Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Lessons, but campus loses its class
When we were children, they said that by the time we grew up we would all being flying round with personal rocket-packs strapped to our backs. Bang goes the traffic problem. Twenty years on, as telecommuting went live, they said it was the end of collective ant-heaps such as cities and university campuses; soon everyone would be taking their high-powered meetings from the bath, or the bar. Bang would go the traffic problem.
They lied. We now travel more, not less, making the traffic problem worse, not better. Cities and campuses are not only still with us but increasingly valued as marketing tools. And yet, as globalism tightens its stranglehold, they’re also increasingly the same.
It’s one of the weirdest effects of the market economy that more and more choice brings less and less variety. As in toothpaste, cars and health funds, so in university campuses; the talk is of “point of difference”, but only a few microns either side of the norm.
The latest fashion victim of this universal uniformity is, it seems, the University of Sydney. Blessed with the most beautiful campus in the country and the loveliest man-made landscape in town, possibly excepting Hyde Park, the university is remaking its campus in the image of, well, everyone else, from the University of NSW to Griffith University. The University of Sydney’s Campus 2025 project, budgeted at $800 million, is well under way, with one building complete (the information technology school on Cleveland Street, designed by FJMT architects) and two more in construction.
On the uni website you can watch the new law school and student centre going up. You can see the crane swing, the concrete pour, the workmen stop for smoko, all in jerky 12-second view bytes. But one thing you can’t see is what’s happening to Eastern Avenue, the gracious entry boulevard from City Road to the Fisher Library. For this, you have to be there.
What’s happening is, it’s gone. Remember the huge plane trees that lined the carriageway, arching over to give that lovely oranges-and-lemons tunnel of dappled light on dappled trunks? Remember the loose, breezy left-bank feel, just like a university, rather than a vocation factory? Gone, all gone. The giant fig outside the Fisher remains, its roots exposed to the diggers. Otherwise, it’s the Somme, all mud and trenches.
Welcome to Campus 2010, the first, $250 million stage of Campus 2025. Campus 2010 has five parts, including three buildings: the completed info-tech building; the law building, also by FJMT; and on the old Tin Sheds site, the student centre, USyd Central, by the Melbourne architect John Wardle. This will include a new City Road footbridge. There’s also a refurb of the crazy deco-gothic Madsen Building for geosciences, and the Public Domain Project. The buildings take most of the money, as you’d expect, and on the whole they’re confident and stylish if a touch Sydney-school predictable.
But the public domain will make the biggest splash. Its emphasis is a feminine one, on relationships over objects; streets, vistas and axes over buildings. And its main gesture is a cross-campus link from Darlington to Glebe. Already built is the smart Shepherd Street boardwalk, with thousands of tiny foot-level lights representing the Pleiades and a 70,000-litre rain tank under it. This will connect across a re-landscaped Maze Crescent (removing the poplars but keeping the ornamental pears) and through the new USyd Central to the new City Road bridge. And from there to Eastern Avenue.
Which is where you weep. The future Eastern Avenue, designed by the Danish landscape architect Jeppe Aagaard Anderson with a local firm, Turf, replaces the planes, abhorred by allergy activists and native nazis alike, with angophoras. The road will be pedestrianised, the cars shoved under the law building, the paving decorative, the seats stone (no, you can’t sue for piles). The great cast-iron gates will move to Victoria Park, making City Road the campus’s main vehicle entrance, diverting cars to the aptly named Barff Road car park. And the Quadrangle lawn will remain sterilely perfect for tourist weddings; trees verboten.
Why? Other universities, like UNSW, have desperately needed a revamp. Some, like the University of Technology, Sydney, still do. But Sydney is different. Old, obviously. Shabby, sure. Needing new buildings, no doubt. But the campus has felt neither soulless like UNSW, threadbare like UTS, nor like an overgrown teachers’ college, as do the bush universities, including Griffith, Newcastle and the Australian National University.
Sydney alone, despite its mad mix of sandstone gothic, Mediterranean stucco and deco-moderne, despite, or because of, its classical plan and picturesque landscaping, its Blacket and Barnet edifices and its 1920 Leslie Wilkinson masterplan, was always unmistakeably a place of higher learning. Never overwhelmed by the car, its narrow, winding thoroughfares and gracious avenues contrived to break every rule in the urban design book, and win. Dreaming spires, all that.
That, you would think, is a point of difference to die for. Certainly to enrol for; yet it’s this gentle romanticism the university seems bent on erasing. The artists’ impressions show a glassy, planar, blank-eyed look, all Green Square meets Second Life. And there it is. Globalism, nutshelled.