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
Posted by Picasa

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.