The Cave Interview

architects Richard Leplastrier, Peter Stutchbury
interviewed by Catherine Hunter

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Interviewed in Avalon, nsw, Australia, 19 September 2013


The Oris Interview was arranged by the Architecture Foundation Australia, who suggested that Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury should be interviewed together and that the interview should be filmed. The interview was conducted by the leading Australian documentary film producer Catherine Hunter, who has made documentaries on leading Australian artists, such as Sydney Nolan and Margaret Olley, and is currently working on a documentary on architect Glenn Murcutt. The unusual location - a rock cave - was nominated by Richard and Peter, as it symbolically represents the foundations of their architecture – respect for culture which is ancient, and for the landscape of place from which derives all culture and life. The cave has formed in sandstone, which is over 200 million years old, and would have been a place of habitation for the local Aboriginal Garigal people, whose history and culture goes back, perhaps, 40 thousand years. The interview was witnessed by two very rare large Powerful Owls – Ninoz Strenua – sitting in a nearby tree who, Richard remarked, were local inhabitants whose ancestors had probably lived here for hundreds of years, before us ‘white fellas’ arrived.


Catherine Hunter: Can you tell me where we are, Peter, and why you have chosen to do an interview in a cave?


Peter Stutchbury: We are about one hour from the centre of Sydney, on the northern peninsula; we are between the Pacific Ocean to the east and the beautiful sea inlet of Pittwater to the west. We are right on the top of a ridge, in a pocket of natural bushland, about 2km from the water in either direction. We have chosen to be here because it temporarily removes from us all of our backgrounds, all our past.  It is a cave hundreds of thousands of years old, in terms of Aboriginal occupation, probably 40,000 - 50,000 years old. Its qualities of isolation and silence are important to discuss.


Catherine Hunter: Tell me how the idea of camping is intrinsic to the way you design a house?


Richard Leplastrier: We have not changed a lot as a species over a long period of time. Camping brings things back to basics, it is fundamental to how we react to a place. This place – it has shelter, it has protection, it has water, looking to the light, it has got a wonderful connection to nature. These things are still embedded in us as human beings. We have not changed that much, technology has changed, but we still react to people in exactly the same way - the power of a woman’s song is always one of the most fundamental things, in the beginning it was not the word, in the beginning it was the song, the cry of the heart. All of that begins here. So it is good to be here for those reasons and if you are investigating a place, if you can spend 24 hours a day in a place, see the sun coming up, see the sun going down, when it rains and which way it comes from, all the winds, where the water runs off, where the animals track through, we are only one of the animals, we should not forget that.


Catherine Hunter:Peter, how do you approach a building right in the beginning, what is the first sense that you get when you are given a project to design?


Peter Stutchbury: I have learned a lot of lessons from Richard, so we have similar approaches. I am responsive to place, its patterns of weather, its climatic conditions.  I am also very incredibly conscious of the people the building is for and I know Richard is too. Different people accommodate different thoughts behind a building, different ways of living within a building, or different systems within a building. Building starts without other buildings, building starts with a place. We have learned that you can discover a place just by removal, so removal of what is built will reveal in many ways the origin of that place. The best buildings are the ones that most connect with their place. They inform you on a daily basis, they give you sustenance, they give you life and understanding. The people who the buildings are for, whether they are public or private buildings, they can change the tenor of a building, they can change the temperament of a building, so people are critical for the way you translate how you put a building in a place. So those are the two essential elements in thinking about a building. Beyond that, I think we mature in the way we look at a structure, in the way we reduce the pallet of materials, in our understanding of space, how light works in a space and in many ways it is a composition, it is a composition of reduction. It is like you have learnt how to cook, how to produce better meals with less.

Catherine Hunter: Perhaps you can tell me how the Bangalay House began and the early discovery of that place?


Peter Stutchbury: The Bangalay House is in Kangaroo Valley south of Sydney, which is an old crater, quite isolated climatically from its surrounding landscape. I went there with my two eldest children and we camped there for three days. That gave us an understanding of the bones of the place, but you also have to have a perception of a year-to-year cycle, it is about perceiving what it will be like, about perceiving hot westerly winds, about perceiving the fire coming through, about perceiving how cold it gets, about perceiving the light of the water into the building and how that might work. And it is also about translation. We examined all 150 acres of the property. The clients camped on the site for two years, on a particular place on the site, they are both really perceptive people, and I looked at that their camping site realising that they had chosen the best place for the building. Then the hardest part is how to put a building, or the footprint of a building, in that place, conscious of every foreground and distant ground that it is engaging with, conscious of scale in terms of the mountain and the valley, so many things. They all have extensive explanations, when you sit down with a client to explain their building, you can talk about everything because you have thought about it. It is when you cannot talk about everything that they get a doubt in their mind about their building.


Catherine Hunter: You sought out Richard early on when you were a student, what was it that drew you to his work?


Peter Stutchbury: When I was a second year architecture student, someone said to me, you must meet this fellow, you would love his work. I went myself and sneaked in to see one of his early buildings, under construction (The Palm Garden House, Bilgola). And I walked in: it was a simple frame in the landscape, in a valley not far from here and, literally, my dreams were real. Not that physical building, but the idea that architecture can be beyond your imagination or beyond one’s imagination, so it can go into the realm of a bridge between you and imagination. I just thought I would like to meet this fellow… and we did, and when I met him I felt an immediate connection and I wanted to learn, it was as simple as that. Just the desire to learn was insurmountable, and fortunately he, in his most graceful and gracious way, allowed that to happen - and it is still happening.


Catherine Hunter: What were his great lessons to you as a young architect?


Peter Stutchbury: The first lesson was platform, how to make a platform. Humans live on platforms, it sounds simple, but that is a profound lesson when you think about it, because as soon as you deviate from platform, you deviate from comfort - a really big lesson. Another lesson was landscape. I was always aware of the landscape having spent a lot of time in the desert, but Richard brought that to a fineness and a detail which others had never talked about. Another lesson was people, his ability to be accepting, open, generous and willing with people was a great lesson for a young fellow who was probably a bit head-strong.


Catherine Hunter: Tell me about some of your formative influences as a young boy - you went to a boat yard with your father?


Richard Leplastrier: We lived in Tasmania, a special place, it has the southern ocean impact, and we lived looking right out to the sea. Tasmania has also fine timber. One day my father took me down to the boatyard, famous across the country for timber boats - with wild seas things have to work - where you could smell the timber that was being cut, whatever species of timber - King Billy or Huon Pine - you could smell the difference. They were pulling up a boat and out of the water on this slipway came this amazing boat. I had only ever seen boats from the waterline up. Up it came this wet under-body reflecting the light coming off the water underneath and the most beautiful  shape for pure purpose. That is what it is about boats: the relentless pursuit of pure purpose, every boat’s properties are inherent in its body form and they are all different. So that was a great lesson for me, I fell in love with boats, beautiful boats, beautiful buildings! But there is a big difference, in boats: if it is too heavy to express primitiveness, it will capsize or sink. But in architecture, we can make a structure of a building stronger than it has to be, in order to express the origins of masonry, but you cannot do it in boats, they are two very different disciplines. For an architect to have an experience of boats is a good thing - you can appreciate the incredible taper of that tree (pointing), its cantilever to the very finest branches and then to the leaves, it is a perfect response to being grounded and bending from that point upwards.  Boats teach you about that.


Catherine Hunter: It seems to me your Palm Garden House is something that must adjust, must change according to its needs or the time of day.


Richard Leplastrier: Yes, Uffa Fox – the great English yacht designer - said that weight is only ever any good in a steam-roller. This ruled supreme with me, everything had to be as light as possible, even in buildings. Those buildings I did, when I was  younger, were like that. I do not care so much about that any longer. I really like my buildings to be strong and safe and lasting, but working beautifully.  That is the difference, something can just work, but if it works beautifully, then it lifts the spirit. That is where architecture is.


Catherine Hunter: Peter has talked about you being one of his great teachers, who have been your teachers?


Richard Leplastrier: Oh, Lloyd Rees, one of Australia’s great landscape painters and brilliant drawer.  He died at the age of 92. He was painting three days before he died. He started as a young boy, he disciplined himself through drawing - the most amazing pencil drawings - and then he moved into painting, and then his paintings took on almost an ephemeral quality as he moved into old age. I remember one painting. And then there was Jørn Utzon. I worked with him and I spent a lot of time with him in places like this cave. He would go walking, I would go with him, I went sailing with him, there was just the two of us. He was so observant, so compassionate, and so humane in the way he saw life and architecture and cities. To be exposed to that was really inspiring for a young architect.


Catherine Hunter: What did he teach you?


Richard Leplastrier: He taught me to look at nature, the space in nature and in a very different way… how to use it as a spatial workshop for architecture.  For example, this cave with its great roof going up, this open mouth to life of the valley, it takes the sun in when it is low in the sky in winter, but it cuts it out in summer, just the way it relates here is so very beautiful. He taught us to see things like that, and then how to translate them into architecture - but without imitation, and there is a difference. 


Catherine Hunter: And I believe there was another teacher, Professor…?


Richard Leplastrier: Masuda from Japan (Professor Masuda Tomoya). Well he was an extraordinary human being. I would have loved to have brought him here.  It was he who really taught me about issues of the Origins. He used to say that the architect must be able to go back to the Origins, you know in order to see where things really are and how they can go, you must learn to go back… see back in order to see forward. He would have loved this place. He was very philosophically based, he always looked for underlying symbolism and ideas in things and he taught me about that. I was very lucky.


Catherine Hunter: There is another story you tell about a temple in Japan that you sought out, I believe, and…


Richard Leplastrier: The temple was on the coast of the Japan Sea facing west towards Russia and Korea. A great friend and I - he also worked in Utzon’s office - had seen a poster of this beautiful granite walkway down a valley in granite stone and going up to a temple at the end of a pathway with tall trees, everything was wet. We looked at this and we resolved to find this place, which we did, and there it was, the great path and up to the entrance. We announced ourselves, and this wonderful priest came to the platform above us. We asked whether it might not be inconvenient at that time for us to visit the place.  He said, Come on up, so we went up, taking off our shoes, and he took us into this large tatami room with a garden. When you have been doing architecture for a while, you look at things quite critically. I looked at the structure, I looked at the proportions and I thought quietly to myself, it is just a bit questionable here and a bit questionable there. He brought us tea and then he said, A hundred years ago there was a great Cryptomeria tree right in this very position, it was six foot through the girth and we cut it down.  My heart sank. But then he said, We cut that tree up and out of that tree we formed the columns…, I could see the columns, … then the beams… he said, … and then ceiling boards and the ceiling boards came out of big flitches of timber cut thin slices and we kept them in the order of the flitch that it came from and bound them up and then even the off-cuts we used for all the framework of the shoji screens, and when we put the ceiling boards up, we put them back out in the same layer in which they were born, so we did lose the tree but we actually gave it another life, everything of that tree has been used.  That was a good lesson, and very relevant to today’s issues on our planet.


Catherine Hunter: Peter, did you always start off thinking that your architecture had to be about sustainability in this country?


Peter Stutchbury: We never had a word called sustainability when we were young and starting out, you either had that responsibility in you or you didn’t. When you spend time in the desert where water is a critical resource, where erosion takes place once you change the pattern of the land, where the sun beats on you day after day and you have got to find shade, you make common sense part of your thinking.


Catherine Hunter: So tell me about this place where you spent a lot of time as a kid.


Peter Stutchbury: My mother’s family farm in Western New South Wales, 42,000 hectares - a big place - we spent a lot of time there as children, it was a place where you developed a sense of responsibility about looking after the land. When things are so finely balanced, you can see things very clearly.  You can see destruction, you can see fragility, or you can see what sustains the land.  When there is lushness, you may not see this, but you need to look further, to look deeper. We could not, for instance, put a shed facing the wrong direction or the weather would create havoc; if it was housing grain or feed, it had to be minimally built as we did not have a lot of money, and we were two hours from the nearest hardware store. So everything was basic and essential out on the farm and we brought that way of surviving into the city in terms of our thinking. My father was incredibly rigorous, he was an engineer builder, nothing was ever done without a strong sense of precision, and a strong sense of accuracy in the use of materials for purpose, and for an avoidance of maintenance. So all those things amount to sustainability, but we never talked about it as sustainability, it was just essential living.


Catherine Hunter: Glen Murcutt often quotes Luis Barragán, who said where there is serenity there is joy. How important is this statement to architecture?


Richard Leplastrier: It is about well-being, architecture is about the making of places of well-being, that underlies everything - or well-becoming if it is a hospital – and, of course, essential building for people in trouble through flood or crisis. There is a difference: this is where building and architecture depart. Architecture is to do with inspiration of life, this is an interesting question to debate. If you create well-being, then that makes serenity, and as Glenn says, that is a very important quality.  Serenity is very difficult to find for people who are in real trouble; there are other issues there, one no more important than the other.


Peter Stutchbury: If we sat quietly in this place right now, in this cave, you would find serenity, and through that serenity you would be able to find a window to other things. It is that window to other things that makes some architecture profound. Not many buildings make that possible.


Richard Leplastrier: Like displacement of the mind … transcendence ….


Peter Stutchbury: Yes - make that available. I have been up here by myself in this cave and I have drifted to places which you could not imagine. Whereas, if I had been to a shopping centre, I would have been nowhere.


Catherine Hunter: What is the privilege, I guess, of being an architect in this country?


Peter Stutchbury: For me, the privilege is landscape, we have one of the most prophetic landscapes in the world, I have a growing understanding of this landscape; that is for me one of the most absolute privileges of being in Australia.  Look where we are sitting, only 45 minutes from the centre of the city and we are in a cave which is millions of years old. It is a beautiful room, we are fortunate - and we are not sharing it with a lot of people, you cannot see a lot of footprints around here, this is a very silent place.


Richard Leplastrier: You use the word privilege, I wonder if responsibility may not be a better word. We are here as an invading culture to this place, but the early culture of the original Australians had a very strong, tight contract and understanding with their place. They understood everything about it.  We as an invading culture in 200 years have blitzed this country and continued to do so at a scale many of us find truly horrendous and totally irresponsible, all in the name of the economy, economy of what one can ask.  Economy comes from the Greek economos, like the running of a household. How are we running our household here?  Well, not too damn well I would think in terms of the brilliant environment that we took over. Just about everywhere you look, where you see buildings, it is our greatest pollution. It is more an issue of the responsibility of an architect in this country; we can do our very best, if that helps to inspire others to do the same, well and good. But I doubt very much if it is going to shift the whole of society, we are heading in another direction politically and environmentally, unfortunately.


Catherine Hunter: So how do you retain your own sense of optimism and your own belief in what you are doing in the face of that?


Peter Stutchbury: We also teach and try to pass on a way of thinking through teaching the younger people. The younger people are informing culture these days and we take on a social role, as well as an educational role, and we can only ever do this by doing practice as well, to make responsible buildings.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in this country are not, dare I say, responsible thinkers. The economics of home are based upon how big the home is, rather than the quality of the place.


Catherine Hunter: It seems we have overlooked perhaps one of the great teachers for both of you and that is the Indigenous people of this country and the way they lived in this place and used it in the best possible way.


Peter Stutchbury: I do not think we have overlooked it. That is why we came here to this cave, out of a respect for our Indigenous people.  One of our great teachers would be Uncle Max (Max Dulumunmun Harrison) who teaches with us on our Master Classes. He has been a great inspiration to us and a great friend, always friendship with him comes first.  Also a few weeks ago, we were showing a group of American students a building that Richard, myself and Sue Harper had done ten years ago when we had the great privilege of our clients being three Aboriginal Elders (Birabahn, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the University of Newcastle), two women and a man, great wonderful people. They always preceded their conversations with we want this to be a house, not an educational building, a home for people to be in. When we returned, having not been there for five or six years, it does feel like a big home, incredible, and that day one of those woman Elders came straight up to us, wrapped her arms around us and thanked us for the building again.  We have done several other buildings on campus, none of our other clients would do that. It is something embedded in their culture. Look at how the Aboriginal people have forgiven us so far for everything that we have taken. It is an incredible culture, a culture that will survive through that forgiveness. We have acknowledged it in the most fundamental way by wanting to sit in a place like this as a sign of respect.


Catherine Hunter: It seems that in your approach to architecture it is very important to even justify building a building in the first place?


Richard Leplastrier: Yes, in some way you can try and practise what you preach, but you cannot always get it right. So you cannot be too self-assured and get on your high horse too much about things like that….


Peter Stutchbury: But it is a personal way of looking at it. It is an important way of starting any architectural problem, that is, to ask - do we need to build anything.


Richard Leplastrier: Oh, I think that is right, and to ask - do we need to pull it down, or can we reuse it in some sort of way?  That is often a much harder problem, it is much easier to start afresh sometimes, but not necessarily better.


Catherine Hunter: Your friend Juhani Pallasmaa has written a book The Thinking Hand. Can you elaborate on the potency of the hand in observation and discovery? Is architecture discovered rather than created?


Richard Leplastrier: Oh, that is what Glenn says.


Peter Stutchbury: I think it is felt, maybe then discovered.  We are losing our hands, we are losing our eyes to a degree too, and our hearing.  Coming to a place like this, we can hear the sounds that are around us and the sounds are alive, they are moving, you can track them, and to a degree you can understand why these cockatoos are moving from tree to tree, they are feeding on the young buds. I think it is not just hand/mind connection: he is talking about a lot more than that.  He is talking about what Rick was talking about earlier. We are losing the ability to sense things, we are being desensitised.  Looking at a computer screen is two dimensional, flat and unemotional, and distorted in many ways, here we are looking at the depth of a field, and colour and texture and smell and movement.  It is a very, very different way of being and seeing.


Richard Leplastrier: So it is, but it is also to discover or uncover or reveal - or revelation, in that you do uncover a place, and then you make something that works within that place, because of what that place is. The place reveals itself through itself.  It is about transcendence as well.


Peter Stutchbury: Quite often you will find that the best outcome of discovery is when you have actually spent so much time trying to discover, so much time investigating, researching, thinking, dwelling upon, drawing upon something - that you end up discovering. Discovery does not happen – click - discovery is something that happens over time. Creativity can happen – click - like that.


Catherine Hunter: Drawing is important to you Rick?


Richard Leplastrier: Things just come through the drawing, the connection between the eye and the hand is an amazing thing, you cannot track it. There have been some great drawers - Paul Klee from the 1930s – who had an intellectual understanding of what he was drawing, but also an emotional response to being moved by some-thing, or some-one, or some-action, moved to draw or represent it, re-present it. If that emotional power is not there, it will not be a great drawing.


Catherine Hunter: I am interested in one of the central ideas in your architecture Peter, the dissolving of the boundaries between the inside and the outside. Can that be applied in cold climates?


Peter Stutchbury: I have never thought of it as a centralised idea, I have never preconceived the dissolving of the edges that becomes the way you consider a building depending on place. You adapt to cold climate, you adapt to warm climate, you adapt to temperate climate; you change your clothes according to the climate.  However, we did struggle with a building that we did in Russia, we struggled in terms of understanding how to manage that. But throughout that struggle there was always the idea that unless the occupants of that building understood the dynamics of where they were, then we were going to lose one of our best lessons, a lesson we can teach in architecture, which is connection, something we talked about earlier.  The building could not behave in the same way the buildings here in Australia behave, it was provocative in its discipline of connection.  Anyone who has a passion for living, or an understanding of connection, will dissolve the edges of their building when the climate permits it. The building in Russia was essentially a box with critical minor connections, whereas a building done recently in Seaforth (Sydney) was just a roof, almost the opposite.


Richard Leplastrier: Sometimes the keyhole can reveal a lot more than half a dozen plate glass windows.


Catherine Hunter: Each year architects and students come from all over the world to attend the Glenn Murcutt Master Class. What is it that they are seeking according to your opinion?


Peter Stutchbury: Two days ago, I was with a very well-known American architect and he was incredibly excited about going to visit Glenn yesterday morning, incredibly excited. Glenn has a wonderful and deserved position in the international architecture fraternity and people aspire to that. We are very fortunate to have a team of people that teach with a common philosophy, where responsibility is the basis of it, but beyond that the responsibility is in very particular ways so that you do not get the same interpretation. You do not get the same interpretation of landscape - in a way Australia is an outreach, and through that sort of character the Master Class becomes also an adventure, and it becomes an objective for people around the world.


Catherine Hunter: Richard, as a teacher at the Master Class and other places, what is the most important message you can give to young emerging architects?


Richard Leplastrier: If in doubt about building, do not, and if you do, do it as minimally as possible, make it as good as possible, and make it as demountable as possible so it can be reused.  Respect, respect the place, and respect the life that is engendered within it.