Building beautiful places in a way that takes advantage of everything nature offers while doing minimal damage to it is what drove architect David Lea, who has died at the age of 82. His output was non-productive, but each project, built or unbuilt, demonstrated his determination to create buildings with a low environmental impact – in harmony with, not at odds with, the natural world.
As Lea herself said: “When we build, we reveal our vision of the future. One moment the design is in our heads, the next it’s anchored in all its solid reality. This gives rise to a responsibility that cannot be avoided. Certainly our vision must include the truth of the rapidly accelerating climate change and the need to preserve the natural habitats of all living beings with whom we share the earth.”
Lea’s last major project embodying this philosophy and culminating in a career that began around 1965 is the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (Wise) building at the Center for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Mid Wales (2007-10 ) . Designed with architect Pat Borer, it includes living and classroom spaces, a restaurant and workshops, and a circular auditorium surrounded by a seven-meter-high rammed-earth wall. Between the parts of the building there are water basins, paved terraces and access galleries with wooden slats. It feels more like a Mediterranean mountain town than the wet slate quarry that the center reclaimed when it was founded in 1973.
The building is mostly made of natural products, with wood and lime concrete for its structure and walls in lime plastered hempcrete lightly colored with lime paint. Regardless of the weather, the interiors are in constant dialogue with the outdoors through large sash windows or carefully positioned Zen peepholes or the Oculus that illuminates the auditorium.
Lea’s first major work, which brought him national attention, was an assisted living project built between 1968 and 1991 in Churt, Surrey. He designed the early stages on the construction principles of Walter Segal, who developed a system of easy-to-build wooden details that avoided wasteful cutting. In later stages the influence came more from Japan (which Lea visited in 1975), with a shift from bolted joints and planks to carpenter joints and lime plastered wall surfaces.
Lime plaster and locally quarried stone were the main ingredients for his projects at the Royal Agricultural College (now Royal Agricultural University) in Cirencester: a modest library extension (1981) and two phases of student accommodation (1982 and 1991), both inspired by the vernacular of traditional Cotswold buildings .
A Tiny Studio for an Artist in Somerset (1989) surprises once more. With barely a straight line or right angle, Lea seems to have stepped into an organic, Steiner-inspired world, but his construction is a functional answer to the seedlings he found while searching for a source of lumber. All of these projects, despite their different color palettes and looks, share a similar quality of serenity and simplicity.
A modest supply of private houses and small community buildings kept Lea busy throughout the 80’s and 90’s, along with a series 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 went through.
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 family holidays to Scotland that sparked his love of the outdoors and it was his art teacher at his school, Clifton College, Bristol, that suggested he become an architect.
In 1958 he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study architecture under the recently appointed Leslie Martin, Colin St John Wilson and Colin Rowe, two of his most influential teachers.
He sailed to the USA on a yacht to complete his year with Harry Weese in Chicago and then worked briefly with Wilson after completing his diploma course back in Cambridge. In 1966 he moved to London where he designed apartments for the London Borough of Merton.
Before he was finished at Merton, a cousin had approached him about designing the Churt project and he was able to go on his own. It was around this time that he was also becoming increasingly uneasy about his life in London. A 1975 study tour of Mao’s China confirmed the political and social ideas already forming in his mind. In a lecture he gave after his return, he said: “Three impressions stuck in my mind: the extraordinary intensity of agriculture, the absence of the negative effects of poverty in a basically poor country, and the great gentleness of the people each other … In China, people think very carefully about the balance between their own needs and the needs of society.”
Holiday trips to a stone house in Snowdonia and the rise of the Back to Earth movement convinced him he should move. After six months learning techniques from self-sufficiency pioneer John Seymour in Pembrokeshire, Lea moved to Ogoronwy, a small farm in the hills above Porthmadog, Gwynedd.
The balance of his new life was constantly changing. When there were no customers to serve, he turned to rebuilding his outbuildings and working on the smallholding. When things got tight in the office, the country could take care of itself, although with the help of assistants it was always possible to work on all fronts. Indeed, Lea’s ideal was to lead a varied and integrated life, cultivating the land for his family’s daily needs, designing buildings for sympathetic clients who would share his environmental ideals, and, when he had the time, his Add passion for sailing.
Rumors about the fragility of the planet could be heard in the 70s. Lea was one of the few who reacted and changed her life accordingly. Half a century later, the environmental crisis has become critical. Now is the time to take a better look at the principles Lea followed so passionately throughout his 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.