The colour – earth buildings and literature

One of the joys of picking up novels is finding buildings, and stories of their construction and maintenance. One of my childhood favourites is the opening of Wind in the Willows where Mole is Spring-cleaning and whitewashing his home on the river bank. I’ve just found another building gem in ‘the colour’ by Rose Tremain.

In ‘the colour’ a newly married English couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate to New Zealand in the mid 19th century and in establishing a new life in a new country build a new cottage of Cob. The couple try to farm harsh land near Christchurch, but the house is built on the wrong site, in the wrong place, and by the husband and local labourers – rather than by the husband and wife in partnership.

The cob building acts as a metaphor for a failing relationship in a harsh country. As the building self-destructs in extreme weather so does the relationship between Joseph and Harriet – and this provides the substance of the novel.

Whilst I love finding interesting buildings in novels this is another example of how earth buildings have been used as a symbol for failed relationships and harsh lives. This is perhaps most famously by Woody Guthrie in House of Earth (in this earlier blog post).

So what of cob houses in New Zealand? Cob is a construction material associated with the early colonial buildings in New Zealand. For example Broadgreen is an 1854 2 storey Cob Building, now listed and protected as a Historic Place it is an unusually large and rare surviving example of what was once a common material of construction


A brief search of the New Zealand Heritage Lists shows a wide range of colonial earth buildings – cob, adobe, sod, rammed earth – all legacies of a colonial era and reflecting local vernacular materials and styles executed in New Zealand, as homesteads, agricultural buildings, missionary and church buildings (amongst others). The survival of these buildings and structures is in contrast to the perception of earth as an ‘unconservable’ building material of last resort.

In the 21st century like Earth Building UK and Ireland EBUKI – New Zealand has an Earth Building Organisation and a range of earth building standards for contemporary construction. A quick google shows a range of contemporary constructions in New Zealand – all rather aspirational and in contrast to the metaphorically hopeless Cob house of ‘The Colour’.

About Louise Cooke

conservation, heritage, landscapes, earth buildings and other interesting things
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