Alternative Housing, An Innovator Ahead of His Time

An Innovator Ahead of His Time

Author: Alistair Knox

The beginning of an idea

IT is difficult to evaluate the post-war metamorphosis by looking back. It has caused such enormous changes to every aspect of living that it is hard to conceive that, in the early 1950s, no more than a handful of people in Australia ever considered the environmental threats that now occupy the minds of so many thinking people. It was mostly a matter of prosper, be rich, acquire possessions and grow great in the greatest of all possible lands. Limitless possibilities and the exploitation of an obliging environment would go on forever.

This assumption was at its height when I first met Alan Money. He represented a small group of stimulating individuals offering an alternative point of view to the prevailing attitude. It was late on a cold, wintry Saturday afternoon. The usual group of neighbours had descended on the Eltham Hotel, which in those days was a gathering place for local people. Its subsequent suburbanised updating that destroyed its community spirit had not yet made an impact on it. Word got around that Alan Money, a notable builder, actor and director, was in attendance. It was reported that this new arrival to the district was working on an exciting house at Kangaroo Ground and that he was having a party that evening. It sounded too good to miss, so I strolled over and made myself known to him as laconically as possible. He was very relaxed so I said that I would love to see his house and, if possible, attend his party, adding that I would be delighted to support the victualling arrangements. He was more than disarming. 'Come', he said, 'and bring anyone else who is interested'.

A couple of hours later we were on our way. The night was very dark and there was no electricity in his remote area. The rain slanting across the windscreen provided a sense of adventure as if we were exploring some new land. When we turned off the main road on to a dirt track, the climate and atmosphere had already created a fascinating stage set. I was anticipating an exciting building. Alan had explained that it was not yet finished, but his descriptions of rooms, entries and sunken baths in exotic bathrooms was fascinating in the extreme.

Finally we alighted - it was not safe to go any closer to the house in the greasy conditions. We stumbled through the long, wet grass towards a lamp that glimmered within the murky outline of the house and eventually stood in the entry to be welcomed by Alan's wife, Jeannie, and one or two others who were there. The entry hall, Alan pointed out, was not complete. It was laid out on the ground, but as yet there were no walls or ceiling over it. Every room in the rather small development appeared to have been started and left unfinished, as Alan thought of some new piece he could put on. He took us around with a certain pride of achievement, especially explaining how he had decided only that morning to make the pitched roof into an attic. He had commenced the staircase and, as we half climbed and pulled ourselves up its precipitous incline, the whole building seemed in imminent danger of collapse. When we finally made the landing, there was absolutely no room there at all or any place for it in the future. We backed down as precariously as we had come up.

The evening was very romantic, despite a fire that smoked and a wind that ripped through the room that was without all its walls. There was a sense of theatrical make-believe that caused this sort of building to have a new purpose for me. I had been designing and constructing environmental houses since 1946 and regarded myself as leading this field of work. Here in a sense I was back at school. The building itself was a precarious wreck, but the sense of idea and sculpture that could be read into it was stimulating. No person conversant with building structures would have entertained it, yet it stood and, with the simplest care, could continue to stand for many years. It loosened up the traditional concepts into which we so easily lapse. Alan's building precipitated the mind forward into methods and possibilities that materialised in the 1960s in the Woodstock culture of the States.

He, however, was not looking for an alternative because he was at heart city-oriented - a theatrical person. The opportunity to build in Kangaroo Ground came through his wife and mother-in-law who happened to own the property with a run-down cottage on it. The building process was continually interrupted by some new production or acting part which generally involved them both. They clocked up endless miles in their Volkswagen, including travelling over twenty miles each way from Melbourne to Kangaroo Ground every day. They also found time for country driving as well. As they were both secondary school teachers by day, their time was very fully used up. Alan taught art and, in the 1950s, the disciplined 'eyes right' system was still universal - that is, except for Alan and one or two others. He must have been a nightmare and a horror to the general run of headmasters of the period, but the kids loved his way-out methods. They would raid the local tip for thrown-out building materials. Bringing back these spoils, they would form them into enormous sculptings that flowed out of the art room into the corridors and beyond, leaving long trails of plaster and other assorted debris behind them.

His irrepressible and optimistic nature took a solid blow when the great bush fires of 1962 swept down from the nearby mountains and burnt his house to the ground. He never tried to re-build because of problems concerning land ownership and other factors. Instead he discovered a new outlet for his building capacities in the form of an old bakehouse in Prahran, which he converted into an intimate theatre. He never had any troubles with the authorities because they never knew what he was doing. He proceeded unaided and alone to build and provide a stage and about fifty seats, including some old picture theatre seats poised on a few joists which was referred to as the dress circle. His ingenuity never flagged. Whenever he saw a piece of furniture that would be suitable to the production, he would contrive to make a papier mache model of it. Entrances and exits came and went on the tiny stage with remarkable fluidity that made you forget the dust that covered everything in the building. When it started to be successful, his imagination really took off. He had another old building next door that had two floors. In this he offered meals and drinks which were of a curious, home-made nature. You usually got over the novelty of the taste once the mind accepted how and where the meal had been produced. He would slip out and purchase a few vegetables and other items as the audience started to arrive. There was also an outside wooden stairway which gave access to the roof and looked down onto an internal alley that separated it from the theatre section. Planks and a hand-rail were soon laid over this space and it was possible to gain access from one building to the other. I estimated it could hold four or five people before it actually broke under their weight, so chose my times to pass over quietly and alone. I noticed Alan too would often glance in the direction of his overpass if more than a couple of people threatened its approaches at the same time.

Things were going well, when once more fire struck and burnt out the bakehouse theatre. Alan had called in the morning after a performance to pick up something he had left and found the Fire Brigade amid the smouldering ruins. He had to look elsewhere and, within twelve months, had located a fine old house in Carlton opposite Melbourne University for the purpose. As soon as he secured a lease, he went to work knocking out parts of the internal walls upstairs and down to make a theatre in the round and a private restaurant.

Some years later he telephoned asking if I would give a talk to some students he was teaching at the College of Advanced Education. After a lecture over a cup of tea, he spoke of getting three terrace houses opposite and knocking out the dividing walls to make yet another interesting dramatic space. He was still managing to keep his actions within one step of his imagination. In his case 'Stone walls did not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage'. Alan's contribution to alternative life and building styles lay in his ability to improvise. He was a true Australian, a first-class member of the pick-up society, as distinct from the throw-away society we were becoming. The Australian psychology is at its best when it is contriving and making something out of nothing, and at its worst when it is affluent. A probable reason for this is that we are by continental standards lacking in dynasties and traditions. On the other hand, we are still close to the pioneer. It is a case of ingenuity and natural intelligence versus traditional and worked-over systems.

Alan was a man of great natural intelligence, which is different from studied and developed capacities. One interesting sidelight was that when he was in the armed services during the War, he was in the same camp as Neil Douglas, the noted environmentalist. Both had gardens outside their tents. They were reported to be the only two tent gardens in the Australian Army. It was an extremely odd activity in those far-off days. He approached his problems with dauntless frankness and ability. The more complex the problem, the more original the answer. He was full of the inspiration and inventiveness that is needed for those seeking a true alternative lifestyle today, who are separated by one more generation from the original Australian pioneering spirit.

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