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Revisited: Fisher House by Alistair Knox

With a career which spanned from 1946 to 1986, builder and designer Alistair Knox (1912-1986) was a proponent of buildings that looked entirely out of place. “The quest for expression of the region has always been my primary focus…I believe that an existing building should be an element of the environment in which it stands,” Knox wrote in Australian Regional Building.

Knox was a leading figure in the revival of mud brick construction – an ingenious technique in the post-war period, when conventional building materials were both scarce and expensive – and he refined and refined this line research during his career. Whether he manipulates local earth, piles industrially fired clay, or constructs buildings from readily available recycled materials, his homes have always been carefully integrated into the natural landscape.

The Fisher House, designed in 1970 and located in the bush suburb of Warrandyte, 25 kilometers from central Melbourne, is an iteration of the series of over 1,000 houses designed by Knox, of which around 350 were completed. Most of Knox’s houses were built in the nearby suburb of Eltham, and he is credited by the Victorian Heritage Council as an influential figure in developing that suburb’s distinctive residential environment. Although not built from mud bricks, the Fisher House reveals Knox’s vision for environmental buildings that were firmly in their place.

Restoring the garden around the house was the most important way to preserve Knox’s vision.

Picture: Sean Fennessy

Little is known of the Fisher for whom the house was designed, but the original designs are for a modest one-bedroom brick residence. Knox’s plan shows an almost temple-like symmetry, with the four corners of the building visually anchored by thick square brick pillars. Unfortunately these details were lost when the house was sold in 1976 and additions filled in the veranda overhangs to the north and south. Despite these early modifications, the house remained relatively untouched for the next 45 years – ideal conditions for a contemporary renovation designed in 2021 by architect Adriana Hanna for photographer Sean Fennessy and stylist Jessica Lillico. This renovation updated the house with sensitivity and respect.

Landscape restoration was the most profound way to conserve and respect Knox’s vision. In the garden, non-native species have been removed and replaced with native plants adapted to the local microclimate. Knox, who was a founding member of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects when it was established in 1966, framed his thoughts on the relationship between humans and the land in spiritual terms. “The solar landscape must extend into building, which is man’s recognition of mystical realities infinitely more powerful and conceptual than himself,” he writes in an essay titled “Environmental Building.” “The close relationship between the ground level and the immediate exterior is the first essential element of the organic design. It produces the reality of the individuality of the house and the land in a way that nothing else can,” he argued in a chapter on mud bricks in Australian Regional Building. Knox had taught himself concrete slab-on-grade construction in the 1940s, although it was the norm when the Fisher House was designed. And, unlike raw brick, there were no local precursors.

The way the cobblestone floor runs from the inside out is one of Fisher House’s many enduring qualities. The window wall is angled for views down the sloping site so that only the trees can be seen, all the way to the horizon. Two 250 millimeter square timber posts that support the roof above the window wall have a raw, roughly hewn finish; the marks of a hand-wielded adze are still visible on the surface. It’s likely these poles were salvaged from a demolition site somewhere: a typical Knox tactic that, like its use of Adobe methods, was only engaged when viable and appropriate. The relative cost of labor and materials fluctuated with the Australian economy throughout the four decades of its practice.

Knox's belief in the simple construction of spaces in harmony with the landscape has lived on.

Knox’s belief in the simple construction of spaces in harmony with the landscape has lived on.

Picture: Sean Fennessy

While the open planning, heavy use of glass, modular repetition of elements, exposed structure, and “honest” use of materials could be seen as modernist traits, Knox was generally unimpressed with the houses. futuristic and experimental produced by some of Melbourne’s most academically renowned. trained architects. Knox undertook his own research into early colonial precedents, citing Francis Greenway as an inspiration and praising Greenway’s handling of proportions, his sophisticated use of brick, and his method of urban design of composing each building in harmony with its context. Other influences were Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin – who, like Knox, designed with an intimate understanding of construction, engineering and the art of assembly.

Rather than following the latest material and technical trends that dominated post-war suburban home design, Knox “set about studying the faceless agricultural outbuildings around the nearby hills,” he explained in Chapter 10 from Australian Regional Building. “They had both personality and power. And of course they were truly indigenous, resourceful and highly functional at the same time. For Knox, the best Australian buildings have responded to the climate and unique quality of light with particular attention to shade, a demonstration being the use of veranda all around. While its interiors were always raw and natural, sunlight was plentiful and the clerestory window was a ubiquitous design feature, making the sloping ceiling planes glow softly.

Inside the house, new work has restored part of the opening shown in the original plans. The master bedroom and associated walk-in closet were unnecessarily large for a three-bedroom house, so this space was rearranged to add a second bathroom. The extension of the kitchen and the opening of the circulation paths around the fireplace created an opportunity for a uniform brick floor, but the original design changed from brick to much thinner terracotta tiles in the old utility room, so part of the floor slab was demolished and re-cast prior to installation. more brick. Rewiring was another unseen expense; it involved removing the sheet metal roofing to gain access to the narrow space between the purlins and the ceiling cladding. In the end result, however, it’s deliberately hard to tell old from new: added elements like the kitchen, built-in living room, and entry screen display shelves are in keeping with Knox’s aesthetic .

The clerestory window was a universal feature used by Knox to create contrast between light and shadow.  Artwork: Boris Bućan.

The clerestory window was a universal feature used by Knox to create contrast between light and shadow. Artwork: Boris Bućan.

Picture: Sean Fennessy

The only noticeable change was to the interior brick walls, which were roughly “bagged” with white to change their color while retaining their texture. Many of Knox’s sawn timber and brick interiors, which he did not paint, were whitewashed by new owners; Sean knew they didn’t want to do that, saying the bagged brick provided “a bit of relief from the layers of brown” while creating a finish reminiscent of raw brick. A single curved wall – a white, tiled partition that deftly divides the twin shower niches – transgresses Knox’s rational modular system, and it’s hidden in the new bathroom and laundry areas.

These subtle and sensitive alterations to the Fisher House honor Knox’s passion for natural materials, skillful yet pragmatic construction, and connection to the immediate landscape. By carefully reworking the house to suit contemporary living, its new owners celebrated the enduring relevance of Knox’s ideas. Simple construction that harmonizes built spaces with natural landscapes – how could that ever lose its appeal?