Peter Neil Muller AO, the Australian Architect who was responsible for many memorable and seminal organic works, passed away on the evening of Friday, 17 February 2023. He was 95.
Having started his practice in 1952 with the Audette house in Castlecrag, his most impactful residential project was for his own family in Whale Beach in 1954 with the adjacent Walcott house in 1955 and the James Bond-like Richardson house c.1956. His last residential project was the Williams house in Bayview c.1987.
His architectural practice created works of various scales and typologies in his birth state of South Australia, as well as in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. His practice became international through work on Resort hotels in Bali, Indonesia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Perhaps his most famous resorts were the Bali Oberoi (1973) and Amandari (c.1989).
Peter Muller was an innovative and sensitive architect. He was influenced by many and in turn was recognised by some of the greats of our profession, (including Frank Lloyd Wright at the very outset of Muller’s career). He made a unique contribution to the sites and countries that he worked in as well as on those of us who were fortunate to know him or experience the special and unique environments he created.
I was lucky to know Peter Muller for almost 40 years, having first been made aware of his work through Jennifer Taylor’s important book “An Australian Identity: Houses for Sydney 1953-63” and her illuminating lectures and site visits via her Architectural History courses at Sydney University. I found his work so inspiring and fused with my own sensibilities at the time, that I decided to investigate his work in greater depth, resulting in a 7 volume Masters by Research thesis + 2 volumes of transcripts and copies of magazine articles which was supervised by Jennifer Taylor. Peter Muller kindly agreed to my initial approach to study his life and work and was generous with his time from that moment on. We were in contact from then on and I was honoured to have met Carole Muller and Helen Hayes and his son Peter Muller Junior and daughter Suzy Flowers and their families. Adrian Snodgrass was also a lecturer at Sydney University during my Architectural Studies and his lectures and scholarly investigations proved to be just as influential on Peter Muller as they were on his University students.
One of the most influential aspects of Peter Muller’s creative output was his respect for the natural features of the site. From the outset, Muller’s work was awe-inspiring and influential for its careful attention to the preservation of a site, its aspect, native flora and the zeitgeist of the region and times. The philosophy of architecture of a harmonious union between building and site was introduced to Sydney by the early houses of Peter Muller. In all the work he produced, Muller organised the building and its surrounds in a way that was in harmony with the site allowing the resident and visitor to appreciate aspects of the site that would not have been noticed without Muller’s intervention.
Peter, through the influence of Adrian Snodgrass, was impressed by the beauty, craft and opportunities afforded by traditional Japanese architecture and Asian philosophy. He was one of the first architects in the Sydney region to embody Japanese ideals in his work. Muller imported architectural texts on traditional Japanese architecture in the late 1960’s as they were not readily available at the time in bookstores. One of these texts was “The Essential Japanese House – Craftsmanship, Function and Style in Town and Country” with text and commentary by Teiji Itoh, Photography by Yukio Futagawa. Peter then sold these books to many architects which in turn influenced these architects’ appreciation of traditional Japanese craft and approach. It can be suggested that the architectural outlook and output of these practitioners was impacted from then on. Many residential and commercial Muller designed buildings display a discernible Japanese influence including the Michell House in Adelaide, the Bourke St Cinema in Melbourne, the Muller office in Gipps St Paddington and the demolished Lance house at the end of Darling Point, Sydney.
Peter Muller’s work from the early 1950’s was characterised by a casual informality and appreciation of a hedonistic lifestyle that enjoyed the best aspects of indoor/outdoor spatial relationships. This can be seen from the outset of his practice in 1952 in the Audette house that capitalised on its northern rear aspect and in the house he built for his family in Whale Beach in 1954 and the adjoining Walcott house.
Muller explored numerous innovative technologies throughout his career to achieve the desired spaces and atmospheres of his designs. Some include: “snotted brickwork” when the sandstone walls at the Audette house were replaced with extruded red brick; flooded roofs at his Whale Beach house to reflect the branches of the overhead gum trees in order to render the building invisible when viewed from the street above; large span roof panels in the Walcott house, inlayed fibreglass dome at the Richardson house at Palm Beach of 1956 and coral walls at the Bali Oberoi hotel.
Throughout his architectural career, Muller respected the human condition – in particular, human scale. All his built work, whether single residential, multi residential, commercial or resort demonstrate a level of comfort and belonging due to this adherence to a relatable scale.
Muller was made Fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1970
Between 1975-77, Peter Muller became the Director of the Capital Branch of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC). During this time, Muller was charged with compiling the international competition design criteria brief for the New and Permanent Parliament House in Canberra. His starting point was to uncover the 1911 designs and neglected drawings of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, which were stored in the basement of the government archives. Having been the instigator for their restoration, Muller referred to these magnificent drawings to develop the brief and rationale to site the building on Capital Hill. Peter asked his friend and colleague Bert Read to graphically demonstrate a response to Griffins suggested symbolism, the functional criteria and urban design principles for Canberra. It bears a striking resemblance in massing to the winning design.
Through Australian artist Donald Friend, who lived in his later years in Bali, Peter Muller was invited to design a small resort in Bali. While this design was not realised, the design philosophy that reacted against a high rise dominating international style hotel and recreated an indigenous Balinese village, drove the resorts that followed. With Adrian and Judith Snodgrass, Carole Muller, Alan Gilbert and Christopher Carlisle, Peter formed a group known as RDR: “Regional Design Research”. This team with Muller applied an adaptive and interpretive role in researching the naturally organic traditional forms, culture, arts and craft of building within the Pan Pacific Region, Tahiti, India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The low impact appropriateness and ongoing success of these resorts has been mimicked by many.
In the 2014 Australia Day Honours, Muller was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) “for distinguished service to architecture, to the adaptation and preservation of Indigenous design and construction, and to the integration of the built and environmental landscape.”
Peter Muller was respected by many architects who have contributed greatly to an appropriate Australian and Asian regional response. Amongst those are Peter Stutchbury, Ric LePlastrier, Glenn Murcutt and Kerry Hill who have all declared their admiration for the architecture of Peter Muller.
Peter Muller valued the friendship and talents of those with whom he worked, not only praising their contribution within his practice and outside it, but by publishing books that chronicled the output of these remarkable individuals. This can be witnessed by the books on Adrian Snodgrass, Bert Read, Christopher Carlisle, Kevin Dash and Carol Muller.
While many of his great works have either been demolished or unsympathetically altered, Peter Muller holds an influential position in the psyche of Australian Architecture that is sensitive and responsive to its place, craft and climate. The world would do well to take note of the environmentally and culturally appropriate architecture of Peter Muller as a way to create a sustainable place in which to live in the future.
Photos provided courtesy of Peter Muller’s family and Eric Sierins from the archives of Max Dupain and Associates