Not Quite Square: The Story of Northern Rivers Architecture

Page 1



^ Image Credit, Adrienne and Erwin’s River House, Whipbird Gully 1982





Jenny Dowell Mayor, Lismore City Council There’s something about the thought of building one’s own home that appeals to all of us. A home built by hand on our own patch of dirt harkens back to our early childhood when we made cubbies from whatever we could find. As adults our home tells visitors who we are and what we believe in. Most of us will never build our own home but we all admire those who can realise their philosophies and beliefs in the very walls they inhabit. Our region is the home of the owner builder. Before the requirement for registration to build your own home, the Aquarius new settlers embraced the need for housing and a life that was much more organic rather than the triple fronted brick veneer on a quarter acre suburban block. With skills acquired at a community course or just ideas, they started on their dream on communal land, later called a Multiple Occupancy, thereby also changing land use classifications in Lismore and beyond. Forty years later, the impact of those visionaries continues with The Owner Builder magazine, commenced in 1982, featuring stories in a recent issue of building in stone, old trees, sandbags and barbed wire and a feature on Peter Pedals from Nimbin. Long before the word ‘Sustainability’ was commonplace if not overused, the new settlers embraced living in harmony with the environment, social connectedness and an anti-consumerist attitude to wealth that still permeates our rainbow region today. Thanks to those pioneers of peace and love, we are the region of stone, hemp, mud brick and straw bale homes with reed lined walls, stamped earth floors, whole tree trunks as the main support structures, coloured glass bottle windows, recycled materials and compost toilets. The owners of these fascinating and idiosyncratic homes are living an ideology of sustainability that have a reality that is not found in Kevin McLeod’s Man Made Home but like that home and the barn-raising traditions of the USA, people came together to share tools, ideas and skills and communities were born. There is however a risk in idealising the process behind these wonderful creations. There was pain too in relationships that did not last through months of rain and mud, lack of bathroom or kitchen facilities, the challenges of making buildings compliant with building codes and the ‘years of tears’. Through it all and continuing today, our region is enriched by architecture that is truly ours. We can be proud of being at the centre of environmental activism – and the compost toilet capital of the nation. Thank you to the men and women of vision who lived the dream of building their own home so that we can celebrate a rich history and embrace the sustainability initiatives that were started by them.

< Tim Hixson, Dome in the hills near Nimbin 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery



Brett Adlington Director, Lismore Regional Gallery It is with great pleasure and pride that Lismore Regional Gallery presents this exhibition, Not Quite Square: the story of Northern Rivers architecture. This project has as its genesis a lunch I had at Denis and Malina Monks’ house in 2011. Their house, inspired by the work of Antoni Gaudi when the family resided in Barcelona, neatly encapsulates all that is fascinating about this region. It has obvious environmental concerns at its heart; it is worldly and references international thought; it is humble in terms of the expense to build; and it is designed to be a place to inspire creativity. As someone with a deep passion for architecture, it got me thinking about the nature of such houses in this region – and what is the back story? The result is this exhibition. While we have endeavoured to tell this wide ranging story as honestly as possible – it could not cover the entire picture. We could not cover all exemplary houses in this region. We could not tell in detail the story of the multiple occupancy movement. We also could not talk deeply about all the environmental impacts that local owner builders have sought to minimise. What we have done is tried to elicit the motivations behind such practices, and to seek some recognition for the movement as a whole, and the fights these people had to make to rethink the way we inhabit our domestic space. The philosophy behind this exhibition connects with my overarching interest to use the gallery as a vehicle in which to tell wide ranging stories of this region. This project is but one, with a previous example being the 2012 project, Bananas, Business and Bocce: the Lismore Italians. Over time it is my hope is that there will be a strong body of research that weaves together this wonderful region. Understandably this has been a complex program to bring together – so thanks are due to many people, but in particular to the Gallery’s curator, Kezia Geddes who has brought to this project a deep understanding of this culture, and a passion for the story. My thanks to Tim Hixson for enthusiastically embracing the brief and for capturing the essence of these houses; and to Lee Stickells for bringing his deep research and knowledge of the owner builder culture of the 1960s and 70s. I would also like to thank Sharon Shosak for producing such an insightful film for this project. Our gratitude also to the financial supporters of this project, without whom this would not have been possible: The University of Sydney, The Linnaeus Estate, Arts NSW and of course Lismore City Council. And finally, our sincere thanks to all the owner-builders who so willingly welcomed us into their homes, and to their lives. We trust that this exhibition recognises your contribution, and we hope that it provides inspiration for others to follow. < Tim Hixson, Main Arm 2 mid 70s, courtesy of Tim Hixson



> Erwin Weber builds on his property near Chillingham, early 80s courtesy of Adrienne and Erwin Weber



It was late in 1972 and two university types had just driven into Nimbin. Johnny Allen and Col James were actually looking for Casino Airport, but north-coast roads and signs being what they were, that wasn’t happening easily. They were totally lost but had found exactly what they were looking for. A place in which to grow hopes for the future.

had taken its toll. Many of the shops in the once thriving village had shut and the whole place seemed in need of a good coat of paint.

The future was also on the minds of the spirited community of Nimbin that, with its tradition of independent, do-it-yourself entertainment and civic progress, contemplated ongoing decline. Dying, some said. Changes to the economics of agriculture, in the dairy and banana industries especially,

The future: it may not always be something we keep in mind, but it is often there, playing on our minds. Playing with our minds. Sometimes its influence on us is as strong as that of the past, whether we are anxious of what might come to pass, or we are drawn towards an inspirational vision. This thing

The future brought these two groups, students and Nimbinites, together; both concerned for where things were headed.


Harry Watson Smith Nimbin Early morning tents ver 3 First Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Harry Watson Smith

that doesn’t yet exist, that we can only imagine, has that enigmatic quality of influencing the here and now. Because if there is something we would like to create it is a home in the future, a future that has a place for us, that is inviting us in. Something like a nostalgia for the future. Of course the future is not always so comfortable. At every moment in history somewhere people fear the future, the danger it presents, its lack of homeliness. These moments call for a response if we have the means to do so. This was the case in the early 1970s, here in Australia. Many young people contemplated a future that up to that point was otherwise


Chris Meagher Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, May 1973 acquired 1997 Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

filled with war—Vietnam and Cold—as well as environmental destruction and a life that seemed to have no point to but consume more. At stake seemed nothing less than the survival of humanity and the planet. What was needed, many believed, were new ways of living together and with the earth. These new ways and ideas were bundled up into a ‘movement’ called the counterculture, which blossomed in Western democracies during the 1960s and 1970s. Its essence was to challenge the functionalist, ‘mainstream’, ‘square’ culture characterised by formal education, career, marriage and suburban mortgage, and from this desire




Chris Meagher Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, May 1973 acquired 1997 Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

came a range of experiments; some were failures and short-lived, and others long-lasting and now almost mainstream. Whatever the outcome, the intent was not one possible future for one’s life but a future of possibilities, along with a commitment to social and environmental sustainability. For many of these futures, people reached into the past, reached from the city into the countryside, often as not recycling culture but with a liberated consciousness and body added in. The counterculture was, therefore, intensely biopolitical in the sense that it was and is a politics of life, one’s own life, and life on planet earth more generally. The two university types who lost their way into Nimbin that afternoon in 1972 were counterculture advance-scouts: Col was an architecture lecturer from Sydney University, and Johnny was the artistic director of the Australian Union of Students (AUS) Aquarius Foundation, the AUS arts and culture organisation. Their mission was to find a site for the second Aquarius Festival, a biennial festival of arts and culture.


Chris Meagher Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, May 1973 acquired 1997 Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

The 1973 festival was designed to promote countercultural ideas in Australia. For this the AUS sought a rural setting away from the confinement of city campuses—the first Aquarius Festival in 1971 was held at ANU in Canberra—and far from the speed and alienation of city life. Initially the organisers sought a vacant rural property in a relatively warm location, but they had no luck around Mullumbimby, and Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland was not welcoming. So on this particular trip Johnny and Col were on their way back to Sydney, via Casino, disconsolate, still without a site and the Festival just half a year away. But when, by that chance, Col James saw Nimbin—main street shops empty and in need of a face-lift—a long-held idea of his returned in a Eureka! moment: Forget looking for an undeveloped festival site, ‘Let’s recycle a town!’ At a town meeting in January 1973 the village overwhelmingly voted yes to hosting the students; with no better scheme on the horizon, for Nimbin it seemed worth a go. This was a significant moment in the region’s recent


Chris Meagher Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, May 1973 acquired 1997 Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

history. The Aquarius Festival over ten days in May 1973 didn’t bring the counterculture to Australia, and it certainly wasn’t the first countercultural presence in the north-coast area, but it did catalyse its growth and promote it just as the AUS planned. From that time since Nimbin has been recognised as the countercultural capital of Australia, and northeast NSW and south-east Queensland as a region with the highest density of intentional communities in Australia. If it is alternatives you seek, you should be able to find them here. Most of the five thousand festivalgoers left Nimbin but a few stayed. Because this Aquarius Festival was a festival without a program there was plenty of time for discussing ideas and organising. What emerged from the apparent chaos of a festival that was its own art form were relationships between people and a cooperative intent. One direct outcome, for example, was the Coordination Cooperative at Tuntable Falls. With a group of people from the Festival already committed to the radical idea to start a community on communally owned land with no single leader, Paul


Graeme Batterbury Max’s Tuntable Co-op 1993 acquired 1997 Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

Joseph and Terry McGee toured Australia eventually selling five hundred $200 shares in a dream of living simply and tribally. As ‘new settlers’ found their way to a region whose name was spreading by word of mouth other communities also formed, each in their own way and with a range of ownership and community structures. Some people chose to build their own dreams on their own land too. And with this critical mass of people dedicated to building a sustainable future came local markets for exchange of goods, services and ideas, as well as a range of other activist and educational organisations such as environment centres and owner-builder networks. An alternative ethos infused the region. It is no wonder, then, that with its concern with social relationships, the environment, and individual consciousness that many in the alternative or counterculture movement closely engaged with hands-on design and building of houses and community buildings such as those in Not Quite Square.




Harry Watson Smith Nimbin Morning Yoga ver 1 Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Harry Watson Smith

In his landmark book, The poetics of space, philosopher Gaston Bachelard reminds us that ‘the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind’. From the attic to the cellar, he shows how the house is at the core of the way we imagine our place in the world and engage in it. Here is where we first pattern our understandings of inside and outside, us and them, here and there. With doors we keep the strange at bay, while between the cracks we cede control. And the house is a social place. We live with others within it, and we leave it to be with others. The way our living spaces are organised—inside, out and collectively—establish and are established by our relationships with people and the more-than-human world. In this way we can see the spatial planning of alternative communities, as well as the architecture and building of owner-built houses of local materials and recycled products as an artistic and practical investigation of thinking the future otherwise, where the earth is an incitement to creativity. ‘The client’, therefore, is more than just the human inhabitants.


Harry Watson Smith Nimbin Morning Tipi shot 1 ver 1 Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Harry Watson Smith

As with all buildings there is also something within their fabric that is other than functional: in the architecture in Not Quite Square there is often a spiritual hymn that is improvised with nature taking the melody. And there is a counterpoint between the constraints of recycling the past and the emergence of an improvised form that speaks, sometimes anxiously, to the future. This is practical research into how to live well. The past forty years of experimentation, with building houses from the earth up, with improvised shelter-creation, with devising alternative systems for the services that accompany contemporary life, have seen the “counter” and the “culture” become interconnected, closer together than ever, boundaries blurred. The recycling of mainstream castoffs—window frames, doors, flooring, posts, corrugated iron—into houses outside the square has produced a counter-flow to the mainstream of solar panels and hot water systems, water-saving veggie gardens, concerns about passive energy-efficiency, and composting toilets on occasion. Even the distinctly old-school water tank has taken a detour through the bush-

^ Harry Watson Smith Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Harry Watson Smith ^ Harry Watson Smith Nimbin Tents ver 1, Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Harry Watson Smith

blocks and back into towns and cities. This convergence will never be complete. The way that ‘advanced’ capitalism commercialises anything and everything, even the counterculture itself, will always be spurned by those people and communities committed to minimal consumption. This is necessary: the mainstream needs a vanguard that raises the alarm then acts with courage. But perhaps, also, the interconnections between mainstream and counterculture will continue to thicken because our concerns for the future, environmental degradation especially, are more closely shared than ever. Because we share a longing for a home in the future that welcomes us, whether square or not quite.


Harry Watson Smith Nimbin Morning Tipi shot 3 ver 1, Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Harry Watson Smith

>> overleaf Gary Opit Aquarius Festival, Nimbin 1973 courtesy of Gary Opit

Rob Garbutt is a lecturer in Cultural Studies and Written Communication, School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University. Rob’s research interests include the interconnections between place, identity and belonging. In 2011 he published his first book, The Locals, with Peter Lang. He is convener of a group that is organising Aquarius and beyond: 40 years on… to be held in Nimbin in May 2013.

References Altman, D. (1977). The counter-culture: Nostalgia or prophecy? In A. F. Davies, S. Encel & M. J. Berry (Eds.), Australian society: A sociological introduction (3rd ed., pp. 449–468). Melbourne: Longman Cheshire. Bachelard, G. (1994). The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon. Garrard, G. (2012). Ecocriticism (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. Hardt, M. (2011). The Militancy of Theory. South Atlantic Quarterly, 110(1), 19-35. Pholeros, P., Shellshear, K., & Clarke, S. (2013, 23 February). Giant architect built for justice, Sydney Morning Herald, p. 19. Smith, M., & Crossley, D. (Eds.). (1975). The way out: Radical alternatives in Australia. Melbourne: Lansdowne. Yusoff, K., Grosz, E., Clark, N., Saldanha, A., & Nash, C. (2012). Geopower: a panel on Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. Environment and Planning D, 30(6), 971-988.



And everywhere Those strange polygonal igloos, Subjects of such long debates, Domes whose theory fascinates (and leads to such vague ballyhoo), appear in groups, or one’s and two’s – the dream of every half-stoned guru. To prove we can both think and do, The Geodesic Word is made bamboo.

Mark O’Connor, from “What happened at Nimbin”, Reef Poems, University of Queensland Press, 1976

One of the enduring impressions of the 1973 Aquarius Festival is the assortment of plastic inflatables, tree huts, wurlies, tee pees, adobes and domes that ranged across the fields and valleys around Nimbin. The crowd of approximately 5,000 people that converged on the ailing dairy town for the ten-day gathering constructed an amazing array of accommodation. As Mark O’Connor’s poem suggests, the scores of geodesic domes amongst that assembly have become particularly symbolic of the festival’s defining countercultural status. Built from materials such as bamboo, dowel, polythene, parachute silk, and cardboard, the domes sheltered not only bodies but also radical ideas. The festival was a catalyst for a conspicuous surge of young people into the surrounding region seeking to reject what they saw as a greeddriven, technocratic and emotionally isolated society. Cheap land, and the convergence of so many like-minded souls, spurred the exploration of alternative forms of living that sought to be more sharing, mutually caring and open. The profusion of experimental shelter at the festival points to the critical role architecture played in the counterculture. It created atmospheres and memorable images around which identities could be constructed, and it offered a technique for envisioning alternative life styles. These structures, many built by architecture students, also signalled the way architecture was being rethought during the 1960s and 1970s.1 The spatial and material experimentation that forms such as the geodesic dome made easily accessible keyed in to broader concerns for rethinking architectural education and the professional role of architects. Students


<< previous spread Peter Derrett Shelter at the Aquarius Festival 1973 courtesy of Peter Derrett >

this spread Unidentified dwelling photographed for Lismore City Council Building inspection, c.1980 courtesy of Warwick Sherring

were the most radicalised group in the architectural profession. During this period they agitated within schools of architecture and experimented outside of them. They sought and argued for ways to better empower people in the design and construction of their everyday living environments; to demystify technical knowledge; to make the specialist advice of architects more accessible; and to make architecture more environmentally sustainable. The establishment of alternative living environments in the decades after the Aquarius Festival by the region’s ‘new settlers’ highlights the development of a countercultural architecture in Australia – where experiments in transforming architectural practice, education and research interacted with the materialisation of countercultural values and ideas. Historically, this has been given little consideration. However, the exploration of domestic living spaces in the Not Quite Square exhibition allows us to trace some of the experimentation and its ongoing legacy in the Northern Rivers region. The owner-built dwellings were constructed not only for pragmatic shelter, but to advance, test and give an image to ideals of ecological accord, independence from institutions and utilities, appeals to individual creative expression, rejection of the nuclear family, and other countercultural concerns.


Giving form to such desires for living differently meant imagining, designing and constructing in unconventional ways. The exigencies of sites (difficult access, topography and lack of services was typical), limited availability of materials, meagre finances and the inexperience of many builders shaped the resultant dwellings. However, creative expression and aesthetic judgement were still significant. For example, domes were common first shelters because of their minimal material requirements and easy transportability, but also because their spatial and figural qualities had become synonymous with alternative concepts of domesticity. In some intentional communities this became a particular issue: A-frame houses and other ‘square’ construction were sometimes frowned upon as ill-fitting – in both the conventional domestic values they seemed to represent and their visual relationship with the landscape. Such concerns point to the way that architectural imagery, techniques and concepts circulated amongst the various individuals and communities building new lives in the Northern Rivers region. Buckminster Fuller’s ideas (especially his promotion of geodesic domes) were well known via


< David Liddle Red stringy bark & mahogany shingle dome 1980 courtesy of David Liddle

his publications but also various lectures he gave across Australia. Copies of the Whole Earth Catalog also circulated widely.2 Books such as Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter (and, to a lesser extent, Domebook One and Domebook 2) and Boericke and Shapiro’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art provided visual sources.3 Technical advice was often sourced from the self-build publications that flourished in the 1970s, such as Middleton’s Build your house of earth: a manual of pise and adobe construction and Kerns’ The Owner-Built Home.4 These sources intermingled with personal experiences and values: travels in Asia exposed people to the open structures of tropical housing, dream visions provided visual models for homes, interests in geomancy and sacred geometries guided planning, and knowledge of emerging sustainability concepts (such as permaculture) guided design choices for aspects such as landscaping, materials and orientation. Local networks of knowledge and assistance also developed and shaped the construction experimentation. The common use of timber pole structures is an example. Visiting others’ homes inspired people, and techniques, equipment and labour were shared. Borrowed chisels and chainsaws went to work collectively as friends and neighbours came together at pole-raising days. A huge variety of dwellings emerged from this context. As well as domes of all shapes, sizes and materials there were radiating pole structures, organically sculpted earth houses, and dazzling shacks clad in ferrocement and windscreens. Conventional architecture had little to offer in this context. Most of the builders were unhappy with contemporary urban environments and had made conscious decisions to avoid professionalised, industrialised building processes. In fact, there are many stories of those who, after the Aquarius Festival, abandoned formal architectural studies to join the burgeoning alternative communities deep in the region’s forests and valleys. However, architecture did have a role beyond the visual inspiration of unconventional icons (such as the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller or the singular organicism of Bruce Goff). A number of architectural practitioners and educators operating outside the mainstream discipline (including figures such as Michael Murphy, Paul ‘Hop.E’ Hopkins, Erwin and Adrienne Weber and Gary Fidler) developed local alternative practices: facilitating self-builders through technical and design advice, advocating change in local building regulation, engaging in environmental activism,



this page David Liddle Fairytale home on stilts, Northern NSW 1980 courtesy of David Liddle

>> facing page A dome from the early 1970s awaiting restoration courtesy of Lee Stickells

developing sustainable and ecological design principles and techniques, as well as building their own exemplary dwellings and participating in architectural education.


Perhaps the most influential and important example is the work of Colin ‘Col’ James, the inspirational architect, activist and University of Sydney lecturer. Over a long career, James was consistently involved in activities that reconceived architectural practice to work for individuals and community groups who normally lacked the resources to influence the shaping of their built environment (for example, acting as an independent advisor to the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) on the Green Bans and starting the architectural cooperative ‘Archanon’). Most significantly for this discussion, in 1973 James was one of the planners of the original Aquarius Festival. He persuaded the Australian Union of Students organisers to ‘recycle’ the town of Nimbin and involved architecture students from both the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales in the project. James’ connection with the area continued after the festival and he was instrumental in the later development by the NSW government of a multiple-occupancy policy (that legitimised the development undertaken by many intentional communities).5 He also led the Technical Assistance Group in the University of Sydney’s architecture department in producing Low Cost Country Home Building. This self-help book, for people wanting to build simple houses in rural areas, essentially assisted those homebuilders in ‘siting and building healthy and safe housing within the State building regulations.’6 All these circulating publications and concepts, inventive houses, experiments in sustainability, architectural initiatives, alternative institutions, networks of people, materials, techniques and tools, coalesced to form a local ecology of countercultural architecture. However, as yet, there is no reliable history of this pioneering activity.7 There are valuable books, such as Home Made Houses and Living Shelter – which provide a scattered visual record of experimental domestic spaces in eastern Australia – but no concerted effort to explore and understand the ways in which interactions between architecture and an array of intentional communities, self-builders, environmental activists and artists, shaped an alternative design ethos.8 With its attention to the complex shaping of these distinctive homes, the stories behind them, the ideas they contain, the people who made them, and their signification of a distinctive local architectural culture, Not Quite Square is a significant contribution in this direction.9

Lee Stickells is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. He is also a co-editor of the journal Architectural Theory Review and an advisory board member of the not-for-profit organisation Make Space for Architecture. Lee is currently working on a project investigating interactions between architecture and the counterculture in Australia during the 1960s and 1970s.

Footnotes 1 The 1973 national Architecture Student Congress was incorporated into the Aquarius Festival. 2 The Whole Earth Catalog was published regularly from 1968 to 1972 and then intermittently until 1988. The Catalog listed all sorts of ‘tools’ for sale that were useful for a creative or selfsustainable lifestyle (clothing, books, machines, seeds) as well as reviews, advice and feedback. Hugely influential, it generated a family of publications including Co-Evolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review. 3 Lloyd Kahn ed. Shelter (Shelter Publications, c.1973); Domebook One (Sleter Publications, 1970); Domebook 2 (Shelter Publications, 1971); Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro, Handmade houses; a guide to the woodbutcher’s art (Scrimshaw Press, 1973). 4 G.F. Middleton, Build your house of earth: a manual of pise and adobe construction (Compendium, 1975). First published in 1953, Build your house of earth was reprinted a number of times in the 1970s; Ken Kerns, The Owner-Built Home (Owner-Builder Publications, 1972). 5 ‘Multiple Occupancy of Rural Land’, SEPP15 (NSW Department of Environment and Planning, 1988) 6 The Technical Assistance Group, Department of Architecture, University of Sydney, Low Cost Country Home Building: A handbook on the essentials of low cost construction for the guidance of rural homebuilders (Department of Environment and Planning NSW, 1981), 7. 7 The ability to record first-hand experience of the pioneering activity around the time of the Aquarius Festival is declining. Sadly, I note that Hop.E died in September 2012 and Col James died in February 2013. 8 David Liddle and Ann Taylor, Home Made Houses (Second Back Row Press, 1980), Peter Re, Tony Miller and Pam McKay, Living shelter: handmade houses in Australia (Macmillan, 1979). Some of the people and activity discussed here are also mentioned in Johanna Kijas, Caravans & communes: stories of settling in the Tweed 1970s & 1980s (Tweed Shire Council, 2011), however, the focus of that publication was a broader social history. 9 This essay relies heavily on research carried out by Kezia Geddes, Brett Adlington and myself for the Not Quite Square exhibition. This included interviews with the homebuilders featured in the exhibition, interviews with other homebuilders, and phone and email correspondence with many other individuals who responded to the gallery’s initial media release. I’d like to thank all of those involved for their time and valuable contributions. I have tried largely to maintain anonymity in my account of the region’s owner-built culture in order to respect requests for privacy.


> New settlers, Huonbrook, Northern Rivers c.1977 courtesy of Alan Westbury and Margi Carter and the Brunswick Valley Historical Society

>> overleaf Family snapshots c.1977 courtesy of Alan Westbury and Margi Carter and the Brunswick Valley Historical Society




< John Witzig Nigel Coates at my house at Angourie in February 1974 courtesy of John Witzig



this spread, left to right: John Witzig Construction gang 1973 Angourie house 1973 Rodney Dahlberg, Grant Dwyer and me c1973 courtesy of John Witzig



The hills near Nimbin

< Tim Hixson, Kali’s 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


“I lost the computer program I wrote in the physics dept of Sydney Uni in 1971 that generated in frequency triacon dome data. It was written in Fortran, and executed on the student ID of somebody else at midnight! I was a hippie insurgent at that time, and actually a student of Newcastle Uni. My unrecorded addition to the design of domes was to configure the data to extend to domes woven in continual elements and integrate the technology of basket weaving. My dome is made of 10mm steel rods in a 12 frequency triacon pattern with every second strut removed. And rendered with 10 tonnes of ferrocement by at least 19 people who rose to the occasion. I am forever grateful. North Coast weather brought unanimated problems with the domes … zinc paint is the solution to leakage and moss attack.”

< Tim Hixson, Interior, Kali’s place 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection




Tim Hixson Kali’s dome in the hills 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery centre image Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


< Tim Hixson, Malina and Dennis’ 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


“Our process of building was inspired by creative responses to the everyday, from organic to hardedge.”


< Tim Hixson, Malina and Dennis’ rock house 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery



Tim Hixson, Malina and Dennis’ house 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery centre and right images Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

JOANNA AND PETE’S HOUSE Byrrill creek, near Uki

< Tim Hixson, Joanna and Pete’s 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


“Our house was born from a recurring dream of a round house in the rainforest. An octagon was more practical so we built a scale model from which construction design details were worked out. Home is where the hearth is, and the central fireplace and chimney are an integral core from which all else radiates. Built with materials from the earth, (mudbrick, stone & timber), harmonising with the Songlines, utilising sacred geometry, and melding with our forest environment were key considerations. Our home was a 10 year manifestation of a vision that came true, and to this day is a beautiful sanctuary in which to live.” 47

< Tim Hixson, Joanna and Pete’s octagonal house 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection



Tim Hixson, Joanna and Pete’s 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery left image Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


< Tim Hixson, Adrienne and Erwin’s River House, Whipbird Gully 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


“The round organic form was people friendly and evolved from our vision of Australia as part of the South Pacific. The pavilion structures support a meeting between indoors and outdoors, connecting family and landscape. Local sourcing and preparation of natural, recycled and found materials helped develop our skills in working ‘not quite square’. These experiences continue to underpin our understanding of ecologically sustainable design.”


< Tim Hixson, Adrienne and Erwin’s house, interior with Inglenook 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection



Tim Hixson, Adrienne and Erwin’s River House, Whipbird Gully 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery


< Tim Hixson, Guy’s place, The Rainbow Temple of whatever 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection


“The Rainbow Temple is primarily a meeting place for people from all walks and paths. It is a place of celebration, of healing and inspiration. It is and shall always be a work in progress … a continuance of becoming, reflective of the soul of human progress.”


< Tim Hixson, Inside The Rainbow Temple of whatever 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery Collection



Tim Hixson, The Rainbow Temple of whatever 2013 commissioned 2013, Lismore Regional Gallery centre image Lismore Regional Gallery Collection

OUT OF THE BOX David Hallett

we were born in boxes/ we lived in boxes rows of boxes/ stacks of boxes/ cities made of boxes: brick-veneered plastered low-ceilinged red-roofed boxed in by the paradigm of building regulations by the hum-drum of conventional building materials by the strait-jacket of convention we were pigeon-holed, then we broke the mould, jumping ship, travelling north into the sage of aquarius into the festival of new ideas, into the forest of trials and errors of self-sufficiency and sharing, trials and errors of relationships and communities of the owner-builder, the shape-shifter shaping domes and A-frames and round pole homes mixing mud-bricks and straw bale walls stonewalling glasshousing greenhousing – an ingenuity of the affordable and the handmade and the commonsense of recycling building new homes from old housing not ticking boxes – from humble cabins and love nests to painstaking castles of dreamcatchers, step by step art studios and meditation rooms terraced wide verandahs and decks reaching out into ferns and palms – the house that grows into garden the garden that grows in the home and the choice to build your own

< David Liddle, Mezzanine stowage with ‘bespoke’ timber ceiling 1980 courtesy of David Liddle


NOT QUITE SQUARE: THE STORY OF NORTHERN RIVERS ARCHITECTURE Lismore Regional Gallery 13 April – 2 June 2013 Tin Sheds Gallery, The University of Sydney 27 September - 22 November 2013 -

Project director:

Brett Adlington

Project curator:

Kezia Geddes

Commissioned photographer: Tim Hixson Commissioned Film maker:

Sharon Shostak. Not Quite Square: Owner Built Houses in the Northern Rivers. Duration 44 minutes, (camera: Pancho Colladetti; music: Norm Appel)

Historical images and film:

Tim Hixson, John Witzig, David Liddle, John Kirk

Archival material courtesy:

Kali, Joanna and Pete, Adrienne and Erwin Weber, Lismore Regional Gallery, The Aquarian Archive, Brunswick Valley Historical Society (Margi Carter), Warwick Sherring, John Witzig, Michael Murphy, Phil McMaster


Dr Lee Stickells, Dr Rob Garbutt, David Hallett

Catalogue designer:

Rick Shearman

Project administrator:

Amy Miller

Our deep thanks to the people who opened up their homes: Kali, Dennis and Malina, Adrienne and Erwin, Guy, Joanna and Pete Thank you to the following who made this project possible and contributed to the conversation:


Dr Lee Stickells, Dr Rob Garbutt, Zanny Begg, Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell, Lismore City Councillor Simon Clough, Michael Murphy, Phil McMaster, Dominic Finlay-Jones, Paul Joseph, Graham Irvine, Margi Carter, Stephen Hall, Stuart Anderson, Anton Nguyen, Nick Stephens, S Sorensen, Julia Champtaloup, Lee Dunn, Geoff Kerr, Leigh Davidson, John Seed, Jenny Porter, Hobie Porter, John Porter, Gertrud Basten, Roger Garlick, Gary McGuiness, Robyn Whyte, and Gerry and Tina Mews, Michael Moynihan, Cecil Bown, Vivian Martin -

Lismore Regional Gallery Catalogue Design: | Catalogue published by Lismore Regional Gallery April 2013 | ISBN 978-0-9804400-8-9 Š 2013 Lismore Regional Gallery, the artists and authors. No material, whether written or photographic, may be reproduced without the permission of the artists, authors and Lismore Regional Gallery.

cover: Tim Hixon, Main Arm Mullumbimby (detail) mid 1970s, silver gelatin photograph

ISBN 978-0-9804400-8-9

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