Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Written for Richard Leplastrier on his 70th birthday

I was one of Richard's victims. Well that's what he called me/us, I prefer to think of us as punters in one of the most memorable experiences of my life in what turned out to be a very unusual, but totally satisfying way of building a house. A very beautiful, inexpensive, bespoke house about five miles out of Bellingen in The Promised Land, beside the Never Never River on some land that Peter and I had bought.
It started off when we went up to stay at Richard's house at Lovetts to talk about the project. I think it was winter because I remember getting out of the Japanese bath and drinking a lot of red wine to keep warm; before I fell through the floor and standing on the cold, hard ground asked him if he did that to all his clients. It was a kind of architects test that later turned into architects inspections when he came to visit us and we hid all the knick knacks and polished the dog.
Like all good stories this has several parts and first there was the road trip to get to Bellingen in our old ute - GQD 602 - nearly God, but not quiet. We were going to stay in an old tin shed on the land with the appropriate bedding, kitchen and cooking stuff, and Richard's thin yellow paper and drawing board to work on the house. Architect's base camp. As Peter and I had spent four years in a hippy training camp in South East Queensland, without power, water or phones this adventure seemed pretty normal. I suppose I thought that all architects did this kind of thing - living in a shed with the clients for two weeks while designing a house.
I think it must have been October 1980 or '81 when we set off north. I know it was October because I saw a Regent bower bird beside the river and those elusive birds are only to be seen at bower building time, in October. Taking a few days to get there we drove around looking at a lot of buildings, details of buildings and uses of wood. The most impressive structure was the old steelworks in Newcastle, the huge old rusty, steel buildings beside the blue Pacific with no sign of life was like a science fiction movie set, relics of some past civilisation. It was a very privileged education in looking at the way things are put together, something I'm still grateful for to this day.
I didn't realise what Richard had in mind for us then - industrial? hippy shack? boat?
One of the things we all agreed on was a modest way of life, which the building was going to reflect, as well as sitting in the landscape just so. I think Richard nearly fainted when he saw the bare paddocks with some rusty wire sagging across them. There was nothing to build the house into, beside or around, whatever was constructed was going to stick out like dogs bollocks.
We set up camp in the three sided tin shed which faced away from the road and the mountains; living quarters was a platform furnished with a big low table with a swag on either side and a Kamado BBQ. The land consisted of twenty seven acres with two bare paddocks between the road and the river, no trees at all, and after crossing over the river an enormous bare paddock. So the house was to be in the bare front paddock, facing the mountains, the Dorigo escarpment, with a telecommunications spire/lightening conductor on top. It was a spectacular view going up three thousand feet of nearly untouched rainforest; sometimes you could see red cedars flowering, trees that the timber getters hadn't been able to reach.
The first thing that Richard did was give the clients something to do - we were set to measuring the paddocks, tierra, know your dirt, get a feel; it was fun with a huge old tape measure but that only took a morning. Then he thought of something else to occupy us which was to build a model of the land, it was grass and some casurinas along the river bank; on a huge board we made something that looked like a five year olds version of a paddock, I'm embarrassed to think of it now. Later when Richard dropped his perfect little model of our house into this mess it looked real and quiet brilliant.
In the meantime, while he was kneeling at the table working on the drawings and we were shambling about trying to look busy, or going into town to check out the locals, the Westerley got up. Now this is a very annoying wind even if you're not trying to do detailed work on yellow tissue paper, after a couple of days we decided the only thing for it was a pipe, red wine and discussions.
During discussions I remember being somewhat shocked when the materials for the house were being finalised: tin and masonite for outside, caneite inside. i used to paint on masonite when I was at art school, and caneite came from that stinky factory beside Glebe Island Bridge. How could you make a house from this stuff? Then there were the canvas panels in the off the peg masonite doors, didn't Richard know that it got cold up there?
The open, fly wired bathroom was not a problem because we were going to have a wooden Japanese style bath with its own boiler, and I knew from Lovetts how toasty they were. Richard was the only person ever brave enough to dice with his heart by going straight from the bath to jumping into the winter cold Never Never.
One evening early on we leapt about in the light of one of the amazing electrical storms the area is famous for, when the sky and the valley were sizzling, they used to happen at dusk usually - drinks time. So he positioned the big fly wired deck at the front of the house facing towards the tower/lightening conductor on top of the hill, like a big ship heading towards land. So for the next few years we'd have drinks while watching the live entertainment fizzing about, often very, very close.
Away from the mountains the river was sometimes low and slow, and sometimes a raging, mad thing. There were steep, fragile banks mainly held by privet and casurinas. Many towns in Australia had turned their backs on their rivers and had no use for them. Richard used the Never Never in a minimal way, but scary if you didn't like heights. He made a wooden walkway and platform that went straight out the back of the house and looked down about twenty feet into the river. It was supported on two huge poles wired into the top of the bank, so that in a huge flood it would all just wash away, like a skink's tail dropping off at bird attack.
The washing away of fence posts and small structures happened a lot on the Never Never and I ended up very grateful for this seasoned wood arriving at the door. After Peter left I used to go out and chain saw up the washed up wood to feed the hungry fire monsters - the slow combustion stove, the pot bellied stove and the bath stove.
From the skink I used to issue orders to my dog, lizzie, to go and see of the feral cattle. But the best time out on the deck was a picnic with the fireflies just an arms reach away as they danced above the river.
The kitchen was mainly a huge Blackwood table that a friend of Richard's made, in the heart of the house Richard used to scrub it when he came to stay, never commenting on the fact that we never touched it. The taps in the kitchen and bathroom were brilliant, I still miss them - made from a piece of curved copper pipe, they had a Nylex garden hose fitting on the end so you could unclip them and put a hose on instead - wash the place out, put out a fire, whatever.
But all this became apparent later, for now there were the drawings and the model and the council planners. I forget what Richard told them to get the plans approved, maybe things weren't mentioned, maybe there were large chunks of the house missing. Whatever, the plans were approved and we were off.
Finding a builder was interesting, there were several around who thought that massacring two thousand year old timber and leaving bricks exposed was the height of cool. Richard somehow found a very unassuming, clever man called Henk Mulder, who's parents had come from Holland and settled out west. He'd not only built his own ultra light plane (and crashed it) but was used to making do with whatever was about, like using ten gauge fencing wire for nails. So now we were set - the plans were approved and we had a builder.
In between having a good time - I refer to the photo of Richard lying on a rug looking very happy - drinking lots of wine, smoking and talking, talking, we were invited to dinner by the couple who'd sold us the land.
As our washing facilities were the Never Never we probably looked pretty shabby, but we were good company. Richard had to leave the room shortly after we arrived because the hostess of the long red finger nails served him Tom Yum soup made with powdered coriander. I joined him after confessing that my current work was a painting of the then foreign minister fucking a pig. They certainly didn't forget us and we were never asked back.
We all went back to Sydney and our various camps and the house came to be built by Henk and his crew, with the three of us going up every now and then to talk through the details. I remember thinking how big the house looked when the timber skeleton was up, and how amazing it was going to be to live in. we moved in my thirtieth birthday, June 15th 1952, and the perfume of the new house and new wood is till with me.
A year or so later Richard made me a separate studio, if anything more beautiful than the house. I feel heartbroken when I think of that great space that was all mine, for years I used to dream of putting it on the back of a truck and taking it away somewhere to a different reality, stealing it.
The main house was a boat, when the roof and side panels opened and shut it sailed through hot summer days. The people up the hill said it looked like a factory, so it was industrial. And it was a hippy shack that had a very low carbon footprint. But really it was a jewel, made by Richard with enthusiasm and integrity for us to live a good life in. But that's another story.

No comments:

Post a Comment