alistair knox : an integrated approach to landscape + architecture, chapter two : organic architecture

chapter two : organic architecture

Author: Clair Lee


Knox described his environmental building5 as a unification of structure and nature6. Much has been written about the relationship between architecture and the landscape. Charles Moore has identified 4 basic modes: merging, claiming, enfrontinq and surrounding7. These modes of relationship seldom appear in pure form, however, one mode usually predominates. Reuben M. Rainey uses a similar classification based on 3 modes of contrast, merger and reciprocity8. In both systems the merging relationship can be described as one where a building appears as an integral part of the landscape, with the form, materials and colouration often reflecting the site characteristics. Frank Lloyd Wright's work, especially Taliesin West, is often cited as a classic example of the merger mode9.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, 1937-1959, Scottsdale, Arizona Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, 1937-1959, Scottsdale, Arizona

Rainey asserts that the designer's mode of choice reflects their underlying convictions or values regarding the relationship of humans to the landscape, or 'nature':

... the view of nature that informs merger understands nature as a transcendent power that transforms human existence or evokes a sense of deep feeling states in the psyche. Or it can imply a rational, scientific attitude toward nature as a complex realm of processes that humans must respect and adapt to if they are to survive on this planet. In this sense, merger is emblematic of humanity's capacity for harmonious adjustment, or design with nature10.

If, as Rainey claims, the essence of design is the giving of form to values11 it is important to gain a greater understanding of the values that underpin the work of Knox.

Donlyn Lyndon describes what he terms the 'inhabited landscape' where 'the materials of building and of growing are used interchangeably and the intersections of professions is productive12'. This design strategy involves a 'commitment to the place and its potential and imagining ways of dwelling there13 a concept which was embodied in the work of Knox.

Frank Lloyd Wright Frank Lloyd Wright


Knox makes several references in his books to the American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. He praises the Guggenheim Museum in particular, as an example of the simultaneous conception of the interior and exterior of a building, something that he felt was lacking in the finished form of other significant architectural works, such as the Sydney Opera House.14. Through a selected study of writings by and about Wright the key concepts of his work are identified for reference to, or comparison with the work of Knox.

Wright referred to his work as 'organic architecture' that which appeared to grow from its site and was shaped to sympathize with the surroundings15. The three concepts that characterised his work are explained by Pfeiffer as:

  1. Appropriateness to place - building in harmony with the landscape, taking advantage of natural features, views and consideration for environmental factors.
  2. Appropriateness to time - making use of the materials and methods available at the time that it is designed; and the 'honest' use of these natural materials, ie, in accordance with their inherent characteristics.
  3. Appropriateness to man - a building should primarily serve the people occupying it. This was expressed in a freeing of internal space within buildings toward what has been termed 'open plan' so that "light, air and vista permeated the whole with a sense of unity"16.

Wright's work had an underlying democratic agenda. He was primarily a residential architect and the majority of these projects were for clients of moderate income. During the depression he developed a simplified version of pre-fabricated housing, termed 'Usonian', which he believed represented an American democratic ideal by providing affordable housing. His development of open planning as a freeing up of internal space and provision of increased natural light was also an expression of the human centred approach to design which characterised all of Wright's work17.

In his writings Wright also stressed the importance of the study of 'Nature' - "the only study for an architect or an artist or anybody that wants to create anything"18. Organic architecture could not be found in books but was:

  1. "a knowledge derived from nature, not only observation but constant association with the elements of nature- well these are the basics of an architectural education"19.

Christopher Vernon describes Wright's organic architecture as a 'mutual landscape design approach' that seeks to unite and equally consider the building and its surrounding landscape20. This was typically achieved in Wright's work via the extension of the house plan outwards to engage its larger surroundings, via the use of courtyards, pergolas, terraces, pools and outreaching walls. Other key elements of Wright's Prairie style houses were the use of the low-pitched roof, overhanging eaves, emphasis on horizontal lines, the central chimney, rows of small windows, one-storey projections and an open floor plan21. These elements provide a useful reference for comparison with the work of Knox.

Walter Burley Griffin 'Here was a strong, kindly man, a idealist who considered himself essentially practical ... an individualist, a misanthrope with a mystical Jove of democracy and the common man, a man beset by contradictions and motivated by a blazing conviction in the rightness and importance of his own work - in short, an artist.'

Robin Boyd referring to Walter Burley Griffin in a speech given to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 20th Oct, 1954.

Source: Birrell (1964)


The American architect and landscape architect, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony played an influential role in bringing the concept of organic architecture to Australia22. Griffin and Mahony23 had both worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago24. Prior to coming to Australia, Griffin's work as an architect and landscape architect had come to be 'characterised by a search for reverential harmony and community with nature25'. His designs responded to the prairie landscape of Chicago and followed in the organic architecture tradition of Wright.

Aspects of 'modern'26 architecture had begun to filter into Australian architectural practice early in the 20th century. Harriet Edquist's investigation of the work of Harold Desbrowe Annear, for e.g. in Victoria has highlighted his use of open planning as early as 190027 and by the time of Griffin's arrival in Australia, he had 'a number of good, simple houses to his credit28'. Annear's philosophy, as quoted by Birrell, appears aligned with Wright's:

"Architecture can exist in the cheapest buildings. ... Importation cannot help us; the ideas must be our own, born of our own necessities, our own climates, and our own methods of pursuing health and happiness"29.

In Griffin's domestic architecture, buildings were subordinated to the landscape, emphasising views, natural materials, open planning, central fireplaces, the capturing of sunlight through many small high windows, courtyards and numerous openings to the exterior30. Boyd claimed that the key to Griffin's version of organic architecture was his 'contrived contrasts: the spatial qualities of his work, expressed through contrasting small intimate spaces with the freedom of open planning, high ceilings and the connection to the outdoors31.

He describes Griffin's houses as a visual delight where:
The interplay of internal courtyard covered way, glazed hall and closed rooms 1n some; in others, the breaks in ceiling height, contrasting a cave-like sleeping bay that barely has head-room with a lofty living space.
The subdivision work in Castlecrag and Eaglemont carried out by Griffin was influential as a pioneering community development incorporating his democratic principles:
'curvilinear streets followed the contours of the site, so that views were obtained from each allotment, and internal reserves for safe community use, reflecting Griffin's social philosophy and the principles of the Garden City Movement32.

Griffin's work in Australia has been assessed by Robin Boyd, who claims his legacy is the way in which a rebel architect can influence the community through his built work, and the continued influence upon the next and future generations of designers through :
'his quality of thought, his radical approach free from the bonds of building 'habit' ... looking for new answers in which they could express themselves and this country33.
According to Boyd, Griffin's work was a great stimulus to the development of modern architectural thinking in Australia and 'an inspiration to every sincere and thoughtful student of the following years34.


It is important to consider the work of Wright and Griffin in relation to the development of an organic architectural expression in Australia, for the following reasons:

  1. Knox makes frequent reference to Griffin in his books and praises his work. He also refers to how, when faced with a building problem, he would 'think about how Wright would tackle it'35.
  2. The socio-political environment that defined the work of Wright and Griffin, characterized by post war shortages, developmental pressures, and the move to more democratic ideals, mirrored the period that Knox was operating in.
  3. Wright, Griffin and Knox all shared a deep spiritual connection with the landscape which they wrote extensively about and which informed their work.
  4. The work of Griffin and Wright reflected a concern for the appreciation and incorporation of indigenous landscape qualities into their design responses. Knox was also an influential force in relation to these issues.
  5. The environmental underpinnings of the work of Wright and Griffin can also be attributed to Knox.


  1. ' ... there is a hunger for Australian bush planting that is more than status or fashion. Even in the curb and channel syndrome, the mystery of the bush, with its light and colour, birds and atmosphere, is weaving its eternal spell.'
    Knox, We are what we stand on. p 86

The influence of the Griffins in Australia can also be identified in the development of an appreciation of the value of Australian plants, commencing in the early 20th century and becoming a strong force by the 1970s. Turnbull credits them 'as the originators of our contemporary regard for native landscapes as a cultural expression of national identity36. Residents of the Griffin subdivision in Castlecrag in Sydney, were encouraged to plant indigenous species37 and the Newman College garden in Melbourne was one of the first native gardens designed by a landscape architect in Australia38.

Edna Walling's work in the early 20th century was also influential, through her gardens, books and magazine articles in developing an Australian landscape aesthetic39. Her book, The Australian roadside, published in 1952, sought to engender an appreciation and protection of native roadside vegetation. Ellis Stones, who was involved in many Walling projects building 'natural-looking' features such as pools, rock outcrops, walls and steps, acknowledged the seminal influence she had on his work.

Around the time Knox was building in Eltham a number of highly popular books were published which greatly increased public awareness and acceptance of native vegetation, notably Designing Australian Bush Gardens by Betty Maloney and Jean Walker, published in 196640. Identifying features of this style of garden included:

  1. natural materials for construction
    use of native plants
    absence of manicured lawns and garden beds informal or 'natural' design and layout
    a 'reflection' , but not a direct copy of natural bushland41

The collaboration of Alistair Knox with Ellis Stones, Gordon Ford and Peter Glass, all proponents of this trend towards the use of native planting, resulted in his landscapes continuing this search for an appropriate Australian landscape expression at a time when there were increasing environmental concerns due to rapid post war development. These concerns are outlined in the following section.


Against the conservative climate of post-war Melbourne, local architect and writer, Robin Boyd's The Australian Ugliness, published in 1960 was a scathing critique of the 'failure of Australia to come to terms with herself42. Concerned with the plight of suburbia and the 'ugliness of the technological age43 of the 1950s, he coined such terms as 'arboraphobia' for a fear of native vegetation and 'Austerica'for the assimilation of American culture and consumerism into Australian society. Boyd was passionately concerned with fostering an environmental approach to design and a consideration for the understanding and expression of local identity through design. He became one of the leading proponents of the modernist architectural movement in Australia, his architecture 'emphasised creative design and simple building materials'.44 Boyd made a large contribution to the education of the general public about architecture through his weekly column in The Age between 1947 and 1953. Through this column he offered a Small Homes Service of inexpensive architect designed plans, and often featured articles about work by Alistair Knox, which stimulated much interest in environmental building.45

When Boyd's book was reissued seven years later he commented on a growing climate of criticism and satire in Australian society46. The Melbourne actor and comedian Barry Humphries contributed to this, with his creation of characters such as Edna Everage and Les Patterson, which criticised Australian 'cultural gaucheries'47 including suburbia. Awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Melbourne, the citation claims 'his work has made an immense contribution to this country's sense of itself and of Melbourne s place in the culture48.

As outlined by Latreille and Saniga,49, the contribution of Ellis Stones was also significant during this period in raising awareness of environmental issues. His letter to the Argus in August 1954, titled "Save our bushland" pleaded for a more responsible approach by local and state governments towards public open space, with particular reference to Chelsworth Park near the Yarra River in Ivanhoe, and concluded with the plea, 'Surely it is time we, as a nation, began to preserve rather than destroy50. Robin Boyd wrote an article in 1955 that reinforced this issue, claiming that the Heidelberg Council was 'using the river as a dumping ground'51. Stones' became very active from this time on regarding conservation issues through his lectures to many clubs, media interviews and in a regular column in the Australian Home Beautiful from 1970-7552, voicing his concerns to a wider audience.

Stones was also significantly involved in the beginnings of the landscape architecture profession, as detailed by Saniga53, where his overriding agenda, like that of Knox, was to gain a more powerful voice for the defense of landscape and planning issues.


'Artists have found an endless source of inspiration in the beautiful landscapes and the special charms of the area'54 since the late 19th century when Impressionist painters of the Heidelberg School began to visit. Walter Withers set up his studio at Chaterisville in Heidelberg in 1890, and this became a meeting place for the members of the Heidelberg School of artists, providing 'a focus for continuing the more progressive developments of 'plein air' painting in Melbourne'55. Visits to Eltham around this time were infrequent due to poor roads and transport facilities, however, the opening of the railway line from Heidelberg to Eltham in 1902, allowed residents to commute to Melbourne and enabled frequent sightseeing visits. This resulted in many artists, including Walter Withers, becoming permanent residents. In his writings Knox ponders the work of Withers and ' ... his continual striving to express in his paintings the character of his district with its subtle variations of light and colour56. Nearby artist communities in existed in Warrandyte, where the painter Penleigh Boyd established his studio in 191357, and later Heide in Bulleen, the home of John and Sunday Reed, became 'an idyllic refuge of inspiration for artists and intellectuals' from 1935 to the 1950s, 'most notably the leading exponents of Australian modernism, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester58. The Eltham region attracted people seeking a refuge from the confines of the city and the conservative art establishment59.

The tradition of earth building in Eltham has also contributed to the alternative character of the area. In his publication, Mud and man (1992), Ted Howard provides a history of the earth building movement in Australia60. Some earth construction had occurred in Eltham prior to the 1930s61. In 1935, Justus Jorgensen, an artist and philosopher, began building the Montsalvat artists' colony in stone from a local quarry and pise de terre, a material he 'had gained some experience with in France'62. The Skipper family, who Knox later came to know very well through Matcham Skipper63, were closely involved in the building and artistic pursuits of this colony and lived there for some time64. It was Sonia Skipper who first taught Knox how to make mud bricks, and she worked on a number of Knox's projects, Knox praising her artistic input65. The recent publication of Sonia's memoirs provides a useful insight to the role of Montsalvat in establishing a strong precedent for alternative approaches to community and building in Eltham. Skipper comments on the difference between the approaches of Jorgensen and Knox to environmental building:

  1. '[Knox's] houses were to please the people and suit their lifestyles. At Montsalvat, Jorgy's interest had been purely aesthetic - he didn't care what went on inside a building as long as the proportions were right and it fitted into his overall scheme'66.

The strong artistic presence and alternative building traditions of Eltham produced a unique and dynamic community of people who have made a strong contribution to art. landscape architecture and environmental design in Australia. Alistair Knox was a key figure within this arena, whose building projects brought together a wide range of people from different sections of the Eltham community. with varied combinations of painters, sculptors, landscapers. filmmakers and actors making up his workforce. The fact that he worked with such an inspired group of people, some of whom have since become well renowned in their fields of interest, only enhanced the outcome of the work they carried out.

Cover page of Sonia Skipper's memoirs Cover page of Sonia Skipper's memoirs

5 Knox. Alternative Housing, p.106.
6 ibid, p.13
7 Moore, The Place of Houses pp.188-9
8 Rainey 'Architecture and landscape', in Places p.4
9 ibid, p5
10 ibid, p4
11 Rainey, ibid, p6
12 Lyndon, The configured landscape', in Places, p7
13 Lyndon, ibid, p7
14 Knox, Living in the environment, pp 48-49.
15 Pfeiffer, Frank Lloyd Wright, p 8. Quoted from Wright's public address in 1894 The term 'organic originally used by Louis Sullivan, the founder of the Prairie School of architecture, originating in Chicago in the 1890s, of which Wright and Walter Burley Griffin were a part.
16 Olga Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, p37.
18 Olga Wright. p 25
19 Kauffman (ed)Frank Lloyd Wright, 1953 , p261
20 Vernon, Christopher. 'Building for nature', in Beyond architecture. 1998,p.88
21 Compiled with reference to, accessed 20/10/2005
22 Vernon, 'A legitimate art distinctive of Australia' in Landscape Review, 3/1997, pp2-27 This article talks about the transference and transformation of Griffin's ideas into Australia.
23 Though his wife undoubtedly played a significant role in the Griffin design practice, for the sake of clarity, I will refer only to the work of Walter Burley Griffin or the 'Griffins' in this research.
24 Griffin, as Landscape Architect from 1901-1906
25 Vernon, 1997, p4
26 Boyd, 1955, explains that there were 2 main schools of modern architectural thinking early in the 20th century: the International Style, originated in Europe by Walter Gropius, Adolf Loos and others; and the American school, originated in Chicago by Louis Sullivan and developed by Frank Lloyd Wright and others, including Walter Burley Griffin.
27 Edquist, p.xi
28 Boyd, 1955, p106
29 Birrell. Walter Burley Griffin, p7
30 Avalon: landscape and harmony, pp40-46, inc. a very detailed account of a house designed by Griffin. Tong. Alex Ideas in space and texture, in Building for Nature University of Melbourne Student Work. Provides plans and description of the house in Eaglemont. designed by Griffin for Mervyn Skipper and family which is notable for 'its arrangement of pavilions' creating a central courtyard.
31 Boyd (1955) p110
32 Francisca Jackson and Meredith Dobbie. 'Griffin's visionary estates, in Landscape Australia 4/1999, pp 304-8
33 Boyd op cit(1955). p114
34 ibid,p114.
35 Knox Alternate housing, p94
36 Turnbull, Jeff, in The Griffins in Australia and India p xvii.
37 Oxford dictionary of Australian gardens, p119.
38 ibid. p275.
39 ibid. p 626
40 Ibid p.119 entry for 'Bush Gardens'
41 List compiled with reference to Oxford Dictionary of Australian gardens. p.119
42 Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, p4.
43 ibid, p12
44, accessed 20111105
45 Knox, Living in the environment, p33. Knox would provide Boyd with the material for the articles.
46 Boyd.op cit, 1960, p14.
47, accessed 21111/05
48 ibid, p1.
49 Latreille, The Natural Garden, Ch.10, pp105-130.
Saniga, An uneasy profession, 2004, pp197-211.
50 Stones' letter is reproduced in Latreille, ibid, pp108-9.
51 ibid, p110
52 ibid, p 109
53 Saniga, loc cit.
54 Brian McKinlay, Diamond Valley Sketchbook , Rigby, 1973, p40
55 Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw, Golden summers, p172
56 Francesconi, The shire of Eltham: a perspective. 1981, p17.
Knox, Living in the environment, pp1-2. Withers lived in Eltham until his death in 1914.
57 Rymer, Imaginary nature, 1998 p48. (Theodore) Penleigh Boyd was the father of architect Robin Boyd and artist Arthur Boyd, who later lived at Heide.
58, accessed 20/11/05
59 Rymer, op cit, p.48.
60 Howard, Mud and man, p101. He credits Alistair Knox as introducing a modernist approach to earth building and praises his innovative building techniques, use of curved forms and materials. He sees Knox's chief contribution as being his "emphasis on the harmonious integration of the house with the landscape."
61 Skipper, My Story, P 74. Claims that Jorgensen had noticed these early earth buildings:' they passed one every evening on the way to the hotel - it was later pulled down. So we discovered that Eltham was good for mud building.
62 Knox, Living in the environment, p1. Skipper, op cit, p62. Jorgensen bought the land in Eltham with financial help from Mervyn Skipper, Matcham and Sonia Skipper's father.
63 Knox, ibid, p 9. Knox met Matcham whilst attending night classes at RMIT in 'Building Practice and Theory'. Skipper p.160 The artists, Matcham Skipper and Myra Gould, had a studio-workshop for a time in a house in Latrobe Street, Melbourne, which became a 'Mecca for the artists and students who were mooching about trying to find their feet after the six unsettling years of war.' Alistair Knox was one of the 'lively people' who ~athered at this studio, which was 'a// talk and discussion and throwing new ideas about.'
64 The Skippers had lived for a time in Eaglemont in a house designed by Walter Burley Griffin. 65 Knox, Living in the environment, p.10.
56 Skipper, My story, p165

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