A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 33: Early mud brick houses

Chapter 33: Early mud brick houses

Author: Alistair Knox

We were actually creating building history without really understanding what we were doing. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a similar movement was also beginning to emerge. Eltham and Albuquerque were combining to make earth-building a viable alternative to timber, brick, and stone construction in western society. The difference between the movements was that Albuquerque was reviving the Spanish hacienda style - which originated when the conquistadores colonised the area in the sixteenth century - along with the Pueblo Indian style, which pre-dated it by several centuries.

Adobe building on Route 66, Alburquerque New Mexico Adobe building on Route 66, Alburquerque New Mexico

Albuquerque is located in New Mexico close to Santa Fe, on that historical trail more than fifteen hundred metres above sea level. It was here that I realised that it was the southern base of the Rocky Mountains - the great geological spine of the northern half of the New World - which gives it its great river systems, its great lakes, and its peerless landscapes. At its southern end, some of it had become fragmented granite which when wetted down and combined with the indigenous clay-impregnated topsoil formed it into the best adobe or mud bricks it is possible to obtain. It is called 'granitic topsoil', and it made the universality of earth walls inevitable for every type of building from cathedrals and palaces downwards for centuries. When New Mexico became part of the United States, the use of earth walls was not obvious to the outside world, but they were always there. It was the attitude to nearly all postwar activities that revived its popularity. In Australia, the causes were different. The medium had always been used to some extent in country areas, especially where standard materials were dear or unobtainable. In New Mexico, however, it was accepted as the available material for palaces, government buildings, and haciendas. In Australia it was the medium of the improviser, the poor, and the pioneer. The immediate postwar years brought about out a levelling-out of classes and ambitions which, aided by the lack of alternatives, made it the essence of the new national architecture despite its humble origins. It still took more than twenty years to reconcile it with middle-class suburban Melbourne, and an additional fifteen in Sydney to make it completely acceptable in real-estate values. By that time, it had become just as mundane and middle-class as traditional bricks-and-mortar. In addition, it had a trendy connotation that made it more costly than the manufactured bricks it was supplanting. In 1947, it was the bench-mark of the escape from suburbia and the ultima Thule of the professor, the painter, and the poet. The limitation to its exploitation was the fact that banks at first refused to advance money on its construction. This obstacle was probably good rather than bad because it made it the preserve of the exclusive rather than of the poverty-stricken. The buildings were for the discerning and the intellectual.

Immigrants lining the rails of the  Castel Felice at Fremantle 1947 Immigrants lining the rails of the "Castel Felice" at Fremantle 1947

The year 1947 was the substantial basis of the new Australia in every aspect of society. Hordes of Europeans came ashore in every ship in search of a new life in a new land, and they mixed with the conservative Anglo-Saxons and Celts to produce the beginnings of a multi-cultural society - no matter how disdainful the originals were of their swarthy colour and the pervasive smell of garlic. They worked hard and put up with poor conditions. As they became more financially independent, the prewar Australian made many attempts to keep them down, telling them they were lucky to be in this country. Conditions were buoyant, except for the paucity of materials available. Our eating habits improved rapidly as the smell of over-boiled cabbage disappeared from the land, and European food became agreeable to our adolescent palates. The pace became frenetic as those in 'secure' jobs sought to supplement their static salaries in order to compete with the new status migrant labourers. I was easing myself out of the bank by doing building work on the side and awaiting the right moment to 'ride the prosperity bubble', which was soon to burst and leave the adventurous both sad and sorry that they had forsaken a steady job and its superannuation retirement benefits. My banking colleagues envied everyone who took the plunge while they themselves hesitated. Don Deany, my naval 'oppo', worked at night as a train porter. He had to keep a weather eye out to avoid being seen by members of the bank hierarchy, who squarely opposed any second income from their staff.

We lived at such a high level of opportunity - and always so optimistic and full of laughter as new activities presented themselves daily - that a new identifiable sound could be heard all over Eltham. It was the sound of our exuberance and the way we all spontaneously responded to the perpetual quick-thinking joking that covered us like laughing gas. The sound was so similar from mouth to mouth that it was well said the district never stopped laughing for five years. My position was special because I was about the only person in Melbourne able to continue to build exciting new houses because of my use of alternative materials. Buildings like the Periwinkle, the Busst House, and Stage I of the Downing-Le Gallienne House caused nationwide comment. It all came to be more than Sonia could keep up with, partly because of her transport limitations and partly because she was a natural worker rather than a supervisor.

One evening after dining at Montsalvat we went to speak to Horrie Judd, a building-labourer foreman who was reputed to be almost as strong as Hercules. Our journey lay on the other side of Diamond Creek and over the steep, arena-like hills that surrounded the valley to their highest point. We found ourselves engulfed in aniseed weed and thistles that were taller than we were. As the daylight gave way to a full moon rising in the east behind us, we were like strangers lost in a primaeval jungle. Eventually we battled our way into Horrie's half-completed shack and saluted the object of our search, who was seated at a table and reading by lamplight. He fitted the scene perfectly. Though he was of barely average height, his arms gave unmistakable evidence of great strength. As he stood up, we saw a slight stoop in him, which was obviously the result of heavy lifting and digging hour after hour, week after week. He looked like the kind of human troglodyte who would have been honoured as a Stakhanovic and in every respect the antithesis of Wynn Robert, John Yule, and even Larry Stevens. This was the man Sonia and I had been searching for to take the pain out of mud-brick building for the middle class, a village labourer born two hundred years out of his right time. The room that branched off from where we met him had a generally untidy appearance, complete with stacks of newspapers in the corners. He explained that the house was not finished. He had put up the present structure in two weekends a couple of years earlier, and had yet to complete it. So great was the demand both for Horrie Judd's willingness to work and his work capacity that as far as I am aware, the house was still unfinished at the time of his death nearly forty years later, when he was mourned by all those who had ever employed him. He was at some pains to explain to us that first night that he was not a tradesman per se, but rather a foreman labourer. Jorgie, who had used him at various times, would become lyrical as he described Horrie's ability to dig holes in those days, when such work was still done by hand. 'He would just start digging', Jorgie would say, 'and in a few minutes would begin to disappear from sight feet-first as the shovel rose and fell with piston-like precision'. Horrie Judd was the epitome of undertaking the impossible labouring task without looking up.

Horry Judd laying mud bricks Horrie Judd is shown in three stages of the laying of a course in mud brick wall above window height

This was the real beginning of my major early earth-building period and close association with Horrie Judd, which continued for some years. We eventually parted company because of his inability to delegate work to his subordinates. He saw them merely as long-haired intellectuals - only to be entrusted with cleaning-up chores, while he set about doing their specified work in addition to his own. He considered Gordon Ford an exception because of his physical strength and Scottish endurance and stubbornness.

It was at the beginning of 1948, when I designed Phyl Busst's house, that this fusion between such different personalities began to blossom. Earth-building was becoming more acceptable to the early Eltham home-makers, who saw the district as 'Emancipation Corner' in the Melbourne metropolis, which was very excited about developing itself into the largest urban wilderness in existence. It was still only in its infancy, but every true son and daughter drew their strength from being a single-unit house-owner in a neat street with concrete gutters and curbs. Every subdivision plan revelled in the flat sandy-loam suburbs proliferating in the erstwhile market gardens that had been the source of the cities' food supply. The ever-widening carbuncle-like suburban expansion landed its hopeful immigrants in a deepening morass of chequerboard right-angled road systems pockmarked with corner shops advertising Coca Cola and Four 'n Twenty pies. There was no thought of an overall plan for the metropolis until an Interim Development Order was proclaimed in 1954. The licence to build what you like where you liked - provided you came no nearer than six feet to a side boundary - had the effect of isolating neighbour from neighbour to the extent that one was still able to hear them talking in the next-door house, but not clearly enough to be able to understand what they were saying. It was the beginning of a fatal disease called 'suburban loneliness'. What would have eventually happened to Melbourne had it not been for the flood of postwar immigration is impossible to conceive of. The rebirth of the inner areas, with their national restaurants and communities, reached a high peak with the arrival of the Olympic Games in 1956, when to everyone's amazement Melbourne found itself blushing to the roots of its terra-cotta hair. It became a world leader in the postwar society. It is interesting to reflect that we actually finished third behind the U.S. and the Soviet Union with thirteen gold medals. In 1948, we still found it hard to describe our irritation at the great masses of 'unwashed' European immigrants who regarded the country as their home instead of accepting the fact that they were only unwanted outsiders.

There were an increasing number of dilettante types interested in finding outdoor employment amongst congenial companions at just the time it started to get around that the Busst House was to be built at the corner of Silver and Diamond Streets on the west side of Eltham. A group met one afternoon to discuss the contract price for mud bricks and other relevant factors just as the sun was casting its last warm rays through the stringy barks and yellow-box trees surrounding the excavated site; before long, a chill would settle over the scene for the night. Neil Douglas, our great outdoor artist, whom we believed could survive any physical difficulties, was among those present. He added confidence to some who might otherwise have felt that the privilege of mixing the heavy clay soil they saw around them would not provide the bonanza they were hoping for. A price per brick was agreed to, and details were being discussed when Neil suddenly exclaimed that he could see some mushrooms further up the hill, that he would go pick them, and then return to find out what the final arrangements were. We all experienced a sense of assurance as we watched his athletic figure head off to bring us a feast of these delectable fungi, which our inexpert eyes still could not even locate. As darkness descended we remembered that he had failed to return, so we set off without him, still not realising that his disappearance had been deliberate. We failed to understand that he was just too good a survivor to risk life and limb making mud bricks in such a hostile environment. Gordon Ford and one or two real battlers did remain, and completed that unenviable part of the job. When Horrie Judd began to work with us he was put in charge of the general construction, which had become too arduous for Sonia. She was given full rein over the artistic on-site decision making and execution. Sonia's finishing subtleties embellishing Horrie's primitive power proved a formidable combination. We now had three separate jobs under construction, and Horrie would move from one to the other, leaving the long-haired staff filling in after him.

The Periwinkle 1948 The Periwinkle 1948. Photographed in 1978

The Periwinkle project was our first attempt at a slab construction. It was an unknown quantity. There were no specifications available, so I wrote my own. The local Council raised no objection, probably deciding that ignorance was bliss - '"T'was folly to be wise"'. And besides all this, it was hard work; and Horrie's criterion for success was the amount of that commodity that could be accomplished in a given time. His arrival had brought about an entirely new sense of urgency that was having an impact on the permanent semi-holiday spirit among the fringe members of the staff. He gauged that Gordon Ford was his best chance of finding a serious worker who could make building his lifetime calling, so he chose him to work on the slab at Phyl Busst's house. Phyl was considered rich and artistic, and as concrete trucks had not yet made their debut in Melbourne, Horrie decided that he and Gordon should perform the herculean task without the assistance of any machinery. The lower slab would be mixed and poured using only shovels, muscle, sweat, and bull-headedness. In one day they mixed fifty-five bags of cement with more than ten tons of sand and screenings and placed it all in situ in the most memorable day's work the community ever saw. They stood opposite each other and turned over the whole mix four times - twice dry, twice wet - as they moved it down the slope to its final location. Horrie was correct in choosing Gordon Ford, who had that Scottish tenacity to work till he dropped. As the day progressed each man gained an appreciation of the other's inflexibility that never changed through the years. Gordon became a landscape-architect contractor whose great specialty was manhandling large-scale stonework, and Horrie finished up erecting the bluestone chapel at Montsalvat almost single-handed nearly thirty years later.

Gordon and I often agreed we were in Australia's golden age, which would be of much shorter duration than the golden age of Greece which flowered under the statesmanship of Pericles and the architecture and sculpture of Phidias and others. But what we lost in the time scale we made up for in freedom and laughter. Purists may regard any comparison between Greek culture and postwar Australia as the most heinous blasphemy, but what the antipodes lacked in artistic quality it provided in freedom of spirit and an absolute democracy that existed for a few years between the conclusion of World War II and the Russians gaining the secret of the atomic bomb. This was at its apex in the Eltham culture, which stood apart from the current suburban freneticism. Eltham's mystical colour-and-light atmosphere and the deep-smelling eucalypt and wattle landscapes that surrounded the members of the new Impressionist, the Danila Vassilief sculpting, and the fulfillment of the early mud-brick movement made it a time the country will never again experience. As a central member of this coterie, mostly because I had become a source of employment that kept it viable, I still had difficulty becoming a full-time entrepreneur because I lacked supplies and finance. It had not really dawned on Australians that they were becoming a part of one world. The sense of isolation, of distance, was still much the same as it was in 1914 when World War I began. Mass immigration and the war-time technical advances were effecting peripheral changes, but it was only in isolated geographical pockets like Eltham that any visible cracks in our conservative shell appeared.

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