Living in the Environment

Corrugated Iron

The alternative society is a new group of pioneers because they are identified with the total landscape in a total living way. It is the co-operative in contrast to the fierce competitive lifestyle that exploits the natural creation for the profit of the few to the detriment of the many.

There is no royal road to 'voluntary poverty' which is a key phrase in the thinking of any worth while alternative society. You have to work at it and do with fewer physical amenities in exchange for more liberties of choice and of time. It is impossible to be poetic in a hurry. The corporate state is always in a rush and therefore it has no poetry. And yet its members, in their unguarded moments, frequently show hunger for mystery and the beauty of life. They simply lack the cultural training to develop it. Instead they have misappropriated the time that it takes to do this by getting ahead in business, in commerce, in shares and in land development. They have turned Keats' 'Truth is beauty - beauty truth' into 'Truth is profit - profit, truth'. No wonder they have become subject to coronaries, ulcers, alcoholism and pill taking. In trying to find satisfaction in a mental-physical state they have excluded the spiritual. No life can be fully lived if we do not fully use our capacities. The spiritual comprehends the physical but the physical cannot comprehend the spiritual.

In building the alternative society is strongly identified with certain building materials that are subject to spiritual dimensions that separate them from the merely materialistic society. Mud bricks are the basic units throughout the world for all communities who live in a close relationship with nature. It is axiomatic that they will be a fundamental element in the alternative social structure today. The material itself is free. It costs a man his physical labour only, which is the same for both rich and poor. The making can be a wholly natural activity. It has great therapeutic properties. Watching the earth dry and the varying characteristics of its physical structure, immerse us in poetic deliberations that unites our hearts, heads and hands. Feeling the basic material of creation gives us an appreciation of the Creator of it.

Solid timber is another 'alternative society' vernacular. Corrugated iron is a third. Kylie Tennant, the Australian author, opened my mind to this fact a long while' ago. She spoke of the way in which galvanised iron had created the civilisation of the Australian outback. In the early days this was unquestionably true. It was the only structural material it was possible to transport into remote places. It was essential for tank making for the storage of water. It formed the ubiquitous verandahed building which has always been nostalgically linked with our wider landscapes. It has also made the greatest structural impact on our horizontal land. Verandahs cast purple shadows that welcome the stranger in and protect the householder as he looks out over the shimmering distances. Verandah posts create upright lines across the purple shadow to recall the vertical rhythm of the trees in the horizontal plain. Some cities, especially Adelaide, even to this day, have a great number of interesting corrugated iron roofs in public and other city buildings which have given the city its own particular accent.

Every outback television programme majors on rusting corrugated iron vernacular buildings in far off places. Settlements like Tennants Creek that were started some forty years ago once boasted great corrugated iron buildings for gold mining and other activities which 'no longer exist in the same way today. The desert winds whirl through the shambling structures causing hanging sheets of iron to clang against each other with a strident, eerie melancholy. When galvanised corrugated iron is first erected, it looks far too shiny in the landscape. But a year or two wears it back into a subtle and sympathetic silver grey that becomes surprisingly at home in the dun coloured land.

In suburban Melbourne the very first pre-fabricated buildings had corrugated iron walls. They were imported from England in about 1850. One is still preserved in the Swan Hill Folk Museum. It was also the natural material to use for roofing in modest timber cottages like John Perceval's and others of those times. In addition to forming the traditional Georgian proportions, it added the Regency verandahs that curved so gracefully. It had only the much more expensive Welsh slate roof as a real competitor until the introduction of the Marseilles terracotta tiles which, when they arrived from overseas, swept over the entire city to make a roofscape as red as the sands of the inland deserts. Galvanised iron was relegated to the poor.

Just after the Second World War, Robin Boyd who used to be a vehement critic of Melbourne and its dreary repetitive suburbs, wrote apprehensively of a visit that Patrick Abercrombie, the famous English town planner, was about to make to look us over and roundly condemn our colonial mediocrity. But this was not to be so. The great planner was full of praise for Melbourne. Boyd's next column in the Age bore the headline: 'Melbourne is blushing to the roots of its terra cotta hair'.

As a child I lived in Middle Park in a house with a seventeen foot frontage and a back yard at least one hundred and fifty feet in length. It was one of five houses cheek-by-jowl situated between two side lanes. Some were semidetached and others were separated from their neighbours by three or four feet sidewalks. It was possible to jump from one roof on to another and climb over all of them without returning to the ground. I suppose it was our counterpart to today's children's moon exploration. I remember as I ran down the slope of our terra cotta tiles in sandshoes to leap on to Campbell's corrugated iron roof next door, I had a distinct feeling of superiority. I had no compunction on landing full bore on his iron and buckling it in time as well as damaging his gutters. The Campbells were old and somewhat deaf; otherwise they could have had heart trouble with the explosive crashes that occurred so frequently after we came home from school.

After World War Two there has gradually occurred a revival in roof covering that was not the interminable terracotta tile because there was an urgency to express shapes in buildings that" differed from the universal suburban hipped roof scene. A largely abortive architectural revolution had begun. At first the substitute was corrugated cement sheeting. But this had some disadvantages both in being subject to cracking and to fungus growth. The shapes of low pitched roofs has remained but the material reverted to being one of a series of long ribbed iron sections of inter-clipping proprietary lines that could be formed into trays by bending up the ends and being used as practically flat roofs. There were also a series of aluminium equivalents. Then came the permanent colouring of iron which is considered more glamorous and socially acceptable. It was certainly more expensive anyway, which is still one of the popular methods of measuring architectural quality. In Australia the limitation of a corrugated iron roof had been the sheet lengths of the material but with the advent of clipping iron together in sheets of up to fifty feet, corrugated iron soon achieved the same advantage. It was not until I first held up the length of a forty foot sheet of corrugated iron that I realised how it curved with its own weight. I could see immediately that it could be laid to form sculptural shapes in buildings and to become a nucleus of a new design capacity.

I planned a series of buildings where these shapes were used so that they conformed to the curves of the landscape. Two or more such sections of these roofs often met near the centre of the building, especially if the house was on more than one level. This produced a vertical line at the junction which formed into clerestory lighting. The ascending curves also often allowed for galleries and upper rooms which looked down into the ground levels of the house. Generally two or three large adzed timbers made basic supports for such designs. The result was a combination of the big timber vernacular and the corrugated iron tradition into an Australian organic building that expressed the timeless qualities of the ancient continent.

The tragic housing conditions which have been the accepted lot of the aboriginal fringe dwellers became a moral issue in Australia around 1970. We discovered that they had the highest death rate in the world and that their housing was also the worst. 'The Lucky Country' had become so self-satisfied that it pretended the aborigines weren't there or alternatively we believed that some missionary society must be looking after the ones that couldn't look after themselves. In any case they would soon all have to be assimilated to obtain the advantages of our glorious society that was so rich and good for all who were depressed and underprivileged. The result was that many of them took up residence on the perimeters of country towns in humpies made from old sheets of iron, parts of car bodies and packing cases. There was a generalisation that it was impossible to help them anyway. They would never learn. If you put them in a house they would pull out the doors and burn them. When the aboriginal question developed political undertones two years earlier, a Commonwealth referendum was held and it was agreed that they should receive the same rights as the white population. They would be given full citizenship, including the vote, and the right to drink alcohol in the land we had taken from them. Various moves were set in motion to provide housing for them. Generally these attempts were fairly third rate western style buildings which the erstwhile simple survival conscious people were supposed to receive with gratitude and start behaving like their big white brothers. The fact that circumstances had rendered many of them unemployable or paid subsistence rates, would no longer matter. Dammit, they now had houses to live in and where white people had to pay for theirs they just got theirs for practically nothing. This was not true.

The main necessities for aboriginal housing in the outback required that they should be economical in cost, easy to transport and to erect. There were also psychological factors to be taken into account. These primitive people did not like corners in rooms. In addition, if someone died in the building, they had the habit of refusing to live in it again. I believe that the buildings needed to be more than houses as we know them - rather shapes that fitted into the landscape and became part of it. One system was the stage house where desert people who had never lived in a building made By white men, could have a partial shelter first, then move to a more permanent stage two and then on to stage three. I felt it would be worth an experiment in corrugated iron and I was requested by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Australia to build one for the Ernabella Mission in the Musgrave Ranges west of Alice Springs. They were Pitjantjatjara people, people of the desert. They lived in the Ayers Rock area and the rock itself had a great significance for them. It was a shape in the landscape they knew perfectly. The landscape at Ernabella was as ancient as it is possible to conceive of. The Musgrave Ranges are a group of enormous geological faults of granite that stick out of the red earth on a general angle of about fifteen degrees. They rise higher as they go towards the west like rectilinear mauve-blue rocks sprinkled with black green trees. They reach to over 4,200 feet above sea level at their highest from a surrounding floor level of over 2,000 feet. Closer examination reveals the square edged rock formations are continually being broken up and rounded by the temperature extremes of day and night and the wind and the sun. The completely dry atmosphere prevents the formation of frost but the temperature at night gets down to minus four degrees Celsius. In the day time for most of the year it's around thirty-eight degrees Celsius.

The landscape at Ernabella Mission township area consists of great rock outcrops separated sometimes by one hundred yards and sometimes by a quarter of a mile, with smaller rock outcrops in between. Not only have they been worn round by the atmospheric variations, hut the pieces that crack off them also become round. It is possible to pull fragmenting sheets off most of these rocks by hand. The aboriginals live adjacent to the mission buildings in shelters called Wiltchers, which is aboriginal for shelter. These are generally round and domed and formed from lacing sticks together and covering them with brush. The aborigines have the ability to withstand heat and cold in an extraordinary way. Their simple life style is to sleep in these Wiltchers on the sand - the children in the middle, next the adults, and round the outside again, the dogs. Recently sheets of light reinforcing have been supplied for them to make Wiltchers from an iron fabric building skeleton so that the buildings would be more permanent. The houses of the mission and the native dwellings are set between the rock outcrops. There is a personality about the township that is subtly divided by the different rock formations. It is connected by a broad red sand roadway that leads from one end. to the other and then passes down into the bed of the dry Todd River which may flow once every two or three years after heavy rain. The average rainfall for the area is three inches but there is a water tahle about fifteen feet below the surface. Trees will grow because they can get their roots down to it. At present there is a forestry scheme underway to grow Jojobo trees. Their nuts have a commercial use equal to sperm oil.

It is harder to imagine a place of greater power of colour and light. The air in the spring, winter and autumn is unimaginably dear. Strong winds predominate but there are also marvellous times of peace and tranquility. The Pitjantjatjara people are a fairly black skinned group. They are very even in physique indicating purity of race and type. The problem was to make them a building that would integrate with their makeup and their land and negotiate the difficulties of transport and the costs of materials. They are so tied to the landscape that they appear to dissolve into it and it seems a crime to design buildings which separate them in any way from it. You feel in the long run they could never be happy in those circumstances. It was necessary that any project building should be identified with their history, land and tradition. The only material that could fulfil all these requirements was curved corrugated iron.

I consulted with a firm who rolled iron into curved shapes. I gave them a design about ten feet high by forty feet in length and twenty-five feet wide. Each curve was made up from three sections of iron bolted together to make the roof and two ends of the building. The sides were in-fills of timber frames or cement brick panels and glass walls. The iron was of double thickness separated by five inch by two inch rafters that ran transversely over the lower skin of iron to which they were fixed and under the upper one. The space between had a layer of reflective alluminium foil added and the air space between the layers of iron was otherwise left quite open to allow the wind to blow through and cool it down. Reluctantly I left the galvanised iron in its natural colour because I was afraid of what painting might do to the temperature control. The house was in essence a corrugated iron cave. At the same time it was identical in spirit with the rock outcrops in which it was situated. We found that internal supports were to be unnecessary when we prefabricated it at our own property because the corrugations and the curves formed a self-supporting structure. This enabled the planning of the rooms to be absolutely flexible. The building site was located beside our drawing office. When the house was removed we graded the site and left no trace of our activity. The combination of the iron, the springhead nails and the hardboard rafters, the timber and glass walls, made it very strong.

After the construction we dismantled the whole building, packed the walls, the curved roof and the rafters and shipped them all by rail to Finke Crossing, a station on the Port Augusta/Alice Springs line some four hundred miles from Ernabella. By the time it completed that journey including the road transport and was dropped on the site, it looked a pretty shattered heap of building material.

We arranged to erect it by flying in a small plane from Melbourne into this remote quarter. Four of us left one morning on this pioneering building venture. The pilot was just a boy and none of us had been over the area before. We found our way by visual identification and maps. During the afternoon we ran into a violent storm and the little craft leapt and plunged with all the enthusiasm of my old navy ship. We passed over Lake Eyre. The wind had raised a white screen of salt from its bed. It obscured the sunlight and the landscape. The head wind slowed us up. We had to leave the curved railway line which was leading us from Maree to Oodnadatta to make it before last light. I kept straining my eyes for a sight of that pulsating town, Oodnadatta, which appears daily on the weather charts which no one seems to have actually seen. Just at sunset the sky lightened momentarily but still nothing came in sight. When it did it was nothing more than than a dot in the immutable land.

We finally touched down just as darkness was setting in. As we climbed out of the plane two of our maps took off with the hurricane that was still blowing and headed back towards the Simpson Desert. Two of our members set off in pursuit and returned about thirty minutes later exhausted but without the maps. A car was now waiting to take us into the town. 'Never mind, we'll find them on the fence, at the end of the aerodrome', said the driver, which we finally did because there was nothing else to stop them along the way of the Oodnadatta Plains. The town was not lonely by outback Australian standards because a train ran through it three or four times a week. When we walked out to look round next morning, we found a three chain dust road running parallel with the railway station. There was a sign in the distance advising through travellers that they could then increase their speed above 35 m.p.h. because they had a left a built-up area. A handful of houses, a decrepit hotel, a corrugated iron store, a fine aboriginal boarding school and a Flying Doctor hospital were the only worth while buildings there.

There were a couple of secondary streets housing the hundred inhabitants including a few new aboriginal flats. Beyond the town boundary on the edge of the never never was a line of aboriginal humpies. Not a blade of grass - just a few figures sitting and the drove of dogs barking and running about.

The red plain was sprinkled with trees that concentrated along the dry water courses when we took to the air. We passed over two cattle stations which, from our altitude, were simply corrugated iron roofs. They did not appear to have made any attempt at natural shade or protection from the elements around them. The pursuit of money and profit was certainly a full time preoccupation. It would be interesting to know what they did besides work, drink beer and eat meat. Once or twice we saw a cloud of dust that a car or a transport left further across the desert. Gradually the Musgrave Ranges rose out of the silent land and finally we circled to land. It is hard to describe the power of the landscape and how small you feel over that red heart of the continent.

We got to work immediately on the house and rebuilt it in three days. I would rise before dawn and go for a walk attempting to catch the silent wonder of it all. Certainly the building fitted in perfectly with the rock outcrops and to my mind was ideal for its purpose. The aborigines were at this time making cement bricks and they had all been to Alice Springs and had been somewhat seduced by the idea of the white man's house style. I did not know the fate of our building then because it generally takes about six months to a year for them to make up their minds. About a year later I heard from my sister who lives nearby in Eltham that the aboriginal owner of the house had stayed with her for some days. She was connected with the Mission in her work. In quite a matter of fact way he indicated he was satisfied with the building. Almost by chance we found we had produced an acceptable building - almost the hardest thing a white man can do. It had retained a sense of the cave and had become integral in the landscape. It gave shelter and identity. It was a perfect use of a simple material. It could be made by semi-skilled labour. It came from prefabrication and re-erection. In all I felt it a wedding of modern techniques with an alternative society material - corrugated iron - into a building suitable for either white or aboriginal inhabitants in Central Australia. It was a matter of the aborigines returning to their grass roots culture and to the land with which they were so identified before they started to be men of two worlds; it was imperitive that they should not wander into the white man's culture taking nothing of their heredity with them. If they do, they are indeed a lost people.

Further out in the Warburton Ranges it was agreed that the house could not help succeeding. The people were very primitive and comparatively untouched by white culture. It was a house without corners and it could be shifted to a new site when someone died. It's the distance and the isolation which makes it so hard for white men to keep their inspiration, even in a unique place like Ernabella. Add to this that most Australians, including well meaning ones, have been brought up on a diet of red terracotta tiled roofs, brick veneers and paling fences in our large cities and suburbs. They don't believe in or understand modern environmental buildings either. They don't fully appreciate the timeless land.

They dream of wall to wall carpets. They eat white bread, dtink imitation fruit cordial drinks when they have the ability to grow their own natural products in that rich Ernabella soil with the water only fifteen feet below.

The last I saw of Ernabella was the Musgrave Ranges receding into the skyline with Oodnadatta lying somewhere ahead. It leaves something of a hollow feeling within to think that so few people except a primitive people truly understand the alternative society. It makes one wonder if anything can ever succeed against the ramifications of the corporate state and the blindness of so-called advanced society. Even the sight of the Ghan, the name given to the train which runs between Alice Springs and Port Augusta which we saw from the air, only added to the doubts. It looked like a centipede despite its great half mile length on the ground. It is obviously incapable of doing anything in that wilderness to communicate. the true fruits of civilization to such a vast place. But if it did nothing else, it did reduce us to a proper understanding of our own insignificance in this scale of total creation.


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