History in the Walls: our architectural past

8 May 2007

"Great architecture is such a big part of Sydney University. You can't imagine the University without the Quadrangle any more than Sydney without the Harbour Bridge or Paris without the Eiffel Tower," says Trevor Howells, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Design & Planning and the author of an entertaining new book, University of Sydney Architecture.

"Our architecture tells people our identity," he states. From the Quadrangle to the Graffiti Tunnel, the book details all the University buildings and architectural features at six different campuses. It comprehensively documents the growth of the University through its built environment, and is sprinkled with little-known anecdotes and biographies of leading architects and luminaries.

"The University of Sydney is, in many ways, like a small city. It has magnificent buildings, parklands, shops, banks, cafes, theatres and more. It has its own local government and takes care of its own security," he writes in the book.

But unlike most cities where buildings have been influenced by surges of commerce, the University has developed steadily and grandly over time. "It is one of the largest fine architecture collections in Australia," says Mr Howells.

Every building described in the book has its own story and characteristics. "As the historic core and symbolic heart of the University, the Quadrangle has been standing here for over a century, but few people realise it still hasn't been completed yet," he says. "There are many smart architectural techniques in this sandstone building which make it great architecture."

One of the University's biggest periods of expansion was in the 1960s, but some of the buildings from this era betray signs of a lack of financial support and have a short life expectancy.

He has higher hopes of the new law school building, on which work will begin shortly. "It's a combination of modernity and history. The new law school and the neighbouring Victorian buildings are a big contrast but they will coexist harmoniously," he says. "It's a happy marriage."

The Graffiti Tunnel, a by-product of the student unrest in the Vietnam War era, now features advertisements for musical and dramatic productions and political statements have become rare. But Mr Howells still regards it as having "a singular place in the life and history of the University, unlike any other". He writes: "If archaeologists could scrape away each layer, recording as they went, an extraordinarily rich vein of the University's social life would spring to life."

Mr Howell's two favourite buildings - the Round House in the Faculty of Veterinary Science and the Tennis Pavilion - are both small but smart pieces of architecture. "I still haven't discovered why it was named the Round House because indeed it is not round," he says. "Maybe it was a piece of humour from the architect Leslie Wilkinson."And the Tennis Pavilion is a great place for holding a cocktail party, but if the current white walls could be changed into a creamy colour, that would be perfect."

At the launch of the book in the Great Hall, Vice-Chancellor Professor Gavin Brown said it was the first comprehensive architectural guide to the University, and was a delightful and witty book.

University of Sydney Architecture is published by The Watermark Press ($40). Part of the proceeds will go towards the Chancellor's Committee and the establishment of scholarships for architecture students.

Contact: kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261