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: and Iceland used the material to clad buildings transported from Norway – see:  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:  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

NOTE: 29 October 2014

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