by Dr Jim Eckert
The photo above, showing the space where the Chemistry Building now stands, was taken shortly before work began, in November 1955, to clear the site. And below, Chemistry's Head of School, Professor R.J.W. Le Fèvre, is seen speaking at a ceremony held in October 1956 when a plaque was unveiled by NSW Premier J.J. Cahill to commemorate the founding of the new building.
Planning had started in 1951 following an announcement by the Vice-Chancellor that an anonymous donation of £100,000 had been "given and accepted on the sole condition that it is used for the building of a first wing of the new Chemistry School, and in the hope that it will stimulate other donors".
Professor Le Fèvre, acknowledging the gift, wrote: "Final completion of a new Chemistry School must be regarded as a somewhat long-range project, necessarily dependent upon the provision of funds. Nevertheless, however distant the goal, the gratitude of all chemists will go out to an unknown friend, wherever and whoever he may be!'' Or rather "she". The "unknown friend", it later emerged, was Mrs Brightie Phillips.
The State Government soon weighed in with the promise of further funds – the final cost would be something like £1.5 million – and the NSW Government Architect's Department, responding to a request from the University Senate, proceeded to develop a detailed scheme in close consultation with Professor Le Fèvre and his colleagues. The structure was to be T-shaped, with the top of the T formed by a block of undergraduate laboratories, running almost due east-west, and, at right-angles and pointing north, a block of research labs and offices. Both blocks would have five levels and, to the west of the T and attached to it, there would be a group of lecture theatres, two large ones each seating 340 and two smaller ones each holding up to 170. Which, as you know, is how it turned out.
Describing the plans not long before construction started, Professor Le Fèvre paid tribute to Senior Designing Architect Harry Rembert and his colleague Charles Weatherburn. Also heavily involved in the planning were Peter Webber and Ken Woolley, at that time beginning to make their way in the profession. Much thought had been given, the Prof said, to designing a building that would "harmonize or blend with its neighbours" – the CSIRO Standards Laboratory (now Madsen) on one side and the Old Medical School (now the Anderson Stuart) on the other. In the end, however, it was decided that any attempt to match their ornate styles would be "both costly and painful to the architects". Le Fèvre conceded that the new building "will undoubtedly strike some observers as abruptly contemporary" but expressed the hope that "this contrast of styles" would be softened in time by the growth of trees planted in front of Chemistry.
The building was notable architecturally as one of the earliest structures in Australia with a curtain wall (a non-load-bearing skin, usually of glass, that encloses the framework of a building). Le Fèvre pointed out: "Very few internal walls will be of solid construction; breeze blocks, or glass and light-weight partitions will be used as far as possible", allowing for "maximum future flexibility". It was a far-sighted arrangement.
The photo above was taken in April 1957. The undergraduate laboratories were ready for the start of the 1958 academic year and, by early 1959, the whole School had moved across from Science Road. The building was formally opened in June the following year, at a gathering addressed by the NSW Premier, by then R.J. Heffron, the Chancellor, Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn and Professor Le Fèvre (photo below).
In recent years, Chemistry at Sydney University has managed to survive – flourish even – by expanding into Madsen next door, by adding a block to the western side of the research and office wing but mainly by taking advantage of the flexibility built into the original design. In ChemNEWS Issue 10 (Autumn 2007), the Head of School Professor Greg Warr wrote: "Most research and teaching laboratories in the School have been refurbished or renovated over the past decade to make better use of the existing space." He continued: "Although the fabric of the building has changed only little [since its opening], the internal structure of the School, the teaching program and the range and nature of research activities certainly have."
The Chemistry Building has been reviewed, for the most part favourably, in Trevor Howells' comprehensive and entertaining guide University of Sydney Architecture: Notwithstanding some "unfortunate" later additions, "this was a genuinely innovative building, designed to meet and anticipate the functional requirements of science … but it is also a building" the review adds "which celebrates the human and the poetic". The visitor's attention is drawn, in particular, to "the broad, sensuously curved canopy" at the front entrance, to the concrete columns in the lecture-theatre foyer, "sheathed in humanising wood", and to the two mosaics in the courtyard undercroft, based on microscope images and signed (with their initials) by Design Architects Webber and Woolley.
I'm amazed. To me, it was just the place where I worked.
The photos reproduced here came from the University Archives – my thanks to Reference Archivist Julia Mant. Thanks also to Charles Weatherburn, for sharing his memories of the project and the people.
- R.J.W. Le Fèvre, reporting in a series of articles on the planning and construction of the building: Proc.Roy.Aust.Chem.Inst., 18(5) (1951), 85; 22(6) (1955), 106; 27(8) (1960), 332; Chem. and Ind., (1951), 415; (1953), 736; (1957), 551; The Gazette, University of Sydney, (1957), 197; Nature, 187(4740) (1960), 833.
- H.G. Holland in W.F. Connell, G.E. Sherington, B.H. Fletcher, C. Turney and U. Bygott, Australia's First. A History of the University of Sydney, Vol.2, 1940-1990, University of Sydney (1995), pages 254-259.
- T. Heneghan in Trevor Howells, University of Sydney Architecture, The Watermark Press (2007), pages 82, 3.