Alistair Knox's widow, the
artist Margot Knox, died in Melbourne in April 2002.
Here is a tribute
I've found some more photos of Alistair Knox: here
his own words
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
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,"
"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
"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 email@example.com
"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
"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
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
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.
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
"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
"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
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.
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.
son Hamish... still building at Eltham
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.
"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
"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
"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.
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
"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
"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.
Liberty Parade, Bellfield 3081 Victoria Australia