The Knox House

Only a few weeks prior to the house sale, I had taken Margot on a trip around Eltham looking for suitable land on which we could build if and when the right time arrived. It was mostly a gesture on my part to keep up some sort of pretence about future plans when every circumstance was arguing against it. On our return home at the end of the long afternoon, I asked Margot which plot of land she had liked best. Her choice was precisely the piece I also liked best. I felt a strong disinclination to inquire about the land that same day; but two weeks later, a complete change occurred which quite firmly decided us to visit Eddie and to take Alistair, our six-month-old offspring, with us that afternoon. I said, 'We shall ask Eddie Anderson, who lives nearby, to tell us who owns the land we want'.

Eddie Anderson's orchardEddie Anderson's orchard. The heavily treed section between King St and Stringybark Rd is the section that Alistair bought. Google Earth

We met Flo, Eddie's sister, on the back verandah of their wooden house. I did not know her, but she said, 'You're Alistair Knox, aren't you? Are you looking for Eddie? He's out in the orchard digging around the quince trees'. It was six years since I had seen him last, but he made it seem as though it were only yesterday. What I wanted to ask him was who owned the land that Margot and I liked nearby, but what I uttered was quite something else: 'Eddie', I said, 'I don't want to muck you around. Will you sell me some land?' Eddie was the largest landholding farmer in the district, and he had slept every night of his life on the property; I believed it would be easier to buy part of Buckingham Palace than to purchase some of his holding. Eddie always wore a wide smile. My ears doubted what they heard when he said, 'Yes, Alistair, I will'. His smile appeared, if possible, to grow even wider. 'Can you show us where it is?' I asked. Without another word, he led us about three hundred metres away from the quince paddock and stood us right on the land Margot and I both had chosen out of the whole Eltham Shire's one hundred sixteen square miles. By this time I had recovered my breath and managed to say that we did not have the money at that moment and that even when my finances improved, I would have to subdivide the land and could not help making money out of it. 'Alistair', Eddie replied, 'you can pay me when you like. I hope you make a lot of money out of the subdivision, and I want you here'. He then explained that he had asked the local estate agent to value it only a week earlier and had then engaged a surveyor to do the work two weeks later. He added that he thought the valuation of 800 pounds an acre was a gift - but that was the price he wanted. He often said over the years that it was a miracle the day I turned up. It was the first time he had considered selling despite the fact that the land had been in his family's possession for over a hundred years. It contained about twelve acres - or five hectares - in all. At that time it could be subdivided into four- or five-piece minimums. I was content to retain less than half because of my financial constraints, and to dispose of the balance. But one thing was certain. I would take no action to dispose of it; I would wait until the Lord sent the buyer of His choice. The future took on a completely different aspect. Half the land was in its primaeval state, with a watery gully running across its width. The creek bed had been fossicked for gold at odd times, and one small portion had once been an orchard. Apart from that, Captain - Eddie's retired draft horse - and the family cow were its only inhabitants. The two animals roamed nonchalantly throughout the partially cleared openings, which were knee-deep in greenhood orchids, egg-and-bacon plants, and all the other wildflowers that made that sequestered piece of bushland unique. In D. H. Lawrence's words, it was a 'morning of the world' experience - promiscuous creation, unchanged since the beginning of time. It was the catalyst of my environmental-building-design concepts. Now, unexpectedly, I was able to develop my idea into a place where design and nature would combine into one indivisible whole. It was an attempt to negate the personality-type architecture of the period by imbuing the whole with a sense of the Creator's presence.

Slowly-improving finances had allowed me to pay a deposit on Eddie's land, which in turn enabled me to lodge a house plan and to commence building. The modernisation of the Eltham Council proceeded very slowly in those unhurried times, and the members appeared very willing to let it go on in the same manner. The plan of subdivision for the land soon got lost in the archaic bureaucracy, and it ultimately took two years to finalise.

It was early November when I excavated the site and finalised the plans for stage one of a construction project that was enormously large for the period. I had the excavator and a labourer make mud bricks on the excavation immediately with a series of grids that could continually be re-used. Lines of bricks covered the whole site in a matter of a few days, and I had one of my foremen commence making window frames from excellent second-hand oregon that a wrecker had urged me to buy at precisely my moment of need. The next week the end-of-year school exams concluded, and I was able to employ scholars who were also members of our youth fellowship. Ready cash held out because I had received payment for some of the plans. We set out the first quarter of the plan and started to build. Footings were poured, and the boys, who had no experience or knowledge, found themselves hard at work on the grand design. Later in the month, however, I saw the last of my ready cash disappear; and I knew that if I were honest about my resolve not to borrow, I should have to stop that night. I was again bewildered by the conflict between the propitious circumstance and the lack of financial means. I spent time that day studying which potential client I should approach about getting his plans finished quickly so that I could be provided with continued funds for the ongoing work; but whatever happened there could not help a loss of time which, I could not afford. Bram van Raalte, a young Dutch business executive, stood out as having the most advanced plan; but I felt he could be difficult, and it was only after some deliberation that I approached him. He was precise and clear. 'I'll call in at nine tonight', he said. When he arrived, we went over certain unresolved aspects of the plan and settled them. I concluded by telling him that I would complete the outstanding work as soon as possible, to which he replied, 'I want to pay you for the plans'. I re-iterated that they were not yet complete, but he again insisted on making payment in advance and took out his cheque book. 'Thanks, Bram, I need the money', I said in grateful disbelief. When the boys arrived the next morning, I had enough cash in hand to keep them employed for another month. The most remarkable aspect of God's economy was its timing, and how it always intervened just when human attempts had failed. I had sold the main house on our property a little earlier, and final settlement was due on the following 6 February, when the new owners would return by sea from Europe. Our new house would need to be habitable by that time, even though the plan of subdivision was not yet settled and our tenure was held merely by a relatively small deposit. It was amazing how material would turn up in miraculous ways day after day and throughout the whole exercise. Beautiful recycled material arrived at the precise moment, and practically everything cost less than half-price. After the Christmas break I sent some of our tradesmen to the job, and I also machined material myself. Without any panic, the work neared completion at the same rate at which 6 February approached. On the fifth of that month we connected the sewerage, the water supply from a quarter of a mile away, the electricity, the telephone, the drainage, and stormwater, in addition to the carpentry, plumbing, and painting. Margot and I arranged to move the next day, the sixth - the day the new owners would arrive from overseas. I went out to clean a few windows while Margot supervised the furniture removalists. God's timing was so exact that as Margot was moving out along one side of the drive, the new owners were driving up the other. The manner in which every detail had fitted in without fail was beyond mere coincidence; such things were happening nearly every day. The final evidence of this was the fact that my partner bought the remainder of our old land, enabling me to meet all costs without borrowing to build and to pay off all other debts owing - all at the same time. In addition, our old land had many fifty-year-old trees, and when we arbitrarily decided where we should draw the boundary line, it happened that it went through that veritable forest without touching even one tree.

The first stage of our house included one bedroom, a bathroom/dressing-room area, a family kitchen, and a 12m x 4m outdoor-room wing. Both of these wings, which were eventually to open into the great central living area, were sealed from the outside with temporary panels. We also poured the footings and stood up the window frames for the remainder of the building. I went through my accounts and discovered that I had overspent, so I stopped employing people on the building forthwith. As the bricks had already been made, I decided I should lay some myself. I would begin each day by setting in about sixty blocks, and then I would start drawing. This became very difficult for two reasons. The first was that I became so tired I could hardly push the pencil over the paper; and the second was that I had recently acquired an asthmatic condition from the financial tensions of the previous year. The following Saturday afternoon when the family had gone out and left me alone to continue the bricklaying, I felt so desperate, stiff, and tired that I did not know how to start. As I gazed forlornly through the kitchen window, I could just make out an ageing blue Volkswagen battling through the trees and winding up towards me from the main road. A shortish man emerged and came to the door. I did not know him, but had a sixth sense I had seen him somewhere before. He answered my greeting by saying, 'Can I work for you?' in a Yorkshire accent. His fresh complexion, alert attitude, and respectful approach evidenced a strange mixture of capacity and English working-class subservience. When he told me where he had worked I just said, 'When can you start?' That was my first introduction to Eric Hirst, the most competent and all-round tradesman I have ever encountered. Eric had been driving a bus for Bruce Nixon, whose family owned a big bus company, and I had seen the paving he had done on Bruce's house - which I had designed - on the banks of the Yarra at Kangaroo Ground. Eric was earning 20 Pounds a week for Bruce, so I offered him 23 Pounds. When we met at 8 a.m. on the first day and he asked, 'Where do I start?' I indicated a footing on the far side of the building and asked him to build a fireplace similar to the one already built. Eric proceeded with skill and speed without complaint or query, although it was the first he had ever built. He called Margot 'Mrs Knox' and was very deferential for a few days, but he soon blossomed under our casual attitude and the high commendation his work merited. Within a week, it was down to cries of 'Margot! When's the tea coming?!' Eric had served an apprenticeship in Yorkshire restoring old houses, and his skills dovetailed with my design concepts perfectly. My earnings from planning provided enough for his weekly pay, and the recycled materials we needed to continue the work kept coming without any letup. I was able to supervise the work, which had no equivalent at that time. Our employees were fashioned into the work, and with every day came a sense of adventure as we figured out how to go about doing it.

Building this house was the re-birth of the original organic concept of the immediate post-war beginnings. It involved a return to first principle devising from what was on hand. Earth for walls, negation of concrete slabs, brick and stone paving direct onto the ground, and the employment of non-professional builders. It recaptured those early days of suntanned mud brick makers and water shortages.

The site necessitated a large excavation that could be so shaped and filled that it would finally appear as a piece of nature rather than man-made. The topsoil was stored for top dressing after the cuts were completed. Various tractor and scoop methods were tried to avoid hand labour which is the great problem in mud brick making. They were only partially successful owing to the stickiness of this particular material. The clay was also rather red and liable to cracking and there was a high percentage of buckshot in it. The tractor and the scoop deposited the wet earth in quantity on collapsible grids of mud brick forms in multiples of twenty-four or thirty. The idea was to ram the earth into the moulds which could then be dismantled and re-set, leaving the bricks to dry. Another problem was that, although the site was large, it soon became covered with these rectangular grids of mud bricks that made tractor manoeuvring almost impossible. In the end, they were largely made by hand by schoolboys.

The building began late in November just after annual examinations had finished. I was running a youth group at the time and I offered them work up till Christmas. I put them under a good foreman and kept a constant watch on the operation myself. Apart from almost forgetting to obtain a building permit - shades of the old days - the work proceeded satisfactorily.

I had determined not to borrow money on this project but to rely on earnings from planning to pay for it. This led to minor crises. Looking at my bank balance one day, I agreed that if I were honest with myself about this, I should have to stop building within twenty-four hours unless some planning money turned up. None was actually due and as I scanned the list of clients I settled on one whom I thought was rather difficult but whose plans were nearly resolved. I telephoned him and made an appointment for 9 p.m. that evening. We settled the outstanding details after an hour's discussion, after which he whipped a cheque book out of his pocket and said he wanted to pay for the plans. I pointed out that they were not yet complete. This only increased his desire to settle on the spot. My hand closed over the cheque in unbelief and gratitude and I welcomed the boys at 8 a.m. in the morning in a more appreciative manner than usual.

Lionel Anette, the foreman, was capable and good humoured for the boys to work along with. He made the window frames on site from some second-hand material reclaimed from a well known architect's house that was being demolished to make way for a 'dark, satanic' commercial building being constructed beside the Yarra River nearer the city. Some of the other joinery material came from old whisky vats. It was clear grained oregon of the highest quality. When it was put through the wood working machines, it gave off a deep smell of whisky that made the whole atmosphere exotic and heady.

The plan was very simple. It aimed to dispense with rooms as such and to become a series of flowing spaces. Each form and proportion was as underplayed and unpretentious as possible. The layout consisted of a covered internal central courtyard, thirty-six feet by twenty-four feet, surrounded by a peripheral band of large informal zones for sleeping and living. The central courtyard area was lit by having a ceiling some three feet higher than the surrounding building. This provided clerestory windows for the mystical light and colour of the Australian environment. The four walls of the courtyard had openings of eight feet at the ends and twelve feet at the sides, that entered into the external areas. There were no doorways from the courtyard, but the splits of bullock hides were sewn together into hangings to draw across at each end of the room. A folding panel (made out of the backs of old church pews) formed a concertina door to one of the twelve-foot openings along one of the side wall openings.

The discipline of limited finance immediately started to produce an aura of inspired improvising that enabled the amateur builders to move into the problem with a new awareness that they were beating the system once more. For the past ten years I had, to a considerable degree, let go the primitive architectural character and produced over a hundred buildings using more standard materials, except for plaster. On the rare cases we did use plaster-board, it killed the environmental character of the building stone dead.

As Australia is a timeless land, the buildings in it should also be timeless. No cleverness or architectural mannerism can substitute for a humble appreciation of the unbrokenness of the surrounding nature and the interdependence of every individual thing on every other individual thing and to the landscape around them.

Concrete footings were dug and poured over the site which was half on excavated ground and half on filled ground, with piers and beams in the filled ground and normal footings on the excavated levels. Good ground levels were obtained prior to pouring so that the top of the concrete footings were horizontal and accurately related to the excavated levels. Wherever mud bricks were to go, one course of ten inch wide brickwork was laid on the concrete to act as a base to protect them from dampness and direct contact with the ground. The adjacent window walls were also raised and laid on a similar course, which at the actual door openings was varied with two inch bullnosed slate thresholds. This produced a shallow dish effect into which the floors were laid.

As there was a pergola twelve feet wide surrounding the whole building, it merely necessitated carrying excavations out to that width and laying a line of hand-hewn bluestone along it to form a definite gutter termination on the excavation side of the building. The bluestones were about four feet by one foot by one foot, laid end to end. They formed a line eighty feet long. It was all professionally wrought work and came from a building that was demolished in the original army camp site at Broadmeadows. Every First War soldier from Melbourne and many Second War soldiers must have known them.

There is a spirit in re-used material in the same as there is poetry in some words which when we use them, recall other scenes. It's not corny. It's elemental experience and the stuff of life. Buildings become timeless when they employ timeless proportions. There are tremendous 19th century materials lying everywhere around Australia where men believed that what they built was for ever. It can now often be had for a song and used as the accompaniment of new structural symphonies by another generation provided they are prepared to setout on a new pioneering society.

I first constructed only two wings of the four that were to encompass the central courtyard area because of financial limitations and the urgency of time. I had to vacate the last of our houses I had sold on a given date and I managed, without panic, to do it almost to the minute. The water was connected from more than a quarter of a mile away, as well as the sewerage, phone and electricity within twenty-four hours of the deadline. After the Christmas break I called in three carpenters from our team to erect internal walls and doors and detail out generally. These were solid timber walls similar to those in the first Le Galliennej Downing building.

The next week, on taking stock, I realised I had overspent so I determined to sit tight and do nothing until I had caught up financially. The openings into the future courtyard were temporarily sealed up. We lived in a house with only one bedroom with an open fireplace in it, a dressing room, bathroom, large kitchen and pantry, including a fire stove, and an open-air room thirty-six by fourteen feet. The two boys slept in this open room which was to be an annexe to the future courtyard room. The baby slept in our bedroom which also served as an occasional sitting room. The hub of the house was the large kitchen which was heated by a cast iron one-fire stove in winter time.

This break back from the 'compleat' house approach re-opened the original post-war spirit. There was a restoration between the immediate needs of man and the demands of nature. It was dramatic, when winter came, to stand looking out from the kitchen at the rain sweeping across the orchard next door. The stove caused the iron fountain to boil effusively till the marble in it rattled around with melodious well-being. The steam and vapour gushed out from the top of the fountain to add moisture to the atmosphere that elated the soul. Quinces picked from the trees that now stood under bare boughs had been converted into a nostalgic wine red jelly. Spreading this conserve on wholemeal home-made bread toasted at the fire created the sense of totality of the child-like nature that underlies our sophisticated pretensions. The poetry of the oneness of the eternal can be motivated by the oneness of the physical, and cause 'young men to see visions and old men to dream dreams'.

There was a stumbling block however in allowing the house to stay in its unfinished condition. A great stack of mud bricks had just been made for the completion of the work and they were pretty poor examples of that biblical labour. They were made by four boys, sixteen to eighteen years old. We now had the special privilege of a good water supply. The weather was very hot so I arranged that if they made 200 per day between them, they could finish as soon as they were completed. This was usually about 10.30 a.m. This batch of bricks were moulded in grids of thirty and the grids had to be washed down between settings. The hose going at full bore washed down those boys as well. They stood laughing uproariously, dripping from head to foot the whole time. The bricks came out more or less in one fairly regular shape but the mixing of the material was just passable. When they were dried and stacked, there was considerable doubt as to whether they would stand the winter in the open, as any self-respecting mud brick should.

The footings had been poured for the whole of the house and the window frames were standing so I decided to start laying the walls myself. Each day I would put down sixty to eighty bricks and mostly the effort convulsed me with thick asthmatic breathing which was a legacy from the financial tensions I had been through a year or so earlier. I got so stiff and weary that I could hardly push a pencil without moaning and my mind also seemed to ache with physical tiredness.

One Saturday afternoon I was sitting alone, gazing out of the kitchen window, wondering where to go and what to do next, when a blue Volkswagen car wound up the road into the drive. A figure emerged whom I had seen somewhere before. He approached me and asked if I would employ him. When he told me the work he had done, it took me only moments to readily agree for him to start the next Monday.

Knox house interiorKnox house interior - main room showing clerestory lighting

Eric Hirst then took over the whole of the remainder of the house building. He worked on it from that day until everything was complete a year later. The additional sewerage, slate paving, brick laying, external paving, carpentering, tiling - all were handled with equal ability, even down to recovering the billiard table. He was born in Yorkshire where he worked early in his life on old medieval buildings in that area. The work he did so well for me was of the same character, involving spatial relationships between man and nature.


The Knox House Alistair Knox: The Knox House

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