Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: News And Features
Artists take over the asylum
E M Farrelly
WHO should run the asylum, now the inmates have gone? Why, artists, of course. The old Callan Park Hospital for the insane, at Rozelle, now known collectively as Kirkbride, home to the Sydney College of the Arts, does seem singularly well suited to its new use – and not only for the stylish couture of its new inmates.
The hospital buildings, a fabulous maze of sandstone Neo-classicism, offer a vast array of well-lit, airy and near-indestructible rooms opening to a succession of linked, veranda-fringed courtyards. Studio space to die for. Even in its former incarnation, Callan Park was probably less grim than most.
Australia’s first asylum for the insane was established by Governor Macquarie at Castle Hill in 1811. Better than prison (and definitely better than the streets), it was still no holiday camp – isolated, dirty, desperately overcrowded, and staffed predominantly by bonded convicts, including the doctors.
The 1883 establishment of the Callan Park Asylum heralded attitudinal change, from strict confinement to “moral therapy”, as practised by the American Thomas Storey Kirkbride, who preached the curative powers of pleasant surroundings.
The site was bought by the Parkes Government for its proximity to civilisation, its good water supply and drainage, and its breathtaking – “cheerful” in the official description at the time – views over Iron Cove. Landscape design of the 4.5-hectare grounds was undertaken by the Botanic Gardens director, Charles Moore, with a view to the soothing moral effects of nature on fractured psyches.
The building plan was based on a new asylum designed by Giles and Gough at Chartham, in Kent, which had greatly impressed the humane and cultivated Dr Frederic Norton Manning, NSW Inspector General of the Insane, on his 1875 study tour of England, Europe and North America.
Working from these givens – philosophy, site, landscape and outline plan – the Colonial Architect, James Barnet contributed the architecture, his drawing board crowded simultaneously by the continuing Sydney GPO project, major additions to the Sydney
Customs House (1884), and the construction of the Garden Palace for the International Exhibition of 1879.
Florence Nightingale had advocated pavilion-based design in response to early germ-theory, and by way of bringing light and ventilation to general medical wards. By the 1880s, sunlight and air were seen to bring more general “moral” benefits, so Callan Park patients benefited from a similar, pavilion-type plan, arranged in this case around interlinked courtyards. A high sandstone wall encircled the whole, coupled with a ha-ha device (as pioneered by the 18th-century landscape star Capability Brown) designed to render the necessary security compatible with views out.
The site was divided according to gender and status, with male patients at one end (now photo graphy, glass and ceramics workshops) and females at the other (painting, printmaking, sculpture). In between, within the central courtyard and organised east-west along what was called the “axis of authority”, were the medical officers’ residences, hospital administration and dining rooms – male and female assiduously separated by the hospital chapel.
The axis of authority is now the exhibition axis, flanked by two installation rooms and the college gallery (formerly male dining). The chapel serves as the college’s sole lecture room, while the medical officers’ residence, with its pair of gracious, solid-slate external staircases, is the college administration building.
The 20-odd original buildings were built over a five-year period from sandstone quarried on the site, with the large excavation that resulted providing an underground water reservoir for the hospital’s needs. Manning’s instruction to Barnet was to minimise ornament and carving, these being inappropriate to an asylum. And apart from the stand of poodle-leg columns, miniaturised from Ledoux’s Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in France (1775), which mark the front door (and start of the axis of authority), Barnet obediently eschewed frippery.
But there are other ways to spend money, and regarding layout, material, and construction, no expense was spared; the entire ensemble being fitted with slate roofs, slate stairs, timber floors, copper downpipes and high arched ceilings in lightweight
concrete block. Hundreds of mini-Doric cast-iron columns support the veranda roofs that provide covered ways throughout the site and a splendid Venetian clocktower, complete with tidal ball-spire, offered patients (who were privileged to roam the site) a means of transcending mundane anxiety.
The result was described by the Illustrated Sydney News at the time as “a magnificent pile of buildings … a monument to the liberality of a country willing to contribute so large a cost for such a purpose, to the skilful brain that designed it, and
to the contractors that built it”.
In 1990, however, after government psychiatric mores had moved again, this time away from institutional care, Callan Park was in the same boat as most other buildings of the sandstone era. What to do with this gracious Palladian pile, water-front and park-side, but in Rozelle of all places?
The sheer extent of the property implied an institutional use, but a university was by no means the obvious choice. The standard tertiary faculty, especially in these days of split campuses, will fight and scratch for increased proximity to the seat of power. Some, however – typically the art disciplines – prize fringe-dwelling as a form of independence.
Sydney University’s Sydney College of the Arts was housed at the time in motley premises in Glebe and Balmain: Professor Richard Dunne, the director of the college, with Peter Collins, then Arts Minister, and Chris Johnson, now Government Architect, formed an influential triangle to will the thing into existence.
And a triumph of wills it has been: $19 million stretches pretty thin over this much property, especially when it has to cover restoring the stormwater system, healing salt-corroded stonework and resurfacing three courtyards, as well as the regular costs of rehabilitating 20-odd under-maintained century-old buildings.
For cost reasons, as much as heritage, the Government Architect’s approach throughout was one of minimum intervention. Rather than faking it, amendments are deliberately spelled out in one of two idioms: lightweight blue/green tone steelwork for new additions (such as the new ceramics workshop, or the disabled-access bridge between two first-floor photography wings),
while demolitions (of previously added toilet blocks, for instance) are marked by bagged and painted brickwork in one of four Tuscan hues.
Very little demolition has in fact occurred – again, partly for cost reasons – and later additions remaining have also been given the Tuscan treatment, disguising unsatisfactory brickwork and clearly distinguishing original fabric from the rest.
Broadly speaking, this has worked well. There are one or two instances where built form is clumsier than drawn intention, such as the large toilet-block scar on the southern end of photography, where new windows intended to be flush with the sandstone were mistakenly indented. From within, however, the new full-height, black-framed windows – formerly toilet doors – bring a welcome breath of stylish modernity into the ancient institutional fabric.
The approach has worked with similar serendipity in the photostudio floors, where the cost-based tactic of patching rather than replacing the timbers has produced a work worthy of hanging in its own right.
Of all the spaces, though, the sculpture studio – once the hospital laundry – is the most breathtaking, its six-metre ceiling supported by tall Roman arcades and top-lit by a long, strip-form roof lantern. Question is, though, how you could honourably work in such a space on anything less than a Rodin?
Three illus: While the gracious sandstone buildings displayed minimal ornament and carving (above), there was room for ornamentation, such as the Venetian clocktower, complete with tidal ball-spire.
Photographs by JAMES ALCOCK