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New South Wales, Australia – Leplastrier and Stutchbury go foraging in the Australian bush at the Ozetecture Summer School

Australian architects celebrate the primacy of the landscape at the Ozetecture Summer School

‘This place is full of stories and learning to understand its characters and landscape will enable you to find legibility in other places,’ says The Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medallist Richard Leplastrier at the start of this year’s Ozetecture Summer School. Leplastrier is addressing a group of students en route to the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park 30km north of Sydney.

Here they will work in teams on the most rudimentary of briefs - to design shelter for human occupation. Drawn from places as far afield as Korea, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and America, some of the foreign urbanites have been a little wary of the untamed bush, but their fears recede as Leplastrier and his protégé and friend Peter Stutchbury, adjust their focal lengths by showing them how to view the landscape with new eyes and new perspectives. The Ozetecture courses are the brainchild of Irish architect and teacher Lyndsay Johnston, who convinced the pair, along with Glenn Murcutt, to establish the International Masterclass programme in 2001.

Aimed at professionals, the two-week course established the model for this week-long student event. Over time, Ozetecture has amassed an impressive international alumni, who have made the pilgrimage to experience these architects’ apparently mysterious and reclusive form of practice. Yet what is immediately apparent when you meet them in their natural habitat is how quickly they de-mystify decades of patient observation and light-handed intervention.

‘When you walk through the bush, look carefully at where you are placing your feet,’ Leplastrier begins by saying. ‘And if you see something that you want to observe properly, stand still and take your time.’ He likens the process of design to the experience of looking through a kaleidoscope, with many elements tumbling before you. ‘When you pause and stop turning it, however, then you see a pattern, and it’s like that moment in design when all of the variables come together.’ This gentle yet persuasive teaching style maintains a steady pace, and is enacted through storytelling, walks in dense woodlands, and by visits to the architects’ own self-built homes, situated on opposite sides of the Pittwater coastline.

‘It’s not about teaching site analysis’, says Leplastrier. ‘It’s about you telling us what your understanding of this place is. Your sketchbook will be your most important tool, and as you draw, try to estimate the scale of the landscape. It’s about the relative proportion of us to nature.’ Leplastrier still camps out under canvas whenever a client asks him to design a house, deploying what the Australian critic Rory Spence called his ‘heightened senses’ (AR April 1998). Understanding the primacy of the landscape and the pleasure of living within limited means are central to his architecture.

His houses reflect an urge to discover how much you can afford not to build. As he describes his latest project, he reflects on what really drives him in his practice. ‘I’m 72 now and I have only got a few more shots in the locker, and I want to make them count. I’m doing a job on the south coast, only 85m² enclosed,’ he says. ‘The rest is a beautiful campsite; that’s where Australians learn to live.’

But is this all too good to be true, designing simple timber structures and living in the bush in harmony with the planet? Aren’t these students short changed through being taught such a particular approach? Not a bit of it, says Murcutt, who cites Leplastrier as one of the key influences on his work. ‘It’s all about teaching them to ask the right questions. And these relate to principals that apply all over the world, in all landscapes,’ he explains. ‘Wherever you go, there is still the sun, there is still wind. There is still light. There is still human scale. There is still prospect. There is still refuge.’

In May this year, Leplastrier and Stutchbury will be bringing Ozetecture’s philosophy to Europe, with a masterclass in Ireland and a lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. This was Johnston’s initiative, driven by his desire to take their methodology to an even wider audience. But don’t expect a vanity slide show featuring the delights of Leplastirer’s platforms and parasols, or Stutchbury’s distinctive propped and sweeping roofs.

It’s clear they intend to use this European platform to engage in hard-hitting straight talk. Speaking of his own nation, but alluding to more universal global concerns, Leplastrier concludes by saying, ‘Our society has got rich, quickly, and we are not heading in a good direction. So when we come to London to tell our stories, we’re going to lay it on the line, about where our country is going.’

Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury will be lecturing at the RIBA, on Tuesday 24 May at 18.30. For tickets contact www.architecture.com

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