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Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury: Outback architecture

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Australian architects Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury talk to Jay Merrick about the power of landscape, elemental design and the outdoor way of life

‘Architecture on the Edge of Divergence’, lecture by Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury, 24 May, RIBA London & 26 May, AAIA, Trinity College, Dublin

In the banal splendour of the lobby of London’s Lancaster Hotel, I spot Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury and immediately recall a blustery day in 1993, at Pittwater near Sydney, when I visited Leplastrier at his just-completed wooden cabin. ‘Follow the path from the landing stage and you’ll find it,’ he’d told me over the phone the previous day. I duly found a structure made essentially of plywood, with a two-layered roof and unglazed portholes. That building, and four
by Stutchbury, have remained my personal summary of a particular kind of architecture of place.

We adjourn to green metal seats by a coffee kiosk in Hyde Park. Leplastrier and Stutchbury were in London to speak at the RIBA, before leading a week-long masterclass at Glencree in County Wicklow, organised by Lindsay Johnston, and involving Juhani Pallasmaa.

Leplastrier, who worked with JØrn Utzon on Sydney Opera House, and with Kenzo Tange, is bracketed with Glenn Murcutt as co-originator of a uniquely limber architecture that hovers between the assembled and the disassembled. Stutchbury, as his new monograph Under the Edge shows, has developed a highly individual mixture of structural and material refinement, and delicately poised spatial conflations.

‘When I was a boy, my father built a sailboat,’ says Stutchbury. ‘He’d got a Triple-A rating for it. He’d built it by hand. He took my hand and he put it right under the gunwale and rubbed it along. It was silky smooth. And then he said: “It’s the quality you don’tsee that makes the difference.” And I thought, at that moment, that there was something about the quality of construction that I liked.’

Leplastrier’s grounding was more elemental. ‘It was connections to places, and the experience of being in certain places, that affected the way I have become as an architect; it’s a measure of your life experience. I lived in Western Australia, a great outdoor way of life. We had a sleepout – a wire-meshed veranda – and I’ve never forgotten it. We moved to Tasmania, to a house that overlooked a sound. The next stop was Antarctica, and the storms would come up the sound. It introduced me to nature.’

He claims he went to architecture school because ‘they had an 18-gallon keg of beer every Friday night’. But he could always draw well and, with the notable Australian architect John Andrews, visited key buildings in New York. There were other significant early influences: ‘Geddes’ buildings in Mozambique, white buildings, but quite organic and beautiful against the sky. And I was also deeply impressed by Carlo Scarpa – the museum inside the old fort: this man had understood everything, and re-presented the old with the new.’

As a student, Stutchbury visited a house designed by Leplastrier for the erudite Sydney doctor David Walker. When the architect and client arrived without warning, Stutchbury hid in the bushes ‘listening to 45 minutes of conversation between these two highly intellectual characters. To this day, I think it’s the most remarkable modern house in Australia. When I stood under the frame, I thought: “Dreaming is real”. Does that still occur? By the grace of God, it does.’

Indigenous buildings are important to both architects. ‘These are buildings that come from the people of a landscape,’ says Stutchbury. ‘They’re buildings you almost miss if you scan the land because they’re so natural. I find them complete in their presence and manner.’ Leplastrier insists that architecture is ‘about us in relation
to nature. We’ve come to realise that almost every work of human endeavour, buildings and the making of cities, is absolutely rooted in its place. I’m not just talking about land, but about landscape.

‘Every city began because of where it was – and where it still is, right? You can never take that away. You can hide it, you can dump buildings all over it, but you’ll find a submerged power that’s always been there.’ He recalls a phrase by the poet Les Murray, ‘places of perpetual dimension’. Something of that is found in their insistence that ideas, sites and views must be drawn: silence, and alert stillness, generate a more profound grasp of place, and potential architecture. 

‘Yesterday, we had the most wonderful walk,’ muses Leplastrier. ‘Starting at the top of Hyde Park, we followed the drainage systems down. We’re brought up to understand how landforms work – the inevitability of them. No matter how small the architectural work, it takes its understanding from its landscape. That morning, we’d been in a beech forest in the Chilterns, and that afternoon we were in Westminster Abbey, a stone interpretation of those beeches, by the Thames! Wouldn’t it be great to have a topography, a relief, of London, with everything taken off it?’

Their view of environmental design is equally stripped down. ‘There are some simple things about designing buildings that must precede all technical aspects,’ says Stutchbury. ‘Orientation, winds, ground conditions. This makes your building far less demanding on resources to start with. It’s about how a building works, physically and socially, without extras.’

Leplastrier chips in: ‘Look at these wonderful five-storey buildings that run through London. That’s Vitruvian commodity, and it’s sustainable: one lot of energy goes into making them, and then they just turn over through the centuries. That’s the common element of all great European cities. It’s a great cultural lesson for us.’

Stutchbury is currently designing a new home for himself, with a communal vegetable garden for the flats next to it, and a bath-house for his friends. Leplastrier, who works alone, is building an 85 square metre house: ‘The sun comes in through giant trees, and broken light and shade come right across the site. You’ve got this big roof behind you and 70 square metres of enclosed space and a place to cook, and it’ll be open to the outside nine months of the year.’

We head for the Underground: the architects are keen to look at the land around London Bridge, then get to Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark. We amble, talking of rugby and aikido. We have reached, as Les Murray puts it, the ‘teapot of calm’, and a path not to a wooden cabin, but into layers of time: ‘The table we sit at is fashioned of three immense / beech boards out of England. The minute widths of the year / have been refined in the wood by daughters’ daughters. / In the year of Nelson, I notice, the winter was mild.’

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  • P Taylor

    nice piece. I visited Ric's house in Pittwater too some years ago, and it was quite literally life changing for me. great to see him here recently - he's the most remarkable architect i've met

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