Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Architectural Corrugations

As I drove to and from the West Coast last week, I was given to thinking about corrugated iron – mostly because nothing says corrugated iron quite like the West Coast. You’ll find the stuff all over New Zealand of course - it has, after all been an iconic rural building material here for over 150 years – but from Arthur’s Pass all the way over to (and up and down) the West Coast, corrugated iron buildings have a character all their own.
One of the characteristics of corrugated iron is its lightness and durability – the two key factors that have accounted for its proliferation in rural New Zealand architecture for over a century. It was an ideal material for farmers, who could knock up a shed or a barn in no time at all – and not given to waste, it was often re-used once a building had reached the end of its life. That’s what I love about so many of the West Coast buildings – they’re a multi-coloured patchwork of shabby, re-used sheets that have been gathered from all corners. And West Coasters are inventive when it comes to corrugated iron – you’ll see it on houses (old and new), barns, implement sheds, chook houses, pig pens, mountain huts, shearers’ quarters, sheep shelters, fences, chimneys, garages, roves, signs and even as edging on vegetable gardens.
Corrugated galvanised iron, it turns out, was invented by British architect and engineer, Henry Palmer of the London Dock Company, in the 1820s. It was originally made from wrought iron and in fact many older New Zealanders still call it that. Its light, strong, corrosion-resistant qualities and the fact that it could be easily transported meant it was widely applied to the building of makeshift dwellings and rural buildings in several countries including USA, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and India. Here in New Zealand, it was and still is, widely used as a roofing material and painted in a host of colours. It is still those bright, multi-coloured corrugated iron roofs that I notice first when I fly back into New Zealand after being overseas.
These days, the techniques for producing corrugated iron have become much more sophisticated and it is available in any number of corrugation sizes - this because there has been a rather surprising corrugated iron renaissance. Ever since the 1970s new corrugated products have led to an increase in its use here and with the development of corrugated iron cladding products in the 1990s, New Zealand and Australian architects have bombarded us with residential and commercial architectural designs that pay homage to the rural corrugated iron vernacular – some more successfully than others it must be said.
Personally, I think one of the modern masters of corrugated iron is Australian architect, Glenn Murcutt. His ‘touch the earth lightly’ philosophy (adopted from an Aboriginal proverb), has seen him produce a string of beautiful Australian houses that owe a great deal to rural inspiration and the use of simple materials like timber, stone and corrugated iron. The two images immediately above are two examples of the contemporary use of corrugated iron that I photographed on the West Coast - the little blue cottage in the tiny settlement of Kumara; and the shiny new facade on the (old) Kumara Racecourse grandstand.

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