Mark Burry, 61, on why he was at­tracted to life on a re­mote is­land

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Mark Burry

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”.

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