Tuesday 6 November 2012


I wondered at the Victorian quality of the evening - Wednesday, 15th November 2000. That formal Brontesque hairstyle hovering behind the misty glow of the lectern was not the only image to elicit such a romantic recall. The subject was Yemen. That extraordinary place with extraordinary landscape and extraordinary architecture was being introduced to an awed audience by an individual described by Professor Holden as an extraordinary lady with extraordinary skills. In all it was to be an extraordinary evening. And that is why it felt Victorian - or as one might have thought such an evening could have been experienced over one hundred years ago. It was a night abuzz with the expectations of the revelation of unknown delights: a true extravaganza.

Just imagine Carter showing slides of Egypt; of Woolley with his illustrated treasures of Ur. Once these were the unknown places of this world where the classic English traveller would meander with exuberant Britishness - an odd mixture of cheek and respect; of the brash and the sensitive. Tibet and China were once such mystery places too; and the Hindu Kush. These classic, learned, intrepid travellers can be imagined returning to London and being invited to present on an evening at The Royal Geographical Society where the unimaginable wonders of these hidden cultures could be revealed to amazed eyes. So the evening felt Victorian, where an encyclopedic delight in learning of new differences was the core of attention and expectations.

But this Yemen evening was in Brisbane at the Royal Australian Institute of Architects rooms in 2000. Professor Jennifer Taylor was presenting a talk on her recent trip to this remote place introduced as the last (one of) place where ancient culture and society remains alive in cities that were established in pre-biblical times by Biblical names. A relative of Noah was said to have been involved in this place with landscape appropriately - the flood - ripped apart by ancient riverbeds. There was once much water here, but not now.

The maps illustrated locations of names never previously heard of, while the slides flipped through amazing images of multistorey mud that looked like something else much more controlled. Fringed lime-white decorative mud passed into multicoloured facade details that looked crisply surreal and clear like a Jeffrey Smart painting. The beautiful illustrations were accompanied by a read text that was expanded with asides from the traveller – “we did…; it was; then we  ;etc.”

The evening presentation, precisely an hour's duration, always seemed that it might be more than a travel chat, but it retreated into this easy, lazy format. The promotional material, (complete with the formal Registration Form and cash payment), suggested the session was to offer much more than a traveller’s reverie, but it really was just a matter of look at this – “how it lives with the landscape; organic; at one; amazing; beautiful; stunning; etc.” And this became a concern.

This was the other reason that gave the evening its Victorian touch. These cultural delights were treated as aesthetic wonders just as the Victorians might have viewed them. There was no effort to try to understand the whole and its parts as those that made them might have seen them. Those attending that night were encouraged to look at these wondrous things as though they were indeed works of Jeffrey Smart - just self-conscious, composed, aesthetic things to delight the eclectic modern eye, nothing more. We were asked by way of the commentary to see these things alone in our world with our eyes only: WOW!

That the question about food elicited such a response of horror was odd. One felt that the real Victorians might have been a little more tolerant of impossibly different food. But how can food be separated from form? This circumstance only highlighted the position that saw only the difference we were invited to gaze at. No mosque was isolated for discussion, but these form the core of the community. The bathhouse was mentioned, but never illustrated. How might these relate? The amazing clutter was ogled at, but the laws of settlement and adjacency were not touched upon. What if a tower was built up to on three sides? How does the organic and chaotic get controlled? Dare we imagine that the forces of innocence in nature in this third world void gave this result, as a growing crystal might form in its solution?

A questioner raised the important issue of the stairs in these towers, a point that was never touched on by illustration; and one never saw a construction site either. What was in the core of the stair tube-core? Only the idyllic masses of towns were photographed along with the endless quaint details. It was indeed all very pretty. But if we are to really understand what these places stand for apart from some functional explanation of wastewater spillage, and shit collection for the baths, and wall thicknesses, then we need to get closer to the meanings. Why were the decorations painted the same as those sculpted?

It is not good enough to assume that these cultures saw (see) their world as we see it today in our time and place. For us to make no effort to try to understand the other culture from its point of view only continues the egocentric importance of the misguided twentieth century. These buildings, if one can interpolate from other mud brick cultures, are no silly self-help exercises that can be likened to the randomness of squatters’ homes outside Delhi or Rio. No, they are the work of skilled masons; and so on for the carpenter, the glass worker, the lime worker (more than a mist of white), etc. Intelligence lies here. It is too easy for us to assume some third-world poverty-driven endeavor assembling all this by chance and inexperienced effort. If we are to learn anything of other people and places, we have to overcome this prejudice and warm to unknown possibilities that we could learn from. The concept of 'architecture without architects' has not been not useful for us or our conceit.

The latent questions in this truly extraordinary work are: why is it so beautiful? Why so richly human? Why do we still respond to this wonder? To presume an answer along the lines of naivety, time and innocence (ignorance) is as absurd as believing in the ad hoc beginnings of these structures that, like all traditional art, leaves us to wonder in amazement: where, as Martin Lings noted, we cannot marvel enough.

While modern architecture and art can surprise with its difference, it knows nothing of marvel other than man the artist as 'marvel man,' when traditionally every man was a special kind of artist - not every artist a special kind of man. And to truly marvel is an experience of a humility and a seeking for an understanding that involves wholes, that our fragmented world only touches upon as isolated parts. It does involve religion, like all good art and architecture. It is never a fluke or born of chance or the ad hoc.

Traditional art is an art of remembrance. The question we have to ask and seek an answer to is: what is it that this art/architecture is seeking to remember? This is the core quest for modern man when confronted with all traditional art that is never art for arts sake or self-expression. If we are to exhibit art/architecture or talk about it, then we must address these questions. Admiring pretty things is never enough if we are to really understand. And we must accept this quest to know as one that can change everything we hold to be important. Without such a point of address, we will only continue to drag our madness into other minds, in the same manner as the presenter who seeks brownie points by being the one to show such hidden delights - I was there; look at me.

But “What is the rock of the landscape?” was the question. The traveller did not know. I pick up a rock and carry it to touch for recall. “Perhaps basalt?” was the blind guess. I thought it was buff to red colour. In an eroded desert? Volcanic? We must challenge ourselves to regain even, at the very least, a meagre interest in knowing more about the unknown so that our own architecture might revitalise itself and our lives beyond complacency and Gehry-ish self-importance. Frustrated pencil tapping will never know this world in which love thrives and enriches spirit - and still can. The silence of the audience told more of the awe than the formal questions that could only touch on the facts of function and planning. “How does one plan such a trip?” seemed to miss the point. It was like the man looking at the finger rather than the full moon being pointed too.

Let us hope that Yemen will not become the tourist 'Mecca' and self-destruct. It is different. The Americans found this out; and the British tourists too. Art and architecture are more than things to gawk at; and the experience is always much more than that whimsy of a place full of people full of themselves.

Thursday 11 October 2012


Derek Fell’s beautiful book, The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright, published by Frances Lincoln Limited, London in 2009, highlights Wright’s work as a landscape gardener. It is indeed astonishing. Usually plants and foliage are seen as sundry scribbles, smudges to illustrate his drawings, to ‘soften’ them. The actual landscapes are considered, if at all, as backgrounds to the buildings, incidental decorative additions, perhaps just the natural setting that Wright had worked with. It seems that Falling Water alone used its natural setting untouched. The only non-indigenous plant added was a white wisteria. All other contexts that Wright worked in were manipulated by him, using nature as his guide. “A tree out of place is a weed,” he declared when a client object to his instruction to cut down a mature oak tree. (p.41) Fell shows Wright as a landscaper working on a scale similar to Capability Brown.
 Wright was as ruthless in manipulating all within his sight to his aesthetic ideal as Capability Brown. (p.38) “The valley will bloom in your hands.” Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, Anna. (p.40) Before he was satisfied with the views from Taliesin Wright eliminated thirty-two “nuisance buildings” from his view. (p.44)

 Taliesin West - gate to gardens of staff annex

The distinguished landscape gardener Jen Jensen (1860 – 1951) became a close friend of Frank Lloyd Wright. (p.108) “As a model for designers, Jensen’s approach stressed the clear need for careful study of natural landscapes. He objected to design training that was purely academic. He felt than an intimate knowledge of plants and horticulture and a genuine sense of humility were essential for landscape design to reach the level of art.”  (p.111 - quoted from  Robert E. Greese’s biography, Jen Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, John Hopkins university Press).

We can learn a lot from Wright and Jensen, and from Fell’s wonderful photographs of Wright’s parks and gardens too. This publication truly shows how Wright worked with nature in a manner that was more than philosophical and theoretical.


“I have always regarded the desert as the greatest lesson in construction,” Wright wrote. “Form following function if you like - or form and function being one. The saguaro is the greatest example of a skyscraper that was ever built.”
Derek Fell, The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright, Frances Lincoln Limited, London, 2009, page 74 -
(see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/wright-landscape-gardener.html)

Foster’s Swiss Re HQ tower in London and Nouvel’s Torre Agbar tower in Barcelona tower come to mind. Perhaps Foster’s building should be called ‘cactus’ instead of ‘gherkin’? It is interesting that, in spite of Wright's intuitive understanding of organic structure, his schemes for skyscrapers were angular rather than cactus-like.

 Sagauro cactus

 Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar tower, Barcelona

 Sir Norman Foster's Swiss Re HQ, London

So what was the inspiration?
According to Jean Nouvel, the shape of the Torre Agbar was inspired by Montserrat, a mountain near Barcelona, and by the shape of a geyser rising into the air. The Agbar Group, a holding company, has interests that include the Barcelona water company Aigües de Barcelona.   Wikipedia

Foster's building seems to have more 'rational' origins:
The building uses energy-saving methods which allow it to use half the power a similar tower would typically consume. Gaps in each floor create six shafts that serve as a natural ventilation system for the entire building even though required firebreaks on every sixth floor interrupt the "chimney." The shafts create a giant double glazing effect; air is sandwiched between two layers of glazing and insulates the office space inside.
The shafts pull warm air out of the building during the summer and warm the building in the winter using passive solar heating.The shafts also allow sunlight to pass through the building, making the work environment more pleasing, and keeping the lighting costs down.
The primary methods for controlling wind-excited sways are to increase the stiffness, or increase damping with tuned/active mass dampers. To a design by Arup, its fully triangulated perimeter structure makes the building sufficiently stiff without any extra reinforcements. Wikipedia

Still, one might presume that the form and function of the saguaro cactus might have provided some latent logic in the making of these buildings.

Links to other PAIRS:

Thursday 4 October 2012


The question, 'Why bother with Town Plans?' must be asked after again reading this clipping from  Weekend Bulletin, September 10-11, 2005.

 The text reads:

Feng shui’s winning line
A controversial Runaway Bay development based on the oriental practice of feng shui, was approved by a whisker at the full council meeting yesterday. Councillors voted 8-7 in favour of Harmony, which will stretch up to eight stories.
The planning scheme for the area allows a maximum of two stories with a partial third. Harmony, 23 Bayview Street, will include 119 dwellings, although the planning scheme set down a maximum of 42.
Deputy Mayor David Power and planning boss Cr Ted Shepherd said that, while the planning scheme was a guide, its specifications could be overlooked if a development had ‘good planning merit’.

It is an old report from September 2005, but it is worth noting here in October 2012 because nothing seems to have changed. Unless Town Plans are written carefully and implemented with rigour, they are just a waste of time, leaving our towns and cities open to the whims of developers, and those of our Councillors.

Why should one bother? Well, just look at the shadows cast by the tall buildings and ponder the impacts on amenity in the area, if nothing else! The other point is that Councillors and developers come and go, but the outcomes of their decisions remain with us for many years after they have lost power, and establish precedents that stimulate further development and geater difference. Town Plans should offer a clearly defined vision and be strictly implemented so that futures can be properly controlled, feng shui or not.

Saturday 22 September 2012


It is easily forgotten that corrugated iron is a British invention. The material is usually associated with Australian sheds and has been mythologised by Philip Drew in his book on Glenn Murcutt, with its attractively poetic name, Leaves of Iron. It is a title that echoes that of Walt Whitman’s book of poems, Leaves of Grass, and benefits from this subtle nexus. Corrugated iron was invented in the 1820s by Henry Palmer, an architect and engineer to the London Dock Company. As a galvanised product,

it proved to be light, strong, corrosion-resistant, and easily transported, and particularly lent itself to prefabricated structures and improvisation by semi-skilled workers. It soon became a common construction material in rural areas in the United States, Chile, New Zealand and Australia and later India, and in Australia and Chile also became (and remains) the most common roofing material even in urban areas. In Australia and New Zealand particularly it has become part of the cultural identity, and fashionable architectural use has become common.

It is true that corrugated iron has become popular once more in Australia and that the references to its colonial use remain the strongest and most persuasive and pervasive memories of this material. Images of corrugated iron clad buildings have truly become cultural icons. What is rarely remembered is that, with its British origins, this material has been used by most countries and cultures. The British were great colonisers and were once a great trading nation, the centre of the industrial revolution that spread across the world. Corrugated iron seems to have been an integral part of this era.

Britain itself used corrugated iron in its remoter regions, possibly for the very same reason it was used in the colonies. The Shetland Islands has some examples of corrugated iron buildings - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/corrugated-iron-chapel.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/corrugated-iron.html Iceland used the material to clad buildings transported from Norway – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/norwegian-wood-and-corrugated-iron.html  Even tropical Penang used corrugated iron. This may appear surprising, but Penang was established by the British in 1786, when it was claimed by Francis Light. His son, Colonel William Light was the first Surveyor General of the Colony of South Australia. William Light chose the site for Adelaide, and, like his father in Penang, set out its streets and parks. Penang was handed over to a newly independent Malaya (now Malaysia) only in 1957.

What is of interest is that, in all of these diverse examples of the use of corrugated iron, as well as those seen in the more familiar Aussie sheds, the material has the same ephemeral, casual, almost nonchalant character that is nicely suggested by Drew in his title. The Penang buildings seem to best illustrate this lightness, this frail flimsiness that is perhaps enlivened by the harsh climate and the necessity for impromptu solutions in this steamy region with tropical downpours and wild storms, and the constant demand for shade. Here one is always seeking shelter from the extremes of the sun as well as that of the rain. This tropical environment also adds a delightfully rich patina to this material that lasts forever with the protection offered by the dry, hot outback of rural Australia. Only Australian roofs in older cities and towns get close to this rusting, blood red seen in Penang.

It is interesting that the ‘She’ll be right mate’ attitude that Australians pride themselves on having, may have more to do with material and necessity than culture. Maybe the material and necessity have generated the culture - the limitations of choice in products and the demands of distance and time? Corrugated iron is, after all, a material that can be managed by all and sundry - skilled or otherwise, here or there, or nowhere important at all, for any reason one can think of and in any manner possible: and it will do the job well. It can also be readily reused - today we should say 'recycled.' In Australia, it is only matched in its versatility by wire. John Williamson’s True Blue lyrics celebrate this casual make-do attitude:
Hey True Blue, can you bear the load?
Will you tie it up with wire,
Just to keep the show on the road?
Hey True Blue, Hey True Blue, now be Fair Dinkum  

The same attitude is adopted in Shetland with its random use of timber pallets that transport nearly everything to the islands but take little away. Remnant pallets become sheep pens, gates, sheep feeders, fences - whatever function they can be adapted to with least effort. They sometimes become the primary material for the Up Helly Aa fire festival, the annual cultural event in all of the districts.

Penang’s corrugated iron clearly illustrates this same ad hoc property and casually random use of a remarkable material that holds such a unique character in spite of its location. It proves just what a good invention this idea became. It truly changed the world and established a ground for cultural development and its diversity.





Images of corrugated iron in Penang
Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Pantai
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Tuesday 4 September 2012


Hoswick is a small settlement west of Sandwick on the eastern coast of southern Mainland in the Shetland Islands. The locals, with their tongue tuned to the speedy Shetland dialect, call it ‘Hosik.’ It is an old village sitting on the slopes that overlook Sandwick and the North Sea. It still has its original chapel standing inconspicuously on the narrow lane leading up the hill. This is an interesting little building as it displays a modesty in its simple effort to be formal, to express the qualities one might relate to, expect from, a chapel that, in the order of things, needs to be differentiated from a cottage, even when the same materials are used for construction.

This small building remains roofed and sealed, but is showing signs of wear and tear with time. The Shetland weather is harsh, but surprisingly this little structure survives. Only the eaves show the extreme ravages of time. Here rust has gnawed at the galvanised corrugated iron overhang, fretting the edge in a remarkable manner. - almost decoratively making castellations, patterned like a Grecian frieze. It is a puzzle as too why this edge has deteriorated in such a specific manner. One wonders why: what could cause this?

On a closer inspection, it is noticed that the regularity of the fretted profile coincides with the frequency of the laps in the sheeting. Where there is no lap, just the single sheet, there is a void. Here the sheeting has rusted away, but only back to where it rests on the external timber cladding. Where there is a lap - two sheets of steel - the sheeting remains projecting out to its original extent, but only for the width of the lap where the sheets have been doubled. Why is this so?

The North Sea is less than one kilometre away. Hoswick is elevated above the lower land between it and the water. It is well exposed to the wind and rain that blows in from the east. It seems that the overhanging single sheet of steel has suffered with the attack from the salty water on both faces, corroding it away faster than it has on the double lap. Here the corrosion has eaten into, say, only half of the face of each sheet, leaving the paired sheets thinner but still in tact, whereas the single sheet has had its two halves eaten out leaving, as the simple mathematics shows, nothing. Ironically, it gives a wonderful outcome as a patterned failure, completely unintended, but very decorative. The rusted edge highlights the other intended, self-conscious decoration and the formal organization of this little place that had a communal importance.

The windows are quaintly ordinary, but chapel-like with their tiny twin, pointy arch gestures that refer to the grand cathedral window. They display a simple subtlety and a genuine modesty. It is extremely sweet and certain, like the roof forms of the chapel are. Here gables of differing pitches with aligning ridgelines spring from the same wall plate. Puzzlingly, a phantom gable is shadowed on the western end. There is no immediate confirmation of the purpose of this marking, but one assumes it to have been made by another space. It is immediately assumed that it might have been an entry porch; but there is no evidence in any other markings to suggest that there could have been a doorway in the existing, remaining wall that might have been the entry off a little portico. Still, it is all very nicely organized, with the smallest gable matching the steepest and most Gothic, with the ridge line in the same alignment and level as the gable it abuts. The whole reminds one if an Aalto building, such is its self-conscious naivety.

The walls are clad in timber with a battened joint system that looks Norwegian, like Norwegian homes, not their wonderful Stave churches. The charming modesty is so meek and sober that one remains uncertain, ambivalent, about the reading of this place. Is it really the chapel that one thought it was? Maybe it was the local hall? It is only the text in one of the windows that confirms the first reading. HOSWICK GOSPEL HALL  SERVICES  LORD'S DAY  11.15AM BREAKING OF BREAD.

 We can learn a lot from this little structure. It shows how simple it is to build a chapel using the same materials as those used for cottages, shops and sheds, while still being able to give the place its own identity. It reminds one if those wonderful, usually corner shops that are attached to the home of the shopkeeper in Australian country towns - how the shop is clearly the shop and the home the home, with there being no problem in differentiating between the entries too both: public and private offer no puzzle here. This little place in Shetland stands elegantly and simply, with a modest decorative theme that is within the limits of the system of materials and construction, yet it marks the building as being other than a cottage, shop or a shed. It displays a skill in ordinary forming that we need to study more closely, because we have become too extreme in our great desire to make things uniquely different, special, usually with great effort in styling. All we really need is a certain humility and rigour in our working and then we might come to understand how little things can make such a significant difference in our environment, and how serious effort can distort and deform.

This tiny example also shows us, in Frank Lloyd Wright's words when speaking about Taliesin West, how a building can make a beautiful ruin. The chapel is not yet a ruin, but the deterioration of the eaves reveals a unique and eye-catching edge as a 'ruin,' made by weather, time and neglect, as ruins are

For another corrugated iron chapel, well, in the scale of things, almost a cathedral, see NORWEGIAN WOOD and corrugated iron: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/norwegian-wood-and-corrugated-iron.html  This site also illustrates the beautiful, corrugated iron clad homes of Seyðisfjörður, Iceland, a pretty little fiord village high on the east coast of the island. For more Shetland corrugated iron images, see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/corrugated-iron.html

NOTE: 29 October 2014
see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/the-corrugated-iron-cathedral.html

NORWEGIAN WOOD and corrugated iron

The Viking loop of the Norrőna was to take us from Lerwick in Shetland to Bergen in Norway, then down the coast to Hanstholm in northwest Denmark, and back to Bergen to travel west through Yell Sound in the Shetland Islands, on to Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands and across to Seyðisfjörður in Iceland; and back again to Lerwick. It had always been a dream to experience just a small part of these Viking lines and to see Morris’s fabled Iceland. 


The shipping brochure had detailed this schedule for the trip. Seyðisfjörður? Where was this place? One wondered why Reykjavík was not the destination. Was there another main centre on Iceland that was the ferry link to Europe? The Lonely Planet travel guide was purchased and the map was searched. What was the spelling of this town? There, that looks like it. The English eye is not used to interpreting these combinations of symbols. Tucked away at the end of a deep fiord high on the fretted east coast were the letters that looked like Seyðisfjörður. Mmmm.  Hows does one pronounce this? The English eye gets no clues as to how the mouth should form the sounds. But, one wondered, what gave this eastern location its significance to become the terminus for the Norrőna? Flicking through the guide to the page referenced in the index, the section opened up with the depressing title: ‘The Empty East.’ Gosh, where were we going? Nowhere?

The wonder of seeing a landmass appearing from the spacious void of the ocean’s horizon is always astonishing, mesmerizing. Folk come onto the deck to experience this mystery, to just stand and watch this materialization from foggy haze into terra firma. The approach to Iceland was as icy as it was compelling; bewildering. Out of the freezing, dense fog, the haze intensified until one realized that it was solid, that it held weight: stability and mass. But the expectation that this apparent illusion would change into some familiar image of land as place, a habitation, kept being delayed. Just what was one looking at? White striated mountains banded with what finally came to be understood as ancient geological depositions eventually escaped the haze to become a dazzling white, massive massif that looked similar to, but more solid than the mist. Unbelievably, the white mass got more and more immense as the ship sailed on in. Where was this fiord? A tiny fold in the distant forms seemed to suggest the aim of the ship’s trajectory.

There was no indication of size or scale. There was only a flat wall of white with shaped tops to suggest mountains. One could admire the markings of these moulded monsters that made land, but where were the towns, the villages: anything? Where was the mythical Seyðisfjörður? Then the eye caught a darker speck that seemed oddly out of character with the remainder of the markings. A glimpse through the camera’s telephoto lens showed this spot to be a lighthouse with what one assumed to be the keeper’s residence nearby. What?! It can't be. No. It is so tiny. How big are these mountains?

A finer difference in scouring lines made the eye look closer as the ship maneuvered into what was once just a distant crevice in the white mass. A road. One could track the line along the contours and, yes, it was a road. It had an organization that made it different to that of the geological lines. It showed a purpose, a resolve, a determination that these other scores lacked. It joined things.

One could pick out another cottage; then another.   Oh! a moving cottage - no, a car. Then a few more specks: people? No, larger: houses - a tiny, oh so tiny, cluster than must have been a somewhat substantial settlement. Was this Seyðisfjörður? A glance down and along the fiord that we had entered gave no indication that we were close to any destination. We kept moving in and along. Where was this place? The twisting fiord narrowed as the jaws of the mountains gained their grip each side of the icy cold, dark depths. How close were we going to get to these rock faces? One could envisage the subterranean profiling by extrapolating the continuation of the steep slopes either side into the deep. It was indeed deep. Then a larger building appeared nearby; a factory? There are people. Boats: a fish factory? The final twist was accompanied by the sounding of the foghorn, joyously declaring our arrival to what looked like a Wild West sprawl of buildings scattered around the closed end of the fiord framed by an avalanche of mountains. Seyðisfjörður! Cripes! Yes, the empty east; and we have to spend two days here. Hell on earth; nothing: well, nothing but a substantial new concrete dock, all freshly lined like a runway with directional diagrams, and now speckled with workers waiting lazily to tie up, link, unload, check and organize the disembarkation. This weekly visit must provide the locals with a regular opportunity for employment in this bleak backwater. There seemed to be little else here. One could only try to make the best of what seemed to be a hopeless cause. Two days!

We left the Norrőna, a remarkable ‘box’ ship with a sweetly sculptured bow, wondering just how it managed to float. After passing through customs - a friendly man at a doorway - we walked over the curving lines of the dock towards the scattered houses. As one got closer to the homes, the colours caught the eye as well as the quaint details. Small windows with delicate hinges all carefully framed with oversized, decorative architraves and small, neatly detailed, water-shedding hoods, displayed pretty lace curtains, homely knickknacks and flowers, indicating the delicacies of home and a contented lifestyle. Frequently the surrounding mountains and other buildings were reflected in the glazing. The surprise was that most of the walls, like the roofs, were corrugated iron, with the corrugations positioned vertically. A few walls were slatted timbers, again positioned vertically. Doors were boldly surrounded in decoratively shaped, contrasting borders just like the windows. Blue and white, and red and white: the patterns reminded one of Norway. Then one noticed more variations of the same theme: windows turned into diamonds; circles; beautifully painted and well maintained timber details. A cat. Where were the people?

An old man stopped and looked, asking almost as a lament, “Do you speak English?” “Yes.” His eyes brightened. He wanted to chat. His daughter had moved here to teach some years ago, and he had followed her. It seemed that few regularly spoke English here, that he was lonely. This pretty little blue and white place was his home. He had learned a little Icelandic. “How does one pronounce Seyðisfjörður?” The English-trained ear struggles to capture the making of the sound with sufficient clarity so as to reproduce it with any accuracy. The tongue tried, but sounded tired. But he was happier using his native language. It must have reminded him of home, of homely, ‘old country’ comforts. He told of how these houses had thick insulation, and explained that they were Norwegian prefabs that had been shipped over by the fishermen in the early 1900’s. They were, apparently, wonderfully comfortable to live in, as was Seyðisfjörður. Here old folk were cared for with a weekly ration of fish. Folk cared for folk.

We moved on, even though the whole day could easily have passed listening to his continuous chatter. We passed more homes, then shops, all of the same ilk, most clad in painted corrugated iron. A hotel: a beautiful little place that had an almost shambles quality in its presence - a pleasant wonder in corrugated iron. Turning the corner one discovered a road that became an axis - a promenade - that led to a church. A closer inspection revealed this to be yet another beautifully detail corrugated iron cladding. This pale blue and white edifice stood proudly closing the vista, giving this random organization of settlement some precise organization, transforming this cheap, common shed-cladding material into something mystical - ephemeral but substantial.

The eye began to see sense in this ad hoc array of simple parts that made buildings gather into a village. In the same way, one warmed to the place and its wonderful structures: Norway, but Iceland; basic but not bland. The Lonely Planet was right. This is a very attractive place. It was described as the prettiest, most colourful village in Iceland. It was a real wonder. There were over fifty Norwegian prefabs in a variety of sorts and sizes, all in excellent condition. Far from being bored and wondering just what one might do in two days, it was discovered that this little gem of a village could keep one entranced for ages. We strolled around admiring: the buildings; the details; the juxtapositions. Wonder after wonder appeared. The community hall, the church; the manse; the homes; the government offices; the factory - they were all timber prefabs, with the majority clad in corrugated iron. The place entranced. The transformation of the ordinary was complete. Only the Norrőna, berthed in the center of the village appeared out of place - huge.


Later in the afternoon we organized a trip over the mountains to nearby Egilsstaðir. It was promoted in the Planet as the largest town in the east, its’ capital, lying beside a large waterway with its own airport. We were dropped off at the Caltex petrol station on the edge of town while the driver collected the mail. The petrol station just like those everywhere, complete with familiar international Caltex graphics; but this one was still carrying the old promotion: put a tiger in your tank! We arranged to be picked up in the hour, walked up the road along what truly looked and felt like a Wild West outpost, walked back and waited.

Seyðisfjörður was indeed more colourful and attractive. Its’ isolation semeed to protect it from the commercial quality that Egilsstaðir suffered from - the disease of the west. Seyðisfjörður was still innocent - nearly. Driving back one could see how this itny village tucked itself deep into the fold of dangerous slopes, ones that had indeed been problemmatical. A monument to those killed by an avalanche stood near the church. Looking up, one could see the barriers that had been installed to try to prevent this catastrophe from recurring. It seemed that Seyðisfjörður had something that must be worth fighting for, for folk to want to stay there. One could sense it, indeed, see it.

Shopping at the local store, the community centrepiece that was also the village petrol station, one engaged with locals. The middle-aged man clearly communicated the advantages of eating the dried fish that were being looked at, with his thrusting bent arm, bright, winking eyes and his grunts. Gestures can easily overcome the language barrier, as can humour. The surprise was that the faces of these people all looked familiar. One had the sense that one had seen these folk before, even though this was a first-time visit. Was this the Viking heritage? The pure genes of Iceland?

So our time at Seyðisfjörður was much enjoyed. Every minute was fruitful, truthful, nothing was wasted; nothing caused any of the expected frustration hypothesized when first seeing this place on arrival. We were never bored. Each turn revealed a new delight in the Norwegian wood detailing of the ‘Ikea,’ corrugated iron housing - the original flatpacks? The place was alive and busy in its own gentle, modest and quiet manner. It was like a living museum, but in no way apologetic or backwards-looking. It merely had the benefit of buildings that were beautifully designed, durable and comfortable, that could still shelter and accommodate all of this century’s delights with their own, and easily incorproate all of the little things that make life so rich. The windows were the public display of a pleasant and enjoyable village lifestyle that could admire this beautiful part of Iceland - even if the tourist guide consoiders it to be empty. It is full, full of the most beautiful buildings in the world, not only because they are pretty, colourful and unpretentious, but also because they are so much loved and are able to still efficiently shelter this love and life in this remote part of our world, generating a simple, homely contentment, an emotion that seems so elusive in the buzz of commerce that grips other busier and larger places that are always only pulsing, pushing for profits and competing for prestige.

NOTE: 29 October 2014