Alternative Housing, The Mount Pleasant Road Story

The Mount Pleasant Road Story

Author: Alistair Knox

The environmental lifestyle

THE Shire of Eltham has achieved a remarkable reputation as a district of artists, writers, environmentalists and other eccentric inhabitants during the past forty years. It has gradually become recognized as the most creative local community in Australia.

At the end of the Second World War, polite Melbourne still regarded it as a place of non-conforming fringe dwellers who lived in dubious artists' colonies, drank large quantities of dry red wine, built mud-brick houses and opposed all forms of civic progress and suburban development. It fought running battles with the State Electricity Commission and other authorities over the retention of indigenous, roadside tree growth and formed societies to promote the unrestrained and promiscuous planting of native trees at a time when these were still persona non grata in other localities.

During the Depression years it was one of Melbourne's popular picnic spots, the locality nearest to the city where the hills rose from the plains and the bush remained natural and unspoilt. When Victoria first began and it took six days of hard coaching to reach them, Eltham was also the gateway to the great mountain ranges east to Jamieson and Woods Point.

The original coach route was partly along Mount Pleasant Road, now only a branch of the main Healesville-Warburton route and itself largely superseded by the more easterly approach through Ringwood and Lilydale. This geographical change has permitted Mount Pleasant Road to retain a special sense of history. The haphazard, serpentine route made by the original settlers has remained, and most of its surface is still unbitumened and stony as it was originally.

Sunlight and shadow on the pink clay of Mount Pleasant Road still expresses the character of the original road to the mountains Sunlight and shadow on the pink clay of Mount Pleasant Road still expresses the character of the original road to the mountains
Lush green produce in the grey green of the eternal landscape - a joy of the alternate lifestyle Lush green produce in the grey green of the eternal landscape - a joy of the alternate lifestyle

Fifteen years ago my wife Margot and I purchased five acres of land fronting on to it just over a mile from the main Eltham highway. During the succeeding years we have established a mudbrick and timber building amongst the trees. Here it lies like a boat moored to a jetty, surrounded by stringy bark and yellow box bushland and punctuated with the occasional pale candlebark trunk that heightens the area's dry-bleached character. The great success of this project has been largely due to Margot. She is an example of those post-war Australian females who are quietly taking control of much of our hitherto male-dominated society.

She is also a serious impressionist painter in her own right, with special practical gifts in building, cooking, landscaping and matters of lifestyle. Her mind is incisive and challenging. She is strong on reality, and comes down with devastating directness on sugary sentiment and puny ideas. Her father, also an Australian, served in the celebrated Light Horse Cavalry in the Great War in Palestine and the Sinai Desert. He forms a subtle but permanent part of all her paintings of the Australian high country. He often appears in them as a half-defined, solitary figure on horseback, standing in a valley or on a lonely hillside in the deepening twilight. He always rides with long stirrups, and wears the perpetual wide-brimmed slouch hat of his nostalgic tradition.

The Australian male has now a less distinctive sense of identity then he had when the Anzacs stormed ashore at Gallipoli in 1915. That awful April morning, which stained red the blue waters of the Dardanelles, gave birth to a generation of heroes and a vibrant nationalism which has gradually faded over the succeeding sixtyfive years. The decline has been quickest since 1960. Up to that time the future was rosy, with the nation comparatively at peace with itself. Today the future seems strangely grey and obscure, with the country deeply divided politically and industrially. Too much affluence and too little need to exploit the diverse elements of our heritage has reduced our vision at home and our national prestige overseas.

It is of the utmost importance that we set about rediscovering our raison d'etre. We must become 'whole men' once more, people who evaluate all their actions and concepts through their heads, their hearts and their hands.

Margot's working life has maintained a careful balance between her creative activities and the ongoing maintenance of family, garden, painting and school. The daily baking of bread, that fills our large kitchen with the most satisfying aroma in the world,. expresses this reality.

Eating proper, home-made bread has become for us more than a filling-up process. It has rediscovered itself as the staff of life that satisfies without filling, whereas the plastic mutation that comes out of the big bakeries fills without satisfying. Margot has managed to bake it regularly for the past four years. She weaves it in and out of the breakfast preparation-time without fuss or bother. It is absolutely the best-tasting and most health-giving food we have ever had and we are all addicted to it. It has provided for us as a family the key to natural living.

We now eat much less meat than we did a few years ago. Margot has substituted this with vegetables grown in her abundant vegetable patch, which becomes so vertical in the ,summer season that it reminds one of a Rousseau nature painting, with herself as a noble savage. Flavoured with fresh herbs, its fruits produce an unending galaxy of subtle, aromatic dishes that have no professional counterpart. Visitors call in on warm summer evenings and gradually fill up the places available at the long table. Cooking may quietly continue until after ten o'clock, yet the food is always new and imaginative, never heavy or filling. It has the lingering quality of an Arabian night in old Baghdad, as though it may never end, but go on into a perfect dawn of peace and bliss.

Margot always has a current scheme for improving the property, by adding a room or changing a courtyard that requires some casual workers to come in and take part. We seldom use experienced carpenters. It is stimulating to find that so many new people have unknown skills. Their presence adds life and personality, all waiting to be discovered in nearly everything they undertake.

The rapid regrowth of the natural, 'unplanned' landscape immediately surrounding the house is the other half of our everexpanding, alternative lifestyle. Structure and nature are continuously becoming more and more united into one. The teeming, native bird life, which daily eats and drinks from the food we supply just outside the kitchen, have become our personal friends. Many have names. The pecking order between magpies and wattle birds fluctuates until 'Big Bird' the currawong and his wife call in to take their fill, while the bellbirds insistently call from the gully.

Carolyn Brophy's glass door at the Knox house - nature at the doorstep Carolyn Brophy's glass door at the Knox house - nature at the doorstep
One of Carolyn Brophy's skylights - expressing a sense of light in a dark place One of Carolyn Brophy's skylights - expressing a sense of light in a dark place

The latest project: the kitchen extension

I tend to put off developing Margot's ideas so that I can find a double justification for taking them on. This happened when she suggested we extend the kitchen out as far as the pergola, so that we no longer fell over the kitchen table as we came in from outside. Despite the fact that the kitchen had already been extended to forty-eight feet in length, it was still only fifteen feet wide. (It had originally been a verandah extension from the major living area.) The proposed addition was about twelve by twenty-five feet, which would make the room more than sixty feet long. No one questioned that it should be built in mud brick, that beautiful self-healing medium that draws all our family together in work and mutual understanding.

Although Margot only occasionally said anything about the project aloud, I was conscious of strong vibrations warning me that I could not put it off much longer. She was quite right, except for one thing. Considerable light would be lost through the extension pushing the windows out so much further in such a long room. It required an innovation that would bring in more light in a natural yet completely intended way. It soon became obvious that we needed a series .of stained glass skylights that would release the spirit simultaneously with the sunlight. The house had always had a slightly Persian feeling about it because Margot used to invest in Eastern handmade rugs after she had an exhibition of paintings. These hang from the walls or lie on the floors in generous abandon. The earth walls enhanced the quality, and a sense of mystery was added by some foot-square openings in them. These were glazed and covered with lacy black metalwork retrieved from the cage of an old water lift. The translucent light it gave caused you to strain your eyes to make sure there wasn't a dusky, black-eyed beauty in a yashmak staring at you from the other side.

Is it this informal intermingling of the house, the landscape, the bird life and the perpetual changing of light and colour that inspires the eternal longing one always feels in the Australian bush? Is it the dry, dust bush-floor that crackles as you walk over it, and the smell of eucalypt and wattle that is unvaryingly present the whole year, that generates the sense of belonging to all time and urges us to continue building out into it forever?

Details of the footing

I then set about the building by asking my two sons Alistair and Macgregor to dig the footings for the walls. We then poured the concrete and raised it three inches above the surrounding ground level to protect the base of the earth from water damage. I still had no idea who should build the extension from thereon in. Both boys were too busy to do it and, as I so often find, the concrete was still setting when I received a message from a stranger asking if I would give him a job. I found out that he had completed four years of medicine at the university and then left it because he felt it was too corrupt. I liked his style and attitude at once, but I have long since learnt it is disastrous to overpay itinerant building workers when you first engage them. They must come up through a short kind of apprenticeship where you work together until you understand each other.

'I'll give you $25 a day and teach you what to do', I offered. He agreed, so I said, 'Let's start at 8 a.m. tomorrow'.

Maurice Wilson was a well-built man with a dark beard and a friendly face. As soon as we started, I gave him work that required skill and understanding which would have caused almost any tradesman to make mistakes. It was a quite complicated task to add on this wing, without disturbing what was already there. Maurice subsequently told me, 'I didn't know what you were doing for the first four days', but as he cottoned on to our local building vernacular, he turned into a natural. He had a most unusual capacity to visualize construction and anticipate where the complications could occur. I feel he must have spent several hours in bed each night going over the next day's work. He could sustain long periods of concentration and never seem to grow weary of it. His measurements were exact and he had the makings of a great natural builder.

I thought he was so good that I should send him on to Macgregor who was in charge of a large earth and post building at Main Ridge, Westernport. He seemed to be just right to bring that job to a conclusion, so I reluctantly arranged to let him go after three weeks. Our own job wasn't completed and I was wondering what to do next, when Tony Ryan called in the day before Maurice was due to leave and asked simply if he could work for me. When he told me that he had been a chair maker, I at once said, 'I'll give you $20 a day and show you what to do'. He agreed to take Maurice's place. It was a case of the cloak of Elijah falling on Elisha. The work proceeded as smoothly as before. I raised his salary to $25 a day, which was what I considered a grown-up apprentice should get. In another three weeks all was completed and Tony went on his way to join Maurice at Main Ridge. They both instinctively understood the special character of the work and appreciated Macgregor's sculptural capacities which he was always able to infuse into his structures.

After more than thirty years experience in natural buildings, which have little precedence, one develops a sense of picking suitable people and also of making ordinary people suitable. It is a matter of touching the spring of natural talent that is latent in everyone. God made man in his own image, that is with creative ability that is waiting to be stirred up in us all, and this creativity is more responsive to natural building than to anything else.

One aspect of our modest extension was the stained glass skylights. They were three in number and approximately two by two feet each. I asked that beautiful natural builder, Carolyn Brophy, to make them. She, together with her husband Brian, had built a remarkable earth house at Mt Toole-be-Wong outside Healesville two or three years before. It was twenty-five squares in size and cost less than $4,000. After that she taught herself stained glass and had a good feeling for it. I asked her to give the skylights the spirit of a Persian carpet with a fair amount of white glass interpolated, so that reasonable light could still enter. The r-esult was outstanding. She had controlled -the medium, which is so often third-rate art nouveau or undisciplined and formless, into a real creation. Her dark red and blue colours were etched back to white in geometric patterns that were neither overdone nor underdone. When we saw them we realized the ordinary glass door we had to the entry also needed something interesting. So Carolyn was requested to design a four inch stained glass border set in glazing bars, so common during the last century. With true artistic style she returned with more dark red glass and blue corner pieces. They were all etched with the design motifs of Persian rugs. The tree of man and other traditional patterns quietly connected the whole scene together. These items, together with a mud-brick cooking-fire in one corner, were-all completed by untrained builders and to a higher standard than that produced by many tradesmen.

The Pittard house

Site map of the Pittard house

Tony and Maurice proceeded from strength to strength. When their first small house after Main Ridge was finished, they went to work for Professor Jim Pittard.

The Pittard house was one of two houses being erected at the same time within a mile of each other. Both were employing the post and mud infill method, but the type of posts varied widely.

Jim Pittard was an old client of ours. He had added to his existing property in a variety of interesting ways. When Barbara, his wife, took me to see some land that was coming up for auction, I told her to buy it because they could no longer usefully develop their existing house. The proposed land was about eight acres with a superb view to the south, but it sloped so steeply in that direction that it was hard to conceive of a suitable building for it. The Melbourne climate in general, and this micro-climate in particular, demands a good northern aspect. It was probably this fact that caused the land in question to have been bought and sold several times in recent years. Each attempt to site a building came to nothing. It was obvious that a new concept was requ{red to do the house and landscape justice.

After I sketched an abortive idea or two, I decided to sit on the land and listen to it and see what it was saying. When I got there the temperature was 40° Celsius, the hottest day of the summer and the hottest time of the day. On such occasions one is always apprehensive of bush fires, particularly around this spot. On several occasions, fire has started up in this area and in nearby Laughing Waters, one of the most notorious fire hazard areas in one of the most fire-prone places in the world. The shape of the slopes and the tunnel-like banks of the river can produce amazing spectacles of spontaneous combustion. Flames race down from the mountains on the northern boundaries of Eltham, driven by a strong north wind. Burning bark and leaves born on the gale are liable to alight miles away and start up new conflagrations. The tinder. dry bush and the volatile eucalyptus oil make a ferocious combination. When you sniff the first distant hint of their burning, it is impossible to remain unaffected. The eye scans the hills for signs of white and grey smoke and you can experience the district stirring into action. Through the valley the Country Fire Authority alarms in Eltham, Research and Kangaroo Ground wail in unison and can be heard for several miles. They create a sense of eerie apprehension across the dry, deserted landscape. The expanding smoke columns disperse in the middle atmosphere because of the strong wind and cast a shadow across the sunlight to turn it into a heightened, sickly yellow. Within a few minutes the roaring of the volunteer fire brigades can be heard and glimpsed racing through the bush to the scene of action. Their brilliant red-topped cabins, with a dozen madly flashing lights and electric bells clanging hysterically, form the most effective community-generating experience the district knows. They are followed by cars making their Way, half-hidden by dust, to join in the drama. The crews of the firetrucks are local tradesmen, barbers and fuel merchants dressed like cavaliers in a wide variety of deshabille, clinging on precariously as they hurtle along the winding earth roads, ducking under overhanging branches.

When I was assessing the natural genius of the Pittard land, it was just such a day. Within a minute or two it was clear to me that it was a desperate site that needed a desperate remedy. Nothing was to be gained by temporizing with it. I immediately resolved to spend about $4,000 cutting a large plateau out of the solid stone base that lay under the innocent-looking grass slope, and design a building that curved outwards to the southern aspect to form a concave arc to the north. In combination with the vertical stone excavation, it would make a generous oval-shaped courtyard for winter living. When the excavation was complete, the stone wall gave promise of providing a natural waterfall sixteen feet high, with a native bush gully garden below at the house level, in the best 'indivisible house and landscape' tradition.

The Pittard house during construction

Above top The oval courtyard of the Pittard house before landscaping. Above bottom Jim Pittard's adzed posts of King Billy pine forming the curved shape of his house and the oval courtyard

Jim Pittard was a Professor of Microbiology at Melbourne University and, by felicitous circumstance, some ancient ten by eighteen inch posts of King Billy pine became available as we looked for columns to build with. They had been underground for many years as a drain and were impregnated with dark, penetrating preservative that made them smell like tall, dark, mysterious beings from some remote quarter of Africa. King Billy pine is one of those special Tasmanian timbers, similar in spirit to Huon pine, that lives to thousands of years. That timber has almost disappeared and, when another stand is discovered in some wild hidden gorge of the Gorden River, the timber wolves swoop down and rip it out. King Billy pine, which likewise has become rare, is a soft wood of durable quality and character. It is a strange phenomenon in the Australian environment, especially in Tasmania, an island that stands in the path of the Roaring Forties. Over the lifetime of the world these winds have carved its lonely western shoreline into a prehistoric wilderness of great power and ·mystery. Could it be that King Billy pine was originally a South American Amazonian timber that made its way to Tasmania in the dateless past, by its seeds being carried by the Roaring Forties half-way around the world, then germinating in a secluded valley? I could imagine how Jim would feel about it. He fell in love with its strange character as soon as he started to adze it. Several of these posts now stand in the middle line of the house and it is possible to walk all around them. By the time he had finished adzing, he saw them as living elements. I am sure that as he lay back in bed after a long day's work, the three words that occupied his mind were 'King Billy pine'.

The Johnston house

There is no better method of designing a building than using big posts of one sort or another. In many ways they have become the heart of our environmental construction over the years. Where Jim Pittard's posts were squared, Roy Johnston's building (in the same road a mile away) had round posts from which only the bark had been stripped.

The Johnston house during construction Above top left and right The giant messmates located then braced in position to form the basic structure. Above bottom left Malseed and Peter Jarvis locating a roof member into one of the great posts. Above bottom right The structure now ready to commence mud brick laying

Roy Johnston and Bill Irwin were principals of one of the most respected engineering firms in Victoria. They emerged professionally after the Second World War and were responsible for many creative and elegant engineering designs. They became first choice to carry out the work of that group of sensitive architects which came to the ascendancy in the early 1960s, a boom period for Australia. Roy was responsible for the Myer Music Bowl, a draped tent-like structure tensioned with steel cables and set on the edge of Melbourne's famous Botanical Gardens. Melbourne comes to life when it is involved in festivities related to its parklands and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In many ways it is still one of the great sports cities of the world and Roy's Music Bowl is part of this socio-sporting character. '

I first knew Roy when I went to him to fortify my simple design ideas with engineering data. I needed to know if they would stand up to wind-loads and other stresses which councils and lending agencies at that time were unduly nervous about. He was a steady, unflappable engineering-type and I found him highly authoritative. I had not heard from him for over twenty years when he rang to tell me he was going to purchase a mud-brick house we had designed. He wanted to know how to furnish it. It appeared to me this was the first adobe house he had seen, so I suggested he come over and look at what else we had done. A few minutes after he arrived I could see his mind exploding with new ideas. It would not be long before we were designing a new building together.

We found some satisfactory land on an Eltham hillside, looking down a valley, which was available for building. When I first suggested the design should have some hint of a Bavarian castle lurking underneath an Australian vernacular-style, he visibly demurred. We decided instead to use some really big timber columns as a basis for the design, and that we should go into the forest and select the actual trees. As he was building to set up a new house for a new wife, I commented, 'Roy, you are just entering the romantic period of your life', to which he replied with enthusiasm, 'Oh yes, I am'. It was good to see this renascence in an engineer, grown mature in the city on big structures, discovering for the first time the thrill of natural building.

Roy took my advice and went to see the house Macgregor was building on the Mornington Peninsula, which was also built from freshly-logged timber. 'Yes', said Roy when he came back, 'I want those posts'. So we set off to obtain them.

While trying to find a short cut we found ourselves in a large State Forest. By the time we arrived at our destination we were thoroughly acclimatised to big trees. But when we drove into the bush a mile further on and alighted before a large stand of seventy and eighty foot messmates, Roy could actually visualise how nature could become environmental building. We chose six trees that measured 2'4" diameter at the butt and marked them by blazing the bark. On the way home Roy said, 'I knew you said we would go and select the trees, but I never believed it'. What simple realities make for satisfaction in environmental building!

Now this course of action could not be taken for buildings universally, or there would be a rapid decline in suitable trees available. The fact of the matter is that only a really interested client will spend the time necessary, because he can see what a fundamental matter this kind of building can be. It gives to the hand and the head the key ingredient to build totally - the heart of vision and hope.

A people-centred business

In Roy's building, as in Jim Pittard's, we did not sign contracts with the builders. All was done by trust and understanding. Although they had various different degrees of experience, the carpenters themselves took charge: they were all united with a common zeal.

I first met Tim Malseed a year or two earlier and employed him to complete a building we had commenced. He then constructed two or three others, including a large house for the McCullagh's in Kangaroo Ground, before taking on Roy Johnston's. Prior to our association, he had been working on houses that cost more than $500,000 each. He was an excellent builder and a skilled operator who kept systematic notes on his daily work. He was also a good, on-site organizer and estimator who left confidence behind him wherever he went.

Tim picked up young carpenters like Peter Jarvis, a trained draftsman. I first came to know Peter when he came to work in our office two years before. He was a typical Eltham product who, like so many of his contemporaries, never really had to learn to build. They had been born amongst the bush and inherited a predisposition to natural structures. It had been the pattern of their existence and the conversation of their dinner table. It is this relating to the elements and this acceptance of building in mud that brings us ever closer to the nuances of climatic change and the passing seasons. This is particularly the case in and around Melbourne, which has a different climate to the general sundominated, water-hungry and survival-conscious variants that proliferate across the vast Australian continent. This area, bounded by the southern highlands on the north and Bass Strait on the south and extending west from the Otways to east of Wilson's Promontory, produces an extraordinary variety of day-to-day climatic changes. It is certainly the underlying stimulant to the particular lifestyle of southern Australia and is even a contributing factor to the commercial success of Melbourne. The Victorian capital has thrown up wheelers and dealers and land manipulators from the gold-rush days. Somehow people's business sense seems to be sharpened by the keen winds that blow from the south, then quickly give way to serene, cloudless skies, or the sub-zero temperatures that follow the fall of snow in the high country. It all fosters a sense of experimentation and individuality.

At the time of writing, both the Johnston and Pittard buildings are still under construction. Jim Pittard obtained all his long roof timbers from a wrecked cinema and a Melbourne dock. Roy obtained some of his from the same dock, though the really big, hardwood rafters were cut from timber in the Gippsland forests. These required some special iron brackets to anchor them to the posts, standing like Greek columns in the centre of the great living room. Alistair, my fourteen-year-old son, was commissioned to weld these metal fabrications and give them an acceptable 'Eltham character'. In this way we all have a part to play in these tone poems of trees, skies and mud. And in it all I too, like my wife Margot when she paints the bush, become aware of the shadowy form of the mysterious rider with long stirrups and wide slouch hat that seems to dominate the scene, evoking the power and majesty of our mysterious and ancient land.

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