Alternative Housing, Education for Living

Education for Living

Author: Alistair Knox

The surprising discovery

I have had eight children by two marriages spread out over nearly forty years. This has given me considerable opportunity to compare educational developments today with those of yesteryear.

My own childhood differed only marginally from that of my first three children, born either before or during the Second World War by my first wife. In those days necessity and compulsion went hand in hand and life had few alternatives. It may have made things easier to accept, but it made life dull. However this virtual lack of choice was not without compensation. The enforced periods of uneventful hours that occurred between interesting events did two things: it developed an acceptance of the inevitable, which in turn tended to make for more realistic attitudes, and it heightened the special occasion. There were events to be looked forward to, and others to be thought about in retrospect. By comparison we are so busy today going from one thing to another, that we rarely consider the value of 'going' at all. It causes one to ponder the number of standardised 'education' facilities and the mass of learning options in the contemporary world.

My parents

My own father and mother were remarkable people, although neither of them had much formal education. In my father's case, his schooling consisted of only three years at the Melbourne Grammar Prep., first acquired at twelve years of age when his family shifted from Ivanhoe, then in the country, to Albert Road. He used to comment that the main fact he discovered at school was that its motto, 'Ora et Labora' (work and pray), was a serious statement and not a joke. For years afterwards he thought the motto was so chosen because these were the only two activities they never did.

My father was selected to train for the school's first eighteen (Australian Rules football), but his parents asked him to withdraw because they considered it too worldly an activity for a son of the manse. In those days 'faith' affected the total life. Walter, the brother next-in-line, was an all-round athlete who seemed to fare better. I remember as a child seeing various mounted cricket balls inscribed with 'seven wickets with eight balls', and other trophies registering his mammoth scores. Apparently cricket was considered suitably non-combative and gentlemanly and thus he was allowed to take part. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their parents' judgments, it is evident that the early lifestyle of my parents' generation fitted them physically and instinctively for what they were to be as responsible adults.

From the age of eight or nine my father and his two younger brothers, one and two years younger respectively, would tramp across the Yarra River flats at East Ivanhoe, armed with an old muzzle-loading gun and two or three greyhounds, for coursing. Sometimes they would walk into Melbourne and to other distant places. Always they enjoyed wonderfully free and uninhibited lives. In thought and act they fulfilled the poet's words: 'A boy's will is the wind's will and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts'. While their imaginations and abilities were given a generous rein, they all received spiritual training by precept and example and later in life each 'would swear to his own hurt and change not'.

My father's story-telling ability nearly wrecked my nervous system before I was five years old. Vivid tales of man-eating tigers, shipwrecks, whales and a host of other hair-raising adventures would draw in the neighbouring children evening by evening. When they departed, I was unable to sleep. Every rustle was a wild animal, every shadow a crouching lion. I used to sing and rock from side to side to blot out the noises. My parents were worried about it, but I kept assuring them I was just happy and not sleepy - in case I missed the next instalment of the ongoing saga.

At other times my father would recite from memory whole cantos from The Lady of the Lake and other heroic poems with full sound effects. At the sound of Roderick Dhu's horn, the hillside would materialise with hundreds of wild highlanders. Then, once more alone, Fitzwilliam and Roderick would be fighting to the death on the bloodstained heather. The development of my imagination more than made up for the temporary damage done to my nervous system. We learnt to see things through each other's eyes and, in so doing, became members of the greatest community experience on earth - the intimate family relationship where the understanding love of the parents for the children, and the respect and honour of the children for the parents, were the dominating priorities. My parents never had a serious fight that I knew of and they rarely had to insist on our obedience. We often failed them, but we wanted to do what they asked because of their quality of character. They were devout, evangelical Christians, but they were always original, never smarmy. They practised what they preached.

The Hugget barn Above top: The Hugget barn. Above bottom : Peter Huggett at work on the infill

I can still recall some of my father's penetrating witticisms about all sorts of subjects. They remain as fresh today as they were then - and just as appropriate. One aphorism of his was 'Learn to drive out one worry with another'. I have always found it sound psychology. His business life was full of solid achievements, yet he still found time to write quite good poetry. He rather eschewed making money - in many ways he was quite unworldly - yet his innumerable friends respected, even revered him. He wrote letters to clients on his particular subject, insurance, that were kept and used for years afterwards. The last one I heard of turned up about ten years after his death. The managing director of his company at that time told me about this discovery with great glee. 'It was six pages long', he said. 'I have been using it consistently for the past six months.' He found himself involved in arbitration battles with the best legal minds. He nearly always won despite his lack of special training. When he did lose, his opponents were always delighted to beat him. He died when I was fifteen years of age, just after he had allowed me to leave school at fourth form level and take a job in a bank. I expressed a preference for this because I was lazy and unambitious, and was attracted by the short hours and the easy work. The Depression struck at about the same time, an economic twilight that was to continue until the outbreak of World War II. I was caught in the disease of a secure job. All it asked of me was that I arrive regularly on time and perform simple, repetitive work. Difficult times financially are the only occasion such a position is tenable. Even then it had a soul-destroying effect.

On formal education generally

The Great Depression quickly terminated the opportunities of the education system and this restriction was carried on through the Second World War. Emancipation came when the Chifley Government offered full-time university courses to all returned servicemen who had enlisted under the age of twenty-one, and part-time courses to all others. These free courses provided support for the duration of the studies with allowances for wives and children. They also permitted time to gain the Matriculation, and even allowed for some reasonable failures during the undergraduate period. The result was a whole new climate in Australia; our society rapidly rose educationally to the highest level of its history. Limitless prospects lay ahead in every area of life.

Thirty years later the reverse position is the case and the job opportunities shrink every day. Now there are too few positions for too many applicants. There is a proliferation of graduates without experience of life, products of the fetid glass-house atmosphere of suburbia, with all its excessive protectiveness and self-centred affluence. The years of peace and prosperity have been at a price the creation of a mediocre education system that neither serves the best interests of the gifted nor the average student. Professors, lecturers and tutors have in turn become an 'institution', and the stimulating lead they could give the community is frequently blunted by the same uncreative and non-productive pursuit of job security and promotion. The quality of the graduate has been reduced in indirect proportion to the number of graduates.

For over twenty years I had a first-hand observation of the failure of the architectural courses which started off so propitiously in Melbourne after the war. By neglect of their opportunities of 'learning by doing', they largely handed over the profession to engineers, who now 'do' most of the basic design work for them. It is a sad fact that architecture developed an unjustifiable professionalism and became a theory based on economics that produced one design cliche after another. The processes of understanding architecture were often false and ended up killing the product they were intended to produce.

It is my privilege to share a few lectures every year with architectural students from the eastern States of Australia. Many groups of them also visit my office. Each time we meet they lament the fact that they know so little about the real meaning of their subject. To my mind the cause of much of this has been the majoring on multi-storey design and other inhuman building. At the best of times only a certain percentage of students could be employed on this task. The emphasis on computer design also has been a factor. By 1977 it had dawned on even the most optimistic executive that it is doubtful if there will be any more large multistorey buildings built in a city like Melbourne. Sydney had ten million square feet of office space vacant and Melbourne nearly as much. Even if the backlog is used up, it is doubtful if such buildings will be built again. The great economic dream of the 1960s has evaporated, leaving in its place a manufacturing industry that is itself withering away. Businessmen in Asia are now approaching Australian industrialists, offering to manufacture their goods, delivered in Australia, at a cheaper price than they themselves could ever produce locally.

When I was in Sydney recently, it was estimated that nearly 70% of the architectural profession was out of work. Some were driving taxis and doing other unrelated jobs, some were on the dole, yet there still seems to be an inertia that prevents people getting any alternative building programme off the ground. Had the professionals sufficient building skills, they could work at alterations, the obvious alternative of the day. The enormous cost of new buildings could create a fresh interest in improvisation and stimulate the professional to become the doer. If the emphasis remains on a system of specifications, contracts and supervision, with the work of building itself untouched by designing hands, the architectural profession will die of its own inertia.

What has occurred in architecture is also happening in many other professions. Before long it may consume a greater part of them. Education needs a simpler structure and hierarchy. The phenomenon of the unemployable teenager is already of concern in our community, but we have yet to see the devastating effect on such people in the future. There is a great need for a return to cooperative work-groups or self-employed workers. As I look back over the history of my eight children, I realise almost by default I have never persuaded them to seek secure jobs. Survival has been the name of the game. Had they been sent to the most secure jobs and the 'best' schools, they would be much less creative than they are today.

My children

As each one of them grew old enough, they quickly selected their own direCtion. My eldest son Tony did photography and did it remarkably well. He could have excelled in this field because he had an 'eye' for it. But, as I have often felt, photography is rarely a profession for really intelligent people. The rare cases of 'intellectual' photographers seem to drift into fashion as the only viable business opportunity. This type of shutter-clicking is so patently false that a developing mind would soon tire of it. For a time Tony preferred to starve rather than take a job. He would rise in the afternoon and practise for hours on the piano, until he discovered after some months that, practise as he might, he was not going to become a brilliant executive pianist. He married and spent a couple of years in England, then travelled around Europe and Asia in a very small car which he finally sold in Khatmandu to a Llama for nearly twice what he had paid for it two years earlier. When he returned to Australia, he and his wife opened a secondhand shop in the Melbourne inner-suburb of Carlton. There he started the Carlton Times and the Melbourne Times, two local weeklies, with a couple of capable associates. His publishing did not make a living, but the shop prospered. He then turned to buying and restoring terrace houses, for which his Eltham background fitted him admirably. This made him enough money to buy a couple of shops and start a most agreeable restaurant. Its distinguishing characteristic, when compared with other restaurants of a similar price range, was that the decor was typical Eltham - a combination of natural materials and an unpretentious quality of tables and original dishes.

The two daughters of my first marriage have been art teachers, painters, yoga teachers, creative dancers and choreographers. Eugenie, the younger, had her first creative ballet company when she was about ten or eleven, complete with proper stage performances. The substance of all their activities springs from their own ideas and capacities. They never sought to make money in sedentary positions. They have had an impact on the Eltham community, where they have resided most of their lives, and the district has had an impact on them. Eugenie's dancing classes have affected a whole generation of girls. Gabrielle's yoga classes are affecting men and women from all levels of the local community. Their diverse interests stem from living in an environmentally conscious location.

The second family, of whom Margot is the mother, consists of four boys and a daughter. The older three sons are now twenty-four, twenty-one and fifteen respectively. As time has unfolded, we have all grown more and more relaxed about earning a living. We have aimed to keep them out of a standard-type job unless they really wanted to have one - which has not been the case.

It has been an absorbing parental privilege to observe how each has reached the decision that has led them out into their individual lifestyles. Hamish, the eldest, was fully determined to learn as little as possible at school, which in essence meant only what was consistent with common sense and an enjoyable, peaceful existence. He was always a good 'community man' and found it hard to work without companions about him. After he passed fifth form at the age of seventeen, we suggested he should leave home for a while. He joyfully agreed and went to the far west of Australia with some friends in a convoy of Land Rovers. Jobs proved hard to come by. After crossing the Nullabor Plain, they finally travelled over 1,000 miles north of Perth to the Port Hedland area and applied for work. It was incredibly hot and in the middle of summer.

Many who applied for work walked off after four hours. Hamish and his friends had no difficulty in sticking it, partly because they had already had some experience of the. difficulty of finding employment, but mostly on account of their Eltham outdoor background. They must have cut good figures in the blistering sun, with their suntanned, whipcord bodies, lean and strong. They were living with nearly 6000 men of all nationalities and they had to learn quickly. They had been hired as powder monkeys' assistants and jack-hammer operators. After a time, Hamish and another worker a year younger than himself were. put in charge of a big blast. They had learnt how to set out and drill the holes but, when it came to the size of the charges, they tended to allow plenty for the job. In addition, they pointed the explosives so that they blew upwards instead of downwards. They also set them to explode simultaneously, instead of at one-tenth of a second intervals. When they fired the charge, the whole of the north-west coast seemed to rise into the air with a sound like an atomic bomb. Huge boulders rose and fell for a considerable time. One landed on a new Holden parked a couple of hundred yards away and crushed it to the ground. Unlike Lot's wife, it did not turn into a pillar of salt - that had some value. It was immediately rendered totally useless for all time.

It was an original method of learning by doing, though generally this does not prove such an expensive procedure as on this occasion. They ·were penalised from firing again for one month nothing else.

After some months Hamish returned to Melbourne, having earned enough to purchase his own Land Rover, a valuable tool of trade. We discussed his future and I urged him to become self-employed, which he did. He and a friend made huge refectory tables and other massive furniture. He did it well, but he never really had his heart in it. He also took charge of erecting a large domestic building. Seven young men, none of whom had ever built a house or even made a single mud brick, gathered on the site and set to work. Hamish was the timekeeper and the 'leading' carpenter. The resultant structure was a superb example of co-operative building. They built all the window frames, erected all roof structures, made and laid all the mud bricks, completed the brickpaved floors throughout and made all the solid kitchen cupboards and the like. Each part was made on a piece-work basis. They received payment for all they did and they did all for which they received payment. The house had a genuine environmental quality about it and cost about two-thirds the going price of normal contract rates. All the participants moved on to new and creative ways of life. Some returned to university or school; others became builders.

After this Hamish decided to visit his old school-teacher friend, John Bateman, who was sailing the length and breadth of the Mediterranean in a two-masted schooner. I regarded this as tertiary education, so I assisted him with his passage money and got him away immediately. He had several months of nautical experience there and then fell in with an American sea captain, who was commanding the Mariella, an eighty foot yawl-rigged masterpiece of yacht-building. Its mast rose 100 foot above the water and its teakwood decks and luxury appointments gave it a claim to being the pride of the Aegean. Hamish by now knew enough to appreciate its inherent quality, but the boat was not at sea through engine trouble and there was no one who could fix it. He retired to the engine room for six or seven hours, repaired the injectors and got it going. He was informed by Frank Horan, the skipper, that he could accompany him anywhere - which was just what he did. After he left the Mariella, he began a tour of Europe and America for twelve months.

It was fascinating to hear through reverse charge 'phone calls of his wintering in Florida, attending the America's Cup at Newport, Rhode Island, and visiting about thirty states across the country. He sailed tugs and yachts down the east coast and the Mississippi. He soon became an experienced sailor with a certain amount of natural engineering skill. The lack of work permits did not make any difference - nor, for that matter, the lack of a visa. He was willing and able, and his enthusiasm for the States was tremendous. The Americans appeared to take him the same way.

When he blew into my office one day without any previous announcement, I realised he had attained an international style without having relinquished his Australian background. His real education was well under way.

His next brother, Macgregor, had a very different nature. He is three years younger, intelligent but somewhat introverted. He adopted an alternative viewpoint in almost every activity he undertook. He was about to drop out of high school in fourth form because he was unable to put up with meaningless teaching on meaningless subjects. Margot, who always closely identified with Macgregor, moved into the scene and got him into an open school which suited him well. He built himself an excellent" two-level dwelling house in the grounds of our property, made from electric light poles, wattle and daub infills, and some ancient red iron roofing. The latter cost $7 and was the only amount of money outlaid. The rest of the materials lay around the place and cost nothing. He was the demonstrator par excellence of the pick-up society. Throughout he benefited by his experience at Diamond Creek Technical School, then still an open school. The 'Maxies', a group of fifth-form students, were amongst the most dishevelled and scruffiest that had been seen around since Charles Dickens' day. Their formal education was rather light on, but they did gain a philosophy for living which appears to strengthen with the years.

Examples of student building and painting at the Diamond Creek Technical School - inspired by teachers Ross and Sue Grouds Examples of student building and painting at the Diamond Creek Technical School - inspired by teachers Ross and Sue Grouds

His single-mindedness unquestionably cut off any possibility of going into the business world by the standard procedure, but he contrived to get on with what he believed in doing. It was a time of great change in education in Australia, which had opened up whole new fields of endeavour and created a new freedom in the hitherto regimented system. It suddenly dawned on a new generation the notion that it was less important to work hard for its own sake than to know why you were working. Such a notion caused a serious fluttering among the older generation who had never known the choice. They thought that everything that didn't lead toward total (but meaningless) work for money was heading towards final ruin. Australia generally, and Eltham in particular, had developed however a freer attitude to life and living. Despite the habitual economic booms and busts, there has been it continuing relationship between the community and the environment that has kept a practical variety of lifestyles open for each generation. It enabled many to opt out of conforming systems without fear. The twelvemonth temperate climate, the dry, healthy sunshine and the carry over of the previous decades' unparalleled expansion of goods and services made it easy to trade less work for more freedom of choice - a situation that had never really been possible in Australia before, except perhaps during the pinnacle of the Gold Rush in Victoria in the 1850s. The tragedy was that a falling off in the coveting of more material possessions was accompanied by a more open coveting of other men's wives and other women's husbands. The usual decline in moral standards that so often accompanies a choice in living standards had its inevitable effect on a social order that now needed little to survive. Releasing society from the problems that made it dull and kept it understandable and orderly brought a new set of problems that would prove more destructive than the ones they supplanted.

The open school system also had to struggle to find its inner disciplines. One saw that the more relaxed the participating families were, the easier and more balanced the working of the school. But those who were expecting the formal system to squeeze their children into a stereotyped world took a lot of reconciling to the concept. They thought that the term 'Technical School' meant second-rate and only for those who would spend their lives working with their hands. The beautiful domes and towers and intricate aircraft models they made either sent adults into a fury at the amount of time wasted, or caused them to shout paeans of praise at their children's emancipation from the straitjacketed education system.

Macgregor, like others of his generation, questioned the reasoning of schools very carefully. He 'came alive' when his inner cussedness experienced a challenge and he was totally in control and able to deal with a particular problem. He started sculpting with large, timber sections, which he had first struggled with years earlier when building his own house. The love for natural material, and an instinct for it's use, is one of the great discoveries of the human experience.

On my suggestion, he undertook the building of a large house for John Lamprell at Main Ridge, Westernport. Macgregor and his friend Shane, who had helped him with his own house, started where I would have left off. Admittedly they were not tied to a contract price, but they had a complex task before them. First were the big posts for the basic construction. Thirty years of mostly unprofitable battling to build specialist buildings had taken some toll of my inspiration in such matters. They always cost more than you believed or feared they would. Macgregor and Shane stood these great posts up and, when I saw them balanced vertically on an exposed site overlooking Bass Strait, I thought of all the things that could have happened if a great storm had blown up. They admitted that they had felt like quitting the night before, but they never dreamed of actually doing so. Strong, experienced men may have, but their vision was optimistic and confident and the thought never seriously occurred to them. They had already had a similar mishap in the erecting of Macgregor's house when a pole fell during the building. They had 'learnt by doing' in the best sense.

Macgregor Knox and Shane Aumont's building at Shoreham. Victoria "Macgregor Knox and Shane Aumont's building at Shoreham. Victoria
Macgregor Knox and Shane Aumont's building at Shoreham. Victoria

Then there were the seven-by-seventeen inch ironbark timbers that they housed into the poles. No practical builder would have admitted to himself that they were usable, no matter how much he was drawn to them. I had not intended they use them, but Macgregor saw their exciting possibilities. They just took the problem in their stride and, with some lifting help, slotted all eight of them into the structure in just two and a half hours.

They became masters of the chainsaw and were able to mortice four-by-twelve inch rafters into the great post system as neatly as if they were done with hammer and chisel. The whole structure became an enormous sculpture in its own right. The internal panelling was done in massive jarrah and hardwood. Some 30,000 feet of reclaimed jarrah flooring was used in the ceilings and upper floors. The two barn-entry doors were made from enormous six-inch-thick sections of New Zealand Kauri, reclaimed from the redevelopment of a Burley Griffin building in Melbourne constructed in the 1920s. Each weighed nearly a quarter of a ton, and swung beautifully on the thrust bearing hinges Macgregor designed for them. (Alistair, his younger brother, made the hinges to keep the whole thing in the family.)

At certain times Maurice and Tony, our pair of three-week apprentices, worked with Shane and Macgregor on this very demanding building. Even the kitchen cupboards were actual pieces of furniture of the character Macgregor was designing at the same time. Each became a dynamic form, reflecting the movement and the nature of living things. In the ultimate result, these pieces had something of a William Morris quality of craftsmanship. In individual design, they were part art nouveau, part Gaudie and something quite new. His move towards these sculptural objects, at the expense of painting and large building construction, was partly the outcome of the great timbers he and Shane had grappled with.

I believe the special talent he displays for sculptural architecture and furniture is largely the result of the influence of his alternative school life. At the age of twenty he left home and built himself a house with Deborah Halpern in St Andrews, near Kinglake outside of Melbourne. He is about as free as it seems possible to be, to choose what he will work at and when. His natural capacities provide an ability to earn a living at most artistic media without having to major at it five days a week. Few concerned people of my generation appear to accept the new social system without apprehension. They insist on making it more complicated. They find voluntary self-discipline harder than the self-inflicted torture of suffering the 'daily grind'. Perhaps a moment's reflection on the advantages of an education as described above will modify that view.

Macgregor making furniture Above top: Macgregor Knox carving a piece of furniture with a chainsaw. Above bottom: Macgregor's drawing desk made from reclaimed timber from a staircase

By the time our third son, Alistair, reached thirteen he had become interested in the ironwork he learnt from Marcus Skipper. Marcus was the remarkably able son of Matcham, an equally remarkable foundation member of the Montsalvat artist colony. Matcham Skipper had the ability to do almost anything of a three-dimensional art form or craft character, other than painting, better than almost anyone I knew. His talents are so prodigious that they tend to suffer from non-completion. Each new concept leads on and on like a journey into a new country. The exploration keeps getting deeper and deeper into the hinterland of the mind, to lose itself in the quest for some unattainable paradise.

Marcus is much more pragmatic. He has a good measure of the practical tenacious qualities of his mother, Myra. I have always been drawn to Marcus and treat him like a spiritual son. This empathy is partly the result of the awful fate I used to prognosticate lay in store for him when I observed him as a young child. Matcham and Myra were totally natural and relaxed in their living habits in the early 1950s. They were described by the good burghers of Melbourne as 'bohemian', which in those days meant wearing a beard, not owning a three-piece suit and not earning a living by going out to work each day. They had a studio in the city behind the Russell Street Police Station and were the port of call for a large group of writers and artists when they visited Melbourne. Myra would return with some groceries, milk and other food items of an afternoon, and Marcus, who was about two years old, would climb up to the table and open them up to see what was there. Flour would spill out and he would add some milk to this interesting material to spread an intriguing-looking mess over table, chairs and floors. Myra would say in a soft, resigned voice, 'Oh, what are you doing Marcie?', but she would not reprimand him. Matcham would then come in and shout encouragingly, 'What are you doing son - having a lovely time?' I thought that sort of chaos could only get worse as time went by. But such was not to be.

Marcus became a good scholar, Captain of the local high school by popular vote and received an award for Best Junior Actor in Australia. His 'Macbeth' in the school play was violently dramatic, especially the sword duels, when blades were broken in contest midst showers of sparks.

By the time he was twenty, he was showing great originality in blacksmithing and ironwork. He had the background of his father's craft experience, his mother's painting mind and the aura of the artist colony, but these were just launching pads to set him off into an international orbit of his own.

I was very grateful that Marcus took a real interest in Alistair and inspired him to start working in iron. One day I noticed by mere chance an advertisement for a blacksmith's bellows, an anvil and some ironworking tools. We made no delay in purchasing them and set them up in a building we had erected on the property to serve as a workshop and garage. It was one more building contrived from pick-up materials, such as old street poles and rusty corrugated iron.

Macgregor first set up the ironworking equipment, but Alistair was the real heir to it. He fell into the work in the most natural way. By the time he was completing third form he had planned to become a blacksmith and an ironworker, creating the specialist items we require in our natural buildings. Arrangements have been made that his fourth school year will consist of two days weekly in normal studies, one day weekly at the Melbourne Technical College learning practical blacksmithing and two days a week making his products for sale. It is anticipated that he should have a self-supporting business by the age of sixteen years that will keep him in all his requirements. He will need to pay his own bills and send out his own accounts. If he can do this successfully, I feel he should be able to tackle almost any job by the time he is eighteen. Such are the fruits of an educational experience which is not a separation from life but a preparation for it.

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