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Monday Jan 19, 2015

New book highlights' Natal's wood and iron architecture

Durban's prolific professor is at it again. After the publication of two major works recently - a three-volume, detailed illustrated history of the port of Durban, and an in-depth look at Durban Light Infantry and its relationship with the city since 1854 - Brian Kearney has produced another fascinating book, Stern Utility - The wood and iron architecture of Natal.

A rather grand old house on Durban's Bay, at Island View.

When I first arrived in Durban from Kimberley in the late 1970s, I was no stranger to wood and iron houses as there were still plenty of them in my home town. And during the first few decades in my adopted city I was to live in three.

They were wonderful party years and the houses were ideal for communes as landlords did not much care what was done to the property; we even built a concrete ramp at one, the "Great, Grey Battleship" in Churchill Road, so that our gleaming motorcycles could safely be ridden into the large back area where they became "portable furniture".

Kearney, who is Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Natal, has looked at corrugated iron - a key product of the 19th century and one which made the physical fabric of the British empire possible; the way in which it became an industrialised building system driven by entrepreneurial manufacturers, symbolic of many political issues and closely bound to the social and economic history of Natal. It also tells how it became an architecture of the poor.

In his words, this is a publication about a simple and economical building system which was home-grown and used extensively in Natal from 1870 to 1930.

The system used a timber frame covered with sheets of corrugated iron or steel and had light timber trusses with corrugated roof sheeting. It was economical in that most of the parts could be prefabricated in factories and either supplied in a complete kit form or built on site from the easily available components.

The publication describes the origins of the materials; galvanised corrugated iron and steel, timber framing and nails. Local wood and iron buildings had roots in 19th century prefabrication, and by 1860 British buildings were being imported into Natal. But within 10 years, a home-grown species had evolved. Through the entrepreneurship of building material and timber merchants with carpenter-builders, the system spread throughout the Colony and into the interior of South Africa, especially the mining areas of Kimberley, Barberton and the Witwatersrand.

This is the story of that evolution, about the sternness and the utility; about its use in many building types - houses, churches, temples, barracks, industries, railway stations, and others. It tells of the geographical distribution in Natal of its physical and social problems, about its official unpopularity and social rejection, and of how the sternness was disguised within the more socially acceptable domestic forms of masonry structures. Thus it is also the story of how it came to be an architecture of the poor.

Interestingly, the two bestknown wood and iron buildings in the country have strong links to extraordinary historical personalities of the 20th century - Field Marshall Jan Smuts and Mahatma Gandhi.

Smuts's house, Doornkloof at Irene, now a Smuts museum, was initially a portion of a military mess at Middleburg for British officers - the men against whom he fought during the Anglo-Boer War.

Gandhi was also an adversary of Smuts - and his house in Phoenix is the other.

Unfortunately, these relics of the past are on the brink of extinction. In Kearney's words rust, borer and white ants take their annual toll. But even more pressure, or perhaps a growing sense of unininterest, comes from most of those who owned and lived in them who naturally seek a less stern and more socially acceptable icon of home.

The soft-covered book has 100 pages and numerous photographs and drawings. Limited copies are available at R170 from rebt-AT-telkomsa-DOT-net or on 031 2011 471.

Trevor Bruce
The Independent on Saturday

 
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