Alistair Knox's widow, the artist Margot Knox, died in Melbourne in April 2002.

Here is a tribute to her.

PLUS: I've found some more photos of Alistair Knox: here they are.

...in his own words

by Murray Johnson

Alistair Knox was the father of the modern mudbrick and owner building movements in Australia.

He grew up in suburban middleclass Middle Park in Melbourne and took a job in the bank. WWII came along and he signed up for the Navy, serving on a small boat commandeered for use in the Pacific north of Australia.

After the war he went back to the bank, but he was restless and longing for the outdoors and freedom of life at sea.

He signed up for a building course and while studying completed his first building project... a house in Heidelberg.

It was to be the first of many, including the famous Busst and Periwinkle homes in Melbourne, and the circular Nicholas home in Canberra.

Knox was an idealist, and a dreamer, a philosopher and a rugged individualist. Although only qualified in the basic principles of building and design he became arguably one of our most famous, important and influential theorists of domestic architecture in the 20th century. He was a fan of America's great Frank Lloyd Wright from whom he borrowed the idea of houses blending in with their environment. Knox honors Francis Greenway and Walter Burley Griffin as his greatest Australian influences. His aesthetic was also informed by the Heidelberg School of painters and the Australian vernacular tradition they enshrined. His writings refer to an appreciation of the Australian landscape and quality of light as captured by them, as well as the shearing sheds portrayed by Tom Roberts.

 

Another critical element in the making of Alistair Knox and his owner building movement was the work of Justus Jorgensen who founded the Montsalvat artists' colony at Eltham in the 1930s. Jorgensen had lived in France and brought back its building methods to Eltham, where he built a whole community in mud brick and pise de terre, the building method now undergoing a renaissance as "rammed earth".

Thus the philosophy of earth building, which has a long history in South America, China, the Middle East and Europe crossed over into mainstream Australian society thanks to Jorgensen, a shortage of building materials immediately after WWII, and the unique midwifery of Alistair Knox, who dared to dream dreams and see mud brick self-help home building as a "movement".

Another critical ingredient in the movement's birth was a NSW public servant called G.F. Middleton who had been commissioned to compile facts on earth wall possibilities for the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station at North Ryde, New South Wales.

His "scientific" work lent a credibility to mud brick and a whole generation of alternative building techniques which may never have seen the light of day otherwise. In those days conservative council-based building inspectors reigned supreme over the strict Uniform Building Regulations and were not inclined to stick their neck out over unproven or experimental techniques.

In his 1975 book Living In The Environment, Alistair Knox recalled: "He (Middleton) discussed techniques with Jorgensen, Harcourt and myself, and also received a lot of information on pise de terre from an architect named McKnight who operated in the Riverina, as well as from others around the country.

The result of his enquiries produced a pamphlet, Building in Earth which was enlarged into a book (Building Your House of Earth) in 1952 and become every Australian mud brick builder's bible.

Knox described it as "a factual, pedestrian treatise containing little of the inspiration necessary to touch off the enthusiast who saw it as a way of beating the system in those difficult building days" - giving some insight into how he saw his own role in the revolution to come.

At the time Knox was trying to get his first mud brick design off the drawing board and onto a building site. Middleton's treatise arrived in Victoria the exact day Knox's historic building permit was to be debated by the Eltham council (which later made him Mayor and named a park in his honor).

"As soon as I knew the pamphlets would become available I caught one of only three morning trains possible to the city," Knox recalled.

"When I arrived at the store, they were still being unpacked.
I purchased about 10 copies and returned to Eltham at about 2pm.

"As I walked past the Shire Office, several councillors were standing on the steps, looking relaxed after lunch at the hotel, prior to returning to discuss the balance of the agenda of their monthly council meeting.

"I had more than a good idea that my plan was about to he discussed by them, as I heard one of them say: "Pise is alright -- my daughter lives in one of them, but I wouldn't have anything to do with mud brick.''

"Gentlemen,'' I remarked, walking up the steps, "I realise you are discussing an earth building for which I have applied for a permit.

"Perhaps these books from the Experimental Building Station will assist you in your deliberations.''

"They all grabbed a copy, and the Shire President, who had retired into the building, hurried out and snatched his up too.

"The result was that they approved the building and, in doing so, opened the door to the concepts and possibilities of environmental building in Australia," wrote Knox, adding: "I have been occupied with it ever since.''

Knox knew a lot about architecture, and his greatest heroes were architects:

"I drew my inspiration from the two greatest architects Australia has known -- Francis 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," Knox wrote.

 

"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 vision of lakes and horizontal space, took 50 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.

"As a nation we need to recapture the spirit of Joseph Furphy, who claimed he was 'offensively Australian'."

Although never an architect himself, Alistair Knox went on to employ architects in his Eltham office, and is often to this day referred to as an architect, to the annoyance of those who had completed the six year course, but gained less attention.

When he was alive professionals often complained whenever a publication referred to him as an architect, pointing out that he wasn't qualified.

Knox had the last laugh in April 1984, two years before his death at the age of 74, when he was conferred with an honorary degree as a Doctor of Architecture at the prestigious Melbourne University.

Knox made a great contribution to 20th century domestic Australian architecture, worthy of mention alongside Walter Burley Griffin and his favorite ex-convict Francis Greenway.

Despite his lack of formal training in architecture, Knox had many of the same influences and arrived at many of the same conclusions as his contemporary... the famous Australian architect Glenn Murcutt who has won international design awards for "marrying modern architecture to the place, the territory, the landscape.''

Like Knox, Murcutt was influenced by rural wood-and-corrugated-iron wool and shearing sheds as well as the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In times of plaster, paint, cream bricks, laminex and linoleum, Knox identified mud brick, solid timber and corrugated iron as key ingredients in his vision for an Australian vernacular architecture.

"It is axiomatic that mud bricks will be a fundamental element in the alternative social structure today,'' he wrote.
"The material itself is free. It costs a man his physical labour only, which is the same for both rich and poor. "The making can be a wholly natural activity. It has great therapeutic properties. Watching the earth dry and the varying characteristics of its physical structure, immerse us in poetic deliberations that unites our hearts, heads and hands.

"Feeling the basic material of creation gives us an appreciation of the Creator of it.
"Solid timber is another "alternative society vernacular".
"Corrugated iron is a third.
"Kylie Tennant, the Australian author, opened my mind to this fact a long while ago. She spoke of the way in which galvanised iron had created the civilisation of the Australian outback," Knox wrote.
"In the early days this was unquestionably true. It was the only structural material it was possible to transport into remote places It was essential for tank making for the storage of water. It formed the ubiquitous verandahed building which has always been nostalgically linked with our wider landscapes. It has also made the greatest structural impact on our horizontal land.

"Verandahs cast purple shadows that welcome the stranger in and protect the householder as he looks out over the shimmering distances. Verandah posts create upright lines across the purple shadow to recall the vertical rhythm of the trees in the horizontal plain.


"Settlements like Tennants Creek that were started some 40 years ago once boasted great corrugated iron buildings for gold mining and other activities which no longer exist in the same way today.

"The desert winds whirl through the shambling structures causing hanging sheets of iron to clang against each other with a strident, eerie melancholy.

A typical Australian shed... simple, practical, honest, at one with the landscape, yet beautiful in its materials, shapes and textures. Build Your Own House wants to build an archive of photos and writings on vernacular Australian architecture... as an inspiration to owner builders. Email your contributions to murrayj@byohouse.com.au

 

"When galvanised corrugated iron is first erected, it looks far too shiny in the landscape. But a year or two wears it back into a subtle and sympathetic silver grey that becomes surprisingly at home in the dun coloured land.

"Generally two or three large adzed timbers made basic supports for such designs," Knox wrote. "The result was a combination of the big timber vernacular and the corrugated iron tradition into an Australian organic building that expressed the timeless qualities of the ancient continent.''

As well as pioneering the use of earthy "vernacular" materials in mainstream architecture Knox made important contributions including the development of the modern concrete slab foundation at a time when stumps and bearers were the norm.

Knox virtually wrote his own architectural epitaph in Living in the Environment when he summed up his early work thus:

"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.''

Knox's importance as an original thinker went far beyond mud bricks and corrugated iron.

As a man who rediscovered God when he was 40 and described himself as a Calvinist, Knox made a great but little recognised contribution to articulating a theological, political, philosophical and particularly environmental world view which was way ahead of its time and helped shape today's Australia. He was a natural polemicist and few articulated better or earlier the modern disenchantment with materialism, globalisation, and the philosophical undercurrents of what has become the Green and more recently the "S11" movement.

"There is an indefinable understanding when we construct with such materials on an environmental site, that we are contributing in a short time for all time to man's sense of eternity within the eternal landscape,'' he wrote in 1975.

For Alistair Knox, building your own house was about resisting banality, conformity and consumerism. It was about personal growth... getting in touch with yourself, the landscape and potentially the spirituality inherent in both.

"Environmental building, acts on the whole man," he wrote.
"It makes us see new visions and dream new dreams.
There are innumerable people in Australia who could live environmentally and who are frittering away their existences in dreary circumstances because we, as a nation, have forgotten the great privileges available at a purchasable price in the ancient land.

"The urgency to return to natural living is strong in the hearts of many Australians. But they have to defy the whole materialistic gearing to achieve it. Individuals can and do make the break, but society stands perplexed and hesitant.

"It is sowing the seeds of its own destruction on the one hand and is scared to push out and away from the shore on the other, but push out it must, or go down in the shame of its own inertia."

Knox's writings recount his travels through Australia's "High Country" with artist mates and his second wife Margot who is an artist. When recalling these trips, and time spent around Mt Hotham building a mudbrick homestead at Cobungra Station he speaks with awe of the landscape, " those impressive spaces" and the effect they have on people.

"It's the air and the sky and the power of the sunlight, written into and over and through the flora and fauna that satisfy our vision, both inward and outward,'' he wrote.

Knox railed against "the mundane middle class" and officials who approved hidden timber frames, insisted on brick veneers, yet refused permits for perfectly sound recycled bricks - insisting they be "new".

Knox agreed with Dame Edna Everige that "society is much less interested in what goes on underneath as long as it looks expensive on top.''

In attacking the superficiality of mainstream post-war Australian society Knox pioneered the recycling of building materials, and a whole ethic of sustainability when it was simply an obscure idea, and decades away from becoming the environmental necessity that it is today..

It would be 25 more years before the Victorian Government created its first Sustainable Energy Authority with $20 million funding over three years.

"There is a fundamental movement in the hearts of many people to find an alternative to the ticky-tacky and pressed out plastic products that have neither sensuous appeal nor spiritual value," Knox wrote 25 years ago.

"The growing premonition that there could be an environmental collapse of nature intensifies the issues in ever increasing circles, and it is this search for genuine simplification of life style that will cause earth to become once again of primary importance as a building medium in the erstwhile sophisticated societies," he wrote in 1975.

Knox the sociologist noted that "the post-war technologies took the joy out of labor and made the making of money its only reason for existence."

"I believe we are involved in a movement that could become a major factor in winning the environmental battle for survival," he wrote. "The alternative society is a new group of pioneers because they are identified with the total landscape in a total living way. It is the co-operative in contrast to the fierce competitive lifestyle that exploits the natural creation for the profit of the few to the detriment of the many."

Knox espoused an Ivan Illich philosophy of "small is beautiful" and "voluntary poverty".

"You have to work at it and do with fewer physical amenities in exchange for more liberties of choice and of time. It is impossible to be poetic in a hurry.
The corporate state is always in a rush and therefore it has no poetry.
And yet its members, in their unguarded moments, frequently show hunger for mystery and the beauty of life. They simply lack the cultural training to develop it.
Instead they have misappropriated the time that it takes to do this by getting ahead in business, in commerce, in shares and in land development.

"Environmental fathers are faced with the problem of demonstrating to their sons a belief in reducing the Gross National Product in order that the world may survive on the one hand and a joy in disciplined work on the other -- in other words doing more for less.

"Few emancipated young people want to accept their freeways and corporate state psychologies. It is back to Ivan Illich's voluntary poverty philosophy.
It has been my exciting experience to watch all this come about and to be a part of it. It is probably the one element that remains out of the post war promise of 1946. Elsewhere we see the technological materialism of the fifties declining in the oil crisis, and the ever widening gap between rich and poor that threatens to bring the world as we know it to an end," Knox warned.

Alistair Knox's son Hamish... still building at Eltham

"The humble mud brick alone could be the one catalyst to stimulate co-operative living instead of competitive destruction. The multinationals' capacity to produce anti-human, dull, repetitive products has outstripped the ability of those for whom they are designed to pay for them or even to want them.

"The diminishing purchasing power of money causes their savings to fall continually further behind in the race to have the equivalent material possessions they might have expected only 10 or 15 years ago. As this disenchantment with traditional living infects the greater part of the Australian community, it is creating a climate of affairs that makes the idea of building in earth sound both possible and fascinating."

Knox outlined his vision for an environmental movement and cultural revolution led by the owner builder.

Knox as a building practitioner played a key role in encouraging and facilitating that movement. He demystified building, and helped empower people to build for themselves.

"The Wain house was the catalyst for a whole series of do it yourself buildings in the Eltham district," he explained.
"We design the buildings and supervise them. The owners organise the finance, pay the sub-contractors and fossick out interesting reclaimed material.
At the same time they become identified with the district. All the men purchase adzes and set out to clean up redgum posts from our special store.
Most of the clients are professional types such as accountants and other erstwhile members of the corporate state system.

"It is fascinating to watch the metamorphic change as the grubs turn into butterflies, sipping spiritual nectar from the bushland scene to grow strong in the character of the pioneer.

"A new reverence is engendered in the humble electric light pole, the adobe block, the bluestone pitcher, heavy secondhand timbers and the whole gamut of environmental building materials that are producing an alternative society second to none."

Apart from the use of timber, mud and corrugated iron and recycled materials, Knox's vision for a vernacular Australian architecture went like this:

"As the natural environment is a vertical matter so is the building scene,'' he wrote. "There is a deep reverence among do it yourself builders for an adzed post 20 feet in length standing vertically in the middle of the building site.

"The house and the land have become one and they are also at one with it.
A spatial relationship is restored between man and nature.
The mind and body of the corporate state man are transformed into the spirit, mind and body of the environmental man who finds `Tongues in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything'.

"Great vernacular timber out buildings, such as stables and shearing sheds,are still standing across the length and breadth of the land. Much of this was genuine environmental building.

"Originally clearing was a necessity to get a foothold in the primal landscape.
The great tradition of anonymous timber building design is strongly expressed in Roberts' shearing shed paintings and the work of other impressionist artists.

"It is possible to have an environmental way of life in a small area, even in a suburban allotment of say, 60 feet by 120 feet, if we go about it in a sensible manner. This happens only because of the survival-conscious character of the indigenous growth.

"Two years of growing in general circumstances is sufficient time to allow bush character to come back to a sufficient density to hide the street from the house and recreate an area of planned, but natural environment.

"It can be strong enough to give our lives a new option. With the landscape goes the indivisible house, sitting on it and at the same level, and so integrated with it that all is one, except that inside you have a man-made roof and outside the canopy of heaven itself.

"But at night as those constellations wheel through their infinite courses they are also seen through the glass walls, and we can lie snugly in our beds and look out in the same way as a pioneer could see them as he lay under the open sky on his way to the diggings more than a century ago.

"When farmers and other practical men built in local material, they built with great belief. A number of these instinctive structures took on the character of the surrounding landscape. They were mostly post and slab and roofed with sheets of stringybark, split wood shingles or corrugated iron. The straight, tall eucalypt is a unique building support, because it is natural hardwood and very strong.
It is not soft pine like the European and American traditions of the past two centuries. Any environmental planner must be passionately concerned with timber as a building medium, because of its indigenous spirit and also the fact that it is so flexible to use.

"Large, heavy posts formed from tree trunks, are in themselves probably the most fireproof material there is. They can also support colossal weights, vertically or horizontally. Interlocking joints can turn them into treelike structures with vertical supports and horizontal cantilevers that make it simple to contrive structural power."

Alistair Knox died on July 30 1986, at the age of 74, after suffering a severe asthma attack while staying with clients in Mildura. He was survived by his wife Margot and eight children.

Email: Murray Johnson (byohouse.com.au)


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