Under the Edge – The Architecture of Peter Stutchbury

Oct 20, 2011
  • Article by Maitiú Ward
  • Designer

There’s a very uncharitable remark often made of Sydney architects that they design “boxes for views”, said most often, probably, by envious Melbourne architects, constantly forced to compensate for their city’s lack of natural spectacle. There’s a grain of truth to it. Largely, Sydney architects do design for the view – when presented by so much natural beauty, to not do so would be wilfully perverse (not to mention commercially suicidal). But that’s too reductive. If Sydney’s architecture benefits from spectacular outlook, it often comes at the cost of steep topography and appalling site orientation. Sydney’s hills are littered with glass-box residences that for whatever reason (overshadowing, poor privacy, plain old banality) simply don’t work. Of course, none of these are designed by Peter Stutchbury, although almost all the houses contained in Under the Edge: The Architecture of Peter Stutchbury boast spectacular settings and multi-million dollar views.

Under the Edge, the first book published under the mantle of the Architecture Foundation Australia, is an exhaustive record of Stutchbury’s oeuvre to date, and features a number of more recent, previously unpublished works including Wall House in Izu, Japan, the 2011 winner of the National Award for International Architecture. While Stutchbury has built some non-residential architecture, he is best known, and most prolific, in the residential space. His elegantly refined, yet highly pragmatic dwellings in the regional modernist vein have, rightly or wrongly, become synonymous internationally with Australian architecture. In this sense, Stutchbury sits clearly within Sydney’s legacy of bush modernism: from Richard Leplastrier and Glenn Murcutt down to Bruce Rickard, and, as Patrick Bingham Hall observes in Peter Stutchbury: Selected Projects, even mid-century practitioners Neville Gruzman and Bill and Ruth Lucas. The non-profit Architecture Foundation Australia aims to propagate this particular approach nationally and internationally through private ‘Master Classes’ overseen by Murcutt, Leplastrier, Lindsay Johnston and Stutchbury.

There is a romantic mythology associated with this group of practitioners, with tropes undoubtedly familiar to many AR readers: deep sensitivity to climate, topography and place; a pragmatic approach to tectonics, borrowing from agrarian and indigenous vernacular typologies; a righteous skepticism of all things ‘digital’; and, most importantly, a design approach with sustainability and passive systems at its absolute core. Although hardly a stripling, Stutchbury is the youngest in the group and the natural successor to its legacy.

Under the Edge tracks back to his late-70s student days, demonstrating how consistently dedicated to this ethos he has been, fastidiously refining a set of core principles: from the raw pragmatics of the Bunk House and Shearers Quarters of 1979 in Cobar, NSW, to the elegance of the Deepwater Woolshed in Wagga Wagga in 2005; from his early experimentation with warped roof planes in the Church at Port Moresby in 1982, to the refinement of the approach in the Sydney International Archery Park in 1999, and then its lyrical application in the Wall House in 2009. Effectively, the book charts Stutchbury’s burgeoning mastery of Australian (or, perhaps, Sydney) regional modernism, and his growing understanding and sensitivity for site, the increasingly honed legibility of his designs and his recent subtle material and tectonic innovations.

All well and good. Everybody needs a credo of sorts, and this particular one has underpinned the practice of some of Australia’s finest architects, not to mention that of its only Pritzker-winner, Glenn Murcutt. It has also informed much of the current thinking around sustainable design, as these practitioners were ‘green’ long before it became popular or economically prudent. Indeed, the book makes the claim that the projects seen here represent some kind of sustainable ideal, although many will treat that with scepticism. In the case of a great deal of the work, particularly the more recent, highly accomplished (perhaps even masterful) residential design, there is a disjuncture between the sustainable rhetoric and its application.

Undoubtedly, these buildings are sensitive and finely tuned to their environments, and better a Stutchbury designed show home lasting 50 or 100 years than another bulging McMansion earmarked for demolition in 20. However, therein lies the fatal contradiction that Under the Edge fails to, or is unable to, address: for the most part they are designed for a privileged few and are luxuriously scaled – several are, in fact, holiday homes.

Which brings us roundly to what is the most noticeable lacuna in the book, and indeed, in Stutchbury’s output to date: the lack of apartment buildings. Imagine it: a medium density residential building that, thanks to Stutchbury’s finely calibrated sensitivity to climate, boasts an internal environment entirely tempered by passive systems. Sited to take best advantage of the topography, it would respond to conditions created by the surrounding urban fabric, while tectonically it would stand as testament to the value of pragmatic, systematised construction, indeed to Stutchbury’s skill in this regard.

Now that would truly be a model for sustainable architecture worth exporting to the world.

Read Amelyn Ng’s review of the 2nd edition of Under the Edge: The Architecture of Peter Stuchbury.

Book details
Ewan McEoin (ed.) // Architecture Foundation Australia 2011// HB // 287pp

Maitiú Ward is associate publisher for Niche Media’s Architectural Division.

Conversation • 4 comments

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20 Oct 11 at 11:34 PM • ANNA PARKES

Little boxes made of ticky tacky again. Look good on the inside, but a box on the outside. Can’t there be some more inspirational design than yet more boxes.

27 Oct 11 at 10:03 AM • andy leigh

couldnt agree more Ewan, i am personally a huge fan of Stutchbury’s with Springwater a favourite, but i very much struggle with unbridled adoration for an increasingly obsolete typology; the urban fringe dwelling. Beyond the comments of luxury and million dollar views, there is an underlying ecological principal of not building on these urban fringe bush sites. Human occupation impacts fauna irrespective of how beautiful and sensitively it is designed. Could some enlightened developer please engage with this Central Coast school of architects, so that their masterful crafts can be shared for the masses on some infill urban site? lets try and form an australian architectural identity that reflects the reality of one of the more urbanised nations on the planet

17 Apr 14 at 11:24 AM • Peta Giddey

I disagree with your statement “for the most part they are designed for a privileged few and are luxuriously scaled – several are, in fact, holiday homes.” I built my “Treetop House” 20 years ago. We were a young family with two small children, not much money but the idea that we wanted to live well. We were lucky enough to find Peter Stutchbury He was wonderful in that our house was built in stages. For years the house was incomplete, chicken wire and insulation on the beautiful living room ceiling, my kitchen was made of ply wood with open shelving, the only toilet we had was three flights down and with two small children no mean feat. The kids slept in what has now become the rumpus room. We knew what we wanted, we made sacrifices in the way we lived in the early years to achieve what we now have. Even though the home was “unfinished” it was and still is an incredible space in which to live.
Perhaps magazines such as yours could showcase architecture differently. Showcase it in a way that makes people realize that it is affordable.

21 Apr 14 at 4:45 PM • Mat Ward

Hi Peta – what a fantastic story and thank you for sharing it. That is also a fair point with regards to the way architecture is presented – architects (and their publishers!) could do more to present architecture as both accessible and affordable (even though I wonder if the sacrifices you’ve described would be acceptable to most).

Does Tree House feature in the book though? I’ll have to dig it up and have a look if so.



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