Feb 16

Stern Utility

Mark NormanReview by Mark Norman

Stern Utility

The wood and iron architecture of Natal

From the beginning of time all buildings were handmade, created by skilled craftsmen who made their own tools, often from the very materials used in the build. Until the Industrial Revolution that is...
A revolution based on the irresistible power of harnessed steam which in the custody of the ever energetic and creative Victorians would forever re-shape the path of life on earth.
Machines now made iron and cut wood; reliable propeller driven iron ships replaced fickle wooden sailing vessels and the great human migrations from the old world to the new were made possible.

They turned to the age’s wunderkind, corrugated iron, which England produced on an exponential scale so that wood and metal structures mushroomed in every corner of Empire including Durban.
Which is where Stern Utility by Prof. Brian Kearney takes centre stage...
In his inimitable style he recounts the rise and fall of this important architectural genre in a work part lecture notes, part historical narrative, liberally illustrated and studded with pearls of wisdom.
On Henry Palmer he bestows the honour of inventing corrugated iron in 1829 thus placing him in the vanguard of the revolution without forgetting the other two crucial players; sawn timber and ... wire nails.

Mass production had arrived and as far as specialized craftsmen were concerned the writing was literally on the wall. Most able bodied men could now make a wooden frame to bear corrugated iron sheets.
If Mass Production started the dynasty, it was the first born who took up the cudgels, answering the clarion call of the surging, exploring often exploiting hordes. He was christened Prefabrication.

At first just the pressed sheets, studs and furniture were shipped worldwide but then whole buildings became available in kit form, just waiting to be ordered from a bewildering array of catalogues.

For the technophobes amongst us there are reproduced plans and exploded drawings to accompany the detailed discourse on the building methods used by the pioneers.
The focus of the work is Natal and Durban, firstly as the springboard for the imported materials, but as demand grew Natal emerged as an assembly base in its own right, supplying most of sub-Saharan Africa.
Diamonds in Kimberly, gold on the Reef, war, farming, even the church found a home in wood and iron buildings and it must have seemed the sun would never set on the age.

We learn that at the height of its popularity circa 1900 there were some 63, 722 wood/iron dwellings in the four colonies with 14, 767 in Natal alone. Yet today we are hard pressed to see but one.
Stern Utility is the complete fascinating story, lovingly and faithfully told in a lavishly illustrated soft cover book by one of the world’s leading Natalian architectural historians.
[important]A worthwhile addition to the library of even the most casual history buff, Stern Utility by Brian Kearney ISBN 978-0-620-63192-1 is available direct from the author  rebt@telkomsa.net :cost ZAR170.00 [/important]
Ends here 530 words February 2015 M. Norman

1 comment

  1. Ed

    I am mightily impressed by your review Mark and will be purchasing this book very shortly, thank you!

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