Over a glass of chenin blanc, local architect Robin Larsen lyrically draws me in. “Architecture, well they say it’s frozen music,” suggests Robin, shy and eloquent.
His partner JoAnne Stephenson laughs with the charm of Diane Keaton from early Woody Allen films. As a board member for the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, she was winding down from their recent tour of Daylesford. “This is the seventh or eighth year they’ve toured Daylesford,” she tells me, before spilling secrets about their plans in Daylesford next year.
Robin reflects, “My parents sung in church choirs. I played piano, violent, trumpet...all of which for a very short time...I guess an archi has a sort of rhythm about it.” The word architecture, can be disassembled into archi for first or principal, teks as in to weave and tekton from the Greek word for builder. “I have a brother who’s an artist and the other one makes furniture.”
When Robin was young, he thought about building blocks and the infinite arrangements that spark a lifetime of possibilities. He quips, “I like triangles and circles.” As the principal architect of TreeARC, his career revolves around developing rural properties and designing a variety of houses in regional Victoria. But his pride and joy is the home he made for his family, the Trapezoid House.
“They say some architects can’t design for themselves, they have so many ideas going that they just can’t separate themselves from it,” as Robin locks eyes with JoAnne, her bubbling personality seems to ground his conceptual techne, “But in my case I had to build a house so I kept mucking around until I found it.”
“Our house is on Flinders hill in Daylesford, looks over the state forest and sinks into hill with a big terrace. It had olive trees planted and it felt like there was an Italian thing going.” When prompted about the initial home they had imagined, Robin explains, “It was probably driven by images and the experience of travelling through Europe - the classic stone house sitting on a hill with grape vines over it.”
While travelling in Italy, Robin and JoAnne stayed with friends at Andrea Palladio’s Villa Saraceno, an architectural wonder built in Northern Italy around 1550. “Just being in that building, you could see how his mind works, how he put the thing together and how it relates to all his other buildings.” JoAnne interrupts, “When we were there Robin started measuring the rooms.”
Robin smiles, “It’s about balance. It’s about symmetry and lines. You get a sense of what he was about. In the distance there are fews up to the snow covered alps. Rather then build from what you need, he had a sense of what the whole could be.”
When Robin works, nature becomes a tool of the trade. “Over time, the structure will settle into the landscape.” Robin asserts, “We borrowed the landscape.” There aren’t many straight lines in his designs. The angular composition of Robin’s Trapezoid House inherits Palladio’s respect for the whole, with a structure that does not protrude from the earth but disappears into it - while maintaining the simple rustic motifs of stone, rusty steel and raw timber.
Robin pulls apart the lego blocks of his favourite architects with inspired enthusiasm, “If you think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania...He uses heavy textures; stone and timber. A big stone house on a waterfall. It’s about the positioning in the landscape.” But the fruits of his conception are left in the hands of mother nature, “Trying to position the structure in the landscape is what I try to do. In Daylesford, you notice how the sweeping landscape moves and you play off that to some degree.”
Robin swipes across the endless photos on his iPhone, the minutiae of the Trapezoid House comes to life as Robin’s images span the four seasons, “The curve of the land coming around, referenced by something in the distance. In Daylesford the wind can be an issue too. Or arranging the key landscape elements to offset the lines.”
There is a musicality to the way Robin describes his work, “All the while taking into account the sunlight throughout the day...how it moves.”
Robin Larson and JoAnne Stephenson