Living in the Environment, Pseudo Affluence

Pseudo Affluence

Author: Alistair Knox

Building returned to a state where there was a balance between supply and demand in everything except the unpredictability of mud brick construction due to the type of employee it tended to attract. In addition, a growing awareness that it was no longer cheaper than other methods because of higher on-site costs enabled me to explore other media. Some were and are indeed still largely my own. Imitators have gone into many of these indigenous materials and methods over the years, but they have never threatened our special position in environmental design and structure.

As I had never worked as an employee on any building, my methods were individual and direct. It was a case of 'the best way to do things was to do them'. I was constantly designing structures that the Uniform Building Code did not cover, and often finding myself at the Appeal Board armed with engineering statistics to show that these structures would not fall down.

I had to make the methods explicable to those who were to erect them. It took me the shortest possible time to realise that you don't give directions by waving your arms around in the air, but by patiently holding demonstration bits of timber up to show what is meant. Even today, carpenters who have been building our sort of structures for several years sometimes refer quite elementary problems back to me for explanation. Their sons on the other hand do not seem to have that trouble. They have grown up with the methods and don't know anything else.

I always used modular design with point loadings and the simplest number of junction devices for the medium and materials employed. Two items were never used where one would do. Earth building teaches how to eliminate inessentials. Everything should count. The aim is to create a sense of inevitability by erecting timeless, worn down shapes that make house and land into an indivisible whole. It was scarcely possible to decide where one started and the other left off.

The building usually comprised beamed ceilings with clerestory lighting.

At first we used six inch by one inch hardwood ceilings, then packed straw board ceilings which would span four feet. Later we turned back to timber. I have always avoided using plaster anywhere. The demand for organic materials proceeded quietly even in that period of every new and shiny innovation. For years I continued this individual approach at a near poverty level.

It was no longer hard to earn a good living in the building field, provided you gave the customer what he wanted instead of what the environment demanded. The one thing I never wittingly did was to sell out to that demand.

Many architects were getting rich and successful and I felt all the while that I must have been getting duller and drearier.

It was a pretty strenuous battle for survival, especially as the finishes employed were often frowned on as being primitive and incomplete. The motto was the same as Goya's which stated: 'A painting, the effect of which is true, is finished.'

I did the same in building. Innovation is always hard, especially when one is alone in the field. I am surprised that even today when these once outlandish methods have become completely the 'in' thing, that they can still be used with so little real understanding. Timber walls, ceilings and other matters that are to create environmental building are often attached to the structure, rather than being the real structure itself. They are effect, not fact, and more dishonest in some ways than the pink brick veneers they so heartily deride. As a general rule, the best environmental building has been done by informed amateurs who have understood that they are dealing with a total design method and not a sales gimmick, or variations of a standard building procedure.

We often employ adzed posts as supporting members, and the simplest way to deal with them is to drill a hole in the ground, stand them up and pour concrete around them. Wherever reasonable, concrete slab construction is dispensed with by just pouring the footings, building the walls and roof, then laying stone, brick or other hard surface flooring directly on the earth on a waterproofing membrane. The prime need with any concrete slab structure is to control dampness before it reaches the actual building site. Correct and sympathetic earth moving can do this. There is no sense in using complicated techniques to deal with moisture in the building if it can be dealt with before it reaches it.

I have found that within certain commonsense limits, it is possible to do almost anything in domestic building. It is a matter of technique expressing the idea rather than dictating the result, which so often happens. Even where techniques are correctly employed there is seldom sufficient sensitivity in playing down the finish of the end results. The Australian art of being laconic appears to have been lost. We now have to have the reddest red gum, the most raked out hand made bricks, the most veneered black bean cupboards and all that jazz, which are only status seeking symbols of misunderstood principles. Fulfilment lies in a sense of wellbeing, of unstrained confidence, of not trying to act at what we are not. A good handful of amateur builders have done this, professionals almost never. The hope now lies in that second generation of mud brick amateurs living on the periphery of Melbourne, notably in the Eltham area. They build from the ground up, and not from the theory downwards.

Even the famous Sydney Opera House fails in this respect. I remember viewing the competition designs when they were on exhibition at the Melbourne Gallery. The shell construction which caused all the worry was merely some silver foil stuck onto the sketch plan. The designer seemed to have only the flimsiest notion of what he would do about it, as events have only too well proved. The major shortcoming of the magnificent concept is the lack of relationship between the outer shell and the inside, an evidence that they were not conceived simultaneously as for example, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheimer Museum obviously was. The sails of the Opera House 'bending across the bosom of the urgent west' are still very exciting despite their awesome economic problems, and that someone said they reminded him of four hungry sharks. One thing I do appreciate about the building now it is in action is that they have discovered about ten new rooms and spaces they did not seem to know existed. Free shapes do have some special advantages after all.

The corporate state was busy flexing its international muscles during the fifties. It produced the by-product of jobs for all and the opportunity for husbands and wives both to work for the first time as a way of life. Goods and services proliferated. Dish washers succeeded washing machines and television sets were followed by the second car and holiday house at the beach to get away from it all. Children were paid more often in money and goods than they were in love and concern. In the 60s we discovered we had made our fortunes and lost our families. Children who had never known want now took affluence for granted. They only complained because their parents did not appear to care about them as people. Possessions had taken their place. The generation gap began in earnest.

The kids cast off their shoes, grew their hair long and refused to wash or to work. They talked about peace, handed round flowers and took to drugs, as the grey clouds of pollution began to cast an appreciable pall over the major cities of our civilisation. They ceased to believe in their parents' gods. New words began to be exchanged in this age: ecology and environment. The quality of life became an important issue.

The emphasis on economic growth and the gradual experience of redundancy in industry was beginning to be felt. This, combined with the knowledge that the bush and open spaces we took to be our natural right and heritage, was receding from us at an alarming rate. We were in danger of becoming an underprivileged community with international overlords in a land of plenty. The once independent Australian had been whittled down to a conforming 'yes-man'. He was still self-centred and confident, and spoke disparagingly of all foreigners.

The impact of this general condition on the national environment had been serious because its special qualities now often belonged to men who did not understand it. Those who pioneered it have been alienated from it.

The gnawing problem is how we can continue to multiply and till the land without destroying life as we know it, to discover how to live with it rather than in spite of it. The answer in a large part lies with the principles contained in environmental buildings increased many times, until it takes on a national dimension. Environmental building and environmental living are not a withdrawal from life, but a renewal of it. Neither is it a habit or a fashion. It is belief in action.

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