Career Case Study #5: Richard Leplastrier
1939: Born in Melbourne, Australia
1963: Graduated from Sydney University
1964–1966: Worked in the Sydney office of Jørn Utzon.
In 1963, Utzon set up office in Sydney for one reason only, so Leplastrier did something related to the Sydney Opera House. As a 25 year-old graduate, it probably wasn’t any decision-making but the atmosphere at the time must have been electric given the controversy the building generated. The RIBA website says “[Leplastrier] had an extraordinary apprenticeship with Jørn Utzon, with whom he worked at the time of the Sydney Opera House and they became good friends.” If the third image below is actually from 1964 it shows construction beginning for the geometry rationalised by ARUP.
Utzon’s design concept for the Sydney Opera House was of something heavy and seemingly floating
but Utzon brought with him to Australia other, more useful, ideas that had their root in Japan. Here’s his 1953 Middelboe House.
If one were to have had long conversations with Jørn Utzon between 1964 and 1966, it would have been great to learn what Utzon knew about the selection and assembly of materials. We don’t know if Leplastrier learned anything from the design or construction of the Sydney Opera House itself. The Sydney Opera House was to open in 1973 but Utzon left the project in 1966 – as did Leplastrier who went to Kyoto University where Tomoya Masuda was teaching.
Masuda was more traditionalist than Metabolist despite his Matsumura Oil Company Offices of 1967.
No degree is mentioned so I’m guessing it was one of those informal arrangements that existed at the time in Japanese universities. And in companies too, for between Kyoto University and 1966 and 1970, Leplastrier also spent time in the Tokyo office of Kenzo Tange.
Tange’s office were at the time responsible for the upcoming Expo ’70 masterplan and already had a reputation for large masterplanning projects around the world.
1970: Leplastrier returned to Australia and started his own practice. We hear no more of Tange.
1974-76: Palm Garden House, Northern Beaches, Sydney
1981-84 1989-90: Belligen House and Studio, New South Wales
1988-91: Rainforest House, Mapleton, Queensland
1988-92: Tom Uren House, Balmain, Sydney
1994: Lovett Bay House, Sydney
1996: Cloudy Bay Retreat, Bruny Island, Tasmania
1997: Watson’s Bay House, Sydney
1997-8, 2000: Blue Mountains House and Studio, Leura, New South Wales
2002 Design Centre Tasmania, Launceston (with David Travalia)
2004–2006: Public Toilets, George’s Head (part of the George’s Head Lookout project)
You can find out more about the projects here, at the Offical Website of Architecture Foundation Australia and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses which Leplastrier also teaches. The Architecture Foundation Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses are a two-week residential summer program for 32 participants. FAQ here.
Richard Leplastrier is a key figure in Australian architecture and architectural education. His architecture is sensitive to place and to culture and he uses his studio as a teaching room as well as a place to make architecture.
It does not help that he shies away from publicity and has little interest in having his projects published. Yet he is the key philosophical influence behind much of the best work we see from Australia today. He provides the backbone of thinking and belief.
These are some things I’ve read.
- His buildings are sensitive to issues of culture and place.
- Oriental philosophy tempers his outlook on life and, in particular, his understanding of the meaning and role of shelter.
- His buildings interpret and explore the notion of the primal shed through simple, minimal constructions in which alcoves, sleeping niches, work desks, and dining spaces are worked and reworked, taking on the minimal, multi-functional character of a ship’s interior.
- His buildings offer intriguing and insightful interpretations of natural ventilation, solar shading, and the tectonic accommodation of the changing weather and seasons.”
I find more to admire in the following.
- He constantly asks himself “How little do we need?” and designs his buildings accordingly. I read somewhere that Leplastrier also lives accordingly. This too is virtuous but I don’t need to know that. I can appreciate the buildings just as well without a cult of personality being erected around them.
- He is renowned and recognized for only using resources close by in an endeavor to minimize the impact on the environment as much as possible. This is good.
- His building can be easily disassembled, thereby fulfilling the touch-the-ground-lightly dictum. This too is good on the surface but in a previous post I questioned why a useful building should need to be disassembled. There aren’t getting any fewer people in the world and that land is unlikely to revert to primordial landscape.
- Leplastrier seems to have little or no taste for marketing and publicity. This is both good and bad. I applaud his distaste for the whole nasty business. Some might say that teaching is a form of publicity and it’s true, some architects so teach as a means of marketing and publicity. Some of those hold teaching positions more for the imagined prestige rather than any pedagogic drive. Some teach to smooth out the cashflow and there are some who teach because they feel they have something to teach. In a canny inversion of the basic business contract, some architects ask people to pay to do their work under the guise of education.
Whatever Leplastrier’s reasons for teaching, coming into contact with thirty-two people for two weeks once or twice a year doesn’t seem much. I can’t help feeling that if one really has ideas and attitudes of real use to the world, then one has a duty to broadcast them generally and globally in the hope others in non-specific places might find those ideas or approaches of benefit.
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The more I try to find out about Lepastrier the more I sense journalism rushing to fill a vacuum.
The Cult of Craft
It’s a shame to see Leplastrier’s buildings celebrated so much for their cult of craft that owes so much to the Japanese. I see it in things such as the circular window openings at the Lovett’s Bay house, the staircase and its “stone” landing in the Watson’s Bay house, and the curved RSJ above the entrance at the design centre in Tasmania, or its fancy screen timber work, lovely though it is. Only the Japanese can use simplicity as ornament signifying a cultural refinement – theirs. This is not a very useful trait for architecture. I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from trying to replicate the sublime ordinariness Leplastrier generates in his buildings rather than focussing on how personal or cultural, idiosyncratic or overthought certain details may be.
The Japanese system of constructing buildings continues to be worthy of learning from but what we don’t remember is that Utzon’s houses predate Tange’s and Shinohara’s.
It wasn’t just Utzon. His Danish contemporaries also took ordinary pieces of timber and infill panels, arranged them with the economy and clarity of Japanese construction but without the cult of culture, and made it into what’s now remembered as the Golden Age of Danish Architecture. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe] They had a good thing going for a while. I wonder if those Danish architects had any awareness they were making Golden Danish Architecture?
The Cult of Culture
To firmly link attitudes and ideas and buildings to a specific country is to place them squarely in the world as national cultural artefacts, discouraging them from being perceived in terms of value as prototypes for wider application worldwide.
“There is a growing movement in Australian architecture that stems from a recognition of the uniqueness of this land. A recognition of the indigenous culture’s management of this continent for tens of thousands of years, and that this embodied knowledge forms a powerful cultural base for our future development. A recognition also, that it was this very land that formed their society in the first place, and that this land has primacy in forging of our character.”
This is all true. What never gets mentioned is that the indigenous culture lived for millennia without concepts of money or the possession of property. Needless to say, they managed to also do without an architecture poetically articulating the possession of money and property. I don’t think this circle can be squared.
The Cult of Personality
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I would like to see someone apply the worthy attitudes and sublime ordinariness of Leplastrier’s buildings to suburban housing or an urban apartment building, something, anything, that doesn’t rely upon the celebration of land for its aesthetic worth.
Until that time, I have to remain open to the notion that we as Australians are merely approving cultural artefacts that project to the world an impossibly idealised image of ourselves vis-á-vis architecture and our country.