Barden House

Client: Barden
Address: Yarra Braes Rd, Eltham. VIC 3095
Plan Dated: 1969
Job Number: 499
Drawing Location: RMIT Design Archive


A series of interesting buildings followed the construction of our house. Some of them were large and built in mud brick. The Barden house was a good example of this renewed development in earth. It was a three acre site sloping to the west. The lower half of the land was covered with secondary growth scrub. It was the second time of building for the Bardens. The other house I designed for them was when they were first married. It was close to our property and it was therefore easy to give it good supervision. A variety of young men and boys appeared to make the large quantity of bricks that would be needed for the job.

The soil was powder yellow clay and the golden light of Eltham rose once again in the Yarra Valley in the late afternoons. It was sad that Dorian Le Gallienne, who had died a few years earlier, was not able to see it. I think he understood that quality better than anybody else.

I had to start all over again to get materials and develop a team of professional amateurs. Lionel, who was foreman on my own house, was now a subcontractor who was in charge of the carpentering. He knew what to do, but the new mud brick men were. called 'Hairys' by the other tradesmen. They were the sons of mud brick-making fathers and one or two rebels from commercially successful families in the district. They mostly wore long hair and wanted to wear no boots but I had to insist on footwear. It was quite a struggle for them to dispense with that sign that they were the 'new men'.

We had the usual problem of verticality of the walls hut I supported practically the whole structure on solid timber posts and window walls so that the brick work had really only to support itself. There were three levels and a large-ish northern courtyard with a series of verandahs that opened onto the different levels. The bedroom wing on the east was on the highest level, and the entry gallery gave access to them and also to the main courtyard room which in itself was thirty-six by twenty-four feet and some sixteen feet high. A great chimney fireplace formed a large part of the southern end of the building, and a minstrel gallery was cantilevered out six feet at some eight feet above the main floor level and about the same distance below the ceiling. This was a case of fluid planning, and it was not until the chimney was rising that it became obvious that it could take a gallery with the dynamic interest for the whole building. It was doubly attractive because the pattern of clerestories was so placed that it allowed a new set of outside views. It also created vertical dimensions within when you stood looking down from the gallery into the great livingroom. It was entered by the tiniest circular stair.

The floor of the main room was once again secondhand squared slates, some of which were retrieved from old switchboards that were used in electric substations in the streets close to Melbourne. Even after they were polished, one could faintly discern some of the names, particularly Little Gore Street in Fitzroy, which once had a notorious reputation for crime and prostitution. It gave the lie to the quotation, 'Out of evil, good cannot come.' What a treasure store old Melbourne has proved for the environmental builder! It had not been the richest colony in the world for nothing.

The roof was covered with coloured ribbed iron. Its gentle sweeping curves were three dimensional and sculptured. Three twelve-inch square red ironbark columns supported the roof where the living room joined the bedroom gallery wing. These were adzed and each became a sculpting in its own right. They came from some anonymous 19th century building, probably a warehouse, where their unbelievably powerful fibres had been united in supporting prodigious loads. They are quite indestructible in every way and we may never look on their like again. They will, if this building is removed in centuries to come, be just as good for their next use as timeless material and a true expression of the environmental vernacular of Australian building.

The Barden house is one of those buildings which seemed to improve the land itself, which is a rare feat. There were some fifteen thousand sand stock bricks from an early Melbourne church used in the building as well as several solid timber walls. The result helped reset the course of environmental construction to where it was in the late forties. But now, with a generation of experience behind it, it had become acceptable to a new class of people - the managing director class. It was no longer mere artistic 'exhibitionism'.

From Living in the Environment by Alistair Knox

Keywords: mud brick

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