A sheep, a toy buzzy bee, a silver fern, a kiwi, or even the All Blacks. These could all be considered national icons, but what about a sheet of corrugated iron? No material sums up as much about this country and its people as this hardy, unflappable yet cheap metal. Not only that, this cheap 'poor man's' building material has now become fashionable amongst architects, designers, and even sculptors.
In England during the 1830s, Richard Walker invented a machine to ripple sheets of iron. Rippling made thin sheets of iron and steel more rigid, thus making a strong, portable and inexpensive building material. Dipping the iron in molten zinc, or galvanizing, also made corrugated iron weather resistant.
Introduced to New Zealand in the 1850s, corrugated iron roofed the first New Zealand Parliament in 1852 and since then has been used in New Zealand not only for roofing, but for walls, fences, and dog shelters, not to mention canoes. The corrugated iron holiday bach and the big, red, corrugated iron barn have become features of the New Zealand rural landscape.
Corrugated iron roofs were also found to be efficient at collecting rainwater: the water would run down the grooves into large corrugated iron tanks, a method of water collection that is still used in remote areas of New Zealand today.
Even though considered by some to be a 'poor man's' roofing material, corrugated iron's strength, durability, and the fact that it is waterproof and fireproof, have ensured its continued popularity as a building material. Perhaps because it is seen as such a truly New Zealand material, it is presently enjoying something of a renaissance. It can now be bought in a variety of sizes and pre-painted in different colours, and is seen by many artists, architects and designers as both aesthetically pleasing and functional.
Corrugated iron also evokes nostalgic memories in many New Zealanders, not just the sight of it, but also the sounds associated with it, such as the sound of rain on a corrugated iron roof, or the sound kids make by running a stick, or a finger, along a corrugated iron fence.
Its durability, practicality, versatility and inexpensiveness somehow sum up the Kiwi character and make corrugated iron a good candidate for a Kiwi icon. As contemporary New Zealand architect Peter Beaven says: 'It's a true New Zealand totem along with rugby, racing and beer' (1). 'Look for the durable New Zealand image', says New Zealand writer Geoff Chapple, 'And there it is, already sufficiently common that it merges into anonymity - behind them all, the unremitting ripple of corrugated iron.' (2).
Corrugated iron has been used by New Zealand artists in many exciting and innovative ways. In 1980-81 artist Ralph Hotere used second-hand corrugated iron in his artworks, selling one of his sheets, Aramoana: Pathway to the Sea, to the Rotorua Art Gallery for $850, complete with rust holes - surely one of the most expensive pieces of 'corry' in the country!
How do you know if a piece of corrugated iron is the right way up? 'When a corrugated sheet is placed flat and observed, it will be found that there are a number of crests and hollows. If these are counted there will be found to be more of one than the other. If there are more crests than hollows, then the sheet is the right way up.' (3).
(1) Buckland, Susan. (1993). A Heritage of Iron. Pacific Way 61. May. p. 46. (2) Chapple, Geoff. (1992). The Unremitting Ripple in Brimer, Richard. editor. Jeff Thomson: any old iron, Auckland: Icon Publishing. np. (3) Binney, D H. (1992). Back To The Roof Where It All Began in Brimer, Richard. editor. Jeff Thomson: any oldiron, Auckland: Icon Publishing. np.
Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.
Brimer, Richard editor. (1992). Jeff Thomson: any old iron. Auckland: Icon Publishing.
Buckland, Susan. (1993). A Heritage of Iron. Pacific Way 61: May.
Red-tin barn, West Coast about 1993 photographed by Grant Sheehan Courtesy of Grant Sheehan
Words against the iron
While corrugated iron has become very popular with many New Zealand artists and architects, it also finds itself making an appearance in New Zealand literature. The material appears in stories by writers Frank Sargeson and Ronald Hugh Morrieson, and poets James K. Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Sam Hunt also mention corrugated iron. The following poem, Rain on the Roof by New Zealand writer and poet Janet Frame, (1) is about her nephew who has to sleep in the basement but puts a sheet of corrugated iron outside his window to recapture the childhood sound of rain on the roof.
Rain on the Roof by Janet Frame
My nephew sleeping in a basement room has put a sheet of iron outside his window to recapture the sound of rain falling on the roof.
I do not say to him, The heart has its own comfort for grief. A sheet of iron repairs roofs only. As yet unhurt by the demand that change and difference never show, he is still able to mend damages by creating the loved rain-sound he thinks he knew in early childhood.
Nor do I say, In the travelling life of loss iron is a burden, that one day he must find within himself in total darkness and silence the iron that will hold not only the lost sound of the rain but the sun, the voices of the dead, and all else that has gone.
(1) Frame, Janet. Rain on the Roof in O'Sullivan, Vincent. (1987). An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 3rd edition. p 198.