Thursday, March 14, 2013


Corrugated iron is a most unusual and unexpected material to see used in the most northerly isles of Britain where dykes jigsaw the raw hills, but it is there. On reflection, its use in this remote region is probably prompted by the same reasons that made it popular in more distant ‘colonies,’ like Australia: it was a cheap, efficient cladding that was easily transported and simply erected. As with the old Australian woolsheds, these croft houses, sheds, stores and byres show the effects of time and weathering. It is truly astonishing just how the material has performed in this ocean setting where the gales blast the landscape from all points of the compass that stretch out over naked terrain to broad oceans, seas and sounds: Norway, America and Scotland are Shetland’s neighbours. The buildings have aged magnificently, giving them their pretty fretted edges and their subtle variations in patina and their patches, making them as much a part of this unique, treeless landscape as they have become in other different parts of the world, and in other climates.

The houses, sheds, stores and byres - it is interesting how one material can be used for so many and varied purposes - are illustrated here to extend the previous texts that sought to illustrate how corrugated iron, (it probably is this rather than the steel we use today), is not a material unique to the Australian countryside, even though it seems to have come to be seen as this: see and

 In this context, one should also refer to the corrugated iron of Penang: see 

Architects like Glenn Murcutt have used and promoted corrugated iron as an iconic Australian reference, arguing for its relevance in light buildings that touch the ground with the same delicacy. The narrative alludes to an environmental sensitivity and an aboriginal awareness of the land - songlines come to mind - that is not always achieved, with some of his buildings sitting heavily on excavated concrete water tanks. Indeed, water tanks are another product that corrugated steel has been used for. Their rippling cylindrical forms are seen across Australia annexed to cottages and homesteads, and even more remotely, standing tall on timber frames near the Southern Cross windmills silhouetted against the brilliant sky.

Shetland does not have these old tanks or windmills, although, sadly, new wind farms are being proposed to stand high on prominent ridges that have for millions of years sat proudly against the northern light that highlights every subtlety in their shaping. Like the Australian bushman, the Shetlander experiences his islands with a quiet intimacy, knowing the name of every nook and cranny that has been identified by the ancient residents - the Picts and the Vikings.

The irony with Murcutt’s work is that he uses corrugated steel with the same precision as Mies van der Rohe used travertine and glass, when the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude was very much a part of the bush buildings: wack up a bush timber frame and throw on the leaves of iron. This last phrase - ‘leaves of iron’ - is the title of Philip Drew’s book on Murcutt. In this almost hagiographical presentation of Murcutt’s work - the book is subtitled boastfully, Pioneer of an Australian Architectural Form, Drew presents a poetic embellishment of Murcutt’s Miesian tin sheds. The title refers cleverly to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and sets up a fanciful association that has been extremely successful in promoting Murcutt’s work worldwide. Even architects in Shetland drool over the possibilities of broad open, simple planning and sunny open spaces framed with thin tin walls, open glass and fine, fragmented detailing, when their environment demands otherwise. It is sad to hear the lament that they are unable to achieve anything like a ‘Murcutt,’ as if it would make any sense in Shetland where touching the ground lightly would only mean that the whole building might be blown away, out to sea, or could leave the inhabitants shaken and freezing cold. Keeping snug is a basic Shetland requirement. The small walkers’ hut on Hermaness - a tin shed on the high northern portion of Unst - was blown away in a gale some years ago, even though it had stays, such are the winds on the ‘auld rock.’ Sadly the hiker seeking shelter went with the shed.

In Shetland, on Unst, the corrugated iron buildings stand alone amongst the traditional stone cottages, silent and lonely, both old and relatively new, in an environment that turns new into the aged and worn quickly, such are the ravages of wind-blown, saltwater mist. One should note that the traditional thatch is still only on one vernacular building that has been reconstructed by the museum. One no longer sees it anywhere else: it has gone, even though ropes and rocks were used to hold it down. Slate performs better in this place: durable mass.

The corrugated iron buildings reveal a charm that is difficult to achieve today with all of the new European regulations on buildings and their performance. Given their past endurance, no doubt these buildings will continue to stand as evidence of a past when building was simple and straightforward, and used a clever, uncomplicated and durable material that could be installed by anyone and not disintegrate or get blown away. If only things were as straightforward as this today.


 The Westing, Shetland, looking west
 The corroded edge on the north, facing the ocean
 The southern side of the roof is not corroded, only the exposed western edge
 The Westing, Shetland, looking north





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