Living in the Environment, The First Building

The First Building

Author: Alistair Knox

I recently received a call from a client asking me to design an extension on to their house. It was the first building I designed and built in 1946 a year before I started building in earth. The property was located in Heidelberg near the Yarra River, and was an allotment in a series of subdivisions that Walter Burley Griffin, the famous American architect, had planned twenty years earlier. These developments remain the high point of residential suhdivision that has occurred in Victoria before or since.

As I drove up the curving road that led to the house, it turned into a nostalgic journey. When it was built it stood in relative isolation in an open paddock with a few large river red gums standing here and there. It was possible to see over the slight rise on which the original 'Glennard' homestead stood, and look down into the Yarra Valley helow. Now the whole landscape was full of houses and heavily treed gardens, but there was still much that remained the same.

The optimism of those immediate post war years however has given way to confusion and pessimism whether we have any future at all. The curving roads that created subtle reserves and miniature parks had maintained the spirit of Griffin, the Master landscaper's plan, in all its power and character. The house itself was unchanged except that many years earlier an awkward looking carport had been added to it. Two great river red gums had been built into the concept of the building, despite the knowledge that their limbs were brittle and carrotty and take a special delight in crashing to the ground on still frosty nights. The trees had been adequately trimmed and were as solid and as satisfactory as when we left them.

When I designed this first house I was still struggling to escape from the bank and my appearances at the office were minimal. The rather inadequate pay acted as a partial means of support while I covered all the blotting paper with house designs. I was associated with a group of artists who like everyone else had had their careers arrested by the war, and who' now found a generous government was willing to support them in a modest way while they studied at the National Gallery. There seemed to be only a few shillings between them and penury. It was a long way from the colossal prices their paintings now fetch which has enabled Sid Nolan to present $1,000,000 worth of them to the Australian National Gallery and Arthur Boyd $2,000,000 worth.

Back in 1949 when Arthur announced he was going to give up pottery and go full time painting and live on $10 per week, we warned him darkly that even to do that would mean two exhibitions a year which would be one too many.

They had a meeting place in the week day afternoons at a little coffee lounge called Ristie's. Between three-thirty and five one would find most of the group meditating over a shilling cup of coffee. The group included Sid Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, David Boyd, Neil Douglas, Matcham Skipper, Albert Tucker and several others who are now household names in the post-war Australian painting scene. I decided to try and recruit some labour from this group. Wyn Roberts the actor, David Boyd and John Yule, both painters, were the first to volunteer, followed by the sculptor Matcham Skipper and one or two others.

I had purchased an ancient Chevrolet utility for cartage, because reasonable cars were at that time practically non-existent and extremely expensive. As there were no bricks available, I decided on stone for the great fire place and a series of low retaining walls. It never occurred to us that masonry was a special trade because we all felt we could build in stone with some creativity.

John Yule, a young painter who was staying at our house a short distance away, started on some of the retaining walls. David Boyd was entrusted with building the fire place because he was a potter and had built kilns. I provided sketches for him as to how openings and flues for the chimney should go, and then left with a sad heart to work in the city.

There was a great, green, Leyland bus that plied along Lower Heidelberg Road which most of the local residents caught, rather than walk more than a mile to either the Heidelberg or the Eaglemont railway stations. Its times were rather irregular because it was consistently overloaded, and the timetable restricted because it competed with the government transport. The bus stop was on the other side of the paddock to where the house was to be erected. As soon as it came into view it was necessary to run flat out to the bus stop just in time to leap aboard as the last of the waiting queue moved into it.

It set off for the 'cutting' which was a long deep excavation driven through the steep hill called Mont Eagle about a quarter of a mile away. The last glimpse I had of the house site was of David and John driving quietly back to it in the old Chevrolet utility. Below them lay the river with the Lower Plenty ranges in the distance. In the nearer reaches the whole valley at this time was virtually untouched. The twin peaks of Mount Dandenong rose fifteen miles to the east as blue and as mysterious as they had been from time immemorial.

The valley has a sense of light and colour that always caused a twinge of sadness as one left it. On this day a fine glistening sunlight after a light frost, and the smell of early spring in the air made leaving almost unbearable.

The one advantage of the bank was its early hours. I could often get home by 4 p.m. That afternoon I jumped off the bus and hurried to the huilding site hoping that there would have been an adequate start made on the works. I noticed some of my sketches on white paper blowing over the paddock, and when I arrived at the site David indicated a few desultory stones he had cemented together which bore only the remotest relationship to what had been intended. I spoke to him about this, trying not to sound overbearing or unreasonable. Why hadn't he followed the plans? What had happened?

David was about twenty years old. He had a dark Byronic beauty, a subtle arrogance, and a deep reverberent voice. He was an impressive figure. Looking out over the landscape rather than at me, he said with a touch of melancholy derision, 'Rather formal, don't you think?' That was all, but it was enough. He would be assigned to other work.

I approached Matcham Skipper to do the stonework. He was used to it, having been employed on the great hall they were erecting at Montsalvat. I persuaded him to build the stone chimney which was ten or twelve feet wide and some eighteen feet high. The work was to be done in uncoursed random rubble sandstone from the nearby Warrandyte quarry and so the work began.

Coming back to it half a life and a whole career later, it was fascinating to see that what had been produced in those old days was still very good. There were the square flagged terraces that became one of our major floor systems, the random stonework, the verandahs, the trees and the integration with the landscape. The building had withstood the test of time very well. The only major changes were in the ceilings and the wall linings. I think it was the only time that I did not cause the ceilings to follow the roof pitch. In addition, we had used plastered walls and it was still two houses before the time of the concrete slab floors we started in 1947.

Matcham Skipper's chimney proceeded steadily as the carpentry, which was in the hands of a tradesman, took shape. I built the inner hearth formed strictly in conformity with standard practice. It was indeed 'a bit formal' compared with the main stonework. When we started on the recent addition, I recollected that the sides of the original fireplace sloped inwards nearly twelve inches. We had to do a bit of reconciliation but it was a happy detail and resolved well. In the meantime we all admired John Yule's work with stone. It wasn't straight or plumb either, but that was not important because the walls were only three feet high. It had its own character. Both Matcham and Wyn Roberts, who also built a chimney in the second house next door, agreed that his work was best, but they were equally certain that he also had pinched the best of the stone.

As the original house neared completion the supply of materials became even more scrace. In the end we gave up and Noel and Bobbie Bryning, the cheerful and long suffering owners, moved in. I remember that they waited six months for half a dozen flush panelled doors. In the meantime, I copied what Griffin had done in three or four small Kintlock houses he had built in the district. He set three twelve inch by one inch oregon planks so that they overlapped each other, and fixed them together by nailing three inch by one and a half inch pieces across as rails. Flap hinges were used to hang them, and had it not been that the timber was not fully dry and that they shrank after a time, they would still be in service.

The uncertainty of supplies and labour stopped me from getting into the design field full time for a further two years. In the meantime, more and more bank blotting paper was used up. It was frustrating waiting and doing only one or two buildings. On the other hand, had it not been for the shortages I may never have become so intimately involved in mud brick and other natural building media, nor in the search for an indigenous style.

When the first house was completed John Yule decided to seek a job as a stone mason; not realising that between his elegant work and the hard and skilled ancient trade there was a great gulf through which a man could pass only after a long apprenticeship. An advertisement in the daily press invited stone masons to report to Mount Kosciusko for a job on a stone building for the government, near the top of the continent's highest mountain. Fares would be paid by the advertiser. In those times it took two or three days to get there. When John reported for work he was put on the scaffold and set to work under the narrowed eyes of the mason in charge. 'I don't like the way you're laying that stone', he was promptly told. Within minutes he was informed that he was not the man for the job. But good money had been expended getting him there and they were short of manpower, so it was proposed he become a labourer for them. The pay was good and the air was bracing. A bargain was struck. John had a good eye. He could quickly locate the best stones for the particular work and he soon became an integral part of the team. He must have been an interesting figure, dressed in shorts that exposed his elegant legs, as he rolled the appropriate stones onto the scaffold.

It would have been hard to find a more widely separated group. The old stone masons with their broken knuckles and a lifetime of disciplined labour, and John with his artistic and academic background, finding common ground in that faraway place. John wrote and told me how it was all going.

'It's hard to realise that I am off to work at seven in the morning with these ancients, singing as they go like Walt Disney's seven dwarfs'.

They had also paid him the compliment of telling him he was the highest paid and the best labourer they ever had.

Before he started building he was accustomed to rising about eleven for coffee and rolls. Those were good days. The tempo was slower, the horizon wider, hope was unlimited, and there was faith in the future. Twenty-seven years have changed all that ...

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