Tuesday, November 15, 2016


One sits listening to the Abedian School of Architecture talks at Bond University with a notebook and pen nearby in the case, just in case. The taking of notes is an awkward distraction that disturbs simple attention, disrupts ordinary listening, so one is hesitant to begin jotting things down. Note-taking is constantly postponed in the hope that it may not be required at all; that memory alone might suffice. Then, out of nowhere, unexpectedly, a different set of words will demand attention and precise recording: somehow they stand out as being relevant in some unknown way, so they are jotted down for a reason yet to be revealed; then some other significant words are heard. The gauge of importance is not clear or certain: it is about feeling, innuendo and logic – perhaps.

The process becomes addictive; or is it that one’s attention gets redirected through the pen: that one listens through the hand? Speech is recorded, scribbled down quickly with a fluid, fast ballpoint in order to keep the words in their original, verbal context, rather than as a recalled, recycled version of a ‘or something like this; words to that effect’ statement recreated by a ‘maybe’ memory that easily accumulates, aggregates more than is required to be expressively correct, by dragging in one’s thoughts, opinions and misunderstandings. Notes of exact spoken words and their sequences give a raw sense of feel and touch to their expression and its meaning that allows other layers to be perceived, sensed; for different attitudes to be exposed; for philosophies to be hinted at. Things unsaid can be subtly revealed.

So this piece will start with the words that were jotted down, scribbled direct from the speaker’s mouth onto the lined pages of an A5 notepad in awkward but accurate scrawl:

“I wanted to do a house that was architectural.” (on recycling an old house)
“. . . kooky custom details in it.”
“There are no doors or windows; only horizontal and vertical planes.” (The ideal is the Barcelona Pavilion)
“. . . drove a Range Rover into the sea at night.” (as a young man)
“. . . before that (my house inspired by Ankor Wat) I used to kinda do anything.”
“House with one idea: you should be able to write it down.”
“Could cook all day.”
“A caretaker for materials.”
“The most boring shot I have shown ever.” (by photographer who has worked with DH for 25 years)
“. . . painted funny colours.”
“Won a Dulux colour award; no Dulux paint.”
“Each facade has a Z facade.”
“A fun little interior 2.4 x 3.6M.” (Tuga House)
“. . . weird things happen with ladders and handrails.”
“Minimal living.”
“A building designed in ergonomic sections.” (early library)
“It fell down once or twice - (prototype)
“Eventually burnt down.”

Early prototype structure

Question time:
“You should’ve seen some of the other shit I’ve done.” (on the large drop outside the big windows of the Stradbroke house)
“Will swear black and blue that it was 900mm and eroded to 1.5M”
“I live on the edge of codes – stair handrail stuff: I have very little interest.”
“I take responsibility for own work.”
“FLW spoke of the plans at various levels – 0; 1.5; 1.8; 2.4M).”
“I believe change in levels absolutely important.”
“Only on 2-3 jobs have I been allowed to do what want to do.”
“Horizontal and vertical planes plus landscape – live in between.”
“I absolutely have rules.”
“I have whole lot of set rules.”
“I never deviate from them.”
“Architectural details are poetry – syntax and grammar.”
“Sing song; write poetry.”
“. . . hidden in architectural detail.”
“What aroma; how feel; how wear with time.”
“Language of architecture.”
“Smell; touch.”
“Concrete has smell: what implications, e.g. next to bed”
“I keep my timber inside now except for decks.”
“I am a 7/10 carpenter – I do form work.”
“I look, see and sketch.” (in response to Ankor beginnings and theories of Ankor maths, beliefs, etc.
“Doing a PhD on myself – details.”
“Peter Stutchbury lives nearby; good friends with Rick (Leplastrier).”
“We dine regularly together - each week.”
“I don’t have much documentation.”
“I give a feeling of intention to the client.”
“Will be like this . . . I like steel; or will head in a timber direction.”
“On top of costings.”
“Gyprock everything.” (to save)
“Family, cooking; c.f. architecture.” (personal interests)
“Cooking has traditional practices.”
“Ask a busy man if you want to get a job done.”

Ankor Wat

The evening talk of 4th November 2016 started shortly after the due time with a brief introduction by Prof Adrian Carter.# At last these talks are now beginning to be punctual. AC told how, many years ago, he had taken a group of Danish architects to see the Drew Heath library building in Tasmania. He noted that everyone appreciated the craft of the place that was both designed and built by Drew Heath as a young man. AC mentioned that Rick Leplastrier had a high regard for DH, dropping in the line, perhaps for everyone’s admiration: “I spoke with him just today.”

Drew Heath

Drew Heath stood to speak. He said that he usually yelled, a habit from working on construction sites. Puzzlingly, his first image was of Ankor Wat. It showed ancient, sculptured stone walls with decorated openings being strangled by the roots of a giant tree. He started his talk by explaining that at 50 he had an epiphany in Cambodia, at Ankor Wat. His vision was that architecture would be the placing of a deck in between these walls (those in his image): this, he said, would be the ideal (with no windows or doors). He failed to elaborate any further, leaving one to wonder how simple shelter might be incorporated into this biblical-like, green vision in this historic place; but he did move on quickly to show how his inspiration has generated his own house in McMahon’s Point, Sydney. His home was on a site bounded by three street frontages, a building with no elevations. The site was covered with vegetation; living areas were interspersed on several levels in such a way that all connections were external. Plant growth was allowed to discover its own ambitions both inside and out, if such definitions make any sense in this experience. Intrusions, like those seen at Ankor Wat, were welcome, indeed, encouraged. Place-making was the creation of a scaffold for growth; a framework for living in, moving through. Shelter seems to have been redefined; and architecture too. Little things were all important.

Heath House

Folding door

The long table

The house had a very long table – “I like cooking: children one side of the glass wall; adults the other.” The place was a conglomerate of details that were discovered and resolved as they were revealed as issues in the process of making. Details of a latch were illustrated - “I love the scratches on the handle;” and an image of the wheel/cog control for a large door was shown. One was reminded of Kevin McCloud’s rustic hut and his clever handyman mate who made the special pieces for his wheel and cog operable-wall control; and George Clarke’s redesigned caravan and his smart mate who did likewise for the folding-out side wall of the reconstructed mobile unit. Drew Heath had his handyman mates and similar solutions too. Is this the latest fad? It was all very cute, ad hoc and bespoke, and carried a sense of special TV show difference to entertain the audience with its quirkiness. This strategy set the scene for the evening.

George Clarke and his fold-out caravan

Kevin McCloud's hut with its fold-out wall

The core of this intuition was vegetation that could ‘eat everything up’ triffid-like. Did DH not realise that the growth over Ankor Wat was destroying it; that the world was working hard, spending millions of dollars to control this destruction by removing the vegetation? Water was cleverly slowed down at this house so that it could stay on the site, for the plants. Living became a performance, a movement over levels. “My children are all athletes.” Are they gardeners too? “Architecture is in your face – close.” DH stood with his nose fifty millimetres from the rear wall in front of nothing but off-form concrete. He had made his point: details were critical. The image on the screen showed a super-sized image of the latch: as seem from 50mm?

Then on to other projects - the Kyoto House at Byron Bay: “Each house needs just one idea that can be written down.” It was difficult to see the ‘Katsura’ touch here apart from some internal timber detailing and the main elevation that was temple-formal and symmetrical with kinked, tilted extremes. There were interior spaces here, but little vegetation. This house must have been built prior to the epiphany.

"Kit of parts"

More projects were shown: the container house; the recycled house; the Z house; the houseboat; another house that DH spoke about as being ‘a kit of parts’ all purchased from the hardware store, Bunnings. Apparently he built everything in this building, even the steel windows. DH finished the talk early with his first building, a library in Tasmania, DH’s home state. This was the building visited by AC and his tourist team many years ago. These projects revealed a cross-section of this design-build practice that was still continuing. DH had a special skill that combined the design process of the architect with the construction process of the builder, allowing details to be developed on the way, and other modifications to take place as time and circumstance allowed.

Recycled "architecture"

Library building

DH spoke of how the leftover bits and pieces were frequently used to create parts for the spaces: stairs; benches; cupboards; shelves. Surplus concrete was often poured into moulds to make light fittings, pavers, benches and basins. It was in this sense that he commented that “We should be caretakers for materials,” and avoid waste. He elaborated on how his completely recycled home was demolished and re-built using the same materials “architecturally” - whatever this might mean – to give the owners many stories to tell of how this part was from ‘X’ and that from ‘Y’ in the old cottage. He told how he had woven stories into the new; narratives and details: “Architectural details are poetry – syntax and grammar. Sing song; write poetry. . . . hidden in architectural detail. Language of architecture" - but what does it say? DH saw architecture as details. Indeed, he was doing a PhD on “himself” - on architectural detailing. His enthusiasm for seeing architecture from 50mm could explain his vision for it becoming a conglomerate of little things. Is DH short-sighted?

This research – or is it proselytising? - was interesting as it gave a layer of things seemingly ‘philosophical’ to the ‘practical’ DH work that appears to have begun willy-nilly. Attention to detail seems to have been something that has arisen in parallel to, and has intermeshed with his subsequent epiphany, for the early work displays this singular intrigue with piecing parts and making.

Container house

There is little point in going over the Drew Heath projects in any descriptive or analytical manner. The work can be viewed on-line – see: http://www.drewheatharchitect.com/ What is more relevant is to look closely at his words, his ideas, to try to make sense of these: to develop some of their inherent logic; to highlight any latent inconsistencies; and to point out any concerns. Words can reveal more than what seems to be their intended meanings. One can start with DH’s epiphany. He explained this with his perception that the only architecture that he really liked, that had depth and meaning beyond mere magazine attractiveness, was ancient architecture: hence Ankor Wat. He found most new work too “architectural” - but in spite of this understanding, he never displayed any interest in the contexts from which the ancient things had grown: “I look, see and sketch.”

Ankor Wat sculpture

It was Ananda Coomaraswamy who pointed out the necessity for understanding origins, so that misunderstanding will not be perpetuated: see Christian and Oriental Philosophy in Art; that it is never acceptable to bring modern attitudes to the reading of older works. If one is to understand the old works, then one has to understand their roots in culture, society and beliefs; their meanings and relevance. This work was never art for art’s sake; never personal expression. It is a point that DH dismisses, ignores completely. His approach looks like inspired visual thinking and physical making. What happens to meaning when it is perceived and managed only by personal whims? This is the danger that Coomaraswamy mentioned in his writings. DH needs to do more than look, scribble and visualise.

Barcelona Pavilion

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - "God is in the details"

Even retreating to the ‘God is in the details’ approach, as he seems to do in order, so its appears, to give substance, maybe depth to his work, leaves the whole a mere assemblage to be discovered by others, or to be embalmed in his idea that a project needs one idea, a concept so clear that it can be written down: c.f. the Kyoto house: “House with one idea: you should be able to write it down.” That DH appears to have so self-consciously grasped what is seen as the simplistic Mies mantra is only confirmed with his statement that “There are no doors or windows; only horizontal and vertical planes.” The vision is illustrated by DH in the Barcelona Pavilion. How does this strategy really fit into his work that seems different, more complex and random than this pure, precise, geometric classicism that reeks of rigour? It is a very strange attitude, as it seems to have been another epiphany after he had designed and built a houseboat. One struggles to see the immediate relevance of these words and ideas beyond the photograph of Mies’s iconic building. Might Aalto have been a better reference? Perhaps Carlo Scarpa?

The houseboat

Barcelona Pavilion - is the water the attraction?
Is this pavilion seen as Mies's houseboat?

There is another matter to consider: the photographs. In the first note jotted down, DH says: “I wanted to do a house that was architectural.” This is a telling statement as it suggests that DH has expectations on designs that are more than just ‘buildings:’ they have to be ‘architectural,’ whatever this is. It is odd; was it not the superficial ‘architectural’ qualities that made him prefer old architecture? Maybe one can see his approach to ‘special’ imagery in the photographs of his work. The photographs are very slick; special, unique ways of seeing through particular lenses, peculiar angles and posed alignments. He mentioned in his talk how one image must have been “The most boring shot I have shown ever.” DH does not like ‘boring’? His Internet site shows an array of highly contrived images that he has chosen to illustrate his projects. They are, ironically, all ‘architectural’ shots. DH seems to choose those ‘special’ images to promote his buildings. Does one come to see his work differently through these photographs? - see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/seeing-what-we-believe-idyllic-visions.html * What is the real character of the work as experienced in the everyday rather than as special, memorable representations created by the use of unique angles, clever depths of focus and bespoke contexts? One wonders: were any of these images photo-shopped?

This sense of things having to be ‘architectural,’ both as image and idea – perhaps just ‘different’? - suggests a certain deliberateness in the work, a self-consciousness about achieving particular outcomes with the ambition, it appears, of being uniquely noticeable. This apparent aim makes it easy for one to be sceptical about the intent. That the vision of Ankor Wat, a deck within the walls being intertwined with the uncontrolled vigour of tropical growth (forget the openings), might be the dream for future work, seems to be something to grasp on to, some bold, bespoke concept to direct the detailing of the making; maybe to provide some broad organisation, a strategy for the stories? How this ideal matches the idea of ‘architecture’ is enigmatic. One thinks of the cliché that says that architects cover their mistakes with ivy.

The sense of things having to be different seems to be as important to DH as the detailing. The little container house comes to mind here. It is a beautiful concept, cleverly, carefully detailed and nicely made. One can see the simple rigour and logic in the place that has been promoted in various advertisements and by the architect. Yet DH commented that it was built without any building approval – just built. This raises the issue of things different and unapproved being promoted as some popular ideal, as something attractively desirable for everyone to aspire to. The DH photographs endlessly juggle the visuals of this project in just about every possible way, even adding quirky cycle positions and ‘active-Toyota’ people. How is one supposed to understand this ‘I do what I like’ attitude that lies behind the works? As DH said, “You should’ve seen some of the other shit I’ve done. I live on the edge of codes – stair handrail stuff: I have very little interest. I take responsibility for own work” - as if others don’t; and as if this casually ‘creative’ approach might be possible for everyone to indulge in. Strangely, DH declared that he, ‘being responsible’: “Will swear black and blue that it was 900mm and eroded to 1.5M” Yet, in spite of the ignoring of the very rules that everyone else has to conform to, DH notes that “I absolutely have rules. I have whole lot of set rules. I never deviate from them.” So it seems that as long as the rules are those created by DH, he is happy to conform to them. It reminds one of those who have boasted that they read only what they have written. DH said that he “could write his rules down.” Is the first rule to ignore all rules made by others?

The great irony is that DH cares for the details, the micro decisions, but is loose with the macro decisions. The engineering of the container house was described casually as: “What do you think - a 200 UB?” and doing it! It seems like he is eulogising, promoting the great Aussie ‘She’ll be right mate, it just takes a bit of common sense’ attitude to life: ‘Bugger the professionals! They know nothing.’ This larrikin sense of the DH world is a concern. He was one who, as a young man, “. . . drove a Range Rover into the sea at night;” whose architectural philosophy before his epiphany was a vague: “. . . I used to kinda do anything.” Yet he now professes a belief in God as being in details, (nowhere else?), in pieces and parts that make only horizontal and vertical planes: “There are no doors or windows; only horizontal and vertical planes.” There are no 'walls;' 'floors' become levels: “FLW spoke of the plans at various levels – 0; 1.5; 1.8; 2.4M). I believe change in levels absolutely important.”

Ankor Wat sculpture

Chartres cathedral

Yet the symbolism of the architecture of the past and its rich decoration is grounded in doors and windows; consider Chartres cathedral; the Dogon house. The DH world spins into ambiguity and a complexity of contrasts that seem to stand unresolved. Is it this way just to make a good, meaningful story? DH identifies his personal interests as “Family, cooking,” and compares the latter to architecture, noting that “Cooking has traditional practices.” Has architecture traditional practices? Well, yes; but DH does not appear to be interested in these. Why? His interests seem to be rooted in the details of the building, not in the rigour and coherence of the ideas. He boasts that he knows where everything is in the hardware store; and in his buildings, too, so that he sees them as a “kit of parts” - some kit; some parts! It reminds one of Alvar Aalto saying that he used a 1mm grid for his work.

Dogon house

Ankor Wat sculpture

Architecture has an astonishing tradition that is ignored at one’s peril. DH seems to realise this as he latches onto Ankor Wat, but fails to take things any further than his raw seeing. What does he think of the sculptures of Ankor Wat? He seems to like the idea of being St. Paul at Ankor Wat, as though this will give depth, substance, maybe mystery to his building, work that includes mates that do quirky, bespoke things: “. . . kooky custom details in it. . . . painted funny colours. Won a Dulux colour award; no Dulux paint. Each facade has a Z facade. A fun little interior 2.4 x 3.6M. (Z House) . . . weird things happen with ladders and handrails.” Is architecture just a game of doing strange things differently: to be quirky, kinky, offbeat, way-out, unconventional?

'Z' house

The DIY sense of this practice belies its real sense of searching for difference in re-use and whatever, using the concept of being “a caretaker for materials” perhaps somewhat like the Murcutt “touch the ground lightly” dream promotion, even when the house might be on an underground concrete tank. Creativity seems to be seen as being a larrikin, a non-conformist, producing DIY bespoke, green, recycled, ‘architectural’ inventions while breaking all rules made by others. The anti-intellectual intellectual, (“I’m doing a PhD”), appears to make a brand out of a determined disinterest in formal boundaries, almost belligerence. It is the opposite world of Charles Eames who used all standard parts ‘off the shelf’ for his Californian house, a true ‘kit of parts’ that embodies a sense of specific limits, controls and systems. DH uses all special parts, differently; bespoke pieces, bespokely. The concern is that the Eames approach appears to have a greater future than the DH ‘special’ world that seems to be all about ME and MY UNIQUE houses; and MY talks; MY PhD.

Eames house

This looks like a hybrid world, with the larrikin approach intertwined like the walls at Ankor Wat with things architecturally bespoke. Is this the builder matching his architectural mates Stutchbury and Leplastrier? - “Peter Stutchbury lives nearby; good friends with Rick (Leplastrier). We dine regularly together - each week.” It is a world of seemingly ad hoc theory and meaning implemented through simple seeing and personal sketches, and very little documentation: “I don’t have much documentation. I give a feeling of intention to the client. Will be like this . . . I like steel; or will head in a timber direction.” As with living in an un-sheltered shelter, such apparently random approaches might make for good architectural yarns for Bond Abedian evenings - DH did start by saying that he could say anything because no one knew him! - but how does this approach fit into the everyday? The issue is that spoken about in the Rick Leplastrier blog - one-off quirkiness: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/richard-leplastrier-ephemeral.html Both DH and RL see a house as something like a boat; to be detailed as a boat; trimmed like a boat; operated as one. This approach appears to place them into a unique ‘nautical’ world with specialist interests and attitudes that exclude much of the population. The unanswered, perhaps never-considered question is: what is the best housing model for the new city? What is the future city to become? (Adrian Carter would make it Utzon’s Kingo housing scheme!) The DH/RL world fits into the realm of the sailor’s yarn: stories from afar. Unique, Kevin McCloud/George Clarke-like special TV detailing makes for interesting performances, but what about the many? What about the everyday world and its experience; its relevance? Is architecture really just special, grand? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/is-architecture-just-grand.html

McCloud and his hut with its bespoke chair

Ankor Wat sculpture

In spite of the inconsistencies and the apparently arbitrary, theoretical stances it seems to embody, the DH world holds an astonishing attraction. Drew Heath is really the builder of ancient times who was the architect. He loves the old, but appears to fail to grasp its reality beyond his practise. Is his world just intuitive? Does the theory get dragged into place from other occurrences, perhaps as happenstance, maybe to match mates he has made mentors? His is a hand-made world like that of the earthships – see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/earthships-and-bananas.html Maybe it can, as with the earthships, only hold true sense and relevance when DH is in control? This organic relationship between design and making holds the meaning of old action that DH seems to know about, but struggles to articulate. He really needs to come to understand what he loves in the old and why, rather than appear to merely selectively speculate; then he might be able to explain his actions as an integrated, enriched wholeness. Gosh, who, today in this world of random, careless, greedy builders willing to argue and litigate rather than solve simple problems, would not want to engage a man with the commitment, care, skill and responsibility of DH? We need more Drew Heaths; and more research into the past understandings too. Coomaraswamy is an excellent beginning. His essay, Why Exhibit Works of Art, would be a good introduction into his research on and understanding of the work of other times. We need to know, not to just guess or misinterpret to accommodate whims.

Is the idea the story; the 'narrative'?

Ankor Wat sculpture

# P.S.

On sponsors, Adrian Carter usually thanks those companies that have given money to support the talks, as he should. One of these is the local door and window company, DUCE. AC awkwardly, somewhat pretentiously, sounds this name as “DU-SAY” as though it might be European, perhaps French. Why he does this is not known. Is it that things “architectural” must be uniquely different, as DH appears to believe? If one telephones the company, the telephonist sounds the name simply as it looks, as “D-USE.”

* P.P.S.
22 November 2016

Architects like to show their projects so that they are presented in a particular way, in order to create a unique image to define how the work should be seen; for others to dream about, to drool over. This is frequently achieved by isolating the selected images from their contexts; 'framing the shots' in a special manner to reveal preferred vistas.
If one visits Google Earth Street View, one can see the complete context of the Heath house at 10 Mitchell Street, McMahon's Point, the award-winning house (extension?) inspired by Ankor Wat. Not one of these 'everyday' images was shown by Drew Heath. Why do architects like to be so 'special'; 'specialised'? Does 'architecture' rely on such tricks for its identity?

The other frontage of the 'house with no elevation.'

The side elevation of the old home

The neighbouring context

The street context

On things 'everyday' see:

26 December 2016

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