Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Uni’s return from the living dead
The transformation of the UNSW’s once sad and miserable campus has been nothing short of remarkable, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
“Relax,” they’d tell us as students, “don’t worry about it. Personal style will come. Every building you do will be indelibly stamped signed, like it or not by your ineluctable unconscious.” Or words to that effect.
One of the notable traits, though, of the postmodern architectural generation is that this stamping thing hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway.
Even those who follow overtly modern styles show a polyglot reluctance to pursue one at the expense of others. More typically they respond to contextual cues, shaping the building to place and purpose more than personal or moral fervour.
This is something to despise as relativism or laud as open-mindedness, depending on where you’re at. The upshot, though, is that whereas a Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe or Cox or Seidler building is instantly recognisable, a Richard Francis-Jones (for example) may take many forms.
Francis-Jones’s three recent university buildings make the point: the UNSW’s Red Centre, housing architecture, maths and other sundries; the Scientia building, another of chairman Niland’s grands projets; and the Eastern Avenue Lecture Complex (EALC)
at Sydney Uni. The Red Centre, set behind its punched street wall of sunlit terracotta, fronts up like an exercise in heroic Italian modern; Scientia, figurative and flamboyantly axial, is (to that extent, at least) unreconstructedly postmodern, and the just-completed and prosaically named EALC pays lucent homage to the platonic forms of Corbusier.
Underlying this apparent eclecticism, though, is an attitudinal consistency, a porous and responsive design approach that is the true indicator of Francis-Jones’s work. Closer scrutiny reveals also a similarity of detail.
Ten years ago, if you remember it pre-makeover, the UNSW Kensington campus was a sad and miserable place whose seeping dreariness of spirit enveloped its few moments of architectural joy in a zero sum and infected the surrounding neighbourhoods with the worship of tar and car. Then came John Niland, blasting fresh air into every nook and parking space. And David Chesterman’s master plan, which reaped development sites by corralling cars at the periphery. Simple win-win.
A flood of improvements followed alts and adds, newbuilds and refurbs, courtyards, lawns and quadrangles jointly and severally a tribute to CEO Niland’s relentless imagineering and, well, relentlessness. The transformation is truly remarkable, a return from the living dead. And its most dramatic single gesture is University Mall, the broad avenue that forms the uni’s main spine and entrance from Anzac Parade.
The mall was pencilled-in in the 1960s, stuffed around in the ’70s, restored in the late ’80s and fully formed in the late ’90s, with the construction of Francis-Jones’s Red Centre and a handsome Lawrence Nield refurb as flanking lions, followed by Scientia; crown, altar, centrepiece.
Scientia is Latin for knowledge a relic from the days when that was what universities chased and the building was always intended to play some over-arching, corporate role. But the brief for the competition, 1990-something, was mostly air a great hall, a performance space for music, assorted classrooms and some sort of recognition of the iconic axis.
Francis-Jones’s prize-winning design is airiness made real, bringing a sense of high-minded (if slightly showy) celebration that the campus so desperately needed. The composition employs a strangely successful dualism, straddling the axis heavy stone-cased volume either side and remarking its passage with tall-canopied space, not substance.
The apparent anti-monumentalism of Scientia’s central gesture, for instance, is easily matched by its distinctly monumental presence in the campus; by its central airiness balanced by full-on materiality in the two halves; by the abstraction of the banded stonework answered by fearless figuration in the giant, jarrah-clad trees that support the glass canopy and, more importantly, anoint the grand axis.
One of Scientia’s most endearing aspects is its degree of permeability. Not only does the grand axis high-step through the building’s gentle grasp, but public access to its private balconies creates a new cross-campus route.
All this clearly begs a gothic reading: the central nave running east-west for the divine light; the vast columns, branching, yearning for the sky between heavy, earth-bound buttresses; the central crossing, where paths meet in light.
And in some ways, of course, as dualism dictates, it’s inverted gothic. The main forms rise glassily above a gravity-locked base; the nave is flooded with light, not gilt-edged gloom; the glass roof is a butterfly, not an umbrella; the columns occupy centre aisle; the main action is not in the nave at all but in the buttresses, which are hollow to this end and run north-south, off axis. But the sense of aspiration, even inspiration, remains.
Inside the great hall it’s the same story. Symmetrical but not, decorative (the solid timber cigar-columns, the book-matched Carrara backdrop) but abstract, modern but post-modern. It’s no soap-box building, no ranter and persuader. No clear polemical diagram. But it’s charismatic and likable and its style, as much as location, has hit the spot for a needy campus. It is also, for all its contradictions, coherent, dignified and profoundly symbolic.
Sydney Uni’s EALC is altogether more modest. The campus itself was a much less desperate case, for one thing, already spending more on gardenias than other universities’ entire annual buildings budgets. And EALC is no centrepiece but a low-budget teaching complex on an infill site fronting the well- used but long-bedraggled Eastern Avenue.
The brief required two lecture theatres, a 500-seater and a 200. But theatres of any kind are ugly sisters, notoriously resistant to camouflage or prettification. Francis-Jones’s principal insight here was to bury the big one in a great brick drum, bringing more of the audience to the front and leaving much of the ground plane available for transparency. With only a handful of dollars to spend, he has avoided the low-budget look by containing the brief within clearly distinct forms cylindrical lecture drum and lift tower, triangular fire stair, pyramidal skylight, sleek upper shoebox in polished aluminium. Then, extending Corbusier’s palette a little, he has used strong colour blue, yellow, silver, terracotta to separate the forms, underline the transparency and generate a stylish addition to the campus.
So, what of personal style? In the end, the level of responsiveness that typifies these buildings responsiveness to site, budget, client, brief is inimical to the development or exercise of an overriding personal style. Then again, does it even matter?
TWO ILLUS: Responsive design …
the UNSW’s Scientia building, above, and Sydney Uni’s Eastern Avenue lecture complex, left.
Photos: James Alcock