Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
My regards to UTS Broadway
A despised building has been transformed, in record time, into a thing of beauty, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s a good idea. A master plan to give Sydney’s only city university something resembling a campus for the first time
But good ideas are two a penny.The mere fact that UTS, in its wholesale makeover of the old Fairfax building, has realised stage one of the master plan is just cause for celebration. Sounds simple. But a city university is no wholly owned greenfield campus, where your biggest planning worry is displacing the heritage gardenias.
In a grimy uptown context, planning is more like one of those puzzles where to move any square you have to move two others first. Only the others are all externally controlled, so each step must be negotiated, tested and proved, while highest-and-best-use orthodoxy waits to exile you, any moment, to some low-rent backblock.
By the mid-1990s, UTS straddled three far-flung campuses (Broadway, St Leonards and Ku-ring-gai) and a ragbag of rented premises. The current plan which has already involved various acquisitions, renovations and exchanges of property will reduce the campus number to two by 2004 (leaving only a small hospital-based research presence at St Leonards), with no rentals.
The tower stays, but be thankful: when it was built, 30 years ago, plans showed three of the brutes.
Things have changed. The city centre, having slummocked north in the ’60s, is filling south again. And that tower conspicuous, defiant, detested has become UTS’s biggest asset, figuratively as well as literally, in the edu-marketing wars. Nothing beats being noticed.
Extinction of the high-rise model for tertiary education, though, only sharpened the predicament of the space-needy city uni. So UTS’s 1999 purchase of the old Fairfax building on Jones Street although for roughly twice the price at which it was gazumped four years earlier effected a vast sigh of relief all round.
Of course, the Fairfax building is almost as universally despised as the UTS tower but strategically UTS could hardly afford not to own it. Plus, beneath the shab and the drear are good bones.
So when, at midnight on December 31, 2000, the occupying SOCOG armies moved out, UTS moved in, embarking on one of the fastest total-rehab jobs in history. Little more than a year later, and bisected now by a great glazed atrium, the thing was complete.
The Fairfax building, its 1930s-style stripped-classicism notwithstanding, was built in 1955. Sydney had yet to remove its statutory height-limit but the pressure was on, from pushy moderns such as Harry Seidler and Graham Thorp, and profoundly reinforced by the fear that Melbourne might “win”. Out with “boxy” buildings was the general war cry, in with “towers in the round”.
But the Fairfax building was a muddle from the start, neither box nor tower but a bit of both. Its 14-storey tower was asymmetrically underslung by a vast podium fronting Jones, Thomas and Wattle streets, where lived the faceless hordes with no need of light or air. It was newsprint and hot metal below decks (the “factory”); typewriters and eyeshades above.
From UTS’s viewpoint, 50 years on, the tower was quickly earmarked for interim commercial use, leaving the podium for immediate UTS occupation. At 4500 square metres, though, this podium was four times the size of contemporary commercial floorplates and more than twice today’s standard.
To render such a building habitable by today’s standards demanded drastic action; light, air, space. Accordingly, UTS’s brief to its architects called for “excitement”, and their architects, Bligh Voller Nield (BVN), obliged. BVN sliced a 600-square-metre fully glazed slot through each of the podium’s six working floors.
The ground floor, paved in white granite and flooded with natural light, provides cafes, shops and teaching space. Above it soars the new atrium. Naturally ventilated and traversed by a dozen bridges, the atrium forms a reference and connection point for the entire building.
The atrium slot runs east-west, its southern wall specially glazed to maximise daylight reflection into the building, while the north side opens to the space, above gleaming white balustrade panels.
Similarly mitigating the supercool effect is the recycled wool-shed ironbark on stairs, bridges and handrails, and splashes of brilliant wall-colour.
In layout terms the building regurgitates old hierarchies; Dean’s empire, window-hogging academic offices, and the rest fight for breath, while the admin-plebs are banished to upper, low-ceilinged floors.
Anyone blessed by acquaintance with academia, though, will know the bloody squabbles that precede such a building. In shepherding terms alone, therefore, to whistle such a building through university-style labyrinths of committee games and decision-making is notable indeed; completion in 15 fleeting months brings it into special-treat territory.
But this is not just about getting it up. In a building that “fought them all the way”, BVN have not only provided the requisite spatial excitement but made it look easy.
In parallel, too, UTS has been engaged in a spot of neighbourhood activity, establishing a group of local uptown institutions Sydney Institute of Technology, the ABC, the Powerhouse Museum, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to share and manage
In particular, this group has overseen realisation of the UPN (Ultimo Pedestrian Network) on the old Ultimo Rail Corridor. This, too, is now under way, providing direct access from Central Station to Wattle Street, through a series of cafes, courtyards, bridges and buildings.
Next stages in UTS’s master plan include further refurbishment, consolidation and greening, as well as the closure of Jones Street to traffic, forming the main campus-entrance.
In the meantime, though, attention turns to what the new-old UTS-Fairfax building might be named. Three people have been especially instrumental in this mammoth achievement: vice-chancellor Tony Blake, deputy vice-chancellor Robyn Kemmis and architect Neil Hanson. My vote’s with them, one or all. But in an era that has seen UTS’s public funding fall to 35 per cent, my guess is that it will go to some fatter cat.
ILLUS: Stage one of the UTS makeover …
the atrium of the new-look building.
The brief called for ”excitement”, and the architects obliged.
Photo: Quentin Jones