Sydney University's architectural rebirth

20 March 2007

City view from the Clocktower in the Quadrangle
City view from the Clocktower in the Quadrangle

Why were the northern cloisters in the University of Sydney's Main Quadrangle never finished?

Why was the RPA Hospital built between two University colleges?

Which round University building was inspired by the medieval Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey?

These and other questions are answered in a new illustrated guidebook that both celebrates the University of Sydney's great architectural past and looks at the new architectural renaissance underway on campus today.

Universityof Sydney Architecture (published by Watermark Press) is written by Trevor Howells, a senior lecturer in architecture at the University and well-known architectural writer. He says the University began with a grand vision.

"The Quadrangle is the greatest collection of Gothic revival educational buildings built in Australia or anywhere in the world. The genius in locating the Quadrangle on the top of the hill downtown from the central city means that even the tallest building is unlikely to ever break its wonderful skyline views."

But Howells says the great buildings of the University's early decades - including the celebrated classical forms of Leslie Wilkinson's Physics Building - were followed by a relatively fallow architectural period post-WW2.

"Massive postwar growth and the urgent need for lecture and office space led to an era of functionalist, often mediocre, even pedestrian buildings in the second half of the twentieth century."

"But over the past five years the University has seen that in order to maintain and build on its position as a premier University it needs to once again construct outstanding buildings."

School of Information Technologies - Internal view
School of Information Technologies - Internal view

In 2006 the new School of Information Technologies was completed. "Its elegantly detailed steel and glass curtain slides magically and translucently down the slope of Cleveland Street," Howells writes.

This masterful building by Richard Francis-Jones will soon be followed by a new law school on Eastern Avenue that will open up the University to Victoria Park and bring the previously city-based law faculty into the richness of University life.

A new environmentally-friendly Central Building, to be built on the site of the old Tin Sheds Gallery, will be a hub of student services and office space that will connect the Darlington and Camperdown campuses via a new overpass.

These works are part of a larger Campus 2010+ project that will see the walk from Redfern Station to the Main Quadrangle become a seamless and tree-lined stroll, with Eastern Avenue turned into a pedestrian-only space.

"At the turn of the twenty-first century the University is reclaiming its rightful and historic role as one of Sydney's most important patrons of architecture. We are now building great buildings again," Howells says.

Conrad Marten's watercolour of Blacket's design for the University, 1854
Conrad Marten's watercolour of Blacket's design for the University, 1854

About the book

The University of Sydney is in many ways like a small city. It has magnificent buildings, parklands, shops, banks, cafes, theatres, its own local government and local security. However, unlike most cities where the buildings are influenced by surges of commerce, the University has developed steadily and grandly over time.

Every day, busloads of tourists arrive at the University to be photographed in front of the University's great architectural works. Now using this book's colour photos, archival drawings, floor plans and accompanying text, they will be able to take self-guided tours and answer questions such as:

Why was the grand Great Hall built when the University began life with only three professors and 24 students? Why did the University give the triangle of land between Parramatta and City Roads (now called Victoria Park) to the City of Sydney Council? Which University residential college was built on the grounds of what was once a convict stockade?

The book is available from the Chancellor's Committee shop.

Interested in tours of the University?

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100