THE YEAR THAT + QUIZ
Mark Burry, 61, on why he was attracted to life on a remote island
In 1983 I was working at one of the top architecture firms in the UK, at a time when the architectural profession there was in the doldrums. I found that working in a commercial practice was too restrictive. I really wanted to work on community projects, especially housing, but when I applied for Housing Association positions they said I was overqualified because I had been to the University of Cambridge.
Then I saw a job advertised in the Western Isles of Scotland [Outer Hebrides], which appealed because my antecedents were largely Scottish.
It was February when I went for the interview. The islands are very remote — two to three hours westwards from the Isle of Skye by ferry. I arrived by plane and everywhere there was a sort of drizzly fog and you couldn’t see further than a few hundred metres — it was mid-winter and the only colour was brown.
I thought I’d come to the ugliest place and the worst climate I’d ever been in and it would be worth taking the job just to experience it.
I was offered the job and arrived a couple of months later. By then it was spring and on this cloudless day I thought I’d never seen anywhere quite so beautiful — and that includes New Zealand. There was a profusion of wildflowers everywhere.
However, the Outer Hebrides was also one of the poorest regions in Europe at the time. There wasn’t even a secondary school. From the age of 11 kids had to make the 19-hour journey to Inverness and board at school there for the whole semester.
There were three of us in the department. Our job was to build up social housing. It was the Thatcher era, yet there were still some islanders living in single-room dwellings with no running water. It changed my life because, working for the community, I could see all the issues that make it difficult for architects to be as useful to society as they want to be and, through our contribution, the community was able to appreciate what architects could offer.
The one year turned into seven because the challenges were so exciting. There was such a lot to do and of great variety. My partner Jane and I even ended up getting married there. But by the end of seven years I was starting to get itchy feet.
By the time we left for a lectureship at Victoria University in Wellington in 1989, the island hosted Britain’s first community school — a high school with facilities that are available to the whole community outside school hours. It had a swimming pool, a museum, theatre and a hostel for kids from outlying islands to stay the week. We also built a lot of housing, public buildings such as cattle marts, ferry terminals, waterworks, and many renovations of schools.
All this time, I was an expert guide in Barcelona and three times a year flew there to take small groups of distinguished architects to visit the rapidly changing city along with Gaudí’s buildings. The contrast between the two places was extraordinary and exciting.
But if I hadn’t had those visits I would have dropped out of the Barcelona loop and may not have had the same opportunity to continue to work as I’ve done on Sagrada Família for almost my whole career.
Christchurch-born Mark Burry is director of the Smart Cities Research Institute at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and was senior architect and researcher at the Sagrada Família basilica in Barcelona from 1979-2016. He holds the award of Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for “distinguished service to spatial information architecture as an academic, researcher and author, and as an innovator in the application of digital manufacturing and construction methods”.