Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Uni makeover to break your heart
This is a column I’ve been trying not to write, hoping that these particular erections might at the last moment pluck themselves from the jaws of irritating bombast. But no. Redemption was not to be. So there is no other way than this. Whoever made the decision should be boiled alive in an equal mix of oil, turpentine and tar.
It started with John Dawkins – remember him? Good eyes, silver spoon, touch of the Attenboroughs around the temples? Dawkins now has an AO, a lobbying firm and a string of honorary doctorates. A short string, certainly. About as short as his influence on higher education for the rest of us is long. The Dawkins Revolution sprang from the inevitable clash between socialism and excellence. And no doubt he thought he was right. But Dawkins AO is to higher ed as Agent Orange to jungle villages of the Mekong delta. Decades on, the fallout just keeps on falling out.
Dawkins’s deliberate universitisation of every sandpit and playpen in the country, and the concomitant dropping of the bar so your average four-year-old could toddle off with a degree, especially if he was an international sort of four-year-old with fully-padded parents, is still reshaping education, even after Bradley. And not just the content, but the built form as well.
Campuses weren’t meant to matter any more, once learning went online. Everything was meant to become dreadfully airy and abstract. Bricks and mortar were to be obsolete and viscerality itself was expected to vanish up its own you-tube. But the opposite happened. Universities are now, more than ever, intent on the marketing edge that smart campuses are seen, rightly or wrongly, to give. This ought to be a good thing. In some cases, it is. But in this case, it’s a heartbreaker.
Over recent years all three central-Sydney universities have concocted campus masterplans to improve spatial quality, quantify building need and identify opportunity. The two most physically challenged unis, UTS and UNSW, have used these plans as Barcelona used its Olympics: to fix obvious structural deficiencies. For UTS, these were lack of coherence and simple lack of space. For UNSW, it was the desperate and godforsaken hole that passed for a campus, now largely remedied.
The University of Sydney’s problem – if indeed it had one amid the gardenias – was different. Its Camperdown campus was the loveliest made landscape in the country. Studded with sandstone gothic and picturesque with London planes (yes, I know, you hate them, they make you sneeze), it offered, too, a rare example of congenial car-biped coexistence. It was, no doubt, gently troubled by shabbiness and inefficiency, but these were also part of its charm. And in truth, the campus needed little more than a decent spit and polish.
The solution is far more final. It’s as if USyd (through its consultants, Cox) accidentally collected the wrong songsheet and applied UNSW’s plan instead of its own: peripheralising traffic, liberating build-sites, superimposing a 10-lane pedestrian freeway as primary organising principle.
All very logical. And fine, for some. But what was for UNSW a major step up has proved, for USyd, an irreversible downhill stumble. For the picturesque is not a logic-based system, but an exercise instead in the gentle art of judgment; hardly the thing in the positivist clime of Dawkinsian higher ed.
Stage one of this campus-exfoliation is now evident; two new buildings – one good, one regrettable; and two new landscapes, ditto.
First, the buildings. Richard Francis-Jones’s new Law Faculty is a serene yet commanding presence on the campus edge, a town-gown interface whose glorious transparent walkways and subtle generosities effortlessly dignify staff, students and visitors. Across the road, by contrast, John Wardle’s blue-green behemoth, USyd Central, throws itself about like a two-year-old demanding attention, every bit as ugly as its name.
At first glance this might be seen as classical versus rococo, control versus expression. But that’s not really it. The main difference is that while Francis-Jones’s building recognises space and light as its main psychotropic media, sculpting them into welcome, intrigue, excite or awe (viz the Turnbull reading room), USyd Central relies solely on dull matter; concrete and paint, and lots of it.
This dumb physicality is an admission of defeat, a collapse in the face of architecture’s real task and a compensatory slide into clever angles, ironic materials and clashing hues.
In the landscapes, however, this two-city tale is reversed. Melbourne-designed Maze Green, by Taylor Cullity Lethlean, is sassy and luscious, not only because its predecessor was about as vibrant as a used teabag. Whereas the blitzing of Eastern Avenue’s delicious, deciduous allee with its wrought-iron and sandstone entrance, is an ongoing cause for grief, leaving the campus feeling like an outtake from Second Life and the Quadrangle like a backdrop in search of a wedding.
There, it’s said. But don’t boil me. Boil Dawkins.