An Architect's Antidote
The Buildings of Science Road
Professor Leslie Wilkinson, Inaugural Address to the University of Sydney School of Architecture, 4 September 1919
With a £300,000 government grant, a position as University Architect and an eye for Mediterranean style, Professor Leslie Wilkinson left an indelible stamp on the buildings and grounds of the University of Sydney.
Wilkinson, Professor of Architecture from 1919 to 1947, had a grand vision for the University. Supervising a major building project between 1919 and 1925, Wilkinson believed that harmonious architecture, sweeping vistas, and clean lines would bring, "a sense of unity, order, convenience and, if maybe, beauty into the University quarters as a whole." The western wing of the quadrangle, the Vice-Chancellor’s quadrangle, the Physics Building, extensions to the Medical School and alterations to Science Road all display Wilkinson’s designs.
Wilkinson's plans were never completed. Frequently running over budget, Wilkinson temporarily fell foul of the University administration. Science Road however, running from the Great Hall in the east to the Agriculture Building in the west, offers a glimpse of his intentions.
Leslie Wilkinson, 1882 - 1973
Professor of Architecture, University of Sydney, 1918 - 1947
Leslie Wilkinson had a distinguished career as an architect. Born in London, Wilkinson studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts and travelled extensively throughout Europe studying cathedrals and public buildings and developing a strong admiration for Mediterranean architecture. He was an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and came to Sydney as a former assistant professor of architecture at University College, London.
Within two years of his appointment to the Chair of Architecture at the University of Sydney in 1918, Wilkinson had achieved faculty status for his department. As Dean he helped make the School of Architecture one of the most highly regarded centres of architectural training in Australia. Establishing himself early on as University Architect, Wilkinson oversaw the University’s major building programme between 1919 and 1925.
Wilkinson also operated a private practice throughout much of his career and designed over thirty houses and flats in Sydney. Wilkinson was the founding president of the New South Wales branch of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Wilkinson retired in 1947, maintaining close ties with the University until his death in 1973.
... each frankly refused to consider the other and only agreed in ignoring the other group. R. Keith Harris, ‘The Work of Leslie Wilkinson’, Art in Australia, 1930
Before 1920 Science Road was a loose collection of cheaply designed, purpose-specific buildings interspersed with solid new brick constructions with little overall plan. Today, however, these buildings are some of the oldest and most significant on campus. They reflect important developments in the early growth of the University.
Between 1880 and 1920 University enrolments rose from 76 to over 3000 and the University curriculum became increasingly diverse. Science, previously part of a classical arts degree, became, in 1885, a faculty in its own right with separate departments and degree status. The need for new accommodation, a recurring theme at the University, became urgent.
The Geology (Old Geology), Biology (now modified as Zoology) and the original Engineering buildings (on the site of the present Holme Building), all built between 1880 and 1900, provided teaching space away from the cramped main University building. The original Physics (now Badham, 1888) and Chemistry (now Pharmacy, c. 1891) buildings, with well equipped laboratories, under-floor ventilation, and large lecture theatres, provided a modern practical training ground for local scientists.
Development was haphazard. Between 1900 and 1919 Science Road buildings were extended (the Physics building almost doubled in size), demolished (old Engineering), and constructed on the sites of former buildings (the Union Building, now Holme). Wire fencing separated some buildings. Long grass linked others. On arrival at the University Wilkinson noted that, "buildings were just dotted around - the University grounds were in an extraordinary state".
... plain and unpretending
Both Professors Richard Threlfall (Physics) and Archibald Liversidge (Chemistry), when collaborating with the Government Architect on the designs for their respective buildings, commented that little or no money was available to be spent on architectural embellishments.
Threlfall recommended that the Physics building should be tucked away behind the main University buildings so as not to "disfigure them". His building had solid floors, wide corridors and ready supplies of water, electricity and light, and was constructed to be as convenient as possible for conducting experiments.
Liversidge required "a plain and unpretending building" in which "architectural effects ... had to give way to economy". His building was constructed so that extensions could be added at a later date when the department’s needs had outgrown the building.
Individually, the buildings of Science Road represent the growth of science at the University in the late 19th century. These buildings were designed from the inside, built to serve a specific purpose.
An extraordinary state
Buildings were fenced around with iron railings with horses grazing outside.
Leslie Wilkinson, ABC interview, 1960s
"... some substance of rational unity"
As University Architect and member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, Wilkinson exercised considerable influence in shaping the University environment.
Wilkinson stressed that because of Sydney’s climate the University’s architecture should conform more to Mediterranean than British styles. His modifications to the Chemistry (Pharmacy), Physics (Badham) and Biology (Zoology) buildings, including uniformity of scale, horizontal planes, rounded arches, roof lanterns and limewashed exteriors leaned much more towards lighter and cooler classical designs than previous buildings at the University. His decision to reconstruct the neo-classical facades of the demolished George Street CBC Bank stone for stone at the University was partly expedient, partly a statement of architectural intent.
Science Road, however, needed a beginning. Even the most ardent classicist would have had difficulty ignoring the University’s main buildings! The Botany extension (1925) on the east front of the Macleay Museum, and the War Memorial Arch, built in 1959 to a modified Wilkinson design, completed the eastern neo-Gothic face of the University. Wilkinson’s vision for Science Road effectively begins to the west of this archway.
Wilkinson has been variously described as "a practical idealist", "a romantic interested in the picturesque" and "one who evolved order out of chaos". To these might be added "an improviser".
This sketch by Wilkinson illustrates his desire for classical uniformity in Science Road. The CBC Bank facades overlook a communal square, the Chemistry building is hidden behind a single storey loggia, and a domed spire sits on the tower of Threlfall’s enlarged Physics building. Financial constraints prohibited the completion of these plans.
This sketch also helped Wilkinson lay to rest the memory of a plan of 1913 drawn up by the Government Architect in which a Tudor-style extension to the northern wing of the quadrangle would extend down much of Science Road, demolishing the Chemistry and Physics buildings.
Wilkinson’s vision of Science Road as a single unit is recognised today by its listing both in the Australian Heritage Commission’s Register of the National Estate and with the National Trust of Australia. In both, some buildings are considered "not of sufficient merit to warrant listing", despite their historic associations with the early developments in science at the University. It is the streetscape as a whole which is recognised.
Wilkinson believed buildings should be works of art both individually and in relation to surrounding buildings.
From above, the Science Road buildings are set back from the street at a variety of angles and depths. Wilkinson linked them all by making a straight road the main feature. Art in Australia in 1930 described Wilkinson as "... one who evolved order out of chaos and gave to a heterogeneous collection of ill assorted buildings some substance of rational unity".
Buildings, budgets and bickering
Wilkinson originally intended to construct new buildings in Science Road and create a broad vista from the Union Building (Holme) across to his new Physics Building on Physics Road. Throughout the building project, however, he became increasingly drawn into conflict with the University administration over finances. In Science Road Wilkinson was forced to modify rather than rebuild.
Wilkinson’s plans were possibly too extravagant for a rapidly expanding university. The £300,000 grant was quickly used up and Science Road went unfinished. Spending restrictions led Wilkinson to sometimes deliberately start projects which he knew he would not complete in order to compel the University to resume the work at a later date. Wilkinson’s plans for an archway at the top of Science Road were deferred, to be completed in 1959 to an altered design. The sealing of Science Road was left to "Depression relief work".
Escalating costs and the perception by some members of the University Senate that Wilkinson operated with too much power over the layout of the University led, by 1928, to the reinstatement of the Government Architect as supervisor of University buildings. Wilkinson strongly protested against a directive by the Chancellor which stated that, as the grant for £50,000 over 6 years had now expired, "the position of architect no longer obtained", but to little avail. He was subsequently called on only in an advisory capacity.
Budgetry constraints prohibited the reconstruction of the old Geology Building to which Wilkinson only made minor alterations. However, these alterations are slightly puzzling. The original building seen here (right) a few years after its construction in 1892 had many of the hallmarks of modern classical architecture: horizontal planes, whitewashed exterior, shallow roof and a rounded arch porch. Wilkinson steepened the pitch of the roof, added three Tudor style gables and removed the porch.
These changes were cheaper than his original plan to completely rebuild, but why were they necessary? The building was altered again in the early 1980s and now more closely resembles its original appearance.
This photograph, taken in 1858 by William Hetzer, shows the Commercial Banking Company building as it stood in George Street, close to present day Martin Place. Talk of a new Chemistry building was shelved when the money-saving but highly appropriate offer of the facades of the bank was made to the University. These Wilkinson incorporated into the altered Chemistry block as the centrepiece of his classical street.