3rd February 2010
Victims of Richard Leplastier's
I was one of Richard Leplastrier’s victims. Well that’s what he calls me/us. I prefer to think of us as punters in one of the most memorable experiences of my life, a very unusual but totally satisfying way of building a house. A 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 Lovetts with Richard to talk about the project.
I think it was winter because I remember getting in the Japanese bath and drinking lots of red wine to stay warm before I fell thru 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 Bellingen in our old ute - GQD 602 - nearly God but not quite. We were going to stay in an old tin shed on the land with appropriate bedding, kitchen and cooking stuff and Richard’s drawing board and thin yellow paper. From base camp to first bivouac.
Peter and I had spent four years in a hippy training camp in SE Qld without power, water or phone so we were used to roughing it, as was Richard. It seemed to be pretty normal to be heading up Pacific Highway with a load of living gear, the three of us scrunched up on the bench seat.
I suppose I thought all architects did this kind of thing - living in a shed with the clients for two weeks while designing a house.
5th Feb 2010
The Building Blocks
I think it must have been October 1981 when we set off north. I know it was October because I saw a Regent bower bird beside the river while we were there and they are only to be seen in October.
Taking a few days to get there we drove around looking at a lot of buildings, uses of wood and details of buildings, the most impressive of which was the old steel works in Newcastle. The huge old rusty, red tin buildings beside the blue Pacific with no sign of life was like a science fiction movie, relics from some past civilization.
It was a very privileged education in looking at the way human things are put together. I still try and look at details in the way that Richard would see them and occasionally get flashes of how brilliant clockwork is, as opposed to my unmethodical painters brain.
But what did he have in mind for us? Industrial? Hippy shack? A boat?
One of the things we all agreed on was a modest way of life and that the building was going to reflect that and sit in the landscape just so. I think Richard nearly fainted when he saw the bare paddocks with some rusty old wire sagging across them. There was nothing to tuck the house into, beside or round and whatever was built there was going to stick out like dogs bollocks.
We set up camp in the three sided old tin shed on a platform covering some of it, with a big, low table, a swag on either side and the kamodo bbq. We faced away from the road towards the river and the antique pig sheds, over the river was a huge paddock with a stony crossing. The house was to be in the bare paddocks facing the mountains, the Dorigo escarpment, with the telecommunications spire on the top. It was a pretty spectacular view going up three thousand feet of nearly untouched rainforest. Sometimes you could see the red cedars that the timber getters couldn’t reach when they flowered.
9th February 2010
There weren’t many people living out there then, unlike the suburbia it has since become.
The first thing Richard did was give the clients something to do - so we were set to measuring the paddock where the house was to go, with a big old tape measure we huffed and puffed around the field, but that only took a morning.
Then he thought of something else to occupy us - we were to make a scale model of the paddock we’d measured. It was grass and some casurinas along the river bank, not too complicated, so on a huge board we made something that looked like a five years old version of a field, with the river, grass and paper cutout trees. I’m embarrassed thinking about it, but then later Richard dropped a perfect little scale model of our house into this mess and it looked real and quite brilliant.
14th February 2010
In the meantime 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.
After a couple of days the westerly got up and blew through all the cracks in the shed which only had three sides anyway. Now this is a very annoying wind even if you’re not trying to do detailed drawings on yellow tissue paper. The only thing for it was a little pipe, red wine and discussions.
During discussions I remember being some what shocked when the materials for the outside were being finalised, tin and masonite and canite inside. I used to paint on masonite when I was at art school and canite came from the stinky factory beside Glebe Island Bridge, how could you make a house out of this stuff? Then there were the canvas panels in the off the peg masonite doors, didn’t Richard know it got cold up there?
The open, flywired bathroom was not a problem because we were going to have a big, wooden Japanese style bath that had its own boiler and I knew from Lovetts how toasty they are. Richard was the only person ever brave enough to dice with his heart by going straight from the bath to jumping into the winter freezing river.
One evening early on we jumped about in the light of one of the amazing electrical storms the area is famous for, when the sky and the valley would be sizzling. They used to happen at dusk usually - drinks time.
So he pointed the big flywired deck at the front of the house towards the tower/lightening conductor on top of the hill and for the next few years we’d have drinks while watching the live entertainment fizzling about, often very, very close.
Away from the mountains the river was sometimes a low and slow and sometimes a raging mad thing. There were steep, fragile banks mainly held by privet and casurinas.
So 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 dangerous 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 skinks 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 and chain saw it up 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 off feral cattle. But one of the best times was on a picnic night seeing the fireflies within arms reach way above the river.
The kitchen was mainly a huge Blackwood table that a friend of Richard’s made, we were supposed to scrub it which we did when he came to stay, but that was the heart of the house.
The taps in the kitchen and bathroom were brilliant, I still miss them - made from a piece of curved copped 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.
All Rug and No Carpet
But this all came apparent later, for now there were the drawings and the model and the council planners. I forgot what Richard told them to get the plans approved, maybe things weren’t mentioned, maybe there were large chunks of house missing. Whatever, the plans were approved and we were off.
Finding a builder was interesting as 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 Hank 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 to make buildings, like using ten gauge fencing wire for nails. So now we were really off - 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.
26th February 2010
As our washing facilities were the Never Never we probably looked pretty shabby, but we were very good company. Richard had to leave the room shortly after we arrived because she 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 again but we had a good laugh, in fact the stunned silence after the pig episode still makes me laugh.
So we all went back to Sydney and our various camps and the house came to be built by Hank and his crew with the three of us going up every now and again and talking through 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 on my thirtieth birthday, June 15th 1982 and the perfume of new house and new wood is still 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 and for years used to dream of putting it on the back of a truck and taking it away somewhere to a different reality, stealing it really.
The main house was a boat, as when the roof and side panels opened and shut it sailed through the hot summer days. The people up the hill said it looked like a factory, so it was industrial. And it was a hippy shack in that it 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.