The Home Builder's Manual of Mud Brick Design and Construction, The Beginning

The Beginning

Author: Alistair Knox

Australia's isolation caused it to be less affected than almost any other country at that time and the spirit of renaissance that moved the nation as it became aware of a new sense of destiny demanded that greater freedom of choice and opportunity of house-owning became the prerogative of everyone, rather than of the privileged few.

I built two timber houses in 1946 by snatching up some of the meagre supplies that were available, but in 1947 such chance opportunities disappeared entirely. It was only my association with Montsalvat, the Eltham Artists' Colony, who had been building their great mud brick and pisé enclave prior to the War that enabled me to continue my intention of becoming an architectural builder.

I encouraged Matcham and Sonia Skipper, two of their best students, to work with me in the erecting, firstly a great stone chimney for a house at Heidelberg, then the complete construction of a small mud brick building in Eltham.

Sonia was a natural builder as well as an artist and she and I soon formed a building group composed of returned servicemen, artists and others who were almost the only people able to give some reality to this pent up building desire in the hearts of the new Australia that was materialising around us. We all quickly developed the great Australian talent - the talent of improvisation. Where necessary we would use tree trunks instead of sawn timbers for roof beams, recycle secondhand corrugated iron and old slates for roofs, mud bricks for walls and all sorts of finds from Whelan the Wrecker's musty stores of reuseable materials and, to a lesser extent, the Railways Reclamation Yard at Newport. For five years we enjoyed a unique position that produced a group of beautiful little houses that touched off the mud brick movement which has continued ever since.

In essence it developed a different attitude to what a dwelling should be. Paint was no longer used. Oil and water stains took their place. buildings were allowed to "weather" so that they merged back into their surroundings until the philosophy that "house and land formed one indivisible whole became a reality.

In the bushlands surrounding the cities a new architectural character developed that has remained the only permanent spiritual and intellectual alternative to the unending variations of the suburban stud wall and plaster brick veneers ad nauseum that have destroyed so much of the professional architectural offerings of the past thirty years.

In many ways Australia is a contradiction in terms. On the one hand the average person is a natural improviser. On the other, he has been inundated by the professional 'aura' of people with academic degrees and little talent in architecture, medicine, law and a hundred different fields that have inhibited his ambitions.

This condition is largely the result of our colonial history. The small Establishment that controlled the convict settlement at Sydney Cove in 1800 is essentially little changed up to the present time. There is still a privileged minority who regard themselves as born to rule. The average citizen appears to have little stomach for standing against the oligarchies both of the representatives of the Queen and the leaders of the Trade Unions. It has become an easy society to exist in when times are good because there are many privileges. When times get tough, however, we find our privileges disappear and that we have fewer rights than we imagined. By contrast, Americans have fewer privileges but more rights. The independence they won from the British in 1776 was followed up by a proper Constitution and a Bill of Rights where a man was always equally a man with all other men irrespective of his religion, his means or moral standards. Australia's constitution has loopholes which in extreme conditions has made it the protector of the Establishment. What chance would there be of having the Governor General remove Mr. Fraser or any other Conservative in the way he disposed of Gough Whitlam? Or conversely, in what other country could a President be legally deposed as was Nixon in America?

The opportunity that caused the revival in earth building in Australia was initially the result of a happy coincidence that existed in the Shire of Eltham, a small rural community on the north-eastern fringe of the City of Greater Melbourne. The Local Council was so antiquated that it had never got around to considering mud brick cottages beneath their civic pride, as did all other smarter middle-class municipalities. Australia has always suffered from a cleanliness fetish which was a reaction to its penal beginnings. It became a cult that was synonomous with success. When the average candidates for Local Council were elected, they felt they had joined the ruling class. The first 21 thing they thought about in general was to set out on a cleaning-up process. Natural unmade streets and country lanes were required to be curbed and channelled at vast expense. Indigenous tree growth became the enemy of sterile, mundane streetscaping, so that the privileges which democracy should have promoted declined into a lowest denominator system. Each district imitated the rest so that originality and personality were stifled by the conformity of well-intentioned men who were honest, but dull and dead wrong. Prim, unimaginative neatness was elevated to the status of beauty. Even at the present time, the "Keep Australia Beautiful" campaign is only a cleanliness philosophy symbolized by a golden broom. The spirit of originality in design is still thought dangerously non-conformist and should be guarded against at all costs. It could even cause house prices to fluctuate adversely against the prevailing fashion in stereotyped suburbia!

In 1947 when I applied to erect my first mud brick building, even the Eltham Council was considering banning this "dirty" building syndrome which had been mainly epitomised by the Montsalvat enclave. Artists may be all right in their place, but what would prevent their morals from being any cleaner than their mud walls outside the house? And inside it could be worse than spilling egg on the burgundy Axminster! It was only my impassioned off-the-cuff plea to the members of the Local Council at the entrance to their Chamber to pass this mud brick house proposal that kept open the door for environmental building that 35 years later was to become a way of life that is occurring throughout Australia to an ever-increasing degree. The 1980's recession has encouraged the State Governments to come to the aid of private mud brick home builders by providing loans and opportunity for the proliferating unemployed to become useful citizens once more.

Mud brick building inevitably leads to a new sense of emancipation that is now so necessary to encourage, to enable the status quo of society to survive. But against this opportunity there lurks an ever-present mundane design style enemy that attempts to force each designer to conform with suburban attitudes in a desperate desire to satisfy two irreconcilable modes of thought simultaneously. The inevitable result of this form of double take is to produce buildings that have no concept in their design. Those who develop them should, in all decency, acknowledge their limitations and retire from the activity forthwith. Middle-class society has long since forfeited the privilege of perpetuating itself upon other lifestyles in a World that is facing the imminent prospect of cataclysmic change.

The present World population explosion and the increasing articulation of semi-insolvent Third World Countries will not permit the playing of the old establishment games any longer. Commonsense and common humanity will inevitably overwhelm the rearguard actions of privilege and even the multi-nationals. As we watch the immediate position of quickly accelerating separation between affluence and poverty caused by technology supplanting people in the workforce, new values must needs emerge as the only alternative to chaos.

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