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

Sweat the small stuff

sweat the small stuff

This is the 11th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

11. Sweat the small stuff

In the architecture studio I run with my wife, we believe that design doesn’t stop until the builder hands over the keys.

I don’t think I ever would have predicted this of us when we were students, but we love detail. There is great satisfaction in channeling the aspirations of a sketch design into the exigencies of construction. Architecture is about building after all, and buildings are filled with small things. It is with detailing that the big ideas find expression in the things you hold and manipulate: doors, door handles, cupboards, drawers, towel rails, taps. It is also here that we get to produce really beautiful drawings, filled with 1:5 details exploring the tiniest of junctions.

Unfortunately, this attitude towards detail is the opposite of what is typically taught at university. At university, you learn that real design means sketch design. Everything that happens afterwards is less important.

But this is to ignore the long tradition of architects whose details were their forte: Gaudí, Wright, Aalto, Scarpa, Leplastrier, Zumthor, Stutchbury. It also ignores some of the best opportunities for your project to shine.

I ask my students to think about joinery, bench seats, desks, storage, shelves, light fittings, handrails, balustrades, screens, tables and chairs. Instead of downloading SketchUp blocks of Eiffel Chairs (these days as ubiquitous as birds flying off in the distance), design something yourself. A chair or a handrail offers as much potential to express your ideas as does the building form. Indeed, by carrying the ideas of your form making into these details, you enliven your project and convince me you understand the human scale of architecture.

Image source

  1. Sweat the small stuff, 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

Look back in order to move forward

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?

11. Look back in order to move forward

Self-reflection is a time-consuming activity easily left in the wake of the rigours of architectural practice, of deadlines and invoicing and cash-flow. Yet how can you design buildings without understanding your own works?

There is great discipline required in sitting down to examine a completed project, to sift through all its grand ideas and form making gestures, its fine details and even its administration to determine what happened and why. Most importantly, this process offers the possibility of discovering something worth holding onto, something worth repeating or developing for the next project.

An architect is not judged by any single project but by his whole opus: Santiago Calatrava is recognised for the evocativeness of his structure, Bjarke Ingels for his decisively cerebral interventions, Peter Stutchbury for his immaculately crafted detailing. Establish the discipline to reflect on your works, to create common threads and themes between them and your opus will benefit greatly.

Look back in order to move forward.