superchat melbourne: clinton murray

© clinton murray architects

clinton murray is a self-effacing and highly talented australian architect. he is currently the design director of jacobs, a global engineering and architecture firm – but previously had a background in residential architecture through his own private practice (clinton murray architects). this year he chaired the australian institute of architects' sustainability awards, a position most apt when considering his early architectural work won a number of such awards and heavily featured the use of reclaimed timber. clinton’s private practice work of the late 1990s and early 00s is more pertinent to us today – but his work within jacobs and private work of late is stunning and worthy of further investigation to anyone with an inquisitive eye for design and an appreciation of good architecture. clinton grew up in ballarat; studied at deakin university in geelong and claims the first football game he ever saw was a life-changing event at age five – not the typical background of an erudite architect.

from the early 1990s to mid 00s clinton, as a sole practitioner, designed a series of residential buildings predominantly on the east coast of australia. the majority of his early works feature reclaimed timber used as structure and cladding. this embrace of recycled and reclaimed materials permeated his work well before green architecture came into vogue. clinton’s work, through intelligent design, choice of materials and a sensibility that the surrounding landscape informs, creates a dialogue between the built and natural environment that resonates in a powerful manner.

© shannon mcgrath - mulbring

more recently clinton has moved from the private sector to become the design director of s2f. this practice was subsequently taken over by sinclair knight merz, a large multi-national strategic consulting, engineering, project delivery and architecture firm. then last year skm was purchased by jacobs engineering, an international engineering, architecture and construction firm. with his move into the private sector, clinton’s focus has shifted to larger scale public buildings and community projects.

clinton’s work, both private and public, has been widely acclaimed, awarded and published. his merimbula house in 1997 won the raia nsw state and national architecture award and was one of the first of its kind – being built almost entirely from reclaimed timber. house for pam won the raia awards for single and multiple housing as well as the ecologically sustainable design award in 2001. below is a complete listing of his awards. 

// raia – wilkinson award, commendation - architecture award, gunyah beach house [2007]

// raia – wilkinson award, interior architecture award, gunyah beach house [2007]

// raia – wilkinson award, commendation - single & multiple housing, overcliffe [2002]

// raia – award for architecture - single & multiple housing, house for pam [2001]

// raia – award for architecture - ecologically sustainable design, house for pam [2001]

// raia – wilkinson award, merit, merimbula house [1997]

// raia – national, robin boyd residential buildings award, [commendation] merimbula house [1997]

his work has been featured in 'nextwave: emerging talents in australian architecture', 'eight great houses' and 'houses for the 21st century'. some other highlights of his portfolio include 'overcliffe' whose frame was built from the client’s demolished warehouse buildings in blackwattle, glebe. his own house 'house for pam' was built entirely from salvaged oregon from a warehouse built in sydney in the 1940s and 'bungan' which was clad in timber salvaged from a wool store in fremantle.

© clinton murray architects - port fairy

superfuture found some time to sit down and talk brass tacks.

tell us a bit about yourself? i grew up in ballarat [east]. i claim battler status with my kids because there was nothing fancy about my primary, secondary education. the only real highlight of my secondary education was ac/dc playing at the school hall one lunch time. my family were ‘traditional’ local builders. i grew up on building sites but was always more intrigued by design. i didn’t get the grades to get into melbourne university and i wasn’t interesting enough for rmit so i ended up at deakin university in a city that i didn’t [and still don’t] have a lot of affection for. however geelong does hold a special place in my ‘development’ because i saw my first game of serious footy there when i was five-years-old. it was 1969; i was transfixed and would never be the same again!

why the move from your own private firm, designing residential property, to a multi-national firm with a focus on much larger scale buildings? one gets to a point when you question how much longer you can stay focused on the minutiae of residential architecture. how many discussions about towel rail locations can you have? the great thing about residential architecture is that you do become so involved with people. and if you’re clever you choose good people to work with. i have enduring friendships with all of my clients bar one! i was approached and provoked to consider a world outside residential architecture and to work on public buildings. it also meant i could return to melbourne with my family. we have four boys and were very conscious about their social and education needs. living in a coastal town like merimbula is paradise for raising children but limiting for teenagers! also building a career in architecture from a small coastal outpost is limiting! in the twelve years i lived in merimbula i was only once approached by a ‘local’ to discuss a project.

what is it about these two very distinct forms of architecture that appeals to you? the simple difference is that public architecture impacts on the lives of many people. in that sense the stakes are much higher. dealing with the complexities and nuance of residential architecture is a solid apprenticeship for designing public buildings.

talk us through how your personal aesthetic and style has evolved over your career? and how you adapt a sensibility honed in residential and small scale building into larger projects? i like to tell the story that as a child all I had to play with was a box of lego with only 2 types of ‘brick’ and one window type. all i could build was variations of simple boxes with flat roofs. my kids (and others!) tell me my architecture has varied little since those days! i’m stuck with what is ‘easy on the eye’ and for me that isn’t a calamity of form, color and materials. i appreciate the sculptural quality of architecture in the hands of genius (le corbusier’s chapel at ronchamp) but the ‘johnny come lately’s’ should take a ‘long hard look at themselves’. (you can see i have an affinity with sports (afl!) commentary)

what // who have been the greatest influences on your work? if i can get a little esoteric, i think your eyes and observations greatly influence your work. as a kid i was struck by the way things were and liked to question things, most times internally. why did the window in our ‘sun room’ in ballarat not go all the way to the floor? why did my father cover a beautiful jarrah floor with ‘great barrier reef’ carpet’? i had a great mentor in an older, nicely unhinged brother. he taught me that there is beauty [design!] in all things. i’m indebted to him.

© shannon mcgrath - house for pam

what does sustainability in architecture mean to you? and how do you approach the concept? it’s uncomplicated. be thorough. be strong with your ideas. avoid fashion. avoid the arbitrary.

how does this approach differ from the smaller scale residential projects to the larger scale public buildings and community projects? the one minor complication is that with small scale projects you can be one on one with a client and it’s much easier to gain their trust. on large scale projects you may never even get to meet the client or the main decision makers. the ‘trust’ card is taken away from you and what you end up with can be the mother of all compromise.

i get the sense from speaking with you and looking at your work that sustainability is an important element within a design but it isn’t necessarily one that drives design or aesthetic, how accurate a description do you think that is? and what role do you think it should play in modern architecture? it goes back to what i was discussing earlier. strong ideas free of fashion should stand the test of time and not face being rebuilt in ten years. your eyes and ears tell you you’re living in a time when we all have to be really honest about the resources we’re using. we all share the responsibility of treating the earth preciously.

what do you think of “green washing” and the trend of sustainability that permeates throughout almost all of modern society? apart from the potential green roof, green wall cliché, i’m glad that there’s a natural push in society to think ‘green’.

© shannon mcgrath - the barn

it would appear many traits of the more modern approaches to sustainable architecture [recycled // reclaimed materials etc] were already manifesting themselves in your work in the 90s. what was driving your use of those materials? i fell in love with a stockpile of old timber [image attached] and never looked back. beams cut out of the gippsland bush with ‘broad axes’ in the 1940s. the guy we bought the timber from for our first house said, ‘they should be in a fucking museum’, and he was right. you have to consider that largely up until the early 1990s timber from demolished buildings/structures around australia was either burnt or taken to the local tip.

when designing private residencies – how important is a relationship with the people who will eventually occupy the house for you? does a thorough understanding of your client aid or inhibit the creation of an original and beautiful space? you have to be so careful in ‘selecting’ a client. i have some basic ‘checks’. the first conversations are crucial. your skill as a communicator should enable you to extract crucial information about a client without them even realising it! i always think it’s best to meet clients in their homes, where they’re most comfortable and most likely to give an honest account of themselves. i’ve had a lot of fun over the years politely declining a commission and then suggesting appropriately pretentious alternatives!

what sort of role do the stories behind the 'reclaimed' materials play in the construction of a house? and how do these affect the day to day living in such an environment? the character and quality of reclaimed timber is underpinned by the story. can you imagine in 1940 camping in the bush in gippsland and cutting, by hand with a broad axe, a 500 mm by 215 mm x 6 m piece of timber. think of the incredible physical effort required. think of the heat (or cold!). think of the flies and mosquitoes. think of the campfires. i see tough men with beards smoking pipes telling stories. what do you see?

do clients appreciate this historical context (of the materials) or are they more interested in aesthetic appearance and functionality? all clients love to be part of the new story of the timber. they’re the custodians. when ‘overcliffe’ was sold some years back it was a very emotional moment for the client and me.

© clinton murray architects - port fairy

what informs your design patterns more generally? your work exhibits a clear symphony and understanding of the space it occupies and the areas that surround it - how big a role does this [the surrounding natural environment] play in the design of a building? I’m very committed to designing spaces for people that will enrich their lives. sounds simple enough doesn’t it? but it horrifies me to see architects designing for themselves. they will compromise the experience of the user for the sake of the ‘look of the building from a certain angle’. the test for me in residential design is to see where architects ‘place’ the people who pay the bills. i would have thought these people are placed carefully!? the main bedroom; position of the bed, aspect to sunlight, treatment of views, are crucial. it’s unforgivable to compromise on these. often it’s just laziness on the part of the architect.

what is appealing about working with recycled and reclaimed materials? how do these materials inform the design of the house itself? given the materials have a ‘life of their own’, they can force you to compromise. for example it’s hard to find ‘big gear’ that’s longer than six metres. timber sections greater than 300 x 300 are rare. you obviously can’t pick and choose species and exact dimensions. re-machining is often required and can be problematic.

reflecting upon earlier work – how do you see your aesthetic developing? and where to from here? i’m not sure you can teach an old dog new tricks so you surround yourself with people who provoke and challenge you and ultimately make you look much better than you actually are!

what sort of affinity do you feel with australia? how does the mood of the country inform your designs? i feel very australian. i love this country. it has a certain smell! don’t tell anyone but i cried once at the anzac day game when john williamson sang ‘true blue’. how ‘ozzie’ is that!?

“house for pam”

© shannon mcgrath - house for pam

how does 'house for pam' fit within the context of your other work? designing your own home is a frightening experience. being frozen in a moment in time! also, like a lot of ‘blokes’ i’ve always been fairly happy just living simply with my family around me. i’ve never had a desire for the whole ‘architectural experience’. my wife pam had other ideas and questioned why ‘everyone else’ got to benefit from my architecture while we lived in an uninspiring rented house. ‘house for pam’ revealed itself after about 30 designs. it was all about living simply. our boys sharing one room. only one bathroom in the house. one main living area. a retreat (tower). simple kitchen. ironically i kind of forgot about the laundry. an oversight i’ve never lived down. while my other residential projects at this time were relatively simple in form, house for pam really became brutally simple. one horizontal timber box juxtaposed by a vertical timber box.

how influential has it been in your career development? ultimately i think it’s a good thing for an architect to have designed [and built] their own home. it’s a [tiny!] bit like my wife, a midwife who’s delivered four children of her own. it helps to practice what you preach!

where are the materials sourced from? all the cladding and internal lining/floors were 140 x 40 cm tongue and groove oregon salvaged from the ceiling of a tyre factory built in the 1940s. the oregon was ‘ship building’ quality. we handpicked the ‘tighter grain’ timber for external cladding.

© shannon mcgrath - house for pam

how // why did you choose those materials? the timber was just extraordinary. magnificent! but when the trucks arrived my father questioned why i needed so much firewood! we had to clean [delouse] and sand all the boards.

was the design itself informed by its materiality? or did the design inform the materiality? some of my critics say they love my house but it would be so much better in concrete! the design needed a ‘one material’ solution. i chose timber because i love the texture, the story, the smell, the touch of timber.

what was it like living in a house you have built yourself? i underestimated just how fantastic it is to live in such a ‘personal’ house. while it’s pleasantly surprising to experience things you’d planned actually working, the real joy comes from the unknowns. the home has its own spirit. we sold the house last year to people who love it and have treated it so kindly. they still call the home ‘house for pam’ and have been so generous in involving me in any changes they’ve made.

any final remarks? it was somewhat ironic that this house was awarded the 2001 nsw institute of architects ‘sustainable architecture award’. i never actively pursued a ‘sustainable design’. there were what i consider very basic, common sense’ elements to the design. the tower acts as a great viewing platform up and down the coast and as a cooling device. the openable windows were positioned to attract the prevalent cooling ‘north east’ breeze. the thick timber cladding and floor assist in insulating the building. we had underslab heating in the kitchen and that’s all. on really cold nights we would ‘plug in a heater’. but the house stayed very comfortable all year round.

‘house for pam’ had lots of fans and some detractors too. there was the occasional drive by ‘flattery’. a favourite was, ‘that’s the ugliest house i’ve ever seen’. i would only ever smile and pause for a moment to reflect how beautiful their own homes might be!

© shannon mcgrath - house for pam