Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Log cabin

Reforesting Scotland home page

  It was a chance meeting with Bernard, who lives in his own cabin up near the tip of north-east Scotland (as do his kids), which led me to the Thousand Huts campaign – an inspiring initiative, launched in June 2011 by Reforesting Scotland to revive and expand Scotland’s ‘modest’ hutting culture. They believe this campaign could become a social revolution.

‘The aim of A Thousand Huts campaign is to promote huts and hutting - the building and enjoyment of simple structures (usually wooden) for living, working and recreation in the countryside. This will be achieved by securing a change of culture and attitude and reform of the law so as to permit those who wish to build huts and pursue hutting to do so freely and within the law.’

On 23rd June 2011, Alison Johnstone MSP tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament in support of the campaign

S4M-00380 Alison Johnstone: Thousand Huts Campaign—That the Parliament welcomes the Thousand Huts campaign launched by Reforesting Scotland on 15 June 2011; supports the campaign’s aims – to celebrate, expand, protect and enjoy the use of huts in Scotland for living, working and relaxing in; celebrates the cultural heritage of hutting communities such as that at Carbeth; considers that having access to a hut brings many benefits in terms of physical and mental health as well as spiritual and emotional wellbeing; notes also the recreational and play benefits that the experience of using huts brings, particularly for people on low incomes; supports calls for changes to the planning system to support hut building; endorses the campaign’s call for better security of tenure for existing hutters; deplores the eviction of hutters such as those at Barry Downs, Carnoustie, and calls on the Scottish Government to support the aims of the campaign and to explore ways in which land owned by it can be used to expand hutting.

The roots of hutting in modern Scottish history stem from an early 20th C working-class movement when small holiday huts began to be built on land close to the industrial cities. In time, some of these traditional sites became hutting ‘colonies’, the best known of which is Carbeth in Stirlingshire.

Hutters also include: individuals who build a hut as a quiet retreat; others who build alternative full-time homes (huts or dwellings) of uncertain legal status; and urban hutters (allotmenteers).

A Huts and Hutters in Scotland research study carried out in 2000 by the Scottish Executive identified a number of structural weaknesses in the sustainability of traditional hutting including an ageing population and poor legal safeguards. Their survey identified just 629 ‘huts’ on 37 sites.

(See: Huts and Hutters in Scotland, Scottish Executive Central Research Unit, 2000.)

To understand the bigger picture, turn to ‘Scotland’s Missing Huts’, an excellent piece by Lesley Riddoch, who did (or is doing) her Ph D contrasting the cabin traditions of Scotland and Norway. Here follows a brief summary:

* Norway has one of the highest second-home ownership in the world with a holiday home for every ten Norwegians.

Fichier:Giklingdalshytta 1991.jpg


* The Norwegian ideal is to lead a simple outdoor life and the hytte is central to that. Its is made possible by the ‘historic absence of aristocratic estates.’

* The same attachment to cabins is found in the rest of Scandinavia and across the Northern latitudes. Cabins are also part of the culture of Germany, Czech Republic, Spain and other central and southern European countries.

*By contrast, Scotland has the lowest rates of second-home ownership in Northern Europe – one holiday home per 173 Scots. Lesley writes:

‘There is enough land to accommodate far, far more people in all sorts of huts, cabins, mountain cottages and seaside shacks. So why won't Scottish landowners sell small patches of land? Why won't Scots demand it? Why do Scottish councils discourage hutters? ‘

Hiker’s hut near Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. 
Submitted by Greg Brown.

CABIN PORN Inspiration for your quiet place somewhere.

It may sound like a bad joke but it contains some 40pp of beautiful pictures sent in from all over the world. This pic by Greg Brown shows a hiker’s hut near Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand.

Monday, May 28, 2012


T270 IM 17 Back in 2006, when I was Editor-in-Chief of Tree News  magazine [SEE PREVIOUS POST], we ran a feature on this beautiful book  ‘Architecture in Wood: A World History’ by photographer and author Will Pryce. The interview I did with him seems quite prescient in the light of recent developments. [SEE NEXT POST: TALL WOOD BUILDINGS]


MGA, wood tower, woodscraper, wood high-rise, wood mid-rise, green tower, green highrise, eco highrise, Vacouver green building

This is the 30-storey Tall Wood Tower, designed by Canadian architect Michael Green for Vancouver. Green and his colleagues believe passionately that we have to change building practices and make far more use of wood for high-rise buildings in the cities of the world.

Green is the co-author of a report ‘The Case for Tall Wood Buildings’ commissioned by the Canadian Wood Council on behalf of the Wood Enterprise Coalition. It is an important document which has been made freely available as a pdf download:http://wecbc.smallboxcms.com/ database/rte/files/Tall%20Wood.pdf
Here are some extracts:

‘We are in a unique moment in architectural and building
engineering history when shifting world needs has asked us to question some of the fundamentals of how we have built for the last century and how we will build in the next.

‘Wood is the most significant building material we use today that is grown by the sun. When harvested responsibly, wood is arguably one of the best tools architects and engineers have for reducing
greenhouse gas emissions and storing carbon in our buildings.

The Case for Tall Wood Buildings expands the discussion of where we will see wood and specifically Mass Timber in the future of the world’s skylines.

This report introduces a major opportunity for systemic change in the building industry. For the last century there has been no reason to challenge steel and concrete as the essential structural materials of large buildings. Climate change now demands that we do.

… the building industry must seek innovation
in the fundamental materials that we choose to build with.

‘In a rapidly urbanizing world with an enormous demand to house and shelter billions of people in the upcoming decades we must find solutions for our urban environments that have a lighter climate impact than today’s incumbent major structural materials. This
report is a major step in that direction. Indeed it introduces the first significant challenge to steel and concrete in tall buildings since their adoption more than a century ago. ‘

We …hope that the ideas within the study
will gain momentum within the larger building industry and be the precursor to a revolution in the way we build mid-rise and tall buildings around the globe.’

This revolution in building practice is made possible by what is called Mass Timber construction.

‘Mass Timber is defined as solid panels of wood engineered for strength through laminations of different layers. The panels vary in size but can range upwards of 64 by 8 feet (20m x 2.4m) and in the case of CLT can be of any thickness from a few inches to 16 inches or more. Ultimately these are very large, very dense solid panels of wood.

The three primary Mass Timber products are: Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) made from layers of solid wood set at 90 degree orientations; Laminated Strand Lumber (LSL) made from a matrix of thin chips.
Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) made from thin laminations of wood similar to plywood but much larger in scale.

These Mass Timber products offer significant benefits over light wood frame techniques in terms of fire, acoustic performance, and structural performance, scale, material stability and construction efficiency. ‘



AUSTRIA:  The LifeCycle Tower to be built in Dornbirn, Austria uses wood as its primary structural support. When it is completed it will stand 30 stories tall, netting it the title of the tallest wooden building in the world. The building is designed to Passivhaus standards and uses prefabricated building modules that can be erected in half the time of traditional building. An adaptive façade can host solar electric, solar thermal, green panels, or sunscreens, making this a strong candidate for the world's greenest high-rise. Source: Inhabitat.com

Norwegian Barents Secretariat - World's Tallest Wooden Building

NORWAY: In 2009 the Norwegian Barents Secretariat announced plans for a new cultural center that is being touted as the world’s tallest wooden building. The Secretariat hopes that the new structure will serve as a physical symbol of their important role in the High North – a lighthouse of sorts and a beacon of knowledge and development. As part of that role, the new office and cultural center will also act as a model for sustainable building and carbon neutrality. Source: Inhabitat.com

Grocon, Australia passive house,Green Star Certification, 105 green star pionts, eco building Australia, carbon neutral building, Greenest building Australia, green building passive house, tallest wood building, prefab tower, eco tower, green prefab building, green residential apartment

Australia’s first Passive House certified building will also be part of a new breed of zero carbon multi-story buildings that use wood as a central building component. Designed by Melbourne based Studio 505 and built by the progressive developer Grocon, the Delta building is aiming to be the greenest multi-story building in Australia. Source: Inhabitat

Britain: See this BBC News report on Bridport House, a block of council flats in Hackney, London, which is the tallest wooden apartment block in the world at eight stories high. It was built and assembled by Eurban using preformed Mass Timber blocks and panels in 40% less time than a conventional concrete building would have taken to build. More details at: Timberinconstruction


‘Tall Wood buildings are not a new concept. 1400 years ago tall pagodas in Japan were built to 19 storeys in wood and still stand today in high seismic, wet climate environments. Several countries around the world have a history of building Tall Wood buildings. In Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood 7 and 10 storey heavy timber buildings have stood for the last hundred years. ‘

Pagoda of Fogong Temple is the oldest existing fully-wooden pagoda in China. Built in 1056, it has survived several large earthquakes over the centuries. http://mannaismayaadventure.com/2010/page/41/


Wooden Skyscraper Unusual Architectural Design

Archangelsk, Russia: Nikolay Sutyagin started this amazing wooden skyscraper as a simple two-story structure, then just kept building. The building now stands 13 stories (144 feet) tall and is under threat of demolition out of safety concerns by authorities. Source: weburbanist.com See also: YouTube video from Russia Today.


wooden skyscrapers

Mini Manhattan project made by renowned model maker Michael Chesko. Photo: www.nyconthecheap.com

Two highly-detailed, hand-carved miniature wooden models of Downtown and Midtown Manhattan have been donated to The Skyscraper Museum by Arizona resident Mike Chesko, a 49-year-old retiree and devoted amateur model maker. In June, Chesko, his wife, son and niece drove cross-country to transport the precious panoramas to the museum and to see the real city at full scale. It was their first trip to New York.

Chesko's models measure 17-3/4 by 20 inches for the Lilliputian Lower Manhattan and 37 by 31 inches for Midtown. The scale of the model is 3/8 inch for every 100 feet, meaning that the 1,250 foot Empire State Building reaches only 4.7 inches tall. The tallest of the tiny buildings are the Twin Towers (still standing in this model) which soar a full 5.1 inches. These models are so small that ten city blocks can fit in the palm of your hand.


Sunday, May 20, 2012



Bill Butler was one of the good guys who died too young. Bill was a larger-than-life character, poet, publisher, distributor and founder, with his partner Mike, of the wonderful Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton which, in the 1970s, was a magical place – our own City Lights bookstore. Bill knew many of the Beats and Unicorn was stuffed with their works and all manner of other wonderful books, mags and posters which one could find nowhere else. Us young hipppies used to go go over there and use the duplicator in the upstairs room to produce our own little stapled magazines. Bill regularly half-jokingly chased me round the shop. Later he chased me round the Frendz office in Portobello Road. He was a big man with a big voice and laugh. He could be tough to deal with. Passionate and forthright, often in trouble with the law, Bill played important roles in the underground/ alternative publishing scene and was an important poet in his own right.

Since his death in 1977, his reputation has dropped off the radar. Now, thanks to years of work by Terry Adams, this is about to change. Terry has ferreted in the Archives, contacted friends and colleagues, constructed detailed bibliographies and biographies and is hoping to draw all this material together in some form of publication. He is still keen to collect more reminiscences, documents, photos and ephemera. If you have memories of Bill or anything useful to contribute, you can contact him directly at salnterry@yahoo.co.uk

Terry visited THE GENERALIST ARCHIVE yesterday and I was able to add some images and documents to the project. Terry was kind enough to give me a rare copy of ‘Static of the star-filled wind: Selected poems 1959-1977’, published by his former partner dear, sweet Mike, from which this poem and biographical text is taken:

Bill Butler (1934-1977)

He was born in Spokane, Washington and educated in Montana, Florida and The San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

He started writing in in 1957 and his first book “Alder Gulch and Other Poems” was published in Berkeley in 1961. He went to Greece to work on city traffic survey and managed also to teach Creative Writing in one of the Greek naval establishments. He came to England in 1963 hoping to work on the London traffic survey with the same American company, which didn’t work out, he became a resident alien and eventually took a job as a security guard at a piug and sewerage farm in North London.

Originally he had a room in Blackheath but he soon moved to a flat in Paddington, gave up the pig farm and started work with a Charing Cross [Road] Bookshop. Concurrent with his poetry he was also writing essays and interview for The Guardian (Manchester), The Scotsman (Edinburgh), New Worlds and The Spectator (London).

In 1965 he and his partner moved to Brighton and he opened UNICORN BOOKSHOP which earned itself a little fame and some notoriety being prosecuted and fined for selling obscene literature but was cleared on appeal when it was pointed out that most of the titles were on sale at the local “Smith’s bookshop”

He was undertaking poetry readings not only in the UK but also in America and Canada. In 1974 the shop was closed to concentrate on publishing and Unicorn moved to Wales. He returned to London in 1977 where he died just after completing his book “Myth of the Hero”


Copy of UNIICORN 10190


This photo and news story (both uncredited) appeared in Frendz 30 [23rd June 1971] [THE GENERALIST ARCHIVE]

Better Books, March 1972, Richard Friedman

The aforementioned Charing Cross Road bookshop that Bill worked in and/or managed was BETTER BOOKS. As chance would have it, have just received a press release a for the following event:


Flattime House, 210 Bellenden Rd,

London SE15 4BW

Friday 29 June - Sunday 29 July 2012
Thursday 28 June, 6-9pm

An archival exhibition including film, sound, installation and events presenting a portrait of the Better Books bookshop, a hub of the London avant-garde during the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Featuring work and material from Gustav Metzger, John Latham, Jeff Nuttall, Stephen Dwoskin, Bruce Lacey, Keith Musgrove, Islwyn Watkins, Bob Cobbing, Criton Tomazos, Dave Trace, Pip Benveniste, Heather Richardson, Jeff Keen, Alexander Trocchi, Jennifer Pike, Annea Lockwood, Werner Schrieb, Jeffrey Shaw, Tjebbe van Tijen, Group H, Writers Forum and more.

Curated by Rozemin Keshvani.

FURTHER INFO: http://www.flattimeho.org.uk/project/68/

Sunday, May 13, 2012



This crackerjack of a book by Ronald Rael, linked to an impressive blog, is a great starting point for finding out about earth building in general and about its uses in modern architecture via an inspiring illustrated portfolio of nearly 50 projects from around the world which use either rammed earth, Mud Brick, Compressed Earth Blocks or Molded Earth. These are some of the things I have learnt from this fantastic book which has totally convinced me that earth building is the way forward and that I’d like to get involved.

Rael’s book (originally published in autumn 2008) begins with these awesome statistics:

‘It is estimated that between a third and a half of the world’s population – approximately 3 billion people on six continents – lives in buildings constructed of earth.’

[In his Notes he writes: ‘Many academics, authors, builders, writers and architects have noted [this fact] although none have cited the origin of this number directly.’

   According to Wikipedia, the world’s population exceeded 7 billion on either Oct 31, 2011 [UN Population Fund] or March 12, 2012 [US Census Bureau].

‘In India there are estimated to be as many as 80 million dwellings made of earth, and in China the number of people living in earthen homes is estimated to be 100 million. In France 15 per cent of rural buildings are made of rammed earth, and the United States is the leading consumer of mud bricks in the industrialised world.’

‘This makes the ground we walk on…the most widely used building material on the planet’

Rael tells us there are around 20 different methods of using earth to build walls, floors and roofs. Dwellings aside, earth has been used to build a huge diversity of working and agricultural buildings, walls, monuments and places of worship.

The world’s first ‘skyscrapers’ – the 500 tower houses of the city of Shibham in the Yemen – were built up to nine stories high entirely of mud brick as was the Ziggurat at Ur and parts of the Great Wall of China.

He concludes: ‘: ‘the inherent beauty and versatility of humankind’s oldest building material will likely gain mainstream acceptance in the near future.’ This book makes a valuable contribution to that end.

These two projects I found especially inspiring:


These 15  emergency shelters were built by Iraqi refugees displaced by the Persian Gulf war in 1995 using a technique called ‘superadobe’, developed by Iranian-born architect Hader Khalil, founder of the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture. Polypropylene sandbags are filled by hand with dirt, sand or clay and then ‘stacked and wound in increasingly smaller circular patterns to form domed structures.’ Barbed wire is placed between each layer to keep the bags from slipping and to add tensile strength. When complete, the structure is plastered with earth to form an elegant earthquake-resistant shelter, built at a very los cost.


Mud brick maker Daniel Carnacho at work outside his four-room  mud brick house designed by Simone Swan director and founder of the Adobe Alliance, ‘an organisation dedicated to helping communities apply cooperative building techniques in earth architecture.’ For Swan, building with adobe is a political act.

‘Earth Architecture’ by Ronald Rael [Princeton University Press] is now available in paperback. The book grew out of Rael’s excellent blog which is here: www.eartharchitecture.org/



The term ‘vernacular architecture’ has many different meanings and interpretations. I am working on my own definition/description which at present reads something like this:

‘Vernacular buildings are those built by individuals, families, or communities using local materials and traditional technologies. The forms of these buildings have often been refined over centuries to make maximum use of minimal resources, to be energy efficient and to be perfectly adapted to the local climate and landscape.’

Vernacular architecture could also be considered an umbrella term encompassing the following: Primitive/Indigenous, Traditional. Rural, Ethnic, Informal, Anonymous

If you look up the word Vernacular in the Oxford English Dictionary the definition is : ‘The native or indigenous language of a country or district’. So vernacular can also be understood as the architectural language of a country or district – what we could perhaps call Local Vernacular.

There is a purpose to this preamble as this post  is principally a review of a great new book  by John C. Allen Jr. entitled ‘Uncommon Vernacular: The Early Houses of Jefferson County, West Virginia (1735-1835)’ [West Virginia University Press]  - a Local Vernacular study par excellence.

Mr Allen begins by pitching straight into the issues discussed above: ‘The word ‘”vernacular” means different things to different people. This modifier has caused a great deal of handwringing in the field of architectural history, where it is sometimes seen as a vague catch-all category for common buildings.’

The 250 historic houses he documents in this book are vernacular in the sense, he says,  that they ‘do not adhere to formal archetypes’. He accepts the term ‘local vernacular’ but then he calls his book ‘Uncommon Vernacular’ for reasons as follows: ‘Neighbouring counties have some building types…[but] the specific combinations of materials, construction techniques, detailing, and plan assortment that are common here are absent just a few miles over the county borders.’ Hence ‘Uncommon’.

UV1175Daniel Haines House (c.1818), a compact side-hall double-pile brick house with an early example of a decorative brick cornice.

His study is the result of seven years of what he described as ‘exhaustive documentation’ and one can only imagine the thousands of hours involved.

It took him years initially to locate the properties, to establish a relevant time-span and to forge a chronological and thematic approach that makes sense of the evolution of styles and forms within a historical context

His modus operandi is meticulous. On his first site visit he recorded detailed observations about both interiors and exteriors, plus materials used, stylistic features and parts that had been rebuilt or added. He measured each house for floor plan rendering and took colour photos.

On the second visit, he was accompanied by architectural photographer Walter Smalling who documented each house using 4x5in b&w film – large format negatives that are the standard of the Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS] collection at the Library of Congress, where the pictures from this book  -  a total of 3,000 b&w and 14,000 colour images - will ultimately reside.

Where buildings had been substantially modified, the illustrator Andrew Lewis has done some fine reconstructions based on field measurements and HABS photographs. He is also responsible for the finely-drawn plans.

Property research, done mainly by Edie Wallace of the  historic resource firm Paula Reed and Associates, established a chain of ownership.

The final results of their efforts are beautifully presented in a black and white book of great elegance that showcases perfectly the fine photography and graphics. The text is crisp and precise, with concise house profiles and historical essays providing context.

Broadly speaking the book divides into two: Farmhouses and Outbuildings followed by Town Houses.

Early farmhouse forms (1730s-1789) varied significantly as, writes Allen, ‘the county was sparsely populated with families of different cultural backgrounds’ [German, Scots-Irish, English along with African slaves] ‘so a degree of architectural divergence would be expected.’ He found it ‘startling’ to discover that, within the following decade, diversity had shrunk to a ‘handful of established house types [which] would dominate the county’s landscape for more than four decades.’ He puts this discovery down to ‘the desire of varying cultures to assimilate after the Revolution.’

UV3177      A log meat house, used for storing and curing hams and beef.

I found the Outbuildings section fascinating. Here are summer kitchens, meat houses, slave quarters, wash houses, dairies, offices, barns, blacksmith shops and privies  - also delightfully known as ‘necessary houses’ – of which only a handful survive.


Photo and  floor plans of the Henry Fizer House (ca 1795), West German Street, Shepherstown

The grand town houses’ portfolio comes complete with a detailed ‘Siting and Construction’ chapter and sections on both Exterior and Interior Details - from shutter dogs to casements and chimneys, along with a plethora of stair types, windows, doors and fireplaces.


Mitred double-field step casing, Harewood. 1770

Allen works professionally as a preservation coordinator and architectural historian but he is also the chairman of the Historic Landscape Commission of Jefferson County. In this capacity he reports that ‘these houses are a finite – and dwindling – resource.’

Each year several of the county’s historic buildings are lost to fire, neglect or demolition. During the course of this study, six documented houses were reduced to rubble, and roughly ten per cent of the houses are unoccupied and in ruins. Documenting these irreplaceable artifacts thus becomes an increasingly urgent task.’

UV2176  William Orndorff House (ca 1835) has been demolished since this picture was taken.

Despite the sterling efforts of him and his team of ‘house detectives’ Allen says there are many historic structures in the county which have yet to be examined. ‘Therefore this study is a starting point for further research, a threshold, and the door is open to new avenues of inquiry.’

Uncommon Vernacular’ demonstrates the importance of such work and will hopefully inspire others to rescue their own local vernacular from obscurity, or worse, oblivion.


Monday, May 07, 2012


HAND MADE HOUSES165 On May 2nd I was invited by the charity Article 25 to give a talk about Vernacular Architecture in general and my book ‘Handmade Houses’ in particular, at the offices of the architects Scott Brownrigg in London’s Covent Garden, for an audience of architectural students and others. Thanks to Louis, Gordon, Pete, Stewart and others for their support. My first PowerPoint presentation! You can read an account of the night here.

Article 25, who have been described by The Guardian as ‘The UK’s leading architectural aid charity’ take their name from that section of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights -  adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 - which states, in part:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…

It was founded by construction industry leaders in response to natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. Both events revealed that there was lack of built environment skills in vulnerable communities.

Since its foundation, Article 25 has become the first port of call for NGOs in need of construction, design and building management skills. They have been involved in over 50 projects in 22 countries, working in collaboration with communities and governments, to build better homes, schools and community buildings for those who need them. They deserve your support.

Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture

  Another Article 25 event involved the architect Sandra Piesik who has spent many years documenting the vernacular palm-leaf architecture of the United Arab Emirates. An exhibition documenting her study is on show at the Royal Geographical Society until the end of the month. Her sumptuous book is available from Thames & Hudson.

With the help of Article-25 volunteers and students, Sandra supervised the building of  and Arish palm-leaf house in the gardens of the RGS. A palm-leaf sculpture made by the firm Burro Happold is also on display. See full account here:

Date palm trees have a deep-seated connection with Islamic culture and have traditionally not only provided dates but also building material. The oldest such palm-leaf structures in the Emirates date back 7,000 years. Now virtually none remain.

According to Sandra Piesik: ‘The world ‘Arish’ derives from the Arabic ‘al-reesha’ meaning ‘a feather’ as palm leaves look like feathers, particularly when joined together.’ She records that, in the UAE, the term Arish is applied to summer houses; winter houses are known as khaimahs. Arish houses are distinctive from region to region; in the northern Emirates the word is spelt Areesh.



Photos: © Sandra Piesik

ARISH CAYADY: ‘A summer house for one family, built by the whole family (including the children). It is 5.6m long, 2.8m wide and 4m high. It has one door and no windows. The walls are made of untrimmed palm leaves, stacked vertically, held together and strengthened by five horizontal connections of fronds, inside and outside, tied together with rope. The roof is a frond frame covered with woven palm mats.’ – Sandra Piesik

Sandra Piesik’s book documents all aspects of what is known of the Arish vernacular tradition. This has been pieced together from archaeological and photographic evidence – including the photos taken back in the 1940s by Wilfred Thesiger. She criss-crossed all regions of the Emirates, tracking down some of the last craftsmen and builders from the tradition.

Her ultimate aim is two-fold: to establish a substantial archive of palm-leaf building history and techniques and, equally importantly, to try and revive this form of construction in the modern world. When you consider that the UAE has 42 million date palms which, every year, have to be trimmed of their fronds after the date harvest, you get some idea of the potential amount of construction material that is currently going to waste.

The book shows various reconstruction projects and some fine examples of Arish work from different regions. Dried palm leaves are made into mats, screens and roofs, tied together with rope made of twisted palm tree fibre. Palm tree trunks provide structure and support. The craftsmanship is beautiful and the results elegant and highly practical. Such structures’ primary function is to provide cooling shade in conditions where the average outside temperature can reach more than 50 degrees C.

The modest Arish structures provide a powerful symbolic counterpoint to the giant towers of modern-day Bahrein. Can traditional palm-leaf architecture be adapted and developed  for the modern world? Is palm-leaf, like bamboo, one of the new building materials for a climate-change future?

This seminal vernacular monograph is a classic work, documenting a vital project of contemporary relevance.


Photos: © Sandra Piesik





Sunday, May 06, 2012



I have Lin to thank for lending me this book and tipping me off to the work of Glenn Murcutt. The other major source for this post is Murray Johnson’s website of which more anon.

Robert Hughes has long been one of my favourite writers on art but I was completely unaware of this, his first published work, which he wrote in the months before his 25th birthday in 1963. The book was published briefly three years later but Hughes was so unhappy with the edition that all but a few now very collectable copies were pulped. This is the revised edition published in 1970. No doubt there have been other major works on the subject since but I still enjoy Hughes’ passionate and punchy prose.

As yet I have only lightly scanned the book to get an overall sense but I did read a few days ago the chapter on the Heidelberg painters of the 1880s, who lived and had painting camps in and around this outer suburb of Melbourne.

They and others were involved in the staging of the legendary ‘9x5 Impressionist Exhibition’ held in Melbourne in 1889. The  majority of paintings were small (9ins x 5ins) and mainly painted on cigar box lids or board. Their statement of intent in the show’s catalogue is, says Hughes, the first at manifesto in Australian art history.

One of the main painters of the group was Tom Roberts and this is one of his most famous paintings - ‘Shearing the Rams’ (1890)

This painting was a huge inspiration to a man who was not only the true champion in modern times of traditional Australian vernacular architecture but also became the founder and chief polemicist for the post-war mud-brick self-build movement which he saw as the precursor for building a new alternative society. This man was Alistair Knox. he loved this painting not for the human activity but for the glimpse it gave him of the large timber construction of the shearing sheds of that period.

Kylie Tennant pictured in 1950.

He was further inspired by the works of  Kylie Tennant who, he said, ‘opened my mind’ to the fact that corrugated iron ‘had created the civilisation of the Australian outback.’ A former journalist, at the age of 32 she set out to walk 1000kms from Sydney to Coonabarabran in the outback ok of NSW to visit a college friend who had been exiled there for his radical views. This walk through post-Depression Australia enabled her to find out about what she called ‘the men of the track’, which fuelled her socialist principles.

A third influence on Knox’s thinking was Justus Jorgensen (1893-1975), a painter and draughtsman who, with his wife Lily and the help of friends and students, established an artists’ colony in the 1930s they called Montsalvat at Eltham outside Melbourne. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

‘Jorgensen gathered around him a group of friends and followers. He gave them the opportunity to learn to paint and to master the crafts connected with his building—carpentry, sculpture, metalwork, tiling and slating. He also offered them the chance of a freer, more meaningful life—a measure of heightened self-knowledge and the possibility of happiness, including sexual fulfilment.’

According to the Montsalvat website:

‘The first buildings were two small ‘French Provincial’ style cottages where they could stay at weekends. By 1938 work had started on the Great Hall. This mainly stone building includes two galleries, a studio and a large dining hall. 
Jörgensen had the ability to make use of whatever material was at hand. The earth and stone from the excavations formed the walls, with other materials sourced from wreckers’ and builders’ yards across Melbourne. 
With the outbreak of World War Two, the collective energies at Montsalvat were redirected and Montsalvat became largely self-sufficient, with a market garden, poultry farm and small dairy. Several more buildings were hastily built for the ‘farm’ - the dairy, barn, stables, silos and storehouses belong to this period. ‘

The following information on Knox is drawn from Murray Johnson’s excellent account of his life and work on his highly recommended website www.byohouse.com.au

According to Johnson, the philosophy of earth building crossed over into mainstream Australia thanks to Jorgenson's pioneering building work, a shortage of building materials after WWII and what he called the ‘unique midwifery’ of Knox. They and others consulted with G.F. Middleton whose scientific work on mud brick building help overcome the strict rules of the country’s Uniform Building Regulations.

Knox’s book ‘Building Your House of Earth’ came out in 1952 and became, says Johnson, ‘every Australian mud brick builder’s bible….‘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.’ Knox wrote:

“It is axiomatic that mud bricks will be a fundamental element in the alternative social structure today…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 good therapeutic properties. Watching the earth dry and the varying characteristics of its physical structure, immerse us in poetic deliberations that unites our heart, heads and hands.’

Johnson writes: ‘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 its is today’

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 a s building medium.’

Knox wrote these words in 1975

‘I believe we are involved in a movement in winning the environmental battle for survival. The alternative society is a new group of pioneers because they are identified with the total landscape in a total living way.’

So finally to Glenn Murcutt, considered one of Australia’s finest architects with an international reputation as a teacher.

Like Knox he was inspired by the timber, earth and corrugated iron vernacular architecture of Australia’s outback.

‘This unusual house is Murcutt’s clearest discussion with Australian vernacular architecture, in particular native Aboriginal dwellings. There is no glazing anywhere on the house, which instead opts for a series of panels that can open and close, transforming the ventilation and appearance of the entire house. Built for the Aboriginal artist Banduk Marika and her family, the house was an attempt at connecting the colonial and Aboriginal cultures of Australia, prompting Marika to call it her “Bridge House.” Source: Architectural Record

More pictures and a detailed description of the house can be found here: www.rockwool.dk

‘Apparently the Marika Alderton house is so straightforward that it requires no further explanation. However, architects should not be misled by this. The house is oriented according to compass, and the eaves are precisely broad enough to prevent the facades from being subject to direct solar heating both in winter and summer. The message here is clearly understood, by using “natural” means and solutions the house is able to ventilate itself, providing the architect has offered these possibilities and the proper orientation. ‘

Glenn Murcutt
photo : Jure Zavrtanik

“I’m very interested in buildings that adapt to changes in climatic conditions according to the seasons,
buildings capable of responding to our physical and psychological needs in the way that clothing does.
We don’t turn on the air-conditioning as we walk through the streets in high summer. Instead, we
change the character of the clothing by which we are protected. Layering and changeability: this is the
key, the combination that is worked into most of my buildings. Occupying one of these buildings is
like sailing a yacht; you modify and manipulate its form and skin according to seasonal conditions and
natural elements, and work with these to maximize the performance of the building. This involvement
with the building also assists in the care for it. I am concerned about the exploitation of the natural
environment in order to modify the internal climate of buildings. Architects must confront the perennial
issues of light, heat, and humidity control yet take responsibility for the method and the materials by
which, and out of which, a building is made. The considerations, context, and the landscape are some
of the factors that are constantly at work in my architecture.”
—Glenn Murcutt, 1996

In 2002, Murcutt was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Their website contains a essay by Kenneth Framton which is available as a pdf from the Pritzker site.

In 1973, Murcutt undertook a world tour beginning in Mexico City, across the States and into Western Europe with a stop-off on Mykonos. Framtom writes:

‘Murcutt’s brief contact with the Greek island vernacular took him back to his roots, to the relatively primitive environment of his childhood in New Guinea, to the nature writings of Thoreau much cherished by his father, and above all, to the realization that a revitalized Australian architecture would have to be grounded not only in its greatly varying climate and landscape, together with its exotic flora and fauna, but also in the repressed Aboriginal culture that was to have such a decisive influence on the evolution of Murcutt’s domestic architecture. It was this plus a profound respect for the traditional Aboriginal ethic of “touching the earth lightly”—the moral principle of not disturbing nature more than is absolutely necessary—that led to Murcutt’s conception of a new Australian domus in the form of a long and narrow, light-weight, roof work, comparable in its sheltering function to the bower of a tree or, in more morphological terms, to the turned up collar of an overcoat that shelters from the wind while subtly opening its front towards the sun.’

Glenn Murcutt

Portrait by Montabetti + Campbell/National Portrait Gallery, Canberra,



Werner Herzog at the New York Film Festival in the 1980s.  Photo: Joe Stevens

‘The poet must not avert his eyes’

-  Werner Herzog

imageHappy People - A Year in Taiga cover art

Grizzly Man cover artThe White Diamond cover art

The Generalist has long considered Werner Herzog to be one of the most innovative, unusual and other-worldly film makers on the planet – as did Truffaut. He is also one of the most prolific, having produced a long string of feature-length documentaries since the success of ‘Grizzly Man’ – the extraordinary tale of Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers in Katmai National Park, Alaska in close proximity with some of the most dangerous animals on earth. He videod his experiences and used the footage to raise awareness about the fate of the bears.

After Treadwell and his girlfriend’s violent death at the hands of a rogue bear, Herzog worked with the more than 100 hours of footage Treadwell had shot to create this stunning and moving film – an extraordinary psychological study of Treadwell himself which also contains incredible footage of the bears. Half the film is based on Herzog’s original interviews and he also narrates. Bonus is the beautiful soundtrack by Richard Thompson. [The music in Herzog’s films is always special.]

In the accompanying Extra interview with Mark Kermode he delivers some memorable quotes which I hastily scribbled down. His view of nature: '”chaos, hostility and murder’. On his status as a filmmaker: “…a good soldier of cinema. That’s what I want to be.’ He believes that ‘the poet must not avert his eyes’. He says: ‘Sometimes images develop their own life, their own stardom.’ By the way, during this interview, Herzog was shot with a slug from an air rifle; he just shrugs off the incident and carries on.

On the evidence of these films, Herzog is a wonderful polar opposite to David Attenborough, whose measured tones have defined natural history documentaries. For my money, Herzog is a more interesting narrator, concerned as he is with psychological and terrestrial extremes and perfectly at home with the weirdness he finds there. Not for him the obsessive technological focus of the BBBC’s Natural History Unit. He works off the cuff with hand-held cameras and puts himself out there with his subjects, improvising as he goes along. The results are visceral with a spiritual dimension.

In ‘Encounters At The End of the World’ he spends a summer with scientists on Antarctica and what a revelation this is: strange characters and incredible scenes under the ice and on top of Mt Erebus, the continent’s active volcano.

In ‘Happy People’ he spends a year with the indigenous people of the remote settlement of  Bakhtia, a small village on the river Yenisei deep in the Siberian taiga.

In ‘The White Diamond’ he is in the Amazon rain forest with an experimental airship that allows his cameramen to float over the tree canopy to capture never-before-seen views. The craft was built by Dr Graham Dorrington who, as we discover, is haunted by a previous expedition with an earlier version of the craft, which crashed and led to the death of his friend wildlife cameraman Dieter Plage.




The Wild Blue Yonder cover art

Herzog, never a man to be confined to one medium or genre, continues to explore the borders of fact and fiction:

‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done’ and ‘Rescue Dawn’ are both based on true stories. The first concerns a real-life crime in which a young actor who had been playing in a Greek drama in which he kills his mother with a sword, then re-enacts this in real life. Produced by David Lynch, this is, unsurprisingly, a weird one.

‘Rescue Dawn’ is the story of Dieter Dengler, who, on his first mission flying over Laos, was shot down and captured – but then made a miraculous escape. Great performance from Christian Bale. When you listen to the Extra doc on the making of the film you discover the mind-blowing story of the film’s production – a logistical nightmare that Herzog make light of. Herzog went back to Laos with Dengler 10 years before making ‘Rescue Dawn’ for a documentary entitled ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly.’

Bad Lieutenant; Port of Call, New Orleans’, a remake/sequel to the Abel Ferrara dark classic with Harvey Keitel, shot in NO post-Katrina, starring Nicholas Cage. I watched it twice and still couldn’t get my head round it. For me the tension and weirdness builds only to dispersed by rather cliched scenes familiar from a hundred cop series. Maybe I’m missing something.

As for ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ – this is way, way out there. Its narrated by a wild guy who claims to have come from a distant star. His off-kilter narration about his journey to Earth from across the galaxies is mixed in with real-life footage from the International Space Station and what looks like extra footage Herzog shot under the ice for his Antarctic documentary. The film is certainly very spacey and edgy but don’t ask me what it all means.

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From a Generalist post on the Polish website BI-WEEKLY.PL

‘You Have To Be Ruthless’ an interview by MICHAŁ CHACIŃSKI with WERNER HERZOG –  one of the most important and vital filmmakers in the world today -Anyone interested in making movies should read this extraordinary account of Herzog’s working methods. They don’t teach this at film school.