Monday, January 26, 2015

RICHARD LEPLASTRIER: THE EPHEMERAL ARCHITECTURE OF WATER, WIND AND CLOUDS


The photograph that accompanied the promotional material shows an ‘old salt’ image, a head with the weathered, wise face of experience, matted with thick, grey wind-blown hair, and with knowing eyes squinting as they scan the open horizon, dreaming of past expeditions and new ones, as the body senses the meaning of the wind, the water and the clouds, feeling for other worlds in new possibilities: quietly assessing them. It is the archetypal representation of the land-locked sailor. Only the beard, the cap, and the pipe are missing. It is Richard Leplastrier: the mysterious name from afar mesmerises too, such is Australia’s response to difference.



'Old salts'

The regular monthly talk at Bond University’s Sohiel Abedian School of Architecture on Thursday 22 January 2015 was presented by Richard Leplastrier (RL). He called it ‘Odds ‘n’ Ends.’ The ‘n’ was interesting as it displayed a certain casual attitude to formalities. One had to go. A tall, imposing RL strolled up to the front of the ‘forum’ space in his open, loose shirt and unkempt hair. He carelessly dumped his leather haversack on the table and stood at a distance from the artful lectern shaped as ‘Gehry’ folds, to talk, as if to make a point that this was not going to be a ceremonial occasion. He was here to chat about himself and his work. It seemed that he had never treated people as objects to be kept at a distance and was not going to do so on this occasion.

Typical 'old salt' image

The evening started with the introduction by the new head of school, an old friend. He told how Richard had insisted on his spending time in each of his houses before he was allowed to write about Leplastrier’s work, some twenty years ago. Such was this man.


The evening finished at 7:55pm. It had started late, but this is the usual Bond circumstance that seems to relate to bar service. One instinctively knew that Richard Leplastrier would finish on time. Previous talks had the speakers going on and on about themselves and their work, regardless of anything or anyone else: see.- http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html  RL had the reputation for careful detail. He did not disappoint. Unlike previous speakers, he was immediately aware of the poor acoustics in this space and asked if folk could hear. The microphone was adjusted. This same awareness followed through to the end when he finished his presentation five minutes before the allotted time, allowing for questions. There were none. Not even the cliché, self-important ‘mouth’ that always seems to want to jump up and make an unnecessary point, was moved into action, even though prompted several times. Such was the spirit of the evening. Its authority had a ‘Zen-like’ calming effect on everyone. The audience was left mesmerised, longing for and wondering on the vagaries of emotion that had been expressed. The evening was special because of this. RL had this effect on everyone as he told his stories: his history and its myths.


I had heard RL talk before. I recall an intriguing talk at the University of Queensland, (where he was described as ‘good value’), with memorable lines: “choose your graduate thesis carefully as one always takes this subject through one’s life.” Indeed one does. His was a world of care, of intimacy with things and people, and details. He noted how he carried a magnifying glass to look more closely at the details of this world: in this case the finely mitred joints on the lectern he was standing at, and the scales on the moth’s wing – the moth that had landed on his drawing board one evening. His inspiration and mentor was Jørn Utzon. The promo also noted his experience in Japan. He was a man with intimate links to living legends now passed on. He was the connection to wonders from afar. He carried this reputation mythically and enhanced it as a fairytale in both his work and his life.



The talk began with how the winds and currents around the east coast of Australia and the lands of its northern neighbours are generated. These were the links, routes that Indonesian sailors used in the past for trade. This antipodes had intimate links to a world well beyond Australia. This was one point critical to the RL approach to things. RL noted that he had no visions or ambitions for anything uniquely ‘Australian,’ but he did respect our aboriginal people and their understanding of this country. His work involved the broader region; anything meaningful and of quality was useful. He showed his sketches in Indonesia from his travel notebooks, drawings that had been made years ago and that had become the guide for all of his work. The Bali compound showed how each house was spiritually linked to the sacred mountain by having its prayer room located on the corner nearest to this locus, this focus. Then the details of the various shelters in the complex were explored. RL lamented the loss of ritual in our lives.




The images raced across the screen in uncontrolled mayhem as the equipment went out of control. After some further confusion, the remote was taken over by the new head of school who struggled with it, but did finally manage to control the gadgetry: irrationally pressing both buttons together seemed to be the answer! One used to struggle with Kodak Carousel projectors when lecturing. It seems that technology will never let us down: there will always be unforseen problems arising at the wrong time. RL went back to an image of ancient dry stone walls. He spoke of this image as being of ‘somewhere in Orkney’ that showed ancient place – a place to sit; to lie; to eat; a place for entry; for fire; etc. - basic habitation, the core of his architecture. This was Skara Brae.

Skara Brae, 'somewhere in Orkney'


It was extremely disappointing to see this icon of the past described so obliquely, dismissively, as being only ‘somewhere in Orkney,’ not even named as Skara Brae. It is a Neolithic settlement, the most complete prehistoric village in Europe, occupied from about 3180 BCE – 2500 BCE. The wild winds and waters of a storm exposed the site in 1850. It is now a World Heritage listed place. It is located on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands, on the west coast near Sandwick. If RL is wishing to be so precise about eulogising micro place, then he needs to be better with macro things too. It seems that this was an illustration taken from a book to become a part of his mythic story, to enhance it with images of things ancient and quaint. Skara Brae is much more than merely being something ‘somewhere’: see - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skara_Brae  It stands on the same island as Maes Howe and the Ring of Brodgar, both near Stennes with its stones in central Mainland: true ancient mythic place with power and mystery; not quite an RL building, even though he might like it to be.

Ring of Brogdar

Maes Howe



Then his own early work was shown: his first house. “I could do much better now,” was the comment. It had no place for fire – hint: ‘Skara Brae’ is important because of this. As the images flicked around, other houses were shown. Then photographs of the Urangan pier came to light. This beautiful structure showed how Australian hardwoods could be used. It was indeed a marvellous item. RL did not forget to comment on the beautiful tidal patterns that scalloped the sands around the piers. This was indeed an iconic structure. Little wonder that he thought so much of it.


Urangan Pier - a link between land and water
SEE ALSO ** BELOW




More houses: his own, built many years ago. This was a pre-fabricated building. RL noted that all of his work from 1976 on could be ‘dis-assembled’ and re-assembled. Isn’t everything? The old Queenslander house is carried around on the back of a truck without having to pull it apart. This RL house was a timber structure, with plywood gussets cantilevering over wide-open decks. The bath and its heater were on one; the kitchen on another. All walls could be opened. One lived on, sat on, ate on, slept on the floor, made of single species/pieces of timber, as is done in Asia. There was no apology for drawing from other cultures. This place was built from a 1:20 model, not drawings. The builder was the best ever: “I would trust him with my life.” There was no engineer: “It was designed full-size, as boats are.” The boast was that the wide cantilevers did not deflect much when swung on. There was no contract, and never has been with this builder. This was a plywood house, with plywood boxes shaping the perimeter for storage, with windows lights between.


RL pointed out that one was likely to ask about the messy junction on a perticular corner in one photograph. Indeed, it had passed through my mind. He explained that this detail was developed from the need to do away with heavy timbers for the hip cantilever. He noted that Frank Lloyd Wright had ‘cheated’ by using steel in such locations. I doubt this as Edgar Tafel, an apprentice and close confidant of Wright, (he introduced Wright to the contractor of the Guggenheim in New York), tells the story of how he was sacked by Wright for secretly telling a young apprentice to put steel into a carport cantilever. RL further added that in Japan, large tree trunks were used as hips. In RL’s house, the ‘messy’ detail allowed all cantilever trusses to be identical without the need for any heavy structure. The ‘ugly’ clash was for simplicity’s sake. These trusses hung from a main truss that went along the full width of the building against the gable end, thus creating this ad hoc intersection. I was reminded of the identical detail seen at the Nimbin showgrounds: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/deeargee-gostwyck-shed-and-chapel.html 


RL used this explanation to digress into a story about mitres. He once made a model for Utzon with some beautiful mitred joints – perfect; but a surprised, stooped Utzon gawked at them and exclaimed: “One should never use a mitre. No material should be taken to infinity.” So, this was now RL ‘gospel.’ The RL house was light, airy and supported his family’s unique lifestyle of openness on a site that appeared to be remote, large and bushy. It was a special case. It quietly mocked suburbia with its inclusive differences that, ironically, excluded certain outcomes and possibilities in other contexts.




The evening moved quickly, but efficiently. RL likes rammed earth walls. He showed some. He was inventive with details. I was reminded of the books of Ron Edwards on rammed earth construction and leatherwork. He sketched all of the details in these Rams Skull Press publications, recording observations in much the same manner as RL had done during his trips, skilfully and accurately, informatively. Ron Edwards learned about earth construction from the Chinese: in Xian. RL showed some newer houses. One house was described as being prosaic externally, (and it was), but startling inside. Well, it was different. A central rammed earth wall became a free-standing spine over which natural light flooded and along which carpets on frames acted as dividers. This house seemed to be on a large open site too.


Then the sketch of the house in a fire region was shown, located in a forest of large, 30m-plus high spotted gums. This was built on a terrace – from ‘terra’ meaning earth. It was an earth bank. Here curved stone walls and metal soffit cladding shaped as the roofs on silos are, (these functional structures are pyramidal squares with a soffit cut over a circular form for simplicity, again), formed a shell that opened up when away from the major flame risk, towards the terrace. Windows were screened and could slide down, counter-weighted, to open fully when needed, like the doors to the terrace. One press of the button and this holiday home would close. The pit for the fire could apparently take a huge log that would burn all winter. Go away, and it would still be smouldering when one returned. This did not seem a good idea in a fire area! It all seemed like a fantasy, but it was apparently real.


Again, the country builders used here were the best ever. They were given the space to change things as they thought appropriate, but these must have been minor in this well-thought-out house with sliding slat screens inside, (as seen in Thailand): a movement of only 25mm closed the openings. RL did not seem to be that free with leaving things to others, even though the story sounds good. It is a typical Aussie fable: the ordinary bushie, (and the common bloke), knows more and better than the learned professional. The television advertisements promote it all the time: “You can do better!” Most architects have experienced this attitude. It is what has placed the profession into such an isolated corner, seen as an unnecessary luxury. The comment has been made: “I could get the swimming pool for the fees they charge!” Strangely, this fire-house did not look that easy to dis-assemble. Come to think of it, an Ikea flat pack is not that easy to undo either.



Then, as time drew close to the scheduled end, RL spoke about the trophy he had designed: a beautifully polished, wriggly-grained red cedar box with a smartly polished cast bronze aerofoil, complete with a saddle-makers-made leather bag, (“Yes, you can do it” was the comment made to the astonished saddler when asked to make this). The bag had pockets for everything including the gloves needed to handle this precious masterpiece: all bespoke. Gloves! Does one live with gloves in Australia? This seemed to suggest that the trophy must be very precious, as though one might be handling a priceless antique, an ancient relic or an old manuscript. The project appeared to matter to RL, enough for him to want to talk about it. Oddly, he apologised for wearing boots in his own house, as the photograph of him working on the trophy showed. Had he been caught out? The story promoted his ‘barefoot’ existence.



Finally, “very quickly,” RL spoke about his civic planning for defence lands that had been handed over to the public. Here he worked with another ‘genius’ builder, a surveyor named John Simpson, (yes, another one), who built things to within one millimetre and less: stone paths, seats with bronze brackets, (designed to the Swedish 104 degrees), and stairs. RL noted that the public must have the very best. These places have apparently never been vandalised. As a part of this scheme, RL had designed the toilet block, a Kahn-like structure with square toilet areas in each corner of a square, set out around a square courtyard with a paperbark tree in the centre. The stainless steel custom orb panels were set off the floor so that the cleaner could hose, clean and water the gardens all at once. There was seat in this area, yes, complying with the 104-degree Swedish design: do Swedes sit differently to others? It was on this seat that RL once saw a lady eating her lunch in this toilet block. No, she was not waiting for anyone. She just liked the place. The roof fell into the open courtyard with, surprisingly, what appeared to be four valley gutters – reverse hips that RL had earlier explained were things, like mitres, that needed to be avoided. The story seemed to be getting a little confused in its own indulgences. Were cracks showing?


What is going one here? Why make such a palaver about mitres and then use them? Why boast about no vandalism when we all know that there is. I recall how our Chinese guide in Beijing had bragged that one could leave a bike for weeks anywhere in the city and it would still be there to pick up whenever one wanted it. The story was that there was no crime in China. I guess that is why they shoot people: or perhaps the chance of being shot is why the bikes stay there? In my own public work, I have discovered that it is the Council and other architects who are the worst vandals. Generally the public acts responsibly; but a beautiful cast bronze seat disappeared shortly after the riverside walk had been opened, even though it had been bolted down.



RL then spoke of the one person who had been his inspiration over the years, ever since he had been 15 years old. This was real reverie and recollection: almost a confession. It was Dr. Manfred Curry, 1899 - 1953. An image of the man on his book cover was projected onto the screen. He was a sailor who had written many books including: “Yacht Racing: The Aerodynamics of Sails and Racing Tactics;” “The Beauty of Skating;” “Clouds, Wind and Water;” “Beauty of Flight.” RL spoke of this man as a genius. He apparently was the inspiration behind Ben Lexcen’s design for the famous winged keel. Forms had a precise relationship to their functions; functions to their forms. This was pure Louis Sullivan looking at a flower.




Finally it became clear: one understood the man of myth and mystery. RL was a sailor. He designed like a boat builder. He created flat-pack homes, places that could be moved like a boat. He was aware of climate and place: weather and navigation. His buildings were designed with these in mind. He was a free spirit in love with the world and its people. Then one recalled how this whole talk had started with a detailed explanation of winds and tides. These, wind and water, were the core of all of RL’s work that could be seen as passing clouds: light, airy, carefree, moveable, nebulous, perhaps cumulus, shaped as sails for wind over water, on terra firma. These elements, as for the traders of old, were his guides and have been for his whole life. The trophy seems to stand as his icon, the aerofoil in polished bronze.


Perhaps it says more too: that RL’s work is special – that it has to be handled with gloves or else it will dissipate, be degraded, spoiled. His is a special way of looking at the world; of living, under the stars, as a star, albeit perhaps reluctantly. It is not for all. Where is the suburban house? Where is the commercial development? Where is the industrial building? Where is the inner-city building? All of his works seem to be in special places for special people, constructed by special people, to special rules and dreamed of rituals. A world without engineers; a world without contracts; a world without drawings: this is the world of the poet, of the dreamer, one who lives in a special place, in a different manner. How could everyman live in open exclusion? He has lived, and still lives this life and tells about it like a storyteller of old. His experience is a fairytale, a myth that he promotes for others to drool over – if only: but gaps seemed to appear: (see *NOTE below).



RL closed his talk politely like the ancient bard: “that is the end of my story.” Any questions? Not one. This reflected the quality of the evening. Folk sat silenced in what seemed to be a mesmerising haze, gaze, thinking: why can I not do this? What have I done with my life? What might I do with it to be so free? Freedom is a double-edged sword. It needs its own space and controls, its limits, to be, like democracy.*


This Bond talk was different to the other U of Q lecture: it seemed more autobiographical. It appeared that RL was reflecting on his output in much the same manner as Sidney Nolan had done when he asked to be allowed time alone to stroll through his large, last retrospective show in Australia. Nolan left feeling that he was content with his life and his work. RL started at the beginning, wind and water, and sailed through his output. It seemed that he was content too.




But why not things Australian? It seemed strange that RL might be keen to relate to silos and bush carpentry when so much was sourced elsewhere. The culture of a place is necessarily linked to its people and location; its circumstance. Is sitting on the floor Australian? Can it be? What is Australian? The other day I was given a container of chilli peanuts. The can was interesting as it was designed to look like a can of beer, complete with a look-alike pull ring on the top; but it was a fake. The lid lifted off just like a small biscuit tin. It was as interesting as the lens cup: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/08/lens-cup-art-of-seeing-as.html  These nuts, (they were discarded because they were sludgy like boiled peanuts with only a little chilli), were promoted as potent, manly things: ‘MAN CAVE CHILLI PEANUTS’: ‘Best with your feet up and the telly on: must have nuts!’ – and so it goes on: ‘What happens in the man cave stays in the man cave.’ Then there were rules that strangely start at number 11:
11                Hydrate with beer
12                Scratch where it itches
13                Rude behaviour tolerated
14                Flatulence encouraged
15                Toilet seat stays up
16                No tofu
17                No crying
18                No whining
19                No pink
20                What happens in the man cave stays in the man cave.



Along the base of the can were more rules: ‘No lip gloss; No flowers; No chick flicks.’
This incredible, astonishing, yes, embarrassing promotional packaging seems to be responding to something. If one looks at commercial television, especially morning television, one can see how this attitude does reflect something in our ‘blokey’ culture. Does RL recognise this divide? His world is the antithesis of this, but it does not make the ‘Man Cave’ attitude an irrelevant part of our culture or non-existent. It is interesting that RL likened his fire-house to sitting in an aboriginal cave. If this raw, rude attitude displayed on this fake beer can is our ‘Aussie’ culture, or even a part of it, then what is our ‘Aussie’ architecture? Is this why RL avoids our culture? One can excuse him, for it does leave one cringing as it touches a sensitive core that is more gentle, more responsive to love and care. If one wants confirmation of this brashness, just look at Australians behaving overseas and screaming at sports matches.


We may be saddened by any lack of ritual to shape our life patterns and places, but ritual is integrally rooted in a society’s symbolisms and beliefs that lie at the core of a culture. They are not fabricated by interesting and different architectures. They need their mountain reference. They are there, but they are not those of Bali. They are far more crass. Architecture ends up reflecting what a culture really is. Sadly, even though we may not like it, we see this ‘architecture’ everywhere, in every suburb and in every CBD. RL’s work lies hidden as a recluse, remote from any cohesive and ‘real’ everyday world. It stands as an example of what might be; what we might become - if only. Hence the silence of the evening that left folk pondering possibilities that really are impossibilities for every man: everyman.


Leplastrier and the 'ugly' corner

Poets might show how to touch magic; others might try to follow; but life forces, like the waters and the winds, cannot be easily changed without some significant geological, ecological disruption. A ripple of winds on waters reflecting clouds is as ephemeral as an illusion that one can only foolishly hope to hold. The potency of RL is that he tells us that he has seen, has lived and is living this dream: his fairy story, his myth of the moment. These are his visions that we like to listen to, to see, for we all live in hope. They are the interminable, embroidered stories of sailors, wise ‘old salts,’ travellers who have known other mysterious lands, wonders from afar. People will always stand agog in amazement as the yarns are told, with an eager yearning. The situation has the characteristics of a cargo cult. RL tells us of a paradise where everything is good, beautiful and possible.


Curry sailing

Gosh, who wouldn’t like to go sailing into a world without contracts; without drawings; without engineers; with supportive clients; with skilled, committed builders who don’t stand and argue: “No one will ever see it. This is how we always do it. You wouldn’t do that. That will cost you more.” What might it be like to work with builders who do not have ‘a degree in excuses,’ a phrase that the scriptwriters of The Bill must have loved to include in their mellow drama? If only! “Onya Ozzie!”


*NOTE:
The rude mocking disregard that architects have for everyday architecture is clearly displayed in Hot Modernism, an exhibition of local modern architecture held in the State Library in Brisbane: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/hot-modernism-architecture-in.html  Here the very small section on government housing had photographs displayed high on the wall, overhead, with portions of this wall obscured by parts of the core display, a ‘reconstruction’ of a Hayes and Scott house. It showed a contemptuous indifference to this Housing Commission work and other ‘ordinary’ buildings that fill the suburbs of Brisbane, the other cities and towns of Queensland, and those throughout Australia. Until architects are able to come to terms with this ordinary work, they will be left in their own special environment, where they drool over the Leplastrier stories, and try to build and live them, while scoffing at all others who seek a meek and modest, everyday living. The Ruskin/Pevsner vision of architecture as ‘special building’ has to be overcome. We need to learn how to respect and build ordinary, extraordinary buildings for everyone. It really is too easy to do otherwise: too arrogant; too indulgent; too exclusive. Little wonder that architects are ignored as superfluous dilettantes: seen and mocked as a waste of space, time and money.




THE PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL

Richard Leplastrier: Odds ‘n’ Ends

Calendar  Talks Gold Coast, 22 Jan 2015
Richard Leplastrier Image: Leigh Woolley
Seminal Australian architect Richard Leplastrier is presenting the first lecture of the 2015 series at the Abedian School of Architecture.
Leplastrier began his career as an apprentice to Jørn Utzon working at the time of the Sydney Opera House. He’s also studies under the tutelage of Kenzo Tange and Tomoya Masuda at Kyoto University. The influence of Japanese design and craft is palpably evident in his work along with ancient Aboriginal ideas of connection to the land. Leplastrier is known as a great first principles thinker. His small but exquisite buildings from the Palm Garden House (1976) to the Design Centre Tasmania (2002), home to the Tasmanian Wood Design Collection, are a demonstration of these principles.
Leplastrier continues to inspire architects through the Glenn Murcutt International Masterclass which has amassed over four hundred alumni from around the world. Leplastrier was awarded the Gold Medal in 1999 from the Australian Institute of Architects and most recently, he was honoured by the Royal Institute of British Architects in its 2015 International Fellowships.
Thursday, January 22
6:30–8:00pm
CPD Points apply. Register here.



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THE CONTEXT

Some snaps taken to give a sense of place for the evening's talk: Even new buildings have problems with services, acoustics, reflections and glare.


The fire exit

The screen with the surrounding LED glare


Designer seating - is it really a bag hook?





Height that does not help the acoustics

Views out reflecting those in



The arty lectern with taped cord

The mezzanine

High glare


* 31 January 2015
In a letter from Cairo's grim Tora Prison published in The Weekend Australian,, Peter Greste, the award-winning Al Jazeera journalist who has been wrongly imprisoned for 400 days, writes: "Freedom is a continual fight."


* * 2 February 2015
For more on jetty construction see: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/offtrack/port-germein-jetty/6021166

BRACED FOR STRENGTH AGAINST THE TIDES, THE PORT GERMEIN JETTY IS MADE FROM
SUGAR GUM FROM THE WIRRABARA FOREST (IMAGES: ANN JONES) 








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