Architect calls on city to save Bendigo's iconic 'golden-era' mud-brick home

FINAL FAREWELL?: The iconic Strathdale gardens and wedding venue formerly known as Nanga Gnulle could soon be redeveloped into a housing estate. Picture: NONI HYETT
FINAL FAREWELL?: The iconic Strathdale gardens and wedding venue formerly known as Nanga Gnulle could soon be redeveloped into a housing estate. Picture: NONI HYETT

The man who helped design and construct an iconic Bendigo home says the city would lose its only example of a golden-era in architecture if council approves its demolition. 

Architect Robert Marshall was a fresh-faced university graduate when he built Nanga Gnulle under Alistair Knox  – regarded by his admirers as the father of the modern mud-brick movement in Australia. 

“I doubt there is another house similar to it in all of Bendigo,” Mr Marshall said. 

The practicing architect has built hundreds of homes over his career but regards Nanga Gnulle as one of the most significant. That’s due in part to the materials used – including railway sleepers from the Axedale bridge and convict-made bricks from Tasmania. 

“That was the golden-era the 1970s mud-brick and big, heavy timber houses,” he said. 

“A golden-era never to be seen again, I would think, because those materials are just too expensive now.” 

The Panton Hill-based architect has thrown his weight behind a push for Nanga Gnulle to receive an interim heritage overlay to protect it from development. 

An application to demolish the Strathdale home and sub-divide the property is currently before City of Greater Bendigo planners. 

The family who transformed the two hectare block from a soggy paddock into a lushly-gardened wedding and event venue before selling it in 2014 say they expect council to be inundated by objections to the development plan.    

Also among those pushing for protection of the Strathdale property is Tony Knox, whose father designed the mud-brick home which was completed in 1973. 

Mr Knox is currently researching the legacy of his father, a designer, landscaper, builder, architect and councillor who died in 1986. 

COMMUNITY OUTCRY: Nanga Gnulle hosted hundreds of weddings over more than two decades sparking a community outcry over its proposed development.

COMMUNITY OUTCRY: Nanga Gnulle hosted hundreds of weddings over more than two decades sparking a community outcry over its proposed development.

University of Melbourne senior lecturer in landscape architecture, planning and urbanism Andrew Saniga described Mr Knox as an influential “all rounder”. 

“He’s best described as an environmental designer because he wasn’t just about the building or just about landscape, it was about designing all those factors to come together to help create a new and different way of living,” Mr Saniga said. 

“He was a leader in that mud-brick movement and the fact that he published his ideas in several well-regarded books makes him a very significant leader in that tradition. 

“And he was given an honorary doctorate of architecture by the University of Melbourne 1984 … you don’t get that for nothing.” 

Architect Robert Marshall argued the Bendigo build was unique even with Mr Knox’s distinct portfolio of designs.

“It’s a very important building in which he took a number of bold steps, such as split floor levels and stronger roof lines than Alistair typically used – making it unique in design in that time,” he said. 

The architect and former councillor said Nanga Gnulle represented the spirit of the times in which it was built.

“That building was very much a labour of love by many, many people,” he said. “It was not an economic thing, just a ‘wang bang’ and knock-it up job, it was dreamt about and created and built carefully by many people putting in a lot of creative care,” Mr Marshall said. 

“It was built of mud-bricks, hand-made on site by artesans rather than by tradespeople.

“I doubt its like will be seen again because those artesanal schools are being lost and people want things done much more quickly these days.” 

HAND MADE: A young Robert Marshall makes mud-bricks on the Strathdale property to build Nanga Gnulle in 1972.

HAND MADE: A young Robert Marshall makes mud-bricks on the Strathdale property to build Nanga Gnulle in 1972.

Several other Knox buildings have been recognised with heritage overlays by other councils – including one constructed after Nanga Gnulle. 

Tony Knox will be in Bendigo tomorrow to meet with members of the family who built Nanga Gnulle and extended its gardens over more than four decades.