I watched this last night; Framing the View, the documentary on Australian architect, Richard Leplasterier.
It was good, and there’s no doubt that Leplasterier designs beautiful buildings. But I think the documentary, filmed over 15 years, illustrated the tensions between romance and pragmatism.
Leplasterier’s family home, on a south facing slope in Lovett Bay, overlooking the harbour on the other side of the stratospherically ostentatious Palm beach peninsula in Sydney, is described as ‘bringing nature in’. His designs were undeniably ground breaking in Australian architecture in the 1970s. Simply, he brought an Asian inspired, nature oriented design to what was still a pretty straight-laced colonial outpost.
Years ago I had the pleasure of working with a young architecture student who’d gone to the islands to ‘learn from the locals’ about sustainable buildings, built in harmony with the environment. What he realised, after the vim of colonial obsequiousness wore off, was that the locals kept asking if he could build them a concrete bunker. It turns out that if there is a cultural universal, it’s that people around the world hate having their food stores nibbled at by animals while being eaten alive by mosquitos. The ‘noble savage’ wants a good night’s sleep like everyone else.
I reflected on this as Leplasterier held forth on the the family as the absolute pinnacle of the home – that the house should honour and be in service to the family. As I watched his wife trudging across a muddy track to a storage hut to gather food and utensils for cooking dinner in the outside kitchen, tersely instructing her children what to carry while the head-torch slipped down her forehead, I thought how honoured they all looked. In fact, nature was honouring them with its inimitable incursions into their lives on a moment by moment basis. Like many who’ve spent time in the countries that so inspired Leplasterier, I pondered the asymmetries of work involved in keeping house and home together. It is women who often carry the lion-share of this burden.
Leplasterier’s architecture is perhaps an example of groundbreaking innovation and ossified sexism. The Japanese architecture he so loved is undeniably beautiful but his account of his time in Tokyo is telling – he worked and studied with men. Architecture was designed for the lofty goals of art, show, philosophy, extension of the mind. It was not pragmatic, because the actual gris of getting husband and children fed, wiped and entertained was not men’s business. Leplasterier had the freedom to be honoured by nature because his wife honoured him with the labour for him to enjoy it.
By the 1970s when Leplastrier was really getting cracking, Australian architecture was democratising. Houses with huge entertaining spaces and tiny galley kitchens were gone in favour of open plan, kitchen-centred designs. Women still did most of the cooking, but they would no longer be hidden away while doing it. Women, as has always been the case, are at the heart of the family, but Australian architecture started to reflect that. The fact that there were architects working in the 1960s and 70 who were in fact embracing and honouring women through design is a lovely thing.
Perhaps if there is one thing about Australian architecture that really sets it apart from other, older traditions, it’s its ability to embrace pragmatic, landscape inspired design that reflects more egalitarian attitudes to men, women and children.
I love Leplastrier’s work and ethos for its beauty and reverence of nature, but I’d get him to design me a boat.