Architects and their childhoods

The constructive influence of childhood on an architect’s design philosophy.

Is it possible to understand the relevance of childhood experience in relation to the development of an architect’s design and professional philosophy? The creation of Architecture is often attributed to a set of skills learnt during a formal program of education and the philosophy of an architect is often attributed to their schooling or apprenticeship; whether it is with another architect or within a particular architectural environment.  However, the development of an architect’s professional philosophy potentially begins much earlier with an image, an emotion or an experience from childhood. The accumulation of these experiences, be they architectural, social or environmental, forms the basis of what Malcolm Quantrill calls a person’s “environmental memory”.

The experiences of architecture that occur during childhood are often associated with the way in which a person senses a place and, as a result of this, much has been written about phenomenology and memory in relation to the formation of design theory. It is phenomenological experience that first starts to educate, shape and inform a designer while they are a child. Scholars argue that these childhood memories and images heavily influence the architectural direction taken in later life and will often inform the basis of a person’s professional philosophy: an architect may recall them to try to recreate a place that evoked an emotion or sense of place.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that phenomenology reveals our experience in a context and our more basic way of relating to some things is in a practical manner.   The experience of architecture as a child is phenomenological as our knowledge of the world is limited and so we experience a building or an environment in isolation. The experiences of childhood are stored as images, memories and atmospheres. Steven Holl, American architect and theorist, states that the experiences of childhood are the beginning point of the development of a pre-theoretical ground for architectural knowledge, inferring that the images and experiences the architect is exposed to as a child become the basis for an architect’s professional philosophy.

British architect and theorist Malcolm Quantrill, in his 1987 text The Environmental Memory, discusses the significance of these images a person stores and suggests that childhood is the starting point for the development of what he terms an “environmental memory”.  The significance of childhood manifests itself in the formation of an architect’s “environmental memory”; memory begins in our first room, we climb into it on our first stair, we nourish it with views from our first window. Images of these beginnings of consciousness are the basis for our dreams and aspirations…environmental memory begins in our first house, our first field, our first street and library. [i]

Individual architects have been discussed with regard to the way in which their childhood experiences have shaped their architecture in a way which recalls Quantrill’s ‘environmental memory’. Australian architectural critic and author Philip Drew records that for architect Glenn Murcutt, it was the similarities between the landscape of the Upper Watut and the Maria River at Crescent Head which awakened slumbering memories from his childhood and thereby contributed a powerful tropical character to the Marie Short house.

Glenn Murcutt is an Australian architect who is internationally renowned for his environmentally sensitive designs which have a distinctively Australian character. Immediately after his birth to the age of five, Murcutt lived in the coastal area of the Morobe district of Papua New Guinea, which in the 1930’s was both primitive and somewhat dangerous. Murcutt talks of the environment of his childhood:

[I] grew up in the highlands of New Guinea on the Upper Watut River. The lower end of the highlands, a very wild place with huge grasslands of Kuni grass, huge rainforests. […] We lived amongst the Kuka Kuka people, now known as the Manyamia people. […] at that time, fearsome people. And they actually attacked – now, at the time, we thought this was just terrible – and they killed”[ii]

This environment of his childhood is depicted in Arthur Murcutt’s photograph of Murcutt’s childhood home in Papua New Guinea, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Arthur Murcutt’s house on the Upper Watut, N.G., January 1936

Murcutt attributes his approach to architecture and his association with nature to his childhood in Papua New Guinea and Australia.[iii] Murcutt often refers to ideas similar to Quantrill’s concept of the “environmental memory” throughout his design processes, attributing his sensitivity towards the site and environment to his childhood education of place. Murcutt talks about the experiences, observations and lessons taken from the environment during his childhood as being with him for the rest of his life, and how this understanding of place has guided him in the design of his architecture.[iv]

The significance of Papua New Guinea is explained by American architect and academic Steven Holl as he explores the idea that sense perception is the basis for knowledge.[v] The degree of influence Papua New Guinea has had on Murcutt can not be measured in numerical terms, however it must be thought of as part of his basic understanding of space and architecture.

When looking at Murcutt’s varying projects it is not uncommon to wonder about the similarities between a Murcutt house and the Australian vernacular, however Murcutt rejects that this “provides any sort of formal model for his homes” which opens the discussion of the inspiration and design of many of his buildings.[vi] It is Philip Drew who draws the parallel between the Papua New Guinean long houses and Murcutt’s designs.[vii] He suggests that Murcutt has inherited the “striking combination of primitive and cultivated or refined qualities in the same building” from the buildings of his childhood. These similarities are obvious in the depiction of the long houses in Figure 2 and the Marie Short house, Figure 3.[viii]

Figure 2: PNG Long Houses

This project, the Marie Short House in Crescent Head, NSW clearly articulates Murcutt’s design philosophy and high regard for the Australian environment. The Marie Short  is considered a turning point of Murcutt’s architecture and the beginning of an identity for Australian architecture.[ix] Drew suggests that the Marie Short House “initiated a primitive treatment of form, a Miesian hut” of Australian architecture, this is echoed by Francoise Fromonot who describes the Marie Short House as “cross fertilization between an essentially modernist architecture […] borrowing from vernacular building”.[x]

Figure 3: Marie Short House

The influence of Murcutt’s childhood “environmental memory” can be traced through the site and climate specific building solutions of the Marie Short House. This building responds to the site through the simple use of limited and practical materials in a way that accommodates the natural environment. This attitude towards practicality and minimal decoration is similar to the vernacular long houses of Papua New Guinea, Drew discusses the “new conception of the house, […] a lightweight pavilion lifted off the ground and open along the sides [being …] closely related to a Pacific Island hut or tent”.[xi] These long houses are elevated simple long rectangular huts with steeply pitched saddle back roofs. The roofing and walls are traditionally made from thatched Kunai grasses and more recently corrugated iron. (see Figure 2)

One of the most interesting aspects of the building is its location on the crest of the land far away from the protection of any trees or other natural elements. The building sits exposed and visible to all aspects of the site. It can be argued that Murcutt’s fear of the dark and residual fear of attack lead him to place the building in the location of the site which had the best vantage point. Murcutt describes the Kuka Kuka people of Papua New Guinea snaking through the Kunai grasses, signaling trouble for his family, “it gave me a sense of fear, all my childhood, the evening, the darkness was when it would strike. And that fear lasted a long time”.[xii] Murcutt says it was only recently, when he returned to Papua New Guinea, that his fear was overcome.

Murcutt’s fear is explained by Heidegger who writes about the phenomenology of place and environment being attributed to the experience of a ‘thing’, in this case the feeling of insecurity and fear, exposing itself to a person.[xiii] He suggests that the phenomenological experience of childhood is powerful enough to carry itself throughout life despite the length of time exposure. Pallasmaa writes that there is a central theme in architecture, “the unconscious fear of death, or the fear of the insignificance of life”; this fear is evident in Murcutt’s design as he deliberately places the Marie Short house on the part of the site with the best vantage point.[xiv] These two views rationalize the significance of Murcutt’s childhood fear on his design philosophy.

Murcutt’s childhood is a significant influence on his design Pallasmaa and Heidegger make clear how the events of one’s childhood can have an unconscious impact on a person. One thing to note about Murcutt, the Marie Short house and his design philosophy, is that he does not consciously look to his childhood for inspiration; it is embedded in his being.

The influence of his life in Papua New Guinea, although short in duration, has clearly had a significant impact on Murcutt, partially rejecting Quantrill’s proposition that “[a]n environmental framework is not only one of space and form, it is also one of time: […] the environmental memory depends upon a “time exposure”.[xv] The siting of the Marie Short house is an emotional response to an experience from childhood which has manifested itself in his design philosophy. Murcutt’s use of “environmental memory” does support Quantrill’s theory in respect of the idea that a single “environmental memory” holds something that appeals to emotion, the fear of being attacked; and something that appeals to reason, the siting of the Marie Short house in the position where the chance for survival is highest.[xvi]

For Murcutt there is a strong and direct connection with his childhood, it is an unconscious knowledge of place and architecture which comes through in his design. For Murcutt there is some conscious knowledge of the influence his childhood is having on a specific design project, Pallasmaa concurs with this idea stating that “our actions are neither accidental nor arbitrary; they contain both conscious and subconscious motives”.[xvii]

[i][xv][xvi] Quantrill, 1987. The Environmental Memory

[ii] Murcutt, Glenn 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads, (Australian Broadcasting Company, Aired June 2nd)

[iii][viii][xi] Drew, 1985. Leaves of Iron

[iv][xii] Murcutt, 2008. Transcript: Talking Heads

[v] Holl, 1996. “Pre-theoretical Ground”

[vi] Farrelly, E. M. 1993. Three Houses: Glenn Murcutt

[vii] Of interest is the fact that Murcutt threatened to sue Drew over the misrepresentation of facts in Drew’s Leaves of Iron publication, however as Murcutt had approved the copy nothing eventuated.

[ix][x] Fromonot, 2003. Glenn Murcutt: Buildings and Projects

[xiii] Heidegger, 1993. Building, Dwelling, Thinking

[xiv][xvi] Pallasmaa, 2001. “The Mind of the Environment”