Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
U-turn gives school a focus
THERE can’t be many places where fully- fledged intelligent adults will shell out a handsome proportion of a decent salary just for the privilege of full-time unpaid attendance. The University of NSW’s Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), though, is such a place. And while one can scarcely claim that such devotion is architecturally inspired, it’s all part of the grand plan to put UNSW on top, in terms of physical image as much as academic repute.
For education to be a viable commodity, as is increasingly required, it has to look like one. At UNSW the transformation is on. The AGSM, recently remodelled by Lawrence Nield and Partners Australia (LNPA), is third in a list of seven major buildings planned for the university’s 50th-anniversary present to itself, and that’s not counting housing, urban design or landscaping interventions. What was once the State’s most godforsaken campus is thus about two-thirds through becoming a positive exemplar of design, both urban and architectural. A case study in redeeming the irredeemable.
The AGSM is itself a micro-sample of precisely this. The job was to extend and renovate the existing school, an L-shaped ’70s number of no discernible distinction in the eviscerated modern style which typified that time and this campus. With energetic support from the ViceChancellor, the dean and the board, LNPA’s project director, Neil Hanson, extended the brief – and the L – to form a new courtyard-focused whole.
Being nestled rump-first into the far south-east corner of the campus, the building shows little external symptom of the transforming hand. The face is regrettably untouched. Only a side glimpse of glassy stairwell signals that architecture is within.
From the front door on, however, this is clearly something special. The primary design moves look like commonsense, in retrospect straightening out a dog-leg approach to make the courtyard immediately visible; placing a smart new cafe on-axis to reinforce this with aromatic magnetism; organising the building’s circulation to maximise its contribution to the vitality of the new central court; garnishing with wisteria, perching spots and the aural seductiveness of running water. Such abundance of commonsense clearly signifies specialness.
Of course, the AGSM is no common or garden faculty, either. It operates within the university structure, but under the deanship of high energy, high-profile Professor Fred Hilmer and direction of a board which comprises Nick Whitlam, Carla Zampatti, David Mortimer and John Reid, inter alia.
The somewhat enhanced fund-raising capacity with which the school is thus blessed meant that the university’s donation to coffers was augmented, in this case, not only by fee income but also by direct support from the business community (hence the new building’s Frank Lowy Library, for instance).
The money is a necessary but not by itself a sufficient condition, however. In this case it allowed the use of some fine materials – sculpted bluegum obelisks and stainless steel mesh as wisteria-support, solid bluegum counters for coffee-in-the-Florentine-manner, upper-level roofs of moulded zinc – as well as a few luxury management devices such as automatic photo-sensitive louvres and blinds (as at Bilson’s on the Quay) and individually controllable air-conditioning.
God, as well as the money, is in the details. And the details in this case are both thoughtful and charming. But the mystery coagulant that unifies it all as architecture is still the old inescapable, the big idea. It doesn’t have to be new or difficult or sophisticated. But it does have to be appropriately conceived, wholeheartedly implemented, and strong enough both to unify the whole and carry the complexities of the program.
In this case, the big idea is the courtyard, and it is all of the above. This is no mere central space. It is the heart of the place and the focus of all activity. Already semi-defined by the two arms of the existent L, the court has been completed not rectangularly, but with a tight paraboloid curve which turns the L to a U and emphasises its centring, ovoid strength.
A canted glass wall wraps all circulation around the courtyard, further underlining the dominance of the central curve within this strictly rectilinear building. Teaching rooms open from the courtyard; restaurant, party space and cafe all open onto it, the library and main stair overlook it, as do the residential quarters for stay-over students. The entrance leads directly to it. Life sans courtyard becomes unthinkable.
The academic offices which comprise the top two floors of this five-storey extension are consciously designed to emphasise their status as a distinct part of the whole. Unlike the rest of the building, these elegant cells are clad in sheet-aluminium curtain-walling (as opposed to brick, downstairs) and aligned either side of a central corridor – “double-loaded”, in the jargon, as well as double-layered.
This smooth silver element is then expressed as a long shoebox atop the rest, cantilevering half a metre over the end precisely in order to show a measure of difference. Aloofness, even. But even these offices, and the roof terrace which serves them, give predominantly onto the courtyard’s vitalising space.
Granted it’s not Jefferson’s University of Virginia. But on the presumption that to Ivy League it is out of the question in the current funding environment, the AGSM’s rendering of university life as a kind of corporate-culture prep school is convincing, handsome and humane.
Illus: Gerrit Fokkema’s photograph of his son, Edward, and the cicadas, taken in Leichhardt in 1993, is part of an exhibition that opens tonight at Byron Mapp Gallery at 178 Oxford Street, Paddington, drawn from Fokkema’s ongoing project of
photographing the four generations of his family.