David Lea obituary | Architecture
Building beautiful places in a way that takes advantage of all that nature has to offer, while causing minimal damage to it, is what propelled architect David Lea, who died at the age of 82. His output has not been prolific but each project, built or unbuilt, has demonstrated his determination to create low-impact buildings – in harmony with the natural world rather than at odds with it.
As Lea said himself: “When we build, we reveal our vision of the future. One moment the design is in our heads, the next day it is anchored in all its solid reality. This imposes a responsibility that is impossible to avoid. Our vision must surely include the truth of rapidly accelerating climate change and the imperative to preserve the natural habitats of all the creatures with whom we share the Earth.
Embodying this ethos and the culmination of a career that began around 1965, Lea’s last major project is the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (Wise) building at the Center for Alternative Technology, near Machynlleth in the center of Wales. Wales (2007-10). Designed with architect Pat Borer, it includes residential and teaching accommodation, a restaurant and workshops, as well as a circular auditorium enclosed by a seven-meter-high adobe wall. Interspersed between the parts of the building are water basins, paved terraces and access galleries made of wooden slats. It looks more like a Mediterranean hill town than the wet slate quarry reclaimed by the center when it was established in 1973.
The building is made largely from natural products, with wood and lime concrete for its structure and lime-plastered hempcrete walls brightly colored with limewash. Whatever the weather, the interior spaces are in constant dialogue with the exterior, through large sliding windows or judiciously positioned Zen peepholes, or even the oculus which illuminates the auditorium.
Lea’s first significant work, which brought him national attention, was a sheltered housing scheme in Churt, Surrey, built between 1968 and 1991. He designed the early phases following the building principles of Walter Segal, who developed a system of easy-to-build wooden details. which avoided unnecessary cuts. In later phases, the influence came more from Japan (which Lea visited in 1975), with a shift from bolted joints and planks to joinery joints and lime plaster wall finishes.
Lime rendering and locally quarried stone were the main ingredients of his projects at the Royal Agricultural College (now Royal Agricultural University), Cirencester: a modest extension to the library (1981) and two phases of student accommodation ( 1982 and 1991), both inspired by the vernacular of traditional Cotswold buildings.
A tiny artist’s studio in Somerset (1989) still surprises. With barely a straight line or right angle, Lea seems to have moved into an organic world inspired by Steiner, but his construction is a functional response to the saplings he found while searching for a source of lumber. . All these projects share the same quality of serenity and simplicity, despite their different palettes and appearances.
A modest supply of private houses and small community buildings occupied Lea in the 1980s and 1990s, along with a succession of competitions for new buildings at Oxbridge colleges; however, it is certainly a missed opportunity for Oxford and Cambridge that none of these seven projects took place.
Born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, to Betty (née Rosher), a piano teacher, and Ian Lea, a stockbroker, David had a happy and conventional upbringing. It was a family holiday in Scotland that inspired her love of the natural world, and it was her art teacher at her school, Clifton College, in Bristol, who suggested she become an architect.
In 1958 he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study architecture under the newly appointed Leslie Martin, along with Colin St John Wilson and Colin Rowe, two of his most influential teachers.
He sailed in a yacht to the United States to do his year with Harry Weese in Chicago, then, after completing the diploma course at Cambridge, worked for a short time with Wilson. He moved to London in 1966, where he designed housing for the London Borough of Merton.
Before finishing at Merton he was approached by a cousin to design the Churt project and he was able to go solo. It was also during this time that he became increasingly restless with his life in London. A study trip in 1975 to Mao’s China confirmed the political and social ideas that were already forming in his head. In a lecture he gave on his return, he said: “Three impressions remain clearly in my mind: the extraordinary intensity of agriculture, the absence of the negative effects of poverty in a fundamentally poor country , and the great gentleness of people towards each other… China makes you think very hard mainly about the balance between its own needs and the needs of society.
Holiday trips to a stone cottage in Snowdonia and the rise of the back-to-the-land movement convinced him he had to move on. After six months learning the techniques with self-sufficiency pioneer John Seymour in Pembrokeshire, Lea moved to Ogoronwy, a smallholding in the hills above Porthmadog, Gwynedd.
The balance of his new life was constantly shifting. If there were no customers to serve, he turned his attention to rebuilding his outbuildings and running the small estate. If the office became busy, the earth could take care of itself, although with the help of assistants work on all fronts was still possible. Indeed, it was Léa’s ideal to live a varied and integrated life, cultivating the land for her family’s daily needs, designing buildings for friendly clients who would share her environmental ideals and, when he had time , indulge his passion for sailing.
Rumblings about the fragility of the planet had begun to reverberate in the 1970s. Lea was among the few to heed it and modify their lives accordingly. Half a century later, the environmental crisis has become critical. Now is the time to take a closer look at the principles that Lea followed so fervently throughout her remarkable life.
He is survived by his partner, Sylvia Harris, his children, Trystan and Teleri, from his marriage to Awel Irene, which ended in divorce, and his sister, Fiona.