“Sophisticated camping,” Lambert calls it in a new documentary on the gold-medal-winning architect, Framing the View.
A series of four modest corrugated iron roof buildings set on large wooden decks, Leplastrier’s home has no “flash carpets”, no pull-down blinds, no TV. And, most noticeably, no glass windows.
“Glass would be nice occasionally,” Lambert says wistfully to camera.
“It’s better with wine in it,” the architect retorts. “Glass sucks the colour out of things,” Leplastrier explains. “You can’t hear the birds. It’s better to be able to remove walls and have them open and clear to the outside. I learnt that from the Japanese.”
But the Japanese don’t have to contend with two-metre pythons falling on their bed – an incident Leplastrier laughs off.
Instead of glass windows, his Lovett Bay house has large portholes and hatches reflecting not just a Japanese influence, but his lifelong pursuit of sailing. Walls lift up, enveloping the interior in nature. The main plywood building has just one room (4.8 x 9.6m), doubling as bedroom and office where he draws. The documentary captures the rich familial bonding that such intimate living provides. As the children grew, Leplastrier enclosed one side of the veranda. Outside on the deck, underneath three-metre eaves, is a Japanese style wooden bath and the exposed kitchen.
“We tend to live on the floor a lot,” says Leplastrier. “We sleep on the floor. We eat on the floor. And that’s a lesson learned not only from Japan, but most Pacific Islanders live like that. It makes a lot of sense. You can do with a house half the size. It’s good fun to live like that. Our real room is the whole bay and our real walls are the cliffs on the other side.”
Leplastrier, who turns 81 in November, has built more than 30 houses and a handful of public buildings, including the Birabahn Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Centre at the University of Newcastle (with Peter Stutchbury and Sue Harper). Currently, he’s collaborating with Architectus and landscape architect Craig Burton on the National Herbarium of NSW at Mt Annan.
One of Australia’s most respected architects and teachers, Leplastrier received the Australian Institute of Architects’ highest accolade, the gold medal, in 1999. Intensely curious and generous with his knowledge, the softly spoken architect eschews publicity and rarely appears in the architectural press. So why agree to a film?
“You value your own work, but you shouldn’t have any pretences about it,” he says. “Work shouldn’t be judged for 20 years and see how it fared over time. But if it has any value, it’s good that it’s recorded properly at least once.”
Aside from Leplastrier’s modesty, director Anna Cater says the architect wanted a record for his three sons as he started his family late in life.
Cater spent some 15 years filming Leplastrier. One hundred hours had to be edited. At the centre of the observational documentary, she records the two-year process of building a house in Blackheath. The architect describes his houses as “pure theatre” or a “film set” – stages for living. Yet one of the most striking aspects of Leplastrier’s process is the flexible, collaborative approach he applies on site. He adjusts ideas and details as he goes, based on the input from builders and clients. If there’s one regret with the film, it doesn’t feature enough of his builders and makers, Leplastrier says.
He shares this love of craftsmanship and working in small teams with his early mentor Jorn Utzon. Just 25 when Utzon hired him in the late stages of his Sydney Opera House commission, Leplastrier and the great Dane bonded over sailing. After working a couple of weeks on the Opera House, Utzon asked his young acolyte if he’d like to work on his house at his Palm Beach studio.
After Utzon was forced off the Opera House, Leplastrier spent five years studying in Japan and travelling. From the Japanese he learnt the value not just of the flexible space, but anticipation and timing. “The framed view was part of Japanese culture,” he says.
These influences coalesce in the Palm Garden House, Bilgola (1974) his most important work, according to Pritzker prizewinner Glenn Murcutt. “It’s probably one of this country’s finest works – of any architect in this country,” Murcutt asserts.
Set among a grove of palms, the building’s high semi-circular roof rolls back and opens to the elements. When required a drape folds up in origami-like pleats to fill the arch and form a wall.
“[The house] demonstrates a way of falling in love with landscape… actually disappearing into it,” says Adrian Carter, professor of architecture at Bond University and author of a forthcoming monograph on Leplastrier. “It’s much closer to an Indigenous way of living in this environment.”
Among Leplastrier’s high-profile clients are filmmaker George Miller and his editor partner Margaret Sixel, politician Tom Uren and novelist Peter Carey.
“He won’t work with people unless he has a rapport with them,” says Carter. “And they all become his friends.”
Carey has known the architect for some 30 years and had “years of pleasurable conversations that informed Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda“. The novelist says he “paid tribute” to the architect in his 1988 Booker-prize-winning novel, naming his heroine Lucinda Leplastrier.
Leplastrier says Carey “was having a go at me [because] I’d never build a glass church in a million years”, he laughs. “I was always telling him how crook glass was.”
Framing the View may be the documentary’s title, but how should one frame a view? Floor-to-ceiling glass windows or a row of window frames capturing vistas like cinematic film aren’t the only solutions. Subscribing to the Japanese concept of ‘ma’, Leplastrier creates anticipation by glimpsing views through slits in walls, oculi, and small windows. The part tells the whole.
“Implicitness is far more alive and rich and experiential than explicitness where everything is on the table,” he says. “Select what it is you want to refer to outside.”
But what if you live in a more urban environment than the Blue Mountains or Lovett Bay? “The sky is the free façade in the city,” Leplastrier reassured Miller and Sixel. The roof of their Watson’s Bay house (1997) is, like the Palm Garden house, a ‘convertible’. This time a hydraulic roof lifts and opens to the trees and sky.
“His buildings make you feel happy,” says Sixel. “It makes you feel connected – that’s really what he’s about. It’s incredibly elemental.”
Richard Leplastrier: Framing the View, screens on the ABC, Tuesday, May 12, 9.30pm.