Architecture Summer School with Richard Leplastrier & Peter Stutchbury

Between 9-15 February, I participated in the Total Immersion Summer School in Pittwater, Sydney. It is a week-long workshop organised by Architecture Foundation Australia. I found out about it when I was researching Glenn Murcutt about a year ago, and since then, I had been waiting for the opportunity to come. Fortunately, my application was successful, and I received an offer to take part in it this year. On Sunday morning, I arrived at Sydney Central station with a mixed feeling of nervousness and excitement.

The first day was probably the toughest. The torrential storm had hit Sydney so hard that the aircraft I was on took three attempts to land at Sydney Airport. (thank god that it touched down; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to attend the workshop!) I met up other participants from all over the country, including Maja from Slovenia and Nicole from Bond University, who I built a close relationship over a week.

We got on a coach, headed to Church Point Wharf to catch a cruise to Pittwater followed by 15 minutes walk to Pittwater YHA. Lindsay Johnston and Hannah explained the route and led the way to the hostel. The path had become a river that ran so fast down the hill. We had got thoroughly soaked by the time we arrived at the hostel. Nevertheless, we were all keen to learn about each other and looked forward to the introduction to the brief next morning.

Getting to know and receiving pieces of advice from Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury was possibly something I’d remember in 10-20 years as the life-changing moments. I was quite ashamed that I didn’t know much about them until I studied their works (only the names of their projects) prior to the workshop. After meeting them, I didn’t only love their designs, but also how they value each student’s ideas, backgrounds and feelings. Almost every day/night, my friends and I talked about how modest and accepting Richard and Peter are. I was extremely fortunate to learn about their personalities and particular interests that contributed to their designs. It made a lot of sense in my mind that who they are have shaped how they design.

As a Japanese, I strongly felt there is an intersection between Peter and Richard’s design philosophies and traditional Japanese architecture. They focus on the relationship between humans and nature, thinking about how we can live with the landscape harmoniously. They consider the sun, winds, water, weather, climate, vegetation, geography, geology, and the list goes on. In addition to them, the layers of historical, cultural and social contexts further informed the design. I found Richard and Peter’s design approaches very familiar and comfortable, something I have experienced in childhood in Japan. I had been struggling to identify what kind of architecture I want to do. So, learning the way they design made me realise that it might have had always been within myself, rooted in my Japanese-ness.

Lots of discourses involved elements of Japanese culture. Richard knew that there are so many names for rain in Japanese. Since I compose Haiku as a hobby, I was so thrilled to hear that from him and felt so close to him. I was disappointed in myself that I didn’t bring Saijiki (a compendium of seasonal terms). So here you go, some of the names for rain:

土砂降り (dosha-buri)downpour / torrential rain (dosha = earth and rock, buri = pouring)
霧雨 (kiri-same)drizzle of misty rain (kiri = mist, same = rain)
五月雨 (sami-dare) or 梅雨 (tsuyu)rain of the May of the lunar calendar, June of the current solar calendar. Traditionally the sacred rain of the rain season (satsuki = May)
にわか雨 (niwaka-ame) or 驟雨 (shu-wu)rain that suddenly starts and quickly stops (niwaka = sudden)
夕立 (yu-dachi)sudden brief downpour in summer afternoon, often followed by clear sky and refreshing winds
白雨 (haku-wu)similar to yu-dachi, the rain falling from the bright sky (haku = white, wu = rain)
春雨 (haru-same)fine, quite rain in Spring (haru = spring, same = rain)
卯の花腐し (unohana-kudashi)a rain that is too long to rotten deutzias in April of the lunar calendar (May of the solar calendar) (unohana = deutzia, kudashi = rottening)
時雨 (shigure)quick drizzling rain following strong winds in the beginning of winter (時 = time, 雨 = rain)
御降 (osagari)gracious rain (or snow) in the first three days of the new year (御 = a prefix to indicate respect and courtesy)

During the workshop, Richard lent us one of his precious books titled 日本の都市空間 (The Urban Spaces in Japan) by Teiji Ito, written along with University of Tokyo students (including Arata Isozaki) and supervised by Kenzo Tange. It’s an old book, it was published in 1968 (as old as my father), but it is such a timeless piece of writing. It is an extensive set of design principles utilised for the design of cities and urban complexes in Japan, discussed in relation to the cultural and philosophical relationships. I had a read, and it weaves the Japanese cultures, history, language and case studies beautifully. I’m determined to find a copy of it when I go back home in Japan next time.

We talked a lot about ‘ma (間)’. The book 日本の都市空間 describes it being an imaginary space highlighted by physical components. Richard explained it encompassing numerous meanings: it is a physical space, a gap, an atmosphere, the indicator of time (時間), a presence of emptiness or void (空間), and tension between components within a space. Some people seemed to have thought it as a self-explaining magical word (as if mentioning it ticks a box). However, as I listened to Richard’s talk, I felt being specific and clear with what kind of Ma I’m dealing with is very important. It made me think of what can create and enhance Ma within a space for intended purposes.

The brief of the project was to design a room for learning (for 32 students). Defining a ‘room’ was a starting point, and learning that the entire bay is the room was such a liberating thought. At university, we often think a ‘room’ as defined by walls, floor and roof, but it turned out we have always been in the room called landscape and being a part of it. It is based on the philosophy of the indigenous people of the land, that it is the land that we belong to – we don’t own the environment. It made me more aware of my surroundings; my skin is touching the air and the moisture within it – the ears catch the echoing singing (or rather shrill) of kookaburras – winds shaking eucalyptus leaves casting the shadows on scattered sandstones. What a feeling to be immersed in it, and what would it be to be learning in this room. The project is not about making a box, but how it would feel to be there and how people can engage with the land.

These thoughts are reflected upon how the workshop was structured. For the first 2-3 days, we had lectures on the landscape of Morning Bay, sketched from 6:30am to see the change of the scenery. We observed plants and animals, went on to hiking with Craig Burton, a renowned landscape architect, to see different ground conditions, plant varieties and climbed up massive sandstones to discover panoramic views. We encountered a serene pond connected to a waterfall and enjoyed each other’s company. After a few days, we felt as if we have had been living there for a long time. Afterwards, I thought that I don’t know enough about Melbourne. It made me more curious about Melbourne and wished to be able to tell stories about Melbourne to someone else, just like how Peter, Richard and Craig did.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we worked on designing the room, which was to be proposed at the presentation on Friday. Although it was not an easy process, we all had a good idea of what we were dealing with. We learnt about the land; we knew the selection of the location was as important as the design itself. The knowledge we accumulated in a few days helped us determine where the room should be located. We sought feedback from Richard and Peter, who were always keen to listen to our ideas and provide us with clues to the next step.

The presentation was full of delightful moments. Many drawings pinned up were beautiful and breath-taking, despite the limited time we had. I took notes of the presentations and feedback, and as I read them back, I experience the sense of fulfilment and admiration. Each proposal and design was unique and fun, and feedback was so thought-provoking and full of love. I felt I was fortunate to be there, and I hoped it was something every architecture students could experience at universities.

The visit to Public Ablutions, Richard’s house, Basin Beach House, Peter’s house and his office was so eye-opening. All of them had a view of nature. They had numerous details that considered the passive design and comfort of inhabitation.

Richard’s glass-less house showed strong influences of Japanese architecture, such as the deep engawa-like balcony, the circular framing of the views, diffused light through screens (not shoji though), the opening at a corner and the intake of the diffused light into the living area. It reminded me of the details I observed at Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto. It was literally like living in the landscape. The unique cutouts of the door openings were playful, and the sequence of openings often tricked my eyes as if they were mirrors, reflecting the view. The extensive use of plywood and reclaimed timber (Blackbutt, Sydney Blue Gum, Brush Box) made the house durable but lightweight and compact, using no nails for the dismantlability. The house made me feel the time flowing slowly.

Peter’s house celebrated the two-storey and three-storey high voids in the living area and the internal sandy courtyard. The house had great control over air movement (ventilation), temperature and light intake. It made me feel like the house contained multiple levels of balcony or viewing platform where you can look down the courtyard and the expanse of the air. The material qualities of concrete, timber and flashes of red worked together to create a balance of austerity, rusticness and warmth. There was dynamic flexibility to the openness of the spaces; enabling inhabitant to create the space they want by adjusting swing doors, sliding doors, pull-down ropes for opening a section of roof, or lift-up of the roof to get the air from or to inside. Some treads of the stairs were made of timber, and the concrete walls were detailed so that treads can be replaced if needed. It was as if the house was breathing.

There are so many things that I experienced and felt in just a week. What a week! I received a share of energy and motivation from Richard and Peter, other like-minded students who I shared the time with. Especially, I’d like to thank Tom, Thomas and Kelly for being wonderful team mates, and Nicole and Maja for being fun room mates & close friends to hang out with throughout the trip. I’m very much thankful for the opportunity. I’ll keep ‘deep-and-wide’ fountain in my heart.

Waiting for timber to arrive
At the pier of the morning glow

Scent of the current
Twined around limbs of the trees
The refreshing air

Rock to clamber up
Rock to hold on to tightly
Rock of the summer

Morning calm of the sea
Voice of one dog
Calling the other dog back

Charcoal in the sweaty hand
Extending the line
of a mountain ridge

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