Living in the Environment, The Earth Building Movement

The Earth Building Movement

Author: Alistair Knox

One of Justus Jorgensen's many contributions to the Eltham society in particular, and to Melbourne in general, was his ability to produce inspired craftsmen and women. He was able to open his pupils' minds to new possibilities and concepts. Like all imaginative builders, he was a great improvisor, who saw value in materials that were only junk to his contemporaries. All the Skipper children were like this. Sonia's special skills were stone carving and mud brick building, which included an ability to pave floors, render earth walls and finish off each building with a quality that has never been surpassed.

She would appear on the job in the morning with limil powdered colour, cow dung and other materials ranging from white cement to stale beer, and leave in the afternoon with a prodigious quantity of timeless finishes behind her. She could do more in a shorter time than anyone else I ever saw.

I asked her if she would take control of a small mud brick building I proposed to erect in the district. She agreed and we looked around for people to make and lay the mud bricks and do the necessary carpentering work. Few who were really prepared to do consistent physical work in those post-war years wanted to work on such a crazy idea as building in mud. For this reason, only a small group could be coerced into appearing on the building site. The rates of pay were not conducive to ambitious journeymen but the work had a certain fascination for that section of our society who had artistic or informal attitudes and who deplored consistent days and hours.

Mud bricks were made on contract rates which tended to create an area of tension between the makers and the payers. Rain damage produced arguments as to what was a usable brick and what' was not. Most of the building sites in the sleepy Eltham landscape were clearings among the secondary growth and stringybark bush. Our first building site was on the top of the Lower Plenty Hill. It looked down into the valley where the Eltham township lay hidden, and far away to the east were the Dandenong Ranges; the Yarra Valley lay between.

The first mud brick building, 1947. <b>Left to Right</b>: L.Mayfield, carpenter; Sonia Skipper; Alistair Knox; Tony Jackson; Gordon Ford The first mud brick building, 1947. Left to Right: L.Mayfield, carpenter; Sonia Skipper; Alistair Knox; Tony Jackson; Gordon Ford"

One worker erected a tent, ostensibly to camp in, that he might start early each morning. In fact, it became a place where all could rest during the day to recover from the effects of hilarious nights spent elsewhere. The one thing that seldom happened was to find them working before 10 a.m.

Progress was slow, but eventually some walls rose to about three feet in height. It was at this stage that I became apprehensive about failing to obtain a building permit. Had it not been for the fortuitous circumstances referred to earlier, it may be that no modem mud brick building would have happened in Australia, and the environmental building movement could have remained a semi and suburban sham.

It was not a particularly easy door to open. The traditions begun by Batman and the aboriginals still persisted in the commercially minded State of Victoria. The banks, of course, refused to lend money on mud huts in the bush. It was brick veneers in the suburbs that set their blood streams tingling with well being at that time.

For some ten years I worked on a variety of new media and ideas, manipulating councils and Building Inspectors, persuading clients, and solving structural problems. All the time the bush was weaving its indefinable spell over me; I became hypnotised by its eternal qualities - its truth and purity, nostalgia and longing; its sense of wonder and mystery and awe.

Others who borrowed from my ideas started making money and becoming famous. All I was known for was being an originator who was prepared to risk a respectable reputation for environmental ideas - a well intentioned eccentric without too much business sense. During those early days I produced concrete slab construction practice and principle in domestic building, the standards for adobe building, the beamed and timbered ceilings and the reclaimed handmade brick walls, the use of adzed timbers in structure, and pioneer furniture in heavy Australian hardwoods.

In planning I developed the principle of indivisibility of house and land, the sense of inevitability in proportion and form in the building, and the cool of the cave in the intense Australian sunlight. All the buildings were lit by clerestory lighting to create that aura of light and colour, the ethos of the Australian bush. I drew my inspiration from the two greatest architects Australia has knownFrancis Greenway and Walter Burley Griffin. Both were foreigners, and both, I believe, were artists whose inspiration was set on fire by the same unique qualities of our timeless landscape.

They were essentially environmental planners, as their work continually expresses. They understood the power and universality of the Australian sun to which they gave homage in the pattern and flow of their brick work and design, and in their buildings generally. These continually express the interplay of sunlight and shadow. Both were in essence broad landscape architects of the style and power of England's famous 18th century landscape creators. The relationship of Greenway's St. Matthew's Church with its monumental tower, built on an escarpment at the ancient town of Windsor, and the verticality of the Blue Mountains some six miles away across the Hawkesbury River, is a tour de force of environmental planning that makes it the greatest building conceived in Australia. He achieved a total relationship between the structure and the landscape.

Griffin resided in Australia during the jazz age of the 20s and many failed to understand the purposes behind his patterned buildings at that time. His unerring sense of proportion and his rediscovery of the sense of the cave in the Australian landscape have outlasted his critics. His major work, Canberra, with its vi~ion of lakes and horizontal space, took fifty years to materialise. As the prejudice and smallness of mind that infects conforming Australians relaxed, a true visual city emerged. Today Canberra stands as probably the best physical, man-created city the world knows. If it were situated in Siberia or Africa or any other foreign country, every Australian planner would be praising it and criticising everyone who was not doing likewise. As it is, we continue to rubbish it because we have become too self conscious to believe we can be first in anything. It has serious psychological limitations that cause living in it to be a very different experience from looking at it. As a nation we need to recapture the spirit of Joseph Furphy, who claimed he was 'offensively Australian'.

My first client in Eltham, who was a gentle returned soldier, once visited the building site at the weekend, and the men were supposed to be working. They heard him talking excitedly as he emerged out of the surrounding bush and leapt from their couches to sneak out of the other side of the tent. John Yule, who was working for me again, grabbed a frying pan and retreated to the edge of the clearing and pretended to be digging furiously with it. It was a crazy scene. Anyway, the owner got his own back in the end. 'It's no good, Alistair', he said, 'the boys didn't work - I won't pay', and he didn't, despite his gentle character - I did.

The ways of the innovator were never easy. In those loquacious days they were very hard indeed. The price of that eight square house started at a mere $1200. Price rises lifted it to $1600, so I lost about $400 on the deal, despite the fact that it was supposed to be a plus cost job.

The Busst house was a more ambitious project and it has stood the test of time very well. I have now returned to doing many of the things that started there in those days of beginnings. Phyl Busst was an amateur artist who had been a member of the Jorgensen Artists' Colony. She wanted to build a house for herself with a large room to paint and sleep in, and another large room for general living, and the usual facilities of a bathroom and utilities. In those days the maximum sized house that could be built without a special permit was 1200 square feet. The Busst house was considerably in excess of that dimension.

The site was steeply sloping and I designed the building so that it was entered from an intermediate level. One side ascended to the bedroom studio, the other descended to the general living areas. The building demonstrated the plasticity of mud brick building, and the thickness of the earth walls gave a sense of security. The bifurcated shape allowed access to the roof of the livingroom wing from the studio. The house was welded into the hillside so that every room had access to the outside at ground level, in addition to the studio balcony over the livingroom.

 The Busst house, built 1947. Above top: The Busst house, built 1947. Above bottom: Entering at the intermediate level

It was here that I started to use concrete slab construction. There were no regulations in those' days for slabs because there wasn't any slab work being done. It was also before the days of mobile concrete-mixers. In this case two men mixed the whole slab by hand in a single day, a fifty-two bag job, which meant some ten tons of screenings and about seven tons of sand. They scorned a mixer. Men were still able to work physically at that time, especially as the chief worker of this project was Horrie Judd, the famous strongman of the mud brick. His legendary physical feats in the adobe scene have been the wonder and admiration of a generation in the Eltham district. Today, at the age of 65, he is building the bluestone chapel at the Artists' Colony almost unaided. His assistant was Gordon Ford, who is now a well-known landscape architect.

All houses in that period were built on a cost plus basis which was an unsatisfactory arrangement as prices rose quickly and the starting estimates and the finishing price were fairly well seperated. As in the other two or three buildings I undertook at this time, there was a conflict over costs near the end. In this house, the owner, Miss Busst (pronounced 'Bewst') and I went to settle a final figure at her lawyer's office. Every time he addressed her to confirm a point, he said 'Is that all right with you, Miss Bust' (pronounced as spelt), in strident yet sepulchral tones, as if she had taken leave of her senses building an earth building costing $3000, in the bush fifteen miles from Melbourne. This building, together with another known as the 'Periwinkle' because of its shell-like shape, became landmarks in the immediate post war planning era. Both stand in perfect serenity twenty-five years later. The methods then have gone the full circle and have come back to prominent respectability today.

The Busst house. The lower living room The Busst house. The lower living room

The men who worked on them have since become celebrated in a wide variety of fields, such as film directors, artists, landscape architects and actors. Practically no one who worked the mud brick scene ever really returned to indoor work again. The women of Eltham were often the mud brick makers while their husbands and boy friends poured footings, built window frames and laid the finished products. Some of the men grew exhausted, but those females who started squeezing the Eltham clay soil into the mud brick moulds blossomed into a new beauty. They became suntanned as they worked, stripped to a minimum of clothing and mostly in bare feet - far in advance of their daughters of the 60s. Their bodies became graceful and their eyes shone with health because they were inwardly fulfilled and full of joy. They alone were beating the system and the black market by discovering this new emancipating way of life.

The sound of the hammer and the song of the mud brick maker filled the Eltham valley with an alternative approach to living that it has never lost. It is becoming a major way of life twenty-five years later. There is every evidence that we are watching the beginning of a plague of mud brick building throughout the State of Victoria. The whole district took on a mud brick psychology. A unique community emerged. Mud bricks were the main topic of conversation amongst a large number of its people during those golden years 1947-1950.

Saturday at midday, it was traditional to call into the Eltham Hotel and sit in the garden outside to swap the news of the week. Here again the mud brick united us into one. Sometimes as many as forty people gathered into a circle around the old trees. This was also the beginning of the 'juice freak' era. Not a few of those who gathered there subsequently became alcoholics.' Intense competition built up to ensnare the odd labourer who could assist the home builders. Such precious commodities tended to become unreliable and skittish. Each week more enquirers arrived from Melbourne full of hope. Their one aim was to build a house of their own. The standard question was, 'How much would it cost me to build a mud brick studio about thirty feet by twenty feet, if I did all the work myself?' I wrote articles for the daily papers to explain to an incredulous public that an answer to the building shortages lay under their very feet.

The Busst house. Interior from the entrance to sitting room The Busst house. Interior from the entrance to sitting room

The mud brick movement developed such proportions that on"one Saturday afternoon I arranged a meeting which about fifty hopeful home builders attended. I had found some rural land on the western slope of the Eltham valley central township area, for $80-$100 per block of sixty feet frontage. We all set out to view it, and plan how a community could eventuate. They were a heterogeneous collection of people for those times; and not unlike any modern group of younger generation people today. Maybe their hair WasBot quite as long, either above or below the eyebrows, but the language and the aims were clear indications of what has since occurred.

There was an aspiring trumpet player who sat in the back of an open Alvis aluminium tourer blasting away in defiance of the existing status quo. Everyone was pretty excited with the gracious Eltham landscape on that sunny afternoon. Mention was made that there were a couple of blocks in a central position that would be good for a community building and a creche. At the sound of the word 'creche', the ranks wavered perceptibly. The man with the trumpet started down the hill in his back seat position blasting as defiantly against the ideas of community as against private ownership. Like many others before and since he wanted it both ways.

It was a sweet breathing space - the years between the end of the war and the domination of the big corporations. Not a great deal of work was actually done. There was time to stand and consider the options of life.

Those sensible people who elected to make and build in mud brick chose a freedom they will never find again until they return to the same activity. It is a life style that can only occur between man and nature where nature has a chance to dominate. The major elements in making mud bricks are the soil, the water and the weather. It is a true saying that, 'No mud brick maker likes the rain'. To make bricks by hand after first breaking up the clay soil is no easy task. Bricks are a contract deal. If they crack through drying too quickly in the hot weather or slump while they are wet because of rain, a man watches his physical and personal effort being turned into nothing. Primitive people have had to accept such elemental opposition from time immemorial, but the new Australian way of life wanted it both ways like the man with the bugle.

The Shire of Eltham had a notorious water supply in 1947. The pressure in the central valley where it was reticulated would give out at about 9 a.m. on hot summer mornings. It was a familiar shout, 'The water's off', that used to echo around the hills, and the workers then knew when their stored water supply finished, so had they. The only way to conserve it was to dig a shallow pit and try to. fill it up overnight, when the pressure was restored. Next morning the pit would be widened by pick and shovel method, so that the clay soil fell onto the water which would percolate through it. It was just prior to the age of the bulldozer. This water famine also caused apprehension to all over the possibilities of bush fires in this most fire-dangerous area in the world. One was always conscious of the elements in all their variety, and one respected them. There was no ready made answer to control these inevitables that engendered into the post-war Eltham character and community, this sense of the power of the natural environment.

In the late afternoons groups of men sauntered down to the pub. Their bodies were deep golden brown, their clothes smeared with the yellow Eltham clay. The unmade roads over which they walked gave off a fine golden dust that suspended itself in the atmosphere. This resulted in a special quality of light and of well being. Background financial stability had removed the sense of enmity the pioneers must have experienced with the elements that caused them to seek suburban-type security. These men were going out again in spirit into the land their fathers had developed. It was the germ of a pioneering movement. It was, however, soon to dissolve in the new affluence that pursued it.

The corporate state started about 1950. The supply of ordinary materials once more became available. Building restrictions and price control were removed. The money makers had gathered for the charge, and the planned society of the superseded Labor Government was put to flight.

One of the men most closely associated with that mud brick period in Eltham was Gordon Ford. He is still building in the medium, or more specifically is having buildings erected in landscape designs. In the early days he shared some acres of land with Peter Glass the artist, and Roger and Graeme Bell the jazz men. I had designed and partly built a house for Graeme Bell who was performing overseas. Graeme's plans changed and he never returned to Eltham. Gordon decided to make an onslaught into a large heap of surplus excavation material on Graeme's land. Working with a friend, he made 900 bricks out of it in three days of the Easter holiday. The weather had been good so he took the risk of stacking them only partly dry. He was talking quietly with his helper under the beautiful full moon and clear sky after this Herculean effort, when they were startled by a loud thump. 'It's the bricks', shouted his mate. This was followed by another heavy thump. They hurried to survey the damage and found that the partially dried bricks had been stacked too soon and that they had lost 600 in the collapse.

That part of Eltham was a reasonably quiet area at the time. Gordon used to work in the nude around his house. When it came to using the bricks that remained he would put six at a time in a steel-tyred barrow and run naked across the paddock to his building site.

The first mud brick movement had two main causes. The urgent necessity to build in a time of shortages, and a reverence for the natural Australian environment. The native flora was being rediscovered by laymen. For many years suburban attitudes and the well clipped lawns found it hard to accept the eucalypt that shed its long pointed leaves over the landscape throughout the four seasons of the year. The exotics may be a nuisance but they were orderly, and the mess only happened in the autumn. There were those ceremonial rakings of leaves into heaps that were fired generally late on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Billows of white acrid smoke caused a premature mist to settle over smugly regimented rows of houses in the Grandview Roads and the Gallipoli Drives of the eastern suburbs.

The perennial fear of Australians to accept anything Australian as being any more than colonial had started to waver a little with the new awareness of the unique quality of our indigenous flora. There had always been a deep and passionate concern for the 'bush' amongst Australians, but in city landscaping the garden had been pretty strictly non-bush. How indeed could anything be good enough to plant in your well kept suburban plot that grew with weed-like ferocity all over the place?

Burley Griffin, being an American, was not as inhibited. He discovered and demonstrated a true understanding of the scene when he had lived in Melbourne in the 20s. I built a house opposite a tiny six square building he erected and lived in, in Heidelberg on one of the superb landscape controlled subdivisions he had planned and executed twenty years earlier. He used to plant innumerable varieties of Australian native plants in his property, experimenting in setting lemon scented gums or other trees in groups of three, in the one hole. It was in that garden that I realized he had planted prickly paperbarks (M elaleuca styphelioides). I had thought them so exciting that I took a sample to the city. Ernest Lord, who was to become a famous botanist and who was serving in a plant shop, told me what they were, and I arranged to buy some from him. Griffin also employed this treble planting system in his big projects, such as Newman College. In fact, whatever he did emphasised again and again that he was first and foremost a broad landscape architect. His great concept was the Canberra savannah landscape with its lakes and mountains, which was nearly lost through the typical Australian muddling and indecision over the values of things Australian.

When a decision was finally made to implement the lake system, they turned up the original site works and earth moving drawings to find that Griffin himself had done them about forty years earlier. They were both adequate and detailed and were used as they had been prepared. In this case the prophet was as much without honour in the land of his adoption as most are in their own country. Prophets are particularly suspect in today's Australia, unless they are plagiarising overseas ideas.

Griffin's six square house in knitlock tiles, with a low pointed roof, was square on plan. The external walls had short curtain walls running at right angles towards the centre. The bedrooms were among these partitions. They were separated from the general house by leather curtains. The rhythmic piers of the knitlock method, the low walls, the ceilings that rose to a cave-like dome clearly reflected the Griffin philosophy. Window glazing and the simple structural doors and windows, showed a remarkable austerity of movement to fulfil his purposes. Later a fibrolite building was partly built around the little house with a view to preserving it and making it continue as a building. It was a sad compromise, but it had at least preserved the bones of what is an historic place. It was sold during 1972 in a down-at-heel condition. Offers were made to purchase the knitlock tiles for re-erection. Griffin was a prophet indeed, who demonstrated then a way of life which was in advance of much of today's so-called advanced thinking. He based his Australian architecture on the Australian scene that he discovered meditating under the primordial red gums in the Yarra Valley at Old Heidelberg. It was here he rediscovered the quality of the cave in Australian architecture, and sunshine and shadow which are the great sculptural definitions he employed in his work.

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