Belief in Building, Chapter 1: From mud to modules

Chapter 1: From mud to modules

Author: Alistair Knox

Environmental building begins where the division between landscape and building disappears. Landscape is the inspiration for the building, and the buildings are the result of it.

Lake View House, Chiltern, briefly home to Henry Handel Richardson Lake View House, Chiltern, briefly home to Henry Handel Richardson

Early Australian farm building was related to environment to an extent that makes this principle visible, even today. This is seen most clearly, perhaps, in the shadows of verandahs that merge the building with the bush.

Bending nature to human use always reduces its scale. It is inherent in man to try to re-order what he despoils when he first gains a foothold in a new land. When this restoration was attempted in the early days, the settlers were appreciative of the power of environment. Sudden death was a daily possibility in the untamed country. The anonymous architecture of the farm out-buildings, standing a little apart from the main homestead and its selection of exotic and native trees, was the main contribution to environmental building. So many of these structures were built from split local timbers and reflect the shape of the surrounding mountains that the inference is inescapable.

Visual order is latent in nearly all men, just as musical appreciation and poetry lie beneath the consciousness of society in general. It takes a Beethoven or a Shakespeare to bring it out in the whole of the world. In needs a Banjo Paterson or a Henry Lawson to particularise for the Australian.

The age of modern transport has destroyed the unique sense of time and distance that so suited our ancient land. It was followed by a long period where there was only sufficient time to spoil, and not to build up again. The apex of this period was probably immediately after the second World War. These hostilities followed ten years of inertia and depression. Then there were several years of fierce struggle to survive which left a legacy of a new way of doing things quicker, if not better.

There was no concept of preservation in the public mind whatsoever. The first houses I built at Heidelberg, in 1946, were designed around primordial red gum in the Burleigh Griffin paddocks. This activity was considered an act of premeditated madness by practically everyone.

The giant river red gum opposite Burley Griffin's Lippincott house The giant river red gum opposite Burley Griffin's Lippincott house

Looking back on the artists David Boyd and John Yule, who first agreed to erect the stone chimneys in those early houses, is nostalgic indeed. David did not get far as a builder. His dark, Byronic brow, his young and handsome figure, challenged me when I pointed out that my plans for construction were not being followed, 'Rather formal, don't you think?' he murmured.

Matcham Skipper, sculptor and craftsman, together with the actor Wynne Roberts, completed these chimneys in good enough style; but it was always acknowledged by them that John Yule's garden walls and paved verandah foundations were the best work. So good were they that John Yule applied for a job as stone-mason at a hotel being constructed on Mount Kosciusko. In those days it took some considerable time to get there, and it was almost impossible to find anyone willing to go.

As John essayed to lay his first stone, the contractor eyed him closely. After a short while he was asked to desist, was dismissed, and then was taken on again as one of the highest-paid builders' labourers in the country. He wrote to tell me of how he went off each morning with a group of ancients, singing as they went to work, and how he won their approval by becoming the best labourer they ever had. John Yule had a good eye for stone. If he had not settled for painting - who knows? - he might have become a partner of mine.

It was a grand time of opportunity for talent. Ristees', a coffee shop in McEwan's Elizabeth Street building, was, in those days, frequented daily by Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, Neil Douglas, and, in fact, most members of a group who have since left varying degrees of impression upon our culture.

The work of creating an Australian architecture was, and is, my concern. Having no degree and working in a bank did not seem conducive to this possibility. But, in fact, it was. From slow beginnings, especially as I was able to produce work of originality when scarcely anyone else could do anything at all because of materials shortages, gave me an early start.

It came slowly at first. The earth buildings of the late 1940s were the pilot and inspiration against the first wave of new techniques which dominated the architecture of the period. It was essential to grasp the new media available, but not to be grasped by them. I discovered no royal road for truth in building in this situation. Methods came and went again because many of them were an attempt to unite new techniques with old. The truth was that the whole domestic scene had to be re-thought in terms of landscape. That called for a completely new set of building principles. The first element was skillful earth-moving.

A Ferguson tractor A Ferguson tractor of the type used on the sites of the early Knox houses

It was at this time that I met Keith Joslyn. He is, without exception, the prince of earth-movers and land-sculptors. He started earth-moving at the age of about eleven, with the aid of a scoop and a pair of horses. He was about sixteen when I first knew him. By that time, he had graduated to a Ferguson tractor. Together we planned and executed land-movements for domestic building. We produced methods that have not been improved upon. Keith has a genius for shapes and levels. He made environmental architecture possible for me. On the other hand, I believe I gave him a structural understanding of the landscape we both love so much. Today we sometimes discuss those old days. Keith is now rich and prosperous. His capacity to work twelve hours a day for seven days a week has tapered off somewhat, but he has an ability to produce this in those he employs. It is only at the age of thirty-five that he is contemplating marriage. For the past twenty years, he has been married to his machines. Old age is common in the Joslyn family. Keith's father is ninety, and still drives a car. His grandmother died at nearly one hundred years of age. His own mother married after she was forty, and then had several children.

The essential beginnings of modern environmental design and buildings had its roots in the hearts and minds of an environmental people - the people of Eltham in Victoria. Of a truth, landscape is the eternal spring of water welling up to liberate the hearts of free people. The landscape that inspired Greenway is still the same driving force that made Australia a unique product in modern society. It is the one primaeval power that gives man a valid perspective of himself in his times.

Since about 1955 there has been an awakening in Sydney which has now completely supplanted Melbourne as the leading city. Melbourne surged forward with the economic opportunism of the early postwar years, and declined with it. At the present time it is hard to imagine a more conservative society. The egocentric and independent-minded Australian of the early 1900s has become cautious and safe. But no one can deny that the postwar environmental movement is the product of a small group in and around Eltham. That adobe building should be one of the prime materials used in this movement is also inevitable. Its inherent spirit and humanity, its flexibility and power, are superior to any other medium. The response of adzed timber to earth is perfect. The subtle variation in line and level enhances mill-sawn timber and simple answers. Above all, its emergence from the ground has re-created the sense of the cave that is the special re-discovery of Burleigh Griffin.

Where the landscape dominates design, it can produce a 'paddock' architecture. The scene can alter from isolated demonstrations and degrees of knowledge, skill, ignorance, and prejudice to an undulating rhythm - a cohesion at once personal and yet comprehensive.

A bush road A bush road showing secondary growth

One of the most outstanding characteristics of the Australian bush is its power of regeneration. Early paintings of Eltham depict the land as cleared for farming. Today these same paddocks have returned to bush. Even where the most ordinary domestic buildings are erected on a sixty-foot block in this area, there remains a sense of environment that palliates the great suburban ugliness. The applejacks, the stringy barks and yellow boxes that lean out from the edges of the road, meet overhead. The dust of the gravel road hangs in the air and reflects the sunlight in a pale gold glow.

There are about six hundred surviving varieties of birds in Australia. A high proportion of these seem to frequent these relaxed areas. The basic mass-employed concept of the English informal landscapers is the best method of developing growth and re-ordering the past depredations. Bush plants thrive when over-planted. The intervening two-dimensional areas, if properly conceived, give mystery and use simultaneously.

Gordon Ford, the landscape architect, and Peter Glass, his partner who is also a landscape painter, have demonstrated this principle in great depth on their hill on the eastern slope of the Eltham Valley. Subdividers of twenty years ago rejoiced in cleared land. Today they fawn their clients by advertising bush growth and trees. One recent subdivisional auction placed the marquee on the road. They claimed this unique distinction because their curved and guttered 'courts, drives, ways, and crescents' have only partly despoiled the surroundings.

There can be no real environmental impact until well-meaning councils get the message that conservation and concrete curbs are diametrically opposed. This does require courage, because the general purchaser is still indoctrinated with the pressures of full road construction and sewerage.

As the indiscriminate suburban sprawl continues, the pressure on sewerage pumping stations becomes tremendous. The great sewer drain which is at present heading from Templestowe to Cape Schank will, if usual short-cut methods continue, finally find itself emptying into Port Phillip Bay. It will be 'fully treated', of course. In fact, it will be raw. The slime and scum that will take over areas of the bay will unquestionably be called the price of progress of the Queen City.

The whole of Melbourne has now become the world's greatest suburb. It will soon be twice as big as it is. Is it not time to take stock of the possibilities?

The present drought has caused the Yarra flow to fall so low that it is in danger of becoming the main drain without the advantages of a primary water flow to swill it out. Would it not be easier to concrete it over altogether, so that we could turn it into a scenic drive? What could be more agreeable to our progressive eyes than the mass of electric pylons flanking it on either side that would whizz past as we weave our way between the drive-in, the soil thieves, and the municipal tips, together with the engineer valley-filler, for the heck of it? All these functions and functionaries believe they are assisting the overall development of Melbourne.

Landscape belongs to posterity. It has become - after the stopping of wars - the most important platform of the United Nations, surpassing even the problems of hunger. The near-to view of regarding freehold or council or government control of land a free way to the obliteration of environment can no longer be tolerated. Land use is life. Misuse of land is death.

One of the misuses is to concentrate five million people in a city such as Melbourne or Sydney. It is rapidly becoming impossible to experience a full urban life within them. They have either become meaningless areas of mediocrity, or tense and overbuilt commercial centres. Australia should note emulate cities in other countries. We have the greatest areas of undeveloped land in the world, extending from the east of South Australia to the Indian Ocean.

The theory of horizontal living requires taking over our thinking, or we will be destroyed or swallowed up by those who can see the possibilities. The excuse that we lack the finance to develop our own resources is based on the concept of international finance. If the potential to develop our uninhabited centre will draw international money, we can be confident it is profitable. Our first national requirement is water. Every plan to de-salinise, bore for artesian water, or for the collection of the immense quantities that flow from Queensland should be mainly financed by the creation of credit. There is nothing new in this, as everyone who went through the World War can attest. The present policy of selling the land to any international concern is unpardonable. A considerable amount has been written on this. I should only add that we cannot conserve our landscape if we do not own it. It is urgent to call our young men and women to use their training and their abilities on the development of our vast interior. We must face within a few years a limited intake of Asians. Even our national conscience will allow no less. The belief that we are safe under the mighty wing of the United States is just as reliable as their situation is at home. The continued and increasing restlessness of their coloured people could bring about a dramatic change at any moment. Even the Vietnam War, which drags on into 1968, and does momentarily show some possibility of solution, could collapse in such an emergency. America, with its vast, complex society, in many ways stands close to judgment. How long does God permit such injustice as we see on every hand? The U.S. shapes a pattern, which we are imitating, with immense wealth in the midst of poverty. The stability of an inert society is illusory. And Australia is socially inert, except for some distinct, small areas.

There has been no real concerted attempt by Australians to exploit our enormous latent wealth. It is always others plus Australians. Sometimes it is on a fifty-fifty basis; and often, it is just a plain sell-out. Is it only because we do not want to be disturbed?

The normal Australian just cannot grasp the idea of the disbanding of the Snowy River Authority. Those whose memory is long enough will remember that the opening of the project in the late 1940s was heavily criticised by those who are now in political power. The leader of the then-Opposition refused, indeed, to go to the opening, claiming the scheme to be anything and everything but necessary.

Students graduate at university and technical college. They seek precarious livings as schoolteachers, or prosperous ones as medical practitioners; or, as architects, they join architectural offices and, with few exceptions, submerge into well-paid draughtsmen. But whatever else happens, there is no inducement to turn to our silent, mysterious Centre that awaits the coming of water to change both it and us.

The timeless statements of Greenway and Griffin beckon us from the past to go. The teeming millions of Asia cry out for us to go. The last shreds of our national conscience convict us to go. Are we going to die of affluence and apathy? Or are we going to stand and fight? The responsibility lies equally on all of us.

If we are too old to go ourselves, we can make the going possible. A small beginning could lead to a big-scale future. It is not the numbers who go at first. It is the determination to make a true start.

Aerial view of the Marandoo open pit mine in Pilbara, Western Australia. Image courtesy of Rio Tinto. Aerial view of the Marandoo open pit mine in Pilbara, Western Australia. Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.

The decade of the 1950s saw a decline in the spirit of integrity in Australia. Although there were great chances of getting on in almost any sphere, there was a gradual fretting-away of the moral fibre of the nation, a gradual change from the sun-tanned and laconic independence that could 'swear to its own hurt'. The deceitfulness of riches was forming a society that paid lip service to the old standards that had been normal for generations. There is no real strength without some real suffering. I discovered this when I went into the navy. It took me three days to discover that I was the problem - and not the ratings sitting around me. They were men whom to that time I had thought crude and lacking. Now I found they stood head and shoulders above me. I was reduced to appropriate size in record time.

As I entered the great brotherhood of Australians, I learned that we all are extraordinarily similar. From north to south and east to west, only keen and informed ears could gauge the locality of accents. The mighty power of the sun has unified us into a single body. Australian servicemen enjoy the unspoken language with each other, a form of communication which is common to them alone. It is here that you are measured by what you are, and not by your background. The bakers and the butchers proved as sharp as - if not sharper and clearer than - the university-graduate group. A day-to-day rubbing against other minds in a common background produces a capacity to think and adventure. It gives those who have had the experience new eyes to see what had before been only a blurred image. I regard it to my credit that I refused the opportunity to become an officer.

Postwar migration has been good for Australia in many ways. But it should not submerge the indigenous character of the older inhabitants. It should add richness and variety to the hard core. In fact, it set up a rapid expansion of ways and means of making money without much effort. As usual, the bigger the concern, the more money was made. When we suffered the intermittent recessions of a hit-and-miss economy, it was all too easy in hard times to take what did not actually belong to you in order to keep up the sweet life.

By 1960 the edifice had cracked and financial empires had folded because they were fabrications of deceit and beguilement. Those who were hit hardest were, as usual, those who could least afford it: older people who believed what they read in the prospectuses of new companies. Throughout this particular period, I was establishing my concept of environmental design. For the first five years of that period, it was completely out of keeping with the public image. It was hard, indeed, to raise the money to build constructions governed by my own developing ideas - stone walls, mill-sawn timber ceilings, stone floors, and the like - in an age of brick veneer, plaster, and wall-to-wall carpets.

The various structural methods adopted produced good buildings cheaply. They had order, rhythm, and the expression of natural materials that I subsequently found was also emerging in California in the United States. They were calling them 'ranch' houses, I think. I understand some people in Australia even do so today. The buildings I planned were homestead in character. They came from indigenous elements of the land.

The surprising result of reducing the elements of such buildings to the simplest factors was that not only did they appear Australian, but because of the use of materials, they also felt Asian-Pacific.

Glass house Glass house, Eltham

It was at this time that mud or adobe began to have a slight re-awakening. I built a new studio house for Peter Glass and a third wing to the Downing-LeGallienne structure. Both of these buildings came with ease and yet with spirit. The days of Clifton Pugh and John Howley were gone, it is true. Bricks had to be made by lesser men, but they were still bricks of a sort. Peter's house was a great success, with its two-storeyed studio balcony. The tall earth piers and the verticality of the windows reflected the sugar gums and angophora outside.

The house was necessitated by Peter's marriage. At this stage, he had been working for me. Margot saw him gazing into the distance one day and guessed what was on his mind: Cecile, the girl he had left behind him in Paris.

Margot made him send off a letter that day. After a suitable time the answer came back and Eltham was to become the richer by a strong, generous, and individual Frenchwoman.

Cecile thought Australians spent too much money too easily when she first arrived. She was fascinated by the scope and power of the landscape. With true Gallic economy, she set to work to strike growth from the multitudes of seed that fell around her every day. The activity grew, and so did her knowledge. Today, Cecile runs a nature nursery. And not only that. By the time you have bought a dozen plants, she has found out where you live, the size of your land, and its requirements. As she talks she designs the garden, planting for you. It is a tremendous ability, placed where it can be properly used. If half our new arrivals had some of her ability and enthusiasm, we would be much nearer the centre of the country than we are. Her tremendous energy refuses to be slaked, even by this activity. It is interesting to see groups of high-school children appearing at her door in the afternoon to have French lessons. The standard of French in Eltham has risen considerably.

The second half of the decade produced changes of values in teenagers that were, by 1960, to mould themselves into the chief problem of the new 'comfortable' generation. It was the period of the home, plus the house at the beach, the second car, and the swimming pool. Strange to say, the delinquency rate was approximately proportionate to the abundance of possessions. Delinquency meant the inability of the postwar child to appreciate that quantity of possessions equals the quantity of life.

A great essential had vanished from the Australian way of life - a way where father, mother, son, and daughter had a domestic balance of equality. Each neighbour had more or less the same. No one wanted for the necessities of life. There was air and adventure in natural environment wherever you looked.

The great Australian highlands were virtually undiscovered until the Snowy scheme got under way. Here was largely an undiscovered land. It was available to all. Deliciously free of population, free of any imported culture, yet with a rough one of its own. Above all else, it had a uniting environment, a spirit of oneness comprehend by all.

The desire for possessions drove the young parents of the 1950s into a life of economic gain at the expense of the rising generation, who became aware that adults who were themselves teenagers fifteen years earlier were unable to speak the language of their own children. Not only were they despised - a common-enough activity - but they were despised for the very things they had fought to give their children: possessions and social security.

Perhaps this touched off the old nostalgia for the timeless land. Perhaps this called to mind that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

It was a combination of disillusionment on the home front and a second look at the plastics and tinsel of the postwar economy, with its planned obsolescence. The perpetual getting in order to have; the destruction of the old order to make way for the new season's look. All these things turned the public mind back to the stability of the past. Distances shrank. Populations rose. Traditions we had accepted without a thought were disappearing everywhere. Perhaps there was a place for the common things that grew around us in such abundance.

Nolan's Kelly series had become part of our tradition. Boyd, Perceval, Williams, and Blackman were beginning to make real sense.

Somewhere around his time, Margot and I went with Mary Perceval and our respective families to Gaffney's creek. John Perceval and Arthur Boyd had left a day or two earlier.

As we climbed out from Warburton to Wood's Point, the snow thickened and the sun shone. Over Matlock we went down into the old town by the narrow road, our hearts in our mouths in case we should have to back up if a timber jinker came from the other direction. The road was only one track wide, and passing points were located every quarter of a mile. The gold mines were still operating. We passed the A.1. and filed into Gaffney's. The road was about fifteen feet wide, and the hotel leaned precariously. The lavatory was on the other side of the road. We had riotous breakfasts in the kitchen at about ten o'clock every morning, then set out to do a painting. Hal Hattam and his wife were there. Hal is a brilliant surgeon who should have been a painter. But he has done the next best thing. As he delivered babies for the wives of the great painting school of the period, he received paintings in payment. These have now increased greatly in value. Boyds, Frenches, Blackmans, Percevals, and a dozen others. The delivery of Margot's first baby was paid for by her doing some slate-paving, whilst she was pregnant, in Hal's backyard. Margot was a beautiful slate-paver, as well as a sculptor and bush painter. I received stimulation from some of these occasions that, somehow, helped to keep you going. Somehow, even if you were on your own, so were these men. And they were arriving. Socially, art was becoming the accepted activity. It became a field of investment.

Only a few invested in environmental buildings. There was a group of halfway men who were building shadowy hints of these things. Some of these men had worked for me. But economics and that fact that domestic architecture is a useful art made it hard. Harder still was the fact that I had to take projects from the initial-talks stage to the last screw. How I hated that last screw. But in it had to go. And also the last clod of earth that had to be re-levelled. They were hard and exacting days, but they were essential. They stripped away the nonsense to make you a true professional. You must accept both client and job as they come. I found there were no bad clients - only bad architects. I had to satisfy clients whether I liked it or not. If I didn't, they didn't pay. If they didn't pay, my receding economic position would have collapsed. I had to satisfy them, and still satisfy myself; which meant that I had to satisfy them in terms of my philosophy. Somehow it seemed that the harder I worked, the harder I had to. You can't ask others to share financial failure. It plumbed the inner reserves of determination to continue. There were good periods interspersed, but looking back I find that the desire to do good work in the midst of economic pressures would not have been possible had I not had a one-track mind. I don't think I ever thought of compromise.

Gradually, a new position began to emerge. I found that the consistency of outlook was creating a climate in spite of all opposition. I felt defeated in result, but not in belief. Here and there, the past thirteen years were forging a background that could not be broken - like the links of a chain being connected together.

How did men like Greenway and Griffin feel? They had problems enough despite their great opportunities. Greenway disappeared into obscurity. Griffin went away. Did they ever really know what they had left behind them? Did they realise that finally their work would be recognised as it is? In their case, I believe, it was their adherence to the principle of landscape that, more than any other way, kept them faithful and believing. Lasting success of ten springs from the struggles of defeat.

View of West Lake, Lake Burley Griffin from the west. Weston Park is the foreground and Black Mountain Peninsula in the middle-ground View of West Lake, Lake Burley Griffin from the west. Weston Park is the foreground and Black Mountain Peninsula in the middle-ground. Image © David Wall

It was not until the lake at Canberra was filled that Griffin was finally discovered. It was only then that his landscaping ability was revealed. Rejected, discarded for thirty years or so, he arose phoenix-like over the scene. Griffin was a landscapist first and foremost. Not all the unimaginative row planting of the eucalypt orchards of the later planters could obliterate the concept. Canberra may never become a true city, but it is a true piece of landscape.

The capacity of extracting the mystery out of the landscape is a technique that has been actively pursued by the majority of the National Commission Development Committee at Canberra. It involves the destruction of the eccentric corner and the wilderness areas. Every one is so clean, neat, and typed that all is as nothing. It is a demonstration of democratic mediocrity woven in a majestically-conceived background. How is it that such a powerful heredity can produce so negative a present?

Earnest intentions and good resolutions do not create environmental dynamism. It springs from hearts that can see the pioneers of the past on the eastern side of the continent, and anticipate the pioneering of the inland at the same time. It involves a continuing belief in the midst of change, a return to the ways that produce the men with leathery faces and far-away eyes.

I designed and constructed an increasing number of buildings during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. In addition, a gradual increase in landscaping was developing. I found myself giving lectures in small landscaping courses in Melbourne, and in various ways exercising some influence over these possibilities.

At a planning conference in Canberra, I renewed an acquaintance with George Clark, the town and environmental planner from Sydney. He had been commissioned to produce a basic layout for a new neighbourhood unit on the southeast of Canberra. He asked me to join him as a landscape consultant. This was in 1963. Later that year we went over the area together. We visited at 2 a.m. as well as at 2 p.m. We discovered where the sheep slept; we felt the warm part of the land and examined the flora and the general characteristics. One of my activities was to mark the trees to be preserved. I had to find a forester from the Commission with whom to do this. It was one of those subtle and satisfying experiences.

He was a man a little over sixty. When we met he had several reasons for not going, but I finally persuaded him. As we walked together, we talked. He was one of those truly indigenous characters born and bred near Eden on Two Fold Bay - a typical soldier type, laconically alert. I asked him about a certain great, odd building which I knew of near Two Fold Bay. It had been built a little before the First World War. It was full of great slabs of timber panelling. 'My dad and I cut the timber', he said quietly. I asked him about certain types of the timber, adding that I had been told it had come from that district - though I could not see how this could be so. He said, 'It did not'. And as he said it, I knew we had entered into a spiritual unity. Quiet rain started to fall as we walked over the five hundred acres. Each tree we came to he turned into a personality. There was no complaint now about his rheumatism, or about lunch, either. We were enjoying an inner communion that only those who are moved by the Great South Land can.

The more I walked over the land, which was undulating savannah country with few really large trees and sections of light scrub, the more I saw he knew what it once had been. It had been bush land - and, more than that, it had been the bush land of the Man from Snowy River. High, and surrounded by nearby hills on the east and Mount Taylor a mile to the west. The horizon was an unbroken ring of blue mountains. To the northwest lay the inner town of Canberra.

There is still a homestead in the middle distance, with a feather of pale blue smoke rising placidly from the chimney and the traditional verandah surrounding it on all sides. How could such a quality become submerged in the man-made attempts to develop the city? All is so over-simplified and close-clipped. The houses are mundane and uninspired in the adjacent neighbourhood of Hughes. The original Billy would turn over in his grave were he able to see them. The circumlocutory access roads were designed for safety. They were anything but safe. The perpetuation of the cost of democracy being the extinction of its possibilities - that essential missing of the mark - cannot be laid at the feet of the general public. It is the problem of the experts, as leaders, to persuade society that it is not better to die comfortably than to live adventurously. The twentieth century has swallowed up all the mysterious lands that were available to explore one hundred years earlier. It is our prerogative to order the depredations of the beginning years. The desire is there, but the direction is faulty. 'Where there is no vision, the people perish ...'.

Our plan for the neighbourhood unit, Woden No. 3, was based on a variety of exploitations of the land and the mystery and tradition. Two central, sweeping hills were connected along the saddle by a road. Three or four of the major roads were already located as part of the planning conditions. On one hill we developed high-density living, and on the other a series of paddocks of from three to six acres each. These were strata titles to allow development without subdivision of the total areas. The simplification of road systems and services is seen at once. Besides the usual sport, commercial, education, and other reservations, it was necessary to provide two residential areas. The eastern proposal was simple enough. There was, on my part, the suggestion of earth-moving prior to the sale of land so that an ordered street architecture could result. The western subdivision was a different matter. One of the opportunities for interesting subdivision in Canberra is the battle-axe block. This is a piece of land which has only a narrow entrance to its access road.

Battle-axe blocks in Burley Griffin's Glenard subdivision Battle-axe blocks in Burley Griffin's Glenard subdivision. Image: Google maps

I conceived the idea of laying out the subdivision in such a way that the access roads fed four allotments with a frontage of twenty feet over the requirements of two. This produced wide frontages on the battle-axe blocks to an open common area behind. This was available only to foot traffic. It provided a series of closed walks and precincts for play and adventure. These areas were large enough for the mysteries and controlled dangers so necessary for young people. They encouraged a community activity and a sense of belonging to these environmental, inter-connected commons. The cost was less than nothing. A considerable number of allotments were gained because of the saving in road requirements. The access was safer and more direct. The common were continuous, open land. The net result was that the building allotments were increased and road-making costs nearly halved. The commons also emerged without cost for the same reason.

Our general scheme was accepted in its entirety except for this commons plan. The answer given - and that by a maintenance man - was, 'Too much maintenance'. There was, in fact, no maintenance at all. In addition, the commons were so located that big trees were retained in a most natural way and the rock outcrop would have regenerated native growth, so that the old qualities of the original land could have been woven back into the new development.

Just prior to this time I had reached a point of no return financially. How aggravating it was to produce work that was accepted in every way to find such a monetary drain that something had to happen. It did.

There came a day when I reckoned I could no longer continue building because I was unable to pay my accounts. This Damocletian sword had swung backwards and forwards over my head for years. I could not make out why. I had one desire: to pay those bills. I had work. It appeared to be successful, but there was always the insuperable sundry creditor at the end of each month. So far as I knew, I was living what is called in Christian terms a surrendered life. I was, as best I knew how, diligent in the 'means of grace'. Yet things only became gradually worse.

As of a.m. on 5 December 1962, I let go and said, 'Whatever You say, God, You do it'. I meant it. There was nothing else to say. Even as I said it, I recalled the text: 'There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man ...'. It goes on to say that God is faithful. Who will not let you be tempted above your ability. But will also provide a way of escape in order that you may be able to bear it.

Peter Glass came in early that day, and I told him we could go no further. But before we did anything, we decided to look into our apparent position. To our amazement, we found within an hour that we were much better off than we had anticipated. In fact, we appeared only to be short of ready money. Just then, the phone rang. It was the bank manager. Before I could make any excuse about being over-drawn, he told me he did not want me, but wanted Peter Glass. However, I seized the opportunity to inform him of our position. I said I had a friend who would, I thought, guarantee me for a short time. 'What's the matter with yourself?' he asked. 'You have assets, haven't you?' It was just at the end of the 1961 recession. I was surprised at his agreeableness. I said I had. 'Send Peter Glass down with the facts', he said. 'Don't bother to come down yourself'. The result was that not only did I have several thousand dollars' credit, but I had actually received progress payment far in excess of work done. I phoned concerning this and was told that all was well. Other sums that had been bothering us came in miraculously; and we all went into the Christmas break rejoicing. The ensuing year began well; and then, for no apparent reason, work ceased and the old position re-asserted itself.

This time I was ready to capitulate. I was tired of fighting the impossible. A friend asked me, 'Have you ever prayed 'If there be any wicked way in me, please reveal it?' I said I had not, but that I should. I did so. The answer was that the first money I had ever invested in building had been dishonestly come by, albeit seventeen years earlier. It was the product of trading in the islands during the war. It was an activity which everyone involved themselves in. It was considered a recreation at the time. But, of course, it involved theft and other activities that were not scrupulous. How could a holy God build on that foundation? It just had to go - and it did.

I wrote to all my creditors and asked for time to pay, and then proceeded to sell the properties I owned. I anticipated enough money to pay off debts, and also to start again. I re-arranged myself into a design company and transferred the building to a partner, Peter Hellemons, who had been working for me for some years. By degrees, the pressures were lifted off me. The day-to-day detailing receded. The opportunity to think consecutively returned. An equal and balanced flow of work ensued. I could now see imitators of discontinued methods rising here and there. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. I realised that these products, though incomplete, showed the way the wind was blowing. By degrees, the past seventeen years were paying off. In Sydney, this development under several able men was already under way. But nowhere in this country had there been an unbroken line of environmental building, of belief in the building of this country such as had emerged from ourselves. The Australian indigenous architecture sprang from Eltham, and it started in 1947.

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