Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Order makes a comeback on campus
ORDER, the texts used to say, is not only Heaven’s first law, but also the first law of knowledge, and should therefore be the guiding principle of any campus development plan. Two recent university buildings in Sydney illustrate this divine law – the Quadrangle building, designed by Peddle Thorp, at UNSW, and the Education building, by Jackson Teece Chesterman and Willis (JTCW), at Sydney. Each is significant as architecture, but also as an example of urban design, and of a new-found impulse in campuses the world over to reassert some wider physical order where it has been lost, or never found.
Order, in the old regime, meant not mere tidiness, chronology or alphabetics. Order meant a way of arranging buildings and spaces according to an underlying, Beaux Arts geometry that gave dignity to the part and coherence to the whole. It also gave endless opportunity for the ritualised poetics of vistas and gardens, courtyards and quadrangles, cloisters, bell-towers, lawns and the double-oak – a formal vocabulary drawn both from the classical traditions of the enlightenment and from the monastic, Gothic model of Oxbridge.
After about 1930, this notion of formal unity in any sort of planning was unceremoniously dumped. University life came instead to be lived in and around dead-eyed Modernist megastructures in which architecture’s normal “come hither” gestures – wide eaves, grand entrances, opening windows, verandas, memorable spaces generally and roofs that you could see – were replaced by strip windows (“fenestration”) unrolled like wallpaper along otherwise blank walls, low ceilings and that peculiar powdery smell of naked concrete.
And as the buildings withdrew into themselves, the spaces between became a deadzone.
Of course, Modernism talked about using composition to transcend the mundane, extend tradition and nurture the spaces between buildings. But most of the time, despite the rhetoric, it produced only these godless monuments, strewn randomly across formless swathes of paving or parkland.
Then along came urban design. Remedying placelessness – or “healing the fabric” – is what urban design is all about, and by the late 1980s many universities were crying out for it.
Of Sydney’s in-town campuses, UNSW, most blessed with space, suffered most from the formlessness syndrome, its all-pervasive road the only discernible pattern. UNSW’s 1990 masterplan (also, as it happens, the work of of JTCW architects) set itself to healing, and reordering, this fabric; the new Quadrangle building is central to the strategy.
A spreading four-storeyed U-shaped building, its internal courtyard fringed by two-storeyed colonnade, the Quadrangle building was intended to provide a symbolic heart for the campus. It had to mediate between the disparate styles – if style is not too strong a word – of half a dozen or more immediate neighbours, and articulate a crossroads for the new pedestrian network intended to unify the campus and counter the car.
This it does with considerable success, providing also some second-order pleasures, such as the broad balcony walkways and the green planes of landscape architect Lorna Harrison’s immaculately lawned court, along the way. In style terms, the Quadrangle building is terrifically eclectic. It harks back not only to the medieval (and before that Moorish, walled-garden) origins of the quadrangle form – especially, perhaps, as manifest in Blacket’s 1857 quadrangle at Sydney uni, completed by Leslie Wilkinson in the ’20s – but also, in its
bagged and ochre-limewashed walls, to the Spanish Mission style that formed Wilkinson’s other primary source.
There are other, more contemporary references too – to the Oxbridge collegiate buildings by British architect Richard MacCormac, for instance, who has trademarked the progressive lightening of architectonics towards the sky, to Louis Kahn, in the tower, and above all, to the late great James Stirling.
Stirling was the Modernist’s post-modernist, who made colour and decoration OK for a generation raised to abjure them. His paternal presence is if anything more palpable in JTCW’s Education building, which unashamedly decks itself out in blood-red Minoan columns as well as royal blue Doric, chequer-board Dutch gables (out of Jeremy Dixon, London), Greek/Gothic dentil-cum-finials, Arts and Crafts pergolas and Victorian polychrome brickwork, or similar.
Both buildings are basically brick-clad concrete – brick being de rigeur, but prohibitive if load-bearing, these days. Both use blue steelwork – rather a more sophisticated blue at Sydney uni, and rather less of it – to feature balconies, walkways and the like against the brick. And both feature that ultimate Stirling stamp, the rotunda. Stirling’s rotundas are legendary. Usually, as in his Stuttgart Staatsgalerie or the Science Library at University of California, Irvine, they are seriously big and explorable, embedded deep in the plan itself.
Neither the Quadrangle nor the Education building have contrived such dramatic spaces; on the whole, funding forbade it. The UNSW rotundas are at least habitable, providing cafes – the lower one in particular a successful terminating device – as well as a little folly, pending wistaria.
The Education building, making much play of the so-called “Wilkinson Vista” connecting the Holmes and Physics buildings, would also benefit from being a little more thoroughgoing in its symmetries: its two main wings being neither the same height, nor the same length, so the contrived dualisms are apt to look accidental. And the little bridge, nicely formed to frame such a view, needs more beef for the job. Dominant compositional schemata, once established, tolerate only so much dissent.
ILLUS: The Quadrangle building at the University of NSW … central to a new masterplan.
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES