houses are usually sited demonstrates the adaptability of a design philosophy that is primarily about connecting to landscape and climate.

Stutchbury has been working for more than three decades and his 15-person practice has produced about 80 houses - ''only two of which have ever been resold,'' he notes. It seems almost everything he touches wins an award. He has 39 Australian Institute of Architecture awards to his credit.

Some are for buildings other than residential; projects include a woolshed, an airport hangar, an Olympic archery pavilion and various faculty buildings for the University of Newcastle.

The names of his houses - the Paddock House, Reef House, Garden House, Billabong House, Gully House and Cliff House - reflect the primacy of the setting as the inspiration of the forms.

''The buildings change with their settings,'' he says. ''You can almost analyse and dissect the buildings according to their place. It's a cliche, I guess, but it's an honest, physical and spiritual response to where it is.''

Taking his cues from topography is an impulse that was instilled even before he qualified as an architect.

As a child he spent time on a family sheep station in western NSW, and says hours in the saddle allowed him to observe the ''logic and patterns of landscape''. His buildings, he says, ''are never in isolation from the landscape''.

In later youth he camped and chased waves around Australia to gain an appreciation for simplicity of structure and pragmatic choice of materiality.

Some commentators have described Stutchbury's buildings as ''the architecture of frugality'' because instead of relying on fashionable or fancy materials, he prefers local, easily transportable, familiar and often cheap ''matter-of-fact'' materials.

What is important in his buildings is not what they are made of but ''that they are simple, responsible, essential and responsive''.

''Essential,'' he says, is a better term than ''simple'' to describe what he's going for ''and it's an aesthetic that I think has been largely lost in the architectural process''.

Emphasising the essential in a house ''which is shelter that is fundamentally functional and sustaining - the best are sustaining'' is what gives such unexpected power to his work.

To keep in communion with landscape, he ''peels back the walls'' so that many of his houses become semi-open structures, some of which he describes as ''landscapes in which rooms are placed''.

And it's getting more essential all the time. His ongoing learning ''is about undoing, rather than doing; all about letting things in''.

All about how you feel in a building rather than how it looks. ''A kitchen needs to feel utilitarian and hospitable and ordered. It doesn't need expensive tapware, $300 light fittings or too much elaboration. It doesn't need to go beyond what is necessary.

''Like poetry, architecture does not need surplus. It does not need magical moments. It needs the qualities of being human that you can only find through highly informed thinking processes.''

For the past several years, Stutchbury has been thinking about how he will format a house he wants to build for his family on a spectacular coastal site at Avalon in Sydney's northern beaches.

He says in the most difficult project he has ever tackled, he's been progressively paring back the plans so that it has reduced in scale by about 30 per cent from the original drawings. ''I keep tweaking it and I've decided to turn my back on the ocean and build a cave that looks back into a garden.''

Whether that happens remains to be seen. But what does exist of his built architecture argues that it will be ''nothing beyond what is necessary'' and fundamentally, an elegant new piece of Australian architecture. He's already nailed something that is essentially Aussie; he feels the award-winning Deepwater Woolshed at Wagga Wagga is probably his hallmark piece.

A utilitarian steel structure under one of his characteristically sharp and large cantilevered rooflines, the woolshed delivers all sorts of benefits in terms of working conditions for shearers and a low-stress, efficient environment for sheep.

Elevated, well ventilated and evaporatively cooled, it is a sophisticated, streamlined interpretation of a traditional Australian farm building that hadn't changed shape for more than a century.

''In retrospect,'' he says, ''it was the perfect job. An amazing building.'' And - wholly characteristic of all his work to date - ''somehow quite breathtaking''.

Under the Edge: The Architecture of Peter Stutchbury, Published by the Architecture Foundation Australia. Photography by Peter Stutchbury, Michael Nicholson and John Gollings. RRP $99