Last weekend we had a surprise insight into the mud brick world of Melbourne. The district of Eltham (that’s El- tham, not Elt-ham) was hosting a “Practically Green” environmental festival, but we got much more than we bargained for when we ended up on an organised tour of local mudbrick houses.
Now I know nothing about mudbrick, as it’s a technique not really used in the UK, or in Europe for that matter. I’ve come across lots of cob and rammed earth, of course, but this is a bit different, since the mud/straw mixture is actually shaped into bricks before its used. Maybe it needs a warmer climate to dry the bricks?
The Tour started at Montsalvat, an artist community founded by Justus Jorgenson, who designed and built the Great Hall using pis-de-terre (rammed earth) and mudbrick techniques. Montsalvat was also home to Alistair Knox , who inspired several of the houses on the tour. In fact, one of the houses was his own which was built in the early 1960’s and continued to be his home until his death in 1986.
Even though the technique itself was unfamiliar to me, what did seem to resonate was the the beautiful gardens and the way the outside was invited in by way of large window openings. I also the appreciated the way the houses sit snugly in the landscape – often dug into the side of a hill. Huge round timbers held up decorated gables and coloured glass in the roof let in sunlight to warm and brighten the rooms. Knox was obviously pioneering an environmental design which we can see in many natural homes today, like those built by Tony Wrench or Simon Dale in Wales.
A Veteran of over 1000 house builds, Knox was not an architect by trade, in fact, his first job was in a bank. On his release from the navy in 1945, he began a course in building construction and at the same time, started work on two houses. At that time, materials were in short supply, but Knox was interested in trying out new techniques and had a particular theory about “bringing the building and the natural environment together into one indivisible whole”. Ah yes, that makes sense now. Knox even got the banks to finance one of his builds, by quoting an academic study submitted to the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station which vouched for the safety of mudbrick walls.
At Alistair’s house, we bumped into a student of Knox, Bohdan Kuzyk, who designed another of the houses, home of artist Jenni Mitchell. Jenni’s home sits in a mature orchard garden. The scent of citrus blossom alone makes it feel tropical. The house is home not only her and her partner, but also her luminous paintings. These homes definitely invite one to live with soul inside them.
The Eltham Mudbrick Tour has been going since 1964 and so far, it has only been cancelled once, following the fatal Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 in Kinglake, Victoria. At present, it is organised by the Nillumbick Music Support group, and promoted by the Nullumbick Mudbrick Association, who promote mudbrick building, particularly in the Eltham area.
Because we got caught up in the Tour, we missed the demonstration of mudbrick making which was happening at the “Practically Green” environmental festival. I’ll try to find someone to show me and make a little film about it soon for the Living in the Future series.