Footsteps of Leplastrier

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural

Day 1

It’s a Sunday lunchtime in late August when we leave Melbourne, giving us plenty of time for a leisurely drive through the Yarra Valley and out to Murrindindi. We’re following in the footsteps of the great architect Richard Leplastrier, who camps out on a site to feel the land and place as he designs. The weather has been wet in recent weeks so we drop into the Croydon Bunnings to buy gumboots. The smell of the sausage stall is too hard to resist, so we pick up snags and munch them happily on our walk back to the car.

As the road opens up along the Melba Highway, we crank the radio and watch the countryside rolling by. The hills get more pronounced the further we drive, and greener too. They look like a giant has dropped a bright green tablecloth onto the ground, the peaks and creases of its fabric forming the ridgelines and valleys of the lush landscape. Everything seems full of life, winter must be losing its grip on the world.

We arrive at the property and meet our clients, David and Louise, and the two youngest of their four children. While the kids fire up their peewee motorbikes, we pull on our boots and head out to explore the land. Nestled at the foot of a valley, the twenty acre property is mostly flat, with vineyard-covered hills rising up towards the south and west. The Murrindindi river gurgles noisily along the eastern boundary, carving a steep embankment and levy on its way out to sea. We stick close to the boundaries during our circumnavigation, enjoying the edge of the tree line. “Ah, the serenity,” we joke as the motorbikes buzz past.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Motorbikes; Peewee

We head back to the shed that will be our sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom, lounge and studio during our three-day stay. There used to be a modest weatherboard cottage on site, but it was demolished and cannibalised to convert the wool shed into a temporary place to stay.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Camping

The evening sets in, Louise heads back to Melbourne with the kids, and we spread out a 1:1000 copy of the land survey on the dining table. Covering it with yellow trace, we jot down our observations from our walk: the valley funnels the wind so it comes from the north all year round, both hot and cold; there is a long view of mountains to the south; shorter views to the north need landscaping to screen out the closest neighbour; the river offers paddling spots at specific points. We talk about the old house site, and the necklace of mature trees that circle it. In particular, there’s a beautiful Manna gum with a crown at least 18m in diameter. We pop back outside to step it out, “Yep, it’s a whopper.”

Soon, our stomachs remind us they need to be fed so we finish up for the day and head out to the local pub.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Dawn; Morning; Mist

Day 2

We wake up to an extraordinary mist blanketing the property. The house site is only 50m away but barely visible. Near the road, a huge Oak looms out of the mist, at once eerie and beautiful. This is why we’re camping here, why Leplastrier’s process is so inspiring. The mist gives us a tiny nugget of insight into the site, helps flesh out our sense of the place.

David cooks up a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. After we’ve eaten and are clearing away the dishes, he heads off to mess with a couple of fallen trees. We hear the sound of a chainsaw being fired up. Is there any power tool more rural than a chainsaw?

We pull out the tracing paper again and get to work. Once more, our conversation turns to the land and its opportunities. There’s a wonderful rawness to our dialogue as we sketch and chat. In the suburbs, our primary interests are often manufactured: heritage building fabric; town planning; the needs of neighbours. Here, we discuss place, the relationship between house and land, view corridors, light and shade, trees, habitat. These are the essential qualities of architecture, and a joy to explore.

As we talk, we draw another overlay to our site analysis, highlighting important elements of the landscape and connections we want to make with the house. The distant view to the south is restful, maybe a good fit for guest bedrooms. The river view is more active, the sound of water would make a good backing soundtrack for the kids’ retreat. The light comes from the north of course, how do we elongate the house to make the best use of it?

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Kate Seddon

Before we know it, it’s late morning and we hear a car pulling up. Kate Seddon is the landscape designer we’ve recommended to David and Louise. We’re excited to have her design input on the project, to put as much consideration into the outdoor rooms as the indoor ones. As we’ve only spoken with her over the phone prior to this, her visit is both an opportunity to familiarise her with the site as well as talk design philosophy. We circumnavigate the property once again, and talk about tree species, earthworks, materials and water. Kate spots one of the fallen trees, “That would make a great bench seat within a garden,” she says. We discuss the way we want the house to emerge from the landscape. We discuss the swimming pool and fire pit, outdoor living and family barbecues.

Murrindindi; Bricks; Pallets; Building

Kate leaves after a couple of hours and we head into town to grab a quick lunch of meat pies and vanilla slice. Then we rendezvous with a local craftsman called Chris, who has some bricks he wants to sell. There are around 18,000 of them stored on pallets. “I pulled these out of the old church on Murrindindi Station when it was demolished years ago,” Chris says. The church dated back to the 1860s, one of the first civic buildings in the area. The bricks are a burnt orange colour, smaller than contemporary ones and curiously don’t have frogs. How can we make use of them? We do some rough calculations – we have enough for 44m of double skinned wall. Not enough for a whole house. We chat about Guilford Bell’s masterly use of brick as an inhabitable surface. Perhaps we’ll use them on the floor instead, or around the fireplace.

Returning to the property, we spend the afternoon focussing on the house site. Its slightly elevated position, existing necklace of mature trees, history of inhabitation and proximity to the river make it the best choice. Glenn Murcutt talks often about putting the house on the worst part of the site – there’s no use putting it on the best part, it’s already perfect. How can we use this to inspire us? Our sketches begin at 1:1000 and meander their way down to 1:200. Everything we draw and say seems to come back to the Manna gum. It’s far too big to wrap a house around, but can we stretch a house along its north edge, or slide one in to the south?

We make a list of the rooms David and Louise have requested in their brief – an open plan living area, plus a connected kids retreat, a master bedroom suite and a handful of extra rooms for kids and guests. Adding a mudroom, laundry and a few bathrooms brings us to around 250sqm. “Don’t forget the wine cellar,” David calls as he walks past on another errand. Okay, 250sqm plus a cellar.

Then there are the qualitative aspects of the brief, our loose conversations with David and Louise in our studio and on site. These are always the most important insights we get into our clients’ lifestyle and aspirations, the nuggets of personality that have the power to drive a whole project. David and Louise live in town, so the Murrindindi house will be an escape from city life, an antidote to the Internet, a place for their children to get comfortable with the natural world. The kids are really getting into the motorbikes, so perhaps the landscape needs to accommodate some natural obstacles. They’ll often have friends over, as will David and Louise, so the kitchen and meals area need to be the heart of the house. The valley traps the heat in summer, so a swimming pool is essential.

We draw bubble diagrams, stringing together rooms in an order that will facilitate these connections both inside the house and out. Distinct functional zones emerge – living, services and sleeping. We chop and change the relationship between rooms, aligning them to different parts of the landscape. We agree that the living room wants to face the sweep of the sun and views to the north. The master bedroom wants to face east to catch sunrise over the river. Do the kids’ and guest bedrooms face west? That might give them views over the neighbouring vineyard but will create heat gain issues. Maybe the south? There’s the long view towards distant mountains, but this is also likely to be the entry point for cars. We’ll need to consider privacy.

We have a lot of ideas, but not yet much resolution. It’s getting dark now however and the pub beckons. A conversation for tomorrow then.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Manna gum; Eucalyptus

Day 3

In contrast to the chill and mist of yesterday, the day dawns bright and clear. We repeat the rituals of eggs and bacon, quick rinses in the outdoor shower, and a saunter outside to take stock of things. David once again heads off and we get back to the tracing paper.

We sketch plans over and over again, gradually evolving our ideas into three distinct proposals. The cranked house takes shape first, then the long house, and finally the compact house. They each preserve the essential zoning characteristics we settled on yesterday, but offer unique entrance sequences, and unique ways to engage with the glorious Manna gum. It’s hard to work out which we like best. The cranked house has a little of John Wardle about it, with its angled strands and busy junction at the centre. The long house is very long, 55m in fact. “Peter Stutchbury would like this” we say, pleased. It has more than a little of an Indonesian Longhouse about it. The compact house with its sliding walls makes us think of Kerstin Thompson. Is this our chance to finally have a play with breezeblocks?

We like to be open at this early stage of the design process, to encourage our clients to think creatively about the strategic layout of their house and engage meaningfully in its direction. We keep our rough sketches hidden from David for now, but reassure him that all will be revealed when we next meet. We mention Frankenstein’s monster to him, predicting that he and Louise will inevitably like parts of all three houses. “Option four will be better than all three of these,” we say, “It will have your stamp on it as well as ours.”

Once we have the rough dimensions massed in, we duck outside to check our handiwork. We pace out walls, squinting at the space between us as we try to imagine a house sitting there. There’s a dip in natural ground level to the east that would be the perfect spot for a swimming pool to emerge from the ground. With a bit of earthworks, it could be its own pool fence. Are we too close to the Manna gum? What about the old water tower and the Blackwood growing up through it? Can we snake the driveway around it and turn it into a treehouse for the kids?

Murrindindi; Sketch; Yellow trace; Drawing; Diagram

Ideas fly everywhere, and we rush back to our makeshift studio to scribble them down. Words flow freely and excitedly but are soon forgotten. We need to be careful to capture them all, the little sketches will remind us.

We draw repetitive series of pitched roof forms, simple narrow volumes with lean-tos. We want the house to be humble, connected to the strong Australian heritage of rural construction. There are countless corrugated sheds dotting the landscape, their long forms and gabled roofs powerful inspirations for our own intervention. The house will have its origins in the archetypes of fire pit and tent after all: a place to come together after a day out on the land, and a place to rest in anticipation of tomorrow.

We talk about the bricks, about building fireplaces and fire pits and screens from them. We talk about running them in strips along the floor. We talk about corrugated steel, plywood, timber and glass. Can we do this without structural steel? We like doing magical things with modest materials.

Finally and somewhat reluctantly, we pack up our gear, our sleeping bags and drawing tools. We feel we’ve accomplished more in three days on site than we might have done in three weeks from the studio. Leplastrier clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; River

We head back to Melbourne, our heads full of possibility. We feel we have it all worked out, but at the same time it’s all still up for grabs.

The article first appeared in the December issue of Mezzanine.


Image sources:

  1. Murrindindi, author’s own image
  2. Peewee motorbikes, author’s own image
  3. Campsite, author’s own image
  4. Morning mist, author’s own image
  5. Walking the perimeter, author’s own image
  6. Murrindindi bricks, author’s own image
  7. Manna gum, author’s own image
  8. Design sketches, author’s own image
  9. Murrindindi river, author’s own image

The ideal client

mr. perfect

The relationship we enjoy with our clients is a unique one. We work very closely together with them, often over a number of years. A good client can make even the most difficult project a pleasure, while a bad client can make the easiest a misery. Whether a client will be the former or the latter can often be sensed in the first meeting, but as with any relationship the full tapestry of her personality takes time to be revealed.

The intensity and emotional involvement of the design and construction processes will mean we grow close to our best clients. While we may begin their projects as strangers, we often emerge as friends.

One might expect such a critical element in the success of a project to be something we curate. However, while much effort on our behalf goes into describing what we do, what an architect is, very little in fact goes into explaining what a client does and is. Luck plays too large a part in this arena. We have had clients who understand very well the distinct roles of client and architect, but we have had others treat us like draftspeople or even servants. Perhaps some delicate role education would have prevented these misunderstandings from becoming so painful.

Glenn Murcutt has said he expects his clients to work very hard on his projects, and we imagine he is certainly in a position to only accept those who are prepared to do so. But this statement is at least somewhat true for any positive client / architect relationship. We need a client to invest in her project, dedicate time and energy to it, so that we can better shape it to her needs, tastes and way of living.

This is but one dimension of the role of the client. To understand the nature of the ideal client, we must first ask:

What is a client?

In a world dominated by online shopping, faceless corporations and consumption, a client is almost an archaic concept. Indeed, to understand what a client is, it helps to take one further step back and understand what differentiates her from that other type of consumer, the customer[1]:

client \ˈklī-ənt\
1) one that is under the protection of another
2) a person who engages the professional advice or services of another

customer \’kəs-tə-mər\
1) one that purchases a commodity or service

The client is not the same as the customer. Notice how the dictionary definition of the latter makes direct reference to a commodity, the entire nature of the customer being shaped by the good she hopes to purchase. A customer for a pair of jeans is by nature different from a customer for a wedding dress. The dictionary also makes no reference to the need for expert advice: when the customer walks into a store, she already knows what she wants, be it a car or a chair or a box of cereal. She has a problem (she’s hungry) and knows how to solve it (she buys a box of cereal).

In contrast, the client is shaped not by the good she hopes to purchase but by her relationship to her service provider. Like the customer, she has a problem (she wants somewhere to live) but unlike the customer, she doesn’t know how to solve it. This is typically because the problem is sufficiently complex to require specialist expertise to solve. Thus she engages an architect to help her solve her problem, to provide the house she needs but cannot yet understand.

So, a client is someone who has a problem that needs solving, but lacks the vision and expertise to do the solving on her own. We often think that an important part of the architect’s role is to provide guidance through the murky waters of design, so the further definition of a client as one who is under the protection of another resonates with us. The client solves her problem thanks to this guidance from, and in collaboration with, her architect.

client customer

What is an ideal client?

We have been in practice for long enough to have worked with an ever-widening variety of clients. Some are intensely involved with the design and construction processes, interested in participating in every decision and attending every site meeting. Others are much more hands-off. Some are remarkably design literate, while others can only read floor plans, and yet others only physical models. Some are confident in their decision making, others require extensive support and hand-holding. Some interfere with our work, second guessing and micro-managing us, others leave us alone to get the project done.

We have had good clients and bad clients, and have grown familiar with the qualities that comprise both. The ideal client is:

1. Self-aware

She understands herself, her lifestyle, her tastes and her preferences. She is able to communicate these characteristics to us so that we may enshrine them in our design solution. She recognises that she is not a customer, that she does not know how to solve her problem. She has engaged us to do what she cannot and is comfortable with this relationship.

2. Honest

She treats us not as an opposing force that must be managed, but as a partner in the shaping and execution of her dream and our design vision. She is honest with us, providing both positive and (constructively) negative feedback. She is also honest with herself, recognising that her budget and brief must be aligned with one another, a process of compromise that will require a great deal of self-reflection.

3. Trusting

She inescapably comes to us with a pre-formed picture in her head of how she imagines her project will be. But if we were to design that picture, we would not be doing our job as architects. Our mandate is to take that picture, understand its ambitions and qualities, and improve upon it. A positive emotional response to our design is ideal, but when our proposal differs from the picture in the ideal client’s head, trust in our vision is essential.

4. Decisive

She is not overawed by the quantity of decisions that must be made during the design and construction processes. She can review all the possible kitchen sink options, accept advice on the ones most suitable, choose, and move on without second-guessing herself. She understands that the construction of a building costs a considerable amount of money, and is prepared (if not necessarily overjoyed) to spend it.

5. Committed

She is committed to design quality and appreciates that a work of architecture embodies relationships to history, culture, the city, the street, the natural environment and future generations. She is enthusiastic about our interest in these relationships and is committed to exploring them with us. She shares our architectural values of sustainability, craft and the sublimely utilitarian. She understands the difference between cost and value, and is willing to invest in good design.

What can we learn?

The importance of good clients has long been understood within the architectural community. Historically, the best relationships between architect and client have produced works of great art: from the Medici and their numerous patronages, to the Kaufmann family that commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, to Denton Corker Marshall and their careful collection of jewel-like houses. When the symbiosis during the journey is right, there is no limit to the success of the destination.

To paraphrase Murcutt again, the future of an architectural practice is more powerfully defined by the clients and projects we refuse than the ones we accept. We think he is referring here to the business of architecture. Good clients are vital to the ongoing financial success of a practice: they pay us now, and market us to their friends so that future clients will pay us later. As discussed recently, Neil and Murray Raphael’s loyalty ladder proposes two relationship tiers above client to which an architect can aspire: the advocate and evangelist. In a profession where repeat clients are rare and word of mouth is king, our clients’ preparedness to procure new projects for us is essential.

Despite this understanding, the methods by which we might procure commissions from new clients – great or otherwise – are rarely discussed. Architects are, we believe, needlessly guarded about this subject. Rather than hoard this knowledge in an effort to gain a bigger slice of a shrinking pie, why not share it so that we can all get fair slices of a growing pie? We hope that by understanding what characteristics constitute the ideal client, we will be better armed to attract more of them.


Footnotes:

[1] Dictionary definitions sourced from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Image sources:

  1. Mr. Perfect, Mr. Men. Copyright Roger Hargreaves.
  2. Journeys of the customer and client, author’s own image.

Richard Leplastrier

richard leplastrier

In the early 1960s, during construction of the Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon and his office designed and documented his own house in Bayview, 30km north of Sydney (1965, unbuilt). Utzon agonised over the extent of windows facing a particularly beautiful view. Should the wall be fully glazed or only partially?

After many weeks of indecision, he summoned his staff into the bush and down onto the beach. Utzon had them sit between two large sand dunes, facing towards the water. Their entire field of view comprised the straight line of the sea and curving lines of the dunes. “Watch and wait,” they were instructed. Presently, a seagull flew into sight from behind one dune, across their view corridor, and disappeared behind the other.

Utzon turned to his staff and said, “Only show a part, never show it all. The imagination can fill out the picture more powerfully than reality ever could.”

palm garden house#1

palm garden house#2

palm garden house#3
Palm Garden House, 1976

Who is he?

One of Australia’s most important architects, and also one of the most private, Leplastrier graduated from Sydney University in 1963 and worked with Jørn Utzon then Kenzo Tange prior to establishing his own practice in 1970. He works from his house and studio in Lovett Bay on small, intensely crafted projects. He draws by hand and builds 1:20 scale models detailed enough to be the blueprints off which his designs are built. He is a national treasure who was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1999 and made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2011.

Leplastrier presented the final lecture of the Zeitgeist series at Walsh Street last week, a collaboration between the Robin Boyd Foundation and Centre for Cultural Materials Preservation. The series sought to understand the consequences of making and conserving works of architecture, and to what extent their physical fabric is a measure of design intent. I discussed the first lecture of the series, given by Brian Donovan in February, here.

To wind down the last of the early evening light, Leplastrier began his talk without slides, reflecting on half a century in architecture. He spoke of his university years and the lasting influence of Lloyd Rees, with whom he and his fellow students drew and painted every Wednesday afternoon for five years. He spoke of his apprenticeship in Utzon’s office, still proud that he worked on the Opera House, if only for three weeks, and still disgusted that Utzon was exiled from the project and the country. He discussed his time in Japan, and life lessons learned under Tomoya Masuda, the subtlety of that culture mingling with the brashness of his own middle-class Australian upbringing.

When afternoon eventually graduated to dusk, Leplastrier segued into his visual presentation, beginning with photos of the people by whom he has been most influenced: Rees, Utzon and Masuda principle among them. Then, a selection of slides from around the world that are to him archetypes of sustainability, beauty and cultural value: the Grundtvig Church in Copenhagen, a masterpiece in brickwork so perfect that no brick was cut in its construction; the Ise Naikū Shrine in Japan, that has been rebuilt every twenty years for almost two millennia; and the Stick Shed on the Wimmera, an enduring legacy of Australian wartime ingenuity.

grundtvig church

ise shrine

stick shed

What do I think?

Leplastrier structured his presentation around four projects: his own house and studio, and three houses for private clients spanning forty years. This was a fascinating way of revealing the development in his philosophy of architecture, from the intricate and expensive detailing of Palm Garden House (Sydney, 1976) through to the humble forms of Cloudy Bay Retreat (Bruny Island, 1996) and a recent cottage for an elderly couple, the name of which I have forgotten. Unlike many architects, whose budgets and design ambition expand as their reputations grow, Leplastrier seems to have achieved the reverse. His projects are simpler now, more modest, more direct in their crafting.

I can only speculate, but I imagine this trajectory is reflected in his fees and the cost of his buildings also: they are made from fine materials, but they are small and assembled with a deeply efficient understanding of structure and construction. Leplastrier is not interested in architecture for the money (though as previously discussed, who amongst us are?). Instead, he works for remarkable clients with remarkable briefs on remarkable sites. They all have their own stories, cultural capital from which Leplastrier draws his inspiration. The relationships with the people around him and the land his designs touch, these are the things he cherishes.

Leplastrier is not the sort of architect to whom one goes for a quick bathroom renovation or back verandah extension. To him, architecture is “symphonic, every part crucial to the completeness of the whole. It is more than building, realised through a thorough understanding of place, space, light and structure. Launched into life, such works do not need owners but custodians.” Leplastrier’s clients are his patrons, passionate about the natural environments they inhabit and his vision for their dwellings. He spoke of his first visit to the Palm Garden House site, a piece of land covered end to end by a tropical profusion of palm trees. His future client asked what he had in mind for  the house, to which he answered, “You already have the house, it’s here under the canopy of these trees.” His client said, “I think we can work together.”

He built many of his early projects himself, Palm Garden House and Lovett Bay amongst them, though readily defers to the abilities of master craftsmen. It was clear from his slides that some of his oldest and closest friends are the builders with whom he has worked. Growing up around boats, and the “great boat builders of southern Tasmania,” Leplastrier developed a lasting passion for timber. Synthetic materials, he explained, are remarkable in their own way, but no other material can match the versatility and beauty of timber. He still marvels at the diversity of this naturally-grown material, each species with its own qualities and purposes.

cloudy bay retreat#2

cloudy bay retreat#3Cloudy Bay Retreat, 1996

What did I learn?

Much in keeping with Leplastrier’s approach to architecture, he does not have a website. Printed publications of Leplastrier’s work are also scarce: there is only one that I have come across, in honour of the 2004 Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award, and it has been out of print for years. A small selection of his work can be viewed on the Architecture Foundation Australia website: hopefully this will lead the way in the near future to a much-needed monograph.

The AFA is an organisation that, among other activities, runs annual Student Summer Schools on the Pittwater north of Sydney, a masterclass I was fortunate to attend in early 2008. Leplastrier, together with fellow architects, Peter Stutchbury, Lindsay Johnston and Glenn Murcutt, acted as guide, mentor and critic during an indelible week of collaborative design, drawing, thinking and making.

Even in that setting, surrounded by architects of extraordinary integrity, Leplastrier stood out. His approach to architecture is legendary: he camps for days or weeks on a site prior to commencing design work; his understanding of timber and its characteristics is unparalleled; he eschews fixed price contracts and the detailed documentation they require, working instead within cost plus frameworks and resolving most of his detailing on site; he does not work with ordinary builders, but master craftsmen; he is, and has been for forty-three years, a sole practitioner. Leplastrier is as close to the architectural version of the Bush Tucker Man we have.

Despite not having seen him for five years, Leplastrier recognised me when I greeted him prior to the Zeitgeist lecture, commenting that the audience (whose tickets were all purchased within a day of going on sale) comprised many of his past students. It came as no surprise that the devotion Leplastrier pays to his craft was returned with such enthusiasm. He is a wonderful man and a powerful reminder that architecture can offer something beyond building contracts, marketing and office systems: he is the embodiment of that oft-cited but rarely equalled claim of Frank Lloyd Wright, that architecture is the mother art, without which our civilisation has no soul.

lovett bay#1

lovett bay#2

lovett bay#3

lovett bay#4Lovett Bay House, 1994


Image sources:

  1. Richard Leplastrier, author’s own image with permission of subject
  2. Palm Garden House living roomArchitecture Foundation Australia. Photography for this and subsequent Palm Garden House photos by Michael Wee, source: Karen McCartney; 70 | 80 | 90 Iconic Australian Houses; Murdoch Books; Sydney; 2011
  3. Palm Garden House contextArchitecture Foundation Australia
  4. Palm Garden House drawingsArchitecture Foundation Australia
  5. Grundtvig ChurchJust Talk About Art. Photography by Soy José Antonio Agramunt
  6. Ise Naikū Shrine, John W. Bennett. Photography by John W. Bennett
  7. Murtoa Stick Shed, Culture Victoria. Photography by Heritage Victoria
  8. Cloudy Bay Retreat context, Architecture Foundation Australia. Photography for this and subsequent Cloudy Bay Retreat and Lovett Bay House images by Leigh Wooley and others
  9. Cloudy Bay Retreat drawingArchitecture Foundation Australia
  10. Lovett Bay House living deck, Architecture Foundation Australia
  11. Lovett Bay House contextArchitecture Foundation Australia
  12. Lovett Bay House canopyArchitecture Foundation Australia
  13. Lovett Bay House interiorArchitecture Foundation Australia

Small projects

safari roof house courtyard

safari roof house vineSafari Roof House

What was it?

A national lecture tour held last week for the Australian Institute of Architects by Malaysian architect, Kevin Low, and hosted in Melbourne by the ever-entertaining Stuart Harrison. Small Projects is also the name of Low’s studio, which has an almost exclusive focus on buildings of residential scale or smaller.

Founded in 2002, Small Projects has a growing body of work possessing exquisite yet honest detail: retractable windows whose only mark on their surrounds are fine tracks recessed into the floors and ceilings that support them; steel structure and door handles whose lacquered surfaces reveal untouched fabrication stamps; simple copper plumbing celebrated on rough canvasses of concrete and brick.

This attention to the art of making continues into Low’s intriguing practice of wabi sabi, where minor errors in construction are left exposed to recall the narrative of their creation. He spoke in depth about narrative, about what he sees as the opposition between form and content. Where architecture has form as its creative origin, form devoid of narrative is the result. Where architecture has content as its origin, form driven by narrative is the result. He illustrated: commercially available shower sets are shiny and symmetrical, aesthetically pristine, but one is drenched in cold water when reaching to turn on the taps; in contrast, Low offsets his taps from the shower head, letting the cold water splash freely at a safe distance. Form is made beautiful by the narrative of bathing.

Low’s works are raw, subtle and humble: honesty and simplicity are valued more highly than refinement; materials are left to express themselves without interference; formal compositions favour contextualisation over heroics.

gnarly houseGnarly House

What do we think?

Despite the quality of Low’s work, it is perhaps unusual that he possesses international fame. He has, after all, neither sought it nor worked beyond the borders of his native Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore. He is the exact opposite of the starchitect, with a deep interest in craft, climate and local culture. Firmly anchored to their place, his works have far more in common with those of our own Glenn Murcutt (whom he referenced on more than one occasion), America’s Tom Kundig or Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor.

Low reflects on his attitude towards work that “he climbs mountains not so the world can see him, but so he can see the world.” Despite having studied in the United States, Italy, Yemen, Spain and Bangladesh, he has no interest in populating the far corners of the globe with his buildings. Indeed, the body of knowledge he requires to execute his unique designs has taken a lifetime to accumulate: undertaking a project in any other country would require he start from scratch all over again.

Much like Murcutt, Low’s mode of practice relies on detailed understanding of construction techniques, available materials and precise dimensions of building sections. Also like Murcutt, and perhaps therefore, unsurprisingly, Low works alone. What started as a desire to not grow too quickly has become an ongoing force of habit. With neither staff nor family, Low has the luxury of hand picking his projects: he has turned down 10 commissions so far this year.

This statement was met by exclamations of disbelief from the Melbourne audience, which was populated by an unusually large number of established architects. For a design culture in Australia that at times values growth and productivity over all else, the idea that work can be refused, that growth can be resisted, was deeply alien. But for Low, whose humble bearing reinforced his monk-like attitude to work and family, it makes perfect sense.

threshold houseThreshold House

What can we learn?

Low’s projects are, first and foremost, interested in first principles.

They enjoy a powerful connection with their tropical, southeast Asian climate. Gardens look through dining rooms into other gardens; courtyards are populated by dense forest plantings; swimming pools are left untiled to grow subtle layers of algae; vines grow on every available surface.

They are inextricably tied to the personalities of their unique inhabitants, narrative nestled within both the theatre and everyday routine of living. Boot prints are deliberately left in the polished concrete floor surface of a builder’s headquarters; a glass roof to a shed requires its users rake away accumulated leaves to control the entry of natural light; translucent roofs to living rooms permit trees to grow amongst the couches and coffee tables.

Materials are treated with honesty and respect, the effort that goes into their crafting rewarded by leaving them exposed. Low does not strive for the exactitude we have seen in the work of the Japanese greats, instead relishing the limitations of Malaysia’s construction industry. Making is to be celebrated; rough texture is all the better for the light and shadow it catches; there is no shame in errors.

We would do well to take a leaf from Low’s book, to go back to basics wherever possible. Architecture is not about the assembly of mass-produced, highly machined products shipped in from all corners of the planet: why not examine what we have here and create something sublime from the opportunities we find?

Low commented during the discussion session after his lecture that the modern world wrongly assumes the client is the top priority of any project, that because he pays the bills, his interests are paramount. In Low’s opinion, the top priority of a project is the project. It takes a unique client to be at peace with this paradigm, but it is one we find inspiring: the buildings we design will outlast the client as surely as they will outlast us. Between us, surely we owe it to the built environment to leave a lasting legacy of creativity, ingenuity and quality.

louvrebox house courtyard

louvrebox house entryLouvrebox House

Stick with it until the end

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

16. Stick with it until the end

A piece of insight a mentor of mine, Col Bandy, gave me years ago went like this: “I divide my fee into three thirds – design, documentation and administration. I make money on design, break even on documentation and lose on administration.”

What does this mean? Should I look only for projects without administration?

In short, the answer is no. Administration is the most important phase of the entire project. Glenn Murcutt and Tom Kundig both agree that it is in administration that a design is tested, executed and truly proven: the best design continues down to the very last detail, a truth that can only be realised by staying involved until the keys are handed over. Ian Perkins concurs, though for another reason. He told me once that he has never been commissioned for a second project by a client whose first project he didn’t administer. Telling advice for an architect whose whole practice is based on repeat work.

Administration is when design turns into making. It’s when you see how lines on a page erupt into three dimensional space; when you see which details work and which don’t; when you discover which opportunities were missed; and when you learn how serendipity always materialises when you least expect it.

Administration is also the best opportunity to have the successful execution of a project indelibly associated with your own efforts (you might have spent hundreds of hours on documentation, but this connection is far more easily understood once the building actually starts rising from the ground). Administration is a loss-making exercise yes, but it is also a loss-leading exercise. It’s how you will win your next project, and your next, and the next one after that.

Stick with it until the end.

Tomorrow is defined by what you do today

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

12. Tomorrow is defined by what you do today

The inestimable Glenn Murcutt has said that an architect’s future is defined less by the projects he accepts than by those he doesn’t.

Let me illustrate this advice with a story:

A young man is starting out in life as an architect, running his own studio. His passion is for designing environmentally-friendly family houses and hopes fervently to make a future name for himself in that typology. However, of greater immediate importance the young architect must eat, must pay his mortgage, pay his bills, clothe himself. So he grudgingly accepts a commission to design a simple factory for a wealthy industrialist. The fee is good, but the project is mindless. Perhaps the industrialist, happy with the young architect’s work on the factory, will give him another project to design – maybe even his own house. But the industrialist does not. Instead, he tells his industrialist friends about the excellent job the architect did on the factory. With no environmentally-friendly houses on the horizon, and bills mounting up, the architect has no choice but to accept the inevitable factory projects that come his way. 20 years later, the architect is an expert in factories, wealthy because of it but unhappy.

With word of mouth playing such a large role in defining any architect’s marketing strategy, you cannot underestimate the influence your current activities will have on those of your future. The projects you are working on now are your greatest marketing devices – they are combination billboard, business card and testimonial. But they are also proof of expertise – a happy client will give you a better recommendation than one you could ever fabricate yourself, but it is common sense that they will only recommend you for the same work you did for them.

So choose your projects with care. Chase the ones you want and have the courage to say no to those you don’t. And when you win a project, design conscientiously but market shamelessly.

Tomorrow is defined by what you do today.

Tom Kundig, a poet and a butcher


Delta Shelter, Washington

Who is he?

Principal of Seattle-based architecture studio, Olson Kundig Architects. Kundig recently toured Australia as a guest of the excellent C + A journal, presenting insight into the origins of his unique architectural philosophy and the raw yet intricately detailed projects that result.

He discussed his formative inspirations, mostly derived from non-architectural fields and experiences, all tied strongly to the rural area of his childhood years: the lightness and elegance of rock climbing the Cascade mountains, as well as the craft of its equipment; the use of gravity and creative mechanical solutions for mining and mineral extraction; the exploitation of hydraulics and lever pulleys in timber logging; the fine line between high- and low-brow art in hot rod building.

The projects that have followed are all recognisable extensions of Kundig’s inspirations. They are not only sublime, but reveal a practice of architecture dedicated to uncovering the unique. The gizmos for instance that have helped establish his international reputation are not in fact achieved by his own hand. Instead, the practice employs a mechanical specialist to convert Kundig’s simple sketches into jewellery-like systems of tractor parts, balanced weights, pulleys and hydraulic valves.

To reiterate: Olson Kundig Architects employs someone whose sole responsibility it is to craft mechanical gizmos. No drawings, models or specifications: just tooling away in a workshop all day making machinery. Surely that’s the clearest sign of an architect’s self-conviction we’ve ever seen.

Chicken Point Cabin, Northern Idaho

What do we think?

In his dedication to the hot rod-inspired gizmo, we think of Kundig as a type of concrete poet. He understands that precious little of architecture is mobile – usually just doors, windows, joinery and fixtures – so invests all his energy into making those parts sing. His use of the most basic materials – steel primarily, untreated and unfinished – reveals the desire to return to the first principles of physical delight, the joy and wonder of a child discovering the world for the first time.

Put simply, we love Kundig’s work and have boundless admiration for its unique resolution. The silky concrete, untreated steel and intricate details of his designs, though never the same, are instantly recognisable. Simultaneously heavy and light, they are remarkable edifices evoking the passion for wilderness of America’s mountain heritage. Unlike Glenn Murcutt‘s much-quoted philosophy of touching the earth lightly however, Kundig’s work is anything but. The Pierre for instance involved chiselling, jack-hammering and dynamiting a large rock on site until it formed the core around which the house now pivots.

The Pierre, San Juan Islands

Shadowboxx House, San Juan Islands

Instead of treading lightly, Kundig uses the land. His buildings develop a powerful symbiosis with their contexts, as much a part of them as the trees and rocks and lizards. They grow out of rock formations, stand cleanly amongst copses of threadbare cedars, and in the case of Shadowboxx House, nestle into the aggressively angled pine trees at the edge of wind-affected cliff tops.

It is this preparedness to use the land that makes us think of Kundig as not only a poet but a butcher also. The boutique, high quality kind of butcher who so dearly loves the animal he kills that he ensures it is raised well, slaughters it painlessly, then uses every last part, exploiting the best qualities of each and wasting nothing. In loving the land so much, in understanding the nuance of each and every quality, Kundig recognises that his architecture irrevocably alters those qualities. His architecture strives to become a fundamental part of the land, to make something better of it.

Beyond land and place, Kundig continues his close relationship with the act of making all the way down to the smallest of details. He spoke repeatedly of striving to avoid the inevitable commodities of architecture: off the shelf taps, towel rails, door handles, joinery handles, caster wheels. Like Frank Lloyd Wright before him, he replaces the commodities of a building with once-off creations, as much a part of his designs as the walls and windows. Fireplaces and bathroom sinks feature heavily, beaten from mild steel or even roughly carved from a fragment of rock blasted from the site. A door handle may be a simple strip of copper peeled back from the door’s surface and folded to fit the shape of a hand. A staircase may be welded from sheets of raw steel, their fabrication marks left as evidence of their recent extraction from the ground. In time, these marks fade as other marks of use are revealed.

Kundig’s Signature Collection of architectural componentry espouse the value in making. Somewhat oxymoronically, they are now available for purchase and have themselves been converted into commodities

What did we learn?

Steel oxidises, copper patinas, rock crumbles. Even in the smallest of details, Kundig’s work looks towards the specificity of place and the symbiosis of environment and architecture. He uses mild steel, not stainless, content to let the land take its slow, inevitable toll on its surface. The marks of use are augmented by the marks of the environment.

Kundig may be famous for his intricate gizmos – and they certainly reveal a dedication to play and childish joy – but they are really just a single part of a more complex whole. Kundig is inspired by both the natural and mechanical environments. In his works, the lightness of the climb and the basic laws of physics exist in harmony with the expedience of the farmer and the genius of the logger. He seeks to fashion holistic buildings where every part is significant, and has successfully generated a body of work reflective of an enlightened regionalism dedicated to the pursuit of fine craft.

Kundig seeks to plug his buildings directly into the land that supports them. His modus operandi establishes an intensely intimate and wonderfully fruitful dialogue between land, client and architect. We hope that despite his practice’s surprisingly large size (100 architects plus support staff), he continues to invest himself critically in the design of fascinating architecture of great quality and honesty.


Studio House, Washington