Friday, 18 June 2004
The Michelangelos Of Nissen Huts
CREDIT: © UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk/UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk
© Brian Cameron/BC Home Photo Page
WHERE: Lamb Holm, Orkney, Scotland. WHAT: chapel built by Italian POWs.
MAP: Orkney. Thumbnail click pops-up source page.
For day two of the Wriggly Tin Festival we visit the islands of Orkney off the northern mainland of Scotland, and in particular Lamb Holm. In 1940 Italian prisoners of war were sent to the islands to build Churchill Barriers, designed to prevent an attack similar to the sinking of the Royal Oak the year before, when a German submarine penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow where the British fleet was anchored. One of those POWs was Domenico Chiocchetti (1910-1999).
Along with other members of his unit, Domenico converted a double Nissen hut into a remarkable place of worship. Outside what was to become the chapel, Domenico first completed a sculpture of 'St. George and the Dragon' made from cement and barbed wire: set garvies to catch mackerel. Domenico did the painting, including a 'Madonna and Child' based  upon the 19th century work 'Quasi Oliva Speciosa in Campis' [Madonna of the Olives] by Nicolo Barabina or Barabino (1832-1891), and remained behind at the end of the war to finish the font; Primavera and Micheloni did the electrical installation; Palumbo did the wrought ironwork screens using scrap metal; and Bruttapasta did the cement work.
Bruno Volpi seems to have best articulated the group's mission, "Only by thinking of something nobler and more elevated could we find inner peace and hope." Chiocchetti returned in 1960 to spend three weeks restoring his painting, assisted by Orcadian Stanley Hall, who had been a guard on the prison ship bringing the Italians to Orkney. The two became friends, a fitting tribute to the mission's success.
All these men, Chiocchetti, Primavera, Micheloni, Bruttapasta, Palumbo, and Volpi, are to Nissen Huts what Michelangelo Buoarroti (1475-1564) is to the Sistine Chapel.
The BBC Heritage web site has a four  part article that gives a detailed history of the Italian Chapel. Unfortunately the illustrative images are parsimoniously sized, and as in many BBC online offerings this depreciates an otherwise excellent piece of work. The SCRAN archive has thirty one images, though an annually paid subscription is required to view them full size. You may read the Italian Chapel story on the UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk web site with much better illustrations, and see an excellent picture  set on Brian Cameron's web site.
Brian has other interesting galleries: you may visit the gallery page where the Italian Chapel pictures are featured, along with two wheeled motorized transport, Scotland's Western Isles, Clouds & Sunsets, and the Firbush Field Centre; the time lapse images page has several meteorological examples, and a daffodil [large 1.7Mb download]; the contents of the panoramas page are eponymous; Brian is an assistant director of Sci-Fun, the Scottish Science Technology Roadshow, whose old site activities we enjoyed, especially the bubble-girl in the surface tension demonstration!
Nissen Huts, which form the basis of the Italian Chapel, were temporary modular buildings designed for military use. The predominant feature of the design was its use of corrugated iron, or 'wriggly tin' as it is sometimes called, to clad the skeleton of the building. An article from the Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors magazine Civil Engineering Surveyor dated May 1999 gives a history: the article has been reprinted on the Wymondham College Remembered web site: beware the associated spoof.
Many UK baby boomers will remember school classrooms within Nissen Huts that were long past their advertised sell by date, though properly maintained they had much longer lives than might have been expected when they were erected. Anthony Nissen has a page with construction details.
The American equivalent of the Nissen Hut is the Quonset Hut, a name derived from the Quonset Naval Air Station on Rhode Island, where the prototype was built in 1941. Names like Occupessatuxet, Chepiwanoxet, and Quonochontaug from the local Native American Narragansetts language occur in Rhode island, so Quonset ['a point'] is not as bad as it might have been. From a design perspective the Quonset Hut has proved more durable than the Nissen Hut, and more modern designs based on the original are still available. We will examine some examples of the genre tomorrow.
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Jules Laforgue (1860-1887)
"Ah! que la vie est quotidienne."
Oh, what a day-to-day business life is.
'Complainte sur certains ennuis' (1885)