MATT: One of the first things I’m curious about is the idea of experimentation in architecture, and how important that’s been to you in your work, over your career? And do you think you’ve become any more experimental as you’ve progressed, or less experimental?
GLENN: Well, I remember, in my father’s last weeks of life, he said to me, “Son, where do you think you’ll go in this profession?” And I said, “Well, Dad, I want to be able to experiment to some extent, to make experiments.” “Oh,” he said, “and whose money are you going to use?”
And I said, “Oh god, here we go.” And I said to him, “Well, look, I think that one can do calculated experiments, incrementally.” And so what I did, in my first ten years in practice, I built three new houses, but I did a hell of a lot of alterations and additions, and I used every one of those to do something small, until I built up a vocabulary of what I knew I could do, so I wasn’t going to make a huge mess of one thing. And, you know, I think I might be the only student in my era that failed Sunshine and Shade.
And I had to repeat it. And I don’t know why I failed, because I understood it. And so I certainly learnt about it, and of course, my issue, I don’t call it “experimentation,” in a way it was just logical, but in terms of what most people were doing, in many ways it was experimental. Because everybody was starting to think about air-conditioning, and that’s the last thing I wanted to think about. And I thought the most important thing was to start thinking more about how buildings should be performing in their orientation, and cooling and ventilation. And so, if there was any form of experimentation, it was something that our forebears, for thousands of years, had pretty well understood, and our generations have completely lost. You get the average farmer, and they know where to put the building, and they know how to orient and what not to look at and what to look at. If there’s a drought, then you don’t want to look out and look at the whole view, they want to have somewhere to go where they can get relief from that drought – they don’t want to see dying animals. And so I did experiment, I knew that if you’re going to have glass on the roof, you had to shade it in summertime, in wintertime you could include it, because you could enjoy the warmth. And I suppose they’ve all been somewhat experiments to me.
The other thing, the biggest experiment for me was: How do I reduce the detailing level and yet increase its power? And so my first nine months in practice I had no work, and I contacted every company that did extrusions and standard components, and my task was to see how I could use those in detailing, to make the detailing appear quite sophisticated. And so I used things like patent glazing bars, I could’ve used WunderlichTM, but I found Aluminex, it was more elegant. And so I worked with that, and instead of using the Aluminex in the way they show, as you come up to side walls, I used the standard bar and I glazed in a flashing.
There were a whole lot of things I did. I then decided to think about water and rain, and how you can’t open windows, so I developed the sloping window, so that you’ve got a sill, the glass went down below the sill, and you could open the window when it was raining and get the air in still.
And smell; smell the grass and hear the birds! And so the experiment was that the building became, in a sense, not an object in the landscape, but an instrument. So I was very interested in the building as an instrument, insofar as, if you think of a composer composing a score of music, then there’s the conductor, then there’s the musicians, then the audience – well, in a house or a building, I’m the audience. The building can be the instrument, because it provides the openings, and the sound and the smells of nature is the composition. And so these were all things that I thought about as being very important in my direction.
Have I become more experimental? I’m still prepared to experiment. But every experiment I have done is calculated; the risk is calculated. Matt, I’ve been in practice since 1969 – I have never been threatened to be sued, and I have done a lot of things that, if they had failed, I could have been. So, the answer is: I’m cautious in experimentation. One step at a time, that’s been very important.
MATT: I think, as an observer of your career from a few steps away, that without experimention, or without innovation, you wouldn’t be standing where you are today. If you’d played the safe route, if you’d followed status quo, there’s no way that your work would’ve developed in the way that it has developed.
GLENN: No. My father trained us, all the time, everything he trained us – and he’s a professional father, a really professional father – everything he did was educating us. And he said to me: “Son, you don’t necessarily like what I’m asking you to do, but,” he said, “what I’m doing is getting you to stand on your own two feet. Don’t follow the masses. Think it out yourself, as I have done” – which he had. And when I went into practice, he said to me: “Now that you’re starting your practice, you must remember to start off the way you would like to finish.” Further: “And for every compromise you knowingly make in your work, that compromise is not about arrogance, it’s about doing something you know you ought not to be doing.” Then he said, “The result, when built, will represent the quality of your next client” – a truism.
And he also said – and I was raised on Henry David Thoreau – “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Their resignation is confirmed desperation.” And he said, again Thoreau: “Since most of us are going to be doing ordinary things in our lives, the most important thing is to do those ordinary things extraordinarily well.” And, my father added: “And be able to go to the beach where nobody knows who you are.”
In other words: Level of privacy. No arrogance. Operate below the radar level, quietly. And something’s really interesting that was pointed out to me, people that knew me when I was a teenager say that, as a family, we didn’t let on to anybody what we were doing. And we’d come to our swimming carnivals, nobody had known what we were doing; my father trained us in our own pool.
My brother was National Swimming Champion. I was in, say, probably, touching on the elite group. I only had John Hendricks, who was the Olympic gold medallist, beat me at high school every year; combined high school swimming. We were very decent swimmers, and we all played piano. My brother Doug, the National Swimming Champion, was selected for the Olympic Water Polo team. So my father was a professional father: nothing was done by halves. If you’re going to do it, do it properly. And he taught us another thing. We’d go down in swimming training with him, down to Clontarf Baths, and our own swimming pool, and we’d do our training that we agreed was the training that we expected we had to do. At the end of it, he’d say, “I want you to do a hundred-meter dash, and you’ve got to do it fast. Okay, do it. Okay, pretty good. Now I want you to do it again, and do it faster.” We’d say, “You rotten bastard, now! You rotten bastard!”
GLENN: Anyway, we knew if he said it, it had to be done, so we’d go it like mad, and we’d do it. Get out and he’d say, “You know why I asked you to do that?” I said, “Why?”He said, “Because in life, you think you’ve finished something and somebody’s going to put it on you. You’re going to go through problems, when you think you can’t cope with any more, and you get another thing on top of you. I’m teaching you to cope.”
MATT: I always say that architecture’s a bloody marathon, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to sprint from time to time.
GLENN: That’s right. And the other things is, I did my course in the days of part-time: four nights a week, one afternoon, and often all day Saturday, and get home at ten o’clock at night – it was six o’clock to nine o’clock – I worked for Neville Gruzman, and Bill Lucas and Ruth [née Harvey] were in the office at the same time. We worked with Allen & Jack, Russel Jack and John Allen. And that’s the other thing my father said to me: “Son, you pay your way through university. When I was your age,” he said, “I was in the swamp-infested, malaria-infested areas of Papua New Guinea, surviving on the swapping of fish hooks for coconuts.” He said, “You’re 18 now, you support yourself.”
MATT: Sort it out, right.
GLENN: He could’ve afforded to send us anywhere. So I had to do a part-time course, and he said, “Now, who are you going to work for? And I said, “Oh, I don’t know.” He said, “Well, I’m going to tell you. Here’s a list.These are the people you must work for. And whatever they pay you, you just accept it.” So, that was it. And I worked for Gruzman.
MATT: I think being a self-made person is maybe the biggest blessing you can have.
GLENN: To be a self-starter. And he taught us to be self-starters, really. So, yes, the experimentation, not following anybody, but being influenced by many. I knew my influences. By the time I graduated, I knew the work of [Le] Corbusier backwards, I knew Mies [van der Rohe] backwards. I knew the architect very few people know of, Gordon Drake – California, marvellous architect, died at the age of 28 or something like that, from a skiing accident. I knew the work of the Noyes Brothers. I look at all the Californian architects, I knew the Californian Five architects. God, I knew a lot about architects.
And then I visited all the work, and then, for example, I very much enjoyed the work of Craig Ellwood, in Los Angeles, but when I met him and saw the work, and I said to him, “But Craig, how do you control the energy systems in this house, heating and cooling?” and he looked at me as if it was the silliest question he’d ever been asked. He said, “Why, I air-condition it.” That turned me, completely. That was a turning point in my career – thank you, Craig.
MATT: So, do you think there’s been any one experiment that’s been more successful than others? Or do you think it’s an ongoing kind of question?
GLENN: Matt, you’ve either got it in you... It’s a bit like anything that’s got to be done automatically, like driving a car, changing gears: you can’t think about it, because you probably get better and better at doing it without thinking about it. And my view is that if your attitude is right, you don’t think about it. As I said this morning, the greatest attribute any architect can have is to be able to stand back and criticize his or her work.
MATT: Yes, couldn’t agree more.
GLENN: And know when it’s not good enough. And that’s really important, to know when it’s not good enough, so that you can go on and make it better. So there’s nothing in particular for me that stands out. Look, I never set out to be ending up where I’ve ended up – never thought about it. The only thing I’ve ever thought about is: Is the work good enough? That’s all I ever thought about. That’s all I cared about – and that the clients that I’ve had a relationship, where they become friends.
MATT: I think your definition of “good enough” is uncompromising. I think a lot of architects’ definition of “good enough” is full of compromises.
GLENN: When I talk about compromise, I’m saying, when I say “good enough”, it’s avoiding the arrogance. I’m very aware that I’ve done works that have been well-recognised. I am very aware that any work that’s been recognised as such makes every subsequent work vulnerable. And that’s very important to understand that. So there’s no room for complacency.
MATT: I think we, and I’m talking about “we as a broader profession” – have become, I’d say very proficient at the delivery of buildings, so much so that it’s been detrimental to the built environment. But it’s as if we’re not giving things enough thought or consideration, especially with regards to the design of the urban environment. Somehow we as architects need to bear some responsibility for that. What do you think is a way around that?
GLENN: Well, first of all, the profession decided that our main role was that of designers and specifiers, and let’s give away the contract administration to a project manager. Well, that, to me, was a total disaster. It’s taken the true role of architecture out of the realm of the architect. Of course, it is during those site inspections that you control what you’ve designed. The project manager couldn’t give a shit about what you’ve designed, all he wants to know is the space is there, and it’ll look a bit like what it is, and if that material costs too much money, we’ll change that. And that’s a real problem. And we’ve irresponsibly taken away from ourselves a most important aspect of our full service.
I’ve been invited to come onto many projects for consideration as the architect – right, very happy to apply, always a note: “I’m not prepared to work with a project manager. I’m the project manager, and within my fee you get my project management, so you can save yourself the fee of a project manager.”
MATT: Do you still work on just one project at a time?
GLENN: Never.This is a myth that’s been built up. At the moment, at all varying stages, I have 16 projects right now. Some that have been going for a long time, including the Opal & Fossil Centre in Lightning Ridge. The project in Melbourne is with Hakan Elevli, the [Altona] mosque. I’ve got a house at Palm Beach that should be finished, probably by Christmas.
You know, the reason that I started the waiting list of clients was that the first job that I designed in private practice was my own place at Mosman, a little alteration in Wanda Road, where the boys were brought up. And it won an Institute of Architects award that brought with it, sponsored by a real estate agent, a round-the-world air ticket.
MATT: That’s got to be the best prize, ever.
GLENN: And a $1,000 rich, beside it. And overnight, from having very little work, just my brother’s house, I had 32 projects. And then I went through all the clients, I saw every one of them in order of their phone call, and then I said to which ones I could think I could do, and then I gave myself three months for each of those projects, and I pushed the line down. So, at that stage, I didn’t think I could handle three or four at the same time, so then I was handling one at a time, as I was pushing down the line. But then I realised I could do more than one at a time, so I was bringing some forward, and that’s where I started to have multiple jobs at any one time. And I was teaching at the same time.
MATT: So, outside of architecture, what are your passions or interests that have externally influenced the way that you practice architecture? How do they find their way into your work?
GLENN: Well, I was brought up in an area of Sydney where my father owned a lot of wonderful land, native landscape, and our role was to protect it. And make sure that people didn’t come in and chop trees down. And we developed a great love of the native flora and fauna – a great love. And, like many things for me, I can fall in love with it, but I’m very cautious about that. I all the time stand back then and say, “Why is it that I like it? Why is it I really love it?” But I then started to see the Australian flora as being incredibly different to anywhere else, and I could see that there was a transparency in Australian flora, that you can actually look through. I looked through the flora, and see the ground-form behind it, and then I could see there was a great legibility, and a transparency, and the dappled shade, and the thinness of edges, and that leaves hung away and track the sun! And I started to observe all these amazing things about the flora. And then I couldn’t help but thinking: that strength, that legibility, that delicacy – surely in an architecture you can see that strength, that legibility, and delicacy, at the same time.
And then I discovered the works of Fred Williams, and he showed me how the light level served to separate the elements in our landscape, as compared with European, those elements of the landscape are connected by the lower light levels – totally different! These were absolute and personal, for me, revelations.
MATT: But, to me, there’s probably no other place more evident of that than Kempsey [House], and it’s not only the way you’ve sited the building, it’s not only the detail on the edge, but it’s the longer-term design of the landscape, and almost returning it to a state...
GLENN: Drawing the landscape, as it becomes a consequence of.
MATT: Indeed, yeah.
GLENN: And that’s very important, that architecture’s not doing, on the whole: it’s not working as a consequence of the landscape.Then the sea, I can read the land and see what’s happening in the land, by the water table, by the flora, by the insects, all those things, I can read the land. I can also read the water. And I know where it’s dangerous; I know where it’s deep. I was in surf teams, and Belt Swims, and so I know about the water; I know the dangers of this water, I know the safety of the water. But it’s, all the time, ready to get you.
So the junction between the land and sea is very important. When you see children go to the beach, they play right at that edge, it’s the most exciting edge, where the water joins the sea, and how far can you test yourself into the sea from the land? As a land-borne animal, how do we go into that sea? And that, to me, was very interesting in growing up, because we all learnt to swim, we were able to handle that very well. So the sea is very important. And, of course, as I said, the climate, and that’s all part of what makes the flora, together with the soil conditions, and the latitude. And the altitude, they’re all different. So if you look at Australia, you go from the monsoonal tropics to the wet tropics to the subtropics, to the warm temperate, the temperate, the cool temperate; hot arid, coastal, mountain and hot arid – huge number of places – so each one draws a different solution. Or asks of itself: consider a solution appropriate to it. You just don’t design any sort of building and put air-conditioning in it.
And then comes music. I had completed my studies in music to 7th Grade. I was starting to work on my AMusA; then came my part-time Architecture, I could no longer do it, so I didn’t. But music develops a certain part of the brain, when you understand the construction of music – and I did music for my matriculation, so we had to do composition. So, like we’re talking about “other things” – these are the other things.
And then my father used to take me to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and stand in front of a Picasso, and start laughing. I’d say, “What are you laughing at?”
And he’d say, “This guy is crazy. This guy is totally crazy.” But he said, “Remember: that tells probably more about me than it does about the work.” And so he taught us to stand back. And any comment you make does not necessarily have any relevance at all, it might just be telling more about you than it does about your subject. And that’s a very important lesson, as well.
So music and nature was a very, very big part of our growing up – a huge part of growing up. And having animals around us, and living in the bush: bushwalking, going out into the Colong Caves, and the Kowmung River, and all these extraordinary places, so getting you really ... putting a bit of eucalyptus in your blood. It was really important to me.
MATT: It’s such a wonderful way to grow up.
GLENN: Mm! Mm! My dad had built boats – and we’ve sailed those, as well. That was good. So boat building, but I always worked in my father’s joinery shop from the age of 12, every school holiday. So by the time I was 18, I’d learnt to build cupboards, box-frame windows, casement windows, staircases. And by the time I was 19, just before I started architecture, with my father I built much of the house at Clontarf, the one that Nick did an alteration on. And my brother and I, we carried all the bricks, bent the reinforcing, dug the footings, mixed the concrete, did all the prefabricated curtain walls in the factory, glazed them in the factory.. brought them into the site, dropped them in, built the trusses. So I’d had all this experience before I started architecture. So, if you think, with music, art – I said my father was a professional father.
MATT: Okay, my last question. It seems to me that in academia there’s not enough academics who are practising, yet at the same time in the profession there are not enough architects who are teaching.
GLENN: Yup, it’s a very good question.
MATT: So, how important has teaching and your role in academia been in the development of your career, and vice versa?
GLENN: Yeah, that’s a good question; it’s a very important question, actually one of the most important questions you can get to. From the first year I was in practice, I was invited to become a teacher. I said to the department: “I’ve never taught in my life.”
They said, “Well, come and teach for three months, and if we both like one another, and you’re happy with it, let’s make it an arrangement.”
And I discovered I really liked it. And what I found, that was so important, was that when you made a critique of any student’s work, it’s nothing about whether you like it or dislike it, it’s: Is it good? Is it addressing the issues? And is it addressing them well, based on the things we discussed earlier, about authenticity, about understanding the nature of materials, about understanding light and space, ventilation, all those sorts of things? And they’re things I’d been raised with, because our houses all had natural ventilation, high-level louvers, everything you saw in that house I learnt from home.
And so, to impart that in teaching was very important. But teaching also makes a good architect a better architect, because it makes each architect that’s teaching articulate ideas with clarity. Unless there is clarity, the idea’s not worth anything. So, in other words, when you make a suggestion to a student, you must say why; you must clarify why it’s so. Without that clarification, it’s only a judgement. So you’ve got to try and reduce the number of value judgements to things that are fairly unarguable, but also, in that, not losing the idea of the poetics.
MATT: I mean, for me, teaching is a privilege
GLENN: It’s a wonderful opportunity for each of us.
MATT: Being able to contribute via passing knowledge on, I think, is really a blessing in this lifetime.
GLENN: Yeah, it is.
MATT: The other thing is it makes you accountable.
MATT: So what you’re saying: you have to put your money where your mouth is, or else there’s no currency there.
GLENN: Otherwise there’s no currency, you’re going to be found out.
MATT: Which is why I say there’s not enough architects in the profession who are teaching.
GLENN: You’re right. Yeah. I might be the only recipient of several international awards that also teaches still. I think I might be the only one. I don’t know of any other Pritzker Prize winner that teaches – not one. I know many of them, and I know they don’t.
And when people have said to me, “Look, you have a responsibility to have office and you’re training young architects in your office.” I said, “Hang on. Hang on. What about my teaching, you know, here I’ve got 60 students every year? I’ve been teaching at New South Wales for 11 years, that’s nearly 700 students. I’ve taught internationally, at Yale for three years, another 36 students. I’ve taught in about 15, maybe 20 schools of architecture, always. Is that not influence?”
And it generally shuts people up. And Uncle Max Harrison, the Aboriginal Elder on our Master Class – that’s the other thing we do, is the Master Class, International Master Class – he gives us some very wonderful statements: “You must give it away to keep it.” Sounds an oxymoron – you must give it away to keep it. But you must give away culture, to keep it. You must give away ideas to keep it. So the giving is very important. And the giving is about the wish to give. It doesn’t mean to say anybody has to take it up, but at least it’s been offered. So teaching is an incredibly important aspect of my career. I have taught almost, of the 46 years I’ve been in practice, I’ve taught at least of those, 38? I’ve got to say that the end of every semester – I do one semester a year – at the end of it, I say, “Whew! That was fairly hard going.” Because in that time, I’ve got to give time to 60 to 70 students.
People say to me: “You don’t work internationally. You don’t work overseas. Why? You teach overseas. Why?” I said, “You know, it is my view that unless you speak the language of that nation, you are not dealing with the nuances of that society. And I’m not prepared to do that. Furthermore, I’m not prepared to expand my practice, to think that I’m like a dog going to leave my mark all over the world.” I said, “There’s enough for me to do in this country, that’s entirely enough for me to do.”
And so I’ve not expanded outside Australia, I’ve seen Australia. And I’ve got clients that have – one client wrote to me a year ago and said: “I am the longest-waiting client on your list. It is now, he reminded me, something like 32 years he’s been waiting for me to do a project for him in the United States.
Another guy’s come to me from United States – I’ve had many people from United States, South Africa, New Zealand, Finland, have approached me. And in America, I say to them: “Find me an insurance company that will indemnify me against being sued by anybody in the United States.” They can’t.
They can’t find it, because I know they can’t find it, so [chuckles]... But the thing is this, that in teaching students, here or abroad, because the students come in from all over the world, where I teach internationally, what you’re teaching—
In teaching those students, the thing that you can address, are the principles. They’re the important things. So principles of climatic conditions, of deposits, a water table, of flora, of fauna, of history – both Indian history and modern American history – this is America – you can deal with animals, you can deal with flora, you can deal with all those things, so I’ve got a whole list of things you’ve got to address. Then, it’s up to you, in your nation, how you address the local issues. So, they’re the things that, if I was working internationally, they’re the things that I would have to do, but I’d be missing the nuances.
MATT: Is there any particular advice to a graduating student that you could give them?
GLENN: Well, you know, I’ve already said it: You must, in attitude, start off the way you would like to end. If you have that in mind all the time, if everything you’re doing is towards the way you want to do it towards the end...If you start off the way you would like to finish, it’s not necessarily the way you will finish, but the way you would like to finish – gosh, that’s an important issue. And to do what Thoreau said: to do ordinary things extraordinarily well.