We Are What We Stand On, Justus Jorgensen and Montsalvat

Justus Jorgensen and Montsalvat

Author: Alistair Knox

Creative communities develop creative lifestyles in the same way that affluent communities generate dreary ones. Life has to be lived and the affluent spend much time protecting themselves from such a contingency. The middle class society consists of those who want to have everything the same as everyone else. They choose anonymity, diversion and self-indulgence instead of danger, risk and an outgoing enthusiasm. In some parts of the eastern suburbia of Melbourne, you can judge a man's income by the height of his front fence. Such people exclude more and more of their neighbours, until they end up as one of an isolated group of about six families who can fraternize with each other and with no one else.

The specialisation of the business world feeds on a specialised education. During the past decade we have become half-conscious of an increasing number of professors and lecturers who are living in a state of concealment from the on-going society. The subjects they are teaching become more and more irrelevant to the world at large. They meditate in the silent ivory halls of their minds, debating whether to be bold and seek the golden handshake, or hang on hoping the final crash will not come until after they have retired.

The new system of education is opposed to learning for its own sake. It sets out to confront the challenge of the broader society, while the capacities of head, heart and hand are still strongly united and resilient. It is involved in community action and related skills that make for survival in our confused world. One has only to recollect that the United States of America has used up more of the earth's natural resources in the past 30 years than all the world has used up between it since time began, in order to realise that the hour is close to midnight. There is little doubt that the system will either break down under its own weight, or be maintained by some form of totalitarianism.

Such considerations provide concrete reasons for us to ensure that activities like mud brick building are never supplanted or eradicated by more technological systems of construction while democratic processes survive. The continual stream of inquiries that reach our office every day, is just one sign of how many see this fact and are seeking an alternative.

When I began to design and build in earth just after the 1939-45 War, it was the prerogative of a small eccentric group of people. As no bank would lend on earth construction, it was necessary to finance the building from private funds, or build it yourself, and so save as much of the capital outlay as possible. The simple explanation for Eltham becoming the centre for the mud brick movement, was that it was the only community that had a sufficient number of people who believed in it and who would live in such buildings.

Our national parochial bubble had not yet been pricked while the rest of the developed world was struggling to extricate itself from the slime and carnage of the preceding years of war that had ended with the atomic bombing of Japan. Nothing could ever be the same again, but Australia was so remote from what had transpired that it remained singularly untouched by it all. The new dimensions that had opened were beyond the capacity of our isolated continent to comprehend for another 10 years.

It was post-war shortages that caused me to start to build in earth. I was stimulated by what I saw at the Artists' Colony in Eltham, which had under the direction of Justus Jorgensen, been building in pise-de-terre and mud brick since 1936.

My first journey to the colony was made with architect, Frederick Romberg, in 1940. We both lived on the east side of Lower Heidelberg Road in Eaglemont adjacent to the big cutting. The War had started and private motoring for all practical purposes no longer existed. We rode to Eltham on bicycles along Banyule Road. It was a rough meandering track that wound over the wide undulating Lower Plenty savannah landscape. Primeval redgums of enormous size and antiquity took us back into the ageless past. The land was as silent and untouched as it had been when Batman arrived to make a deal with the Yarra Yarra aboriginals at a point close to where the Plenty River flows into the Yarra, to divide the present City of Heidelberg from the Shire of Eltham.

Our first glimpse of the Artists' Colony was almost unbelievable. As we entered the front gateway at the corner of Metary Road and New Street (now called Lavender Park Road), we could see a warm coloured stone medieval hall of great dimensions about 300 yards away. The bluestone tower had not yet been built. There was a considerable smattering of young bush and some well-established trees in the paddock between us and the buildings. No doors or glazing had been built into the hall. When we looked in and saw the main roof some 40 feet above us, we both whistled quietly in surprise and wonder. The intermediate floors had not yet subdivided its internal spaces. Skylights in the valleys of the roof let reflected light into its highest level to accentuate its spatial power and verticality.

After some time, our presence was noticed, and we were duly escorted into the dining room where we met the Master himself. I had heard of him for some years. The inhabitants of Heidelberg and other adjacent parts of Melbourne related exaggerated stories about the Colony, of which they were generally ignorant. These inferred that immorality must be rampant in that faraway Bluebeard stronghold. Many of these tales had an odd twist to them.

Frederick and I found Justus Jorgensen (who was called Jorgie by everyone who knew him) was a stimulating speaker. I can recollect how his glasses reflected the light and stopped me getting a proper look at what was going on in his mind behind those lenses that seemed to shield him from the outside -world. He explained how his pupils had come with him from the workaday circumstance to share in the adventurous life he advocated. I already knew that one of his ideas of adventure was to have his wife Dr. Lily Jorgensen and his beautiful young mistress Helen Skipper domiciled under the one roof. Helen was to have two children by him, Sebastian and Sigmund.

Until the recent outbreak of war, Australia had been suffering the effects of the Great Depression. It was an ideal time for him to start up his vision to produce 'Montsalvat' and the new life away from the dreary inhibitions and limitations of a depressed middle class society. Jorgie drew a cross section of people, including some who were rich and talented to be his disciples. For some years, more than thirty of them lived together in the Colony and spent their days building their romantic shelters. Every new day was a day of new delights and practical freedom.

None of the students were paid and many contributed funds. At first they lived in tents and all worked with united joy and inspiration. His mistress, Helen Skipper, who was the elder daughter of Mervyn and Lena Skipper, with her younger sister Sonia and brother Matcham, formed with the Jorgensens the original nucleus of the Colony.

In those days to live adventurously meant to step out of the middle class conventions of marriage and a secure superannuated job. Jorgensen's stipulation was that there was a great big world outside, but if you came into his little world you did so· on his terms. His benevolent despotism was simultaneously loved and hated by his pupils. He managed to divide and rule with consummate skill.

On many occasions I have sat at the great table in the dining hall on a Saturday or Sunday night to hear him preface a discussion with the remark, 'If perchance a young man had a loverlike relationship with a young woman'. He would then proceed with oblique illusions to the principals of this 'loverlike' relationship who would also be sitting at the table. Inevitably, arguments would take place.

Jorgie always sat at the head of the board and could see the faces crowded along each side, but they could conveniently see only him. He would make all the side rules and was appealed to on all points of philosophy, until the effects of the fairly aggressive red wine started to take over. Nothing was ever solved or very much changed at these dinners. In those young and heady days we would all line up for another joust the next weekend. It kept us together.

My close association with the Colony really began in 1946 when I attended the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to do Building Construction, Theory and Practice at night classes. It was there that I met Matcham Skipper who was also doing the same year.

At supper afterwards lengthy arguments would ensue about brick bonding roof trusses, stone buildings and the Gothic Style versus Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. It was the somewhat grown up student enthusiasm that developed as the war ended. For the first time in our lives new and exciting prospects lay ahead of the hitherto stifled society we endured, rather than lived in.

My own life was in confusion. My first marriage had been broken by the war and its consequences. I was 33 years old and still incarcerated in my prewar job in a bank. I had to struggle for three years to get out while I still made reasonable financial provision for the children of that 'first marriage. I was unable to take the plunge earlier because of the impossibility of obtaining steady supplies of building materials and labour. I did, however, manage to erect two houses in Heidelberg before the building famine set in in earnest. It was then that I decided to build in mud bricks in Eltham, because it was the only possible way of getting a building off the ground.

There was a client waiting to build, and this, coupled with the fact that Matcham Skipper's sister Sonia was both willing and capable to join us in the building and take over the general supervision of this project, was what eventually started it off. Some earth buildings had been undertaken in Eltham before this time, but this was the first occasion that an application to build in mud bricks had come before dispassionate Council employees for approval.

Jorgensen had obtained permission from the gentlemanly Shire Secretary, who conducted some of his duties for the Shire in his own home in Bridge Street. He accepted a plan and issued a permit because it was a building with a floor plan of not less than 600 sq. ft. He wisely left the pros and cons of earth construction to Jorgensen, correctly assessing that he knew what he was doing. The standard fee for a building permit in those quiet days was five shillings. It is an interesting experience to wander around the Montsalvat building complex which was valued at $3,000,000 when Jorgensen died in 1975, to realise that the building fee for the combined structure today could have been in excess of $10,000.

The problem of obtaining the first official permit to build in mud bricks has been related in the Eltham Shire's Centenary publication, 'Pioneers and Painters'. I have also referred to it in my own book, 'Living in the Environment', but as this present story concerns the historical and social factors that created the Eltham lifestyle, it is necessary to briefly recount the facts once more. I lodged plans and an application to build Frank English's house in mud bricks. His site was located on the Lower Plenty hill that overlooks the Eltham valley and the further panorama of the Dandenongs and the Healesville and Warburton ranges.

It was before a permanent Building Surveyor had been appointed in Eltham. The Secretary who had issued permits had recently retired and the Council decided to make a full-time appointment. A temporary part-time engineer was acting as a stop gap. He attended Eltham every Thursday and I would call to find out how my application was progressing. It wasn't. A couple of months went by and I was still being put off, so I commenced building without waiting for him. I then became apprehensive that he had no intention of approving the proposal at all, but was merely waiting for the permanent appointment to be made to make the rejection official.

John Harcourt, who had among other things been a journalist, novelist, and pearler, and had built several earth structures in the district also warned me that I had been ill-advised to start without official approval. During the early post-war years the Government was examining new building methods at the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station in Sydney. Their Field Officer, Mr. C. Middleton, visited Eltham and saw Jorgensen, Harcourt and myself. He told me he was preparing some pamphlets on earth building. By a coincidence, I discovered these would become available in Melbourne the very day that the local Council was to hold its monthly meeting, at which it was probable that my application would be considered and rejected. This would be disastrous because my enthusiasm born of inexperience had allowed the walls to rise to five feet in height and a lot of other work had also been done.

I had half-hoped that no one would worry about a small inoffensive structure set deep in the eucalypts and the silent sunlight of that beautiful elevated position. My plight caused me to catch one of three trains that left Eltham for Melbourne between eight o'clock and midday. The pamphlets were still in their wrappings when I reached the city and I purchased all six of them. I made my way back on the train that reached Eltham at 2 o'clock.

As I passed the old Shire Office, I saw five of the six local Councillors looking over the Main Road at the five or six shops that comprised the township at that period. They had just luncheoned at the nearby hotel. I seized opportunity by the for~lock and approached to offer them a copy of the pamphlet to support my application. I heard Councillor Staff, who owned the verandahed Grocery and General Store on the opposite side of the road, announcing in sepulchral tones that pise buildings were all right. His daughter lived in one but he wouldn't have anything to do with those mud brick buildings. I immediately stepped up and prof erred a copy to each of them. They grabbed them eagerly and went inside. The Shire President, who was already back in the building, hurried back to get his copy as well. The result was that they approved the application. The temporary Engineer who went over the building with Sonia Skipper a few days later seemed to be the only one who was a little disappointed.

It was the great lesson I learnt about the need to conform to building regulations. From that time on, variations to drawings were either well concealed or avoided altogether. It should be noted that when George Newton was appointed Building Surveyor under John McDonald, the Engineer and official Building Surveyor, the Shire made a fortunate choice.

Together they adopted a practical common-sense approach to the innovative building proposals that were let loose after the official approach to build in mud bricks. It was one of the major reasons for the district becoming different from all other municipalities in Melbourne. It immediately developed 'style' that drew many interesting personalities who have formed its subsequent history and attitudes. We will look at some of these people and their ideas in this book.

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