"Eyesores", protests and visiting legends

Wentworth Building constructed on City Road


Sydney University in the 1960s

The 1960s was the decade of building in the Brutalist style, featuring vast areas of exposed concrete that retained the finish left by the rough timber framework into which the concrete had been poured. This was said to allow building materials to express their "inherent character". "Truth to materials" they called it. At the time, most people didn't like it. And they still don't.

An early example at Sydney University, completed in 1960, was built on City Road for the Faculty of Architecture. According to the Sunday Telegraph (19 July 1998), it rated a place in a list of "Sydney's Ugliest Top-10 Eyesores". Trevor Howells, in University of Sydney Architecture, writes: "Later named in honour of the founding professor of Architecture, … the Wilkinson Building is an edifice singularly devoid of any Wilkinsonian character and so-named, fortunately, well after [Wilkinson] had been laid to rest."

A more imaginative use of off-form reinforced concrete can be seen in the Wentworth Building constructed on City Road in stages between the late 1960s and the early 1990s (photo above). Many alumni, though, will have fond memories of the building that stood there previously, in fact from the 1880s, a popular watering hole called the Lalla-Rookh (photo below).


Popular watering hole - the Lalla-Rookh


Few these days would defend the Brutalist archtecture of the 1960s and perhaps there should have been more displays of dissent. By the end of the decade, however, people had other, more pressing reasons to protest.

In 1965, the Government introduced conscription for military service by ballot and the following year conscripts were sent to fight in Vietnam. These decisions split the Nation and would eventually prove hugely unpopular. On campus, opposition was at first restricted to articles in Honi Soit and the occasional Front Lawn meeting; and this was as much to do with student power, or lack of it, as it was about Vietnam. By 1969, anti-conscription protests were in full swing, with the Sydney University Regiment a favourite target. In the photo below, taken in May that year, students confront a Guard of Honour mounted by SUR to welcome the State Governor to a graduation ceremony. Over the next two years the Front Lawn would be the scene of mass rallies of unprecedented size.


Students confront a Guard of Honour, May 1965



Meanwhile, in the Chemistry School, it had been pretty much business as usual. The decade got off to a flier when, in June 1960, the new building was offically opened and, in August, Sydney, with Melbourne and Canberra, hosted the first IUPAC Symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products. Distinguished participants at the Symposium included Robert Robinson, Alexander Todd, Robert Woodward Carl Djerassi, Derek Barton and John Cornforth − quite a line-up.

Of the international visitors, Robinson and Cornforth had the strongest links with Chemistry at Sydney. John Cornforth and his wife Rita, were both Sydney Honours graduates. Their mentor and colleague at Oxford Robert Robinson had earlier been Sydney's first Professor of Organic Chemistry, Pure and Applied. These connections are remembered in the School by the names of two of its large organic labs.

At the time of the IUPAC Symposium, the Chemistry professors at Sydney were R.J.W. Le Fèvre, Charles Shoppee and A.E. Alexander, left to right below, from the School photo taken the previous year. As the 60s drew to a close, the School was preparing for changes at the top. Shoppee retired at the end of 1969 and Le Fèvre a year later. The School also lost Prof Alex at this time, sadly and unexpectedly.


Left to right: R.J.W. Le Fèvre, Charles Shoppee and A.E. Alexander



Sources were the University Archives and the following:

  1. Sir Robert Robinson, Some Impressions of the Symposium on Natural Products, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 27 (11) (1960), 449.
  2. The Chemistry of Natural Products: IUPAC Symposium 1960, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 27 (11) (1960), 477.
  3. Lord Todd and J.W. Cornforth, Robert Robinson 1886-1975, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 22 (1976), 415.
  4. Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
  5. 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).
  6. T. Howells, University of Sydney Architecture, The Watermark Press (2007).


Robert Robinson

Robinson was 26 and recently married when he arrived here in February 1913 to take up the Organic Chair, his first professorial appointment. He didn't stay long, 3 years, but in that time made quite an impression. With the War raging in Europe, he returned to the UK and a Chair at the University of Liverpool.

An early example of Robinson's flair was the synthesis of tropinone, reported in 1917 in a short paper from Liverpool. Tropinone is a ketone related to tropine and its 2-carboxylic acid ecgonine and hence to the alkaloids hyoscyamine, atropine and cocaine. The structures of these compounds had already been determined, by earlier workers and a synthesis of tropinone, by Willstätter, that required more than 20 stages. Robinson obtained tropinone in a single step, by allowing methylamine, acetone and succindialdehyde to react for half an hour at room temperature. Willstätter described it as "work of bewidering elegance".

Robinson went on to occupy a number of positions with distinction − Director of Research of the British Dyestuffs Corporation, followed by Chairs at St Andrews, Manchester, University College London and Oxford. He and his collaborators gained international recognition for their studies of plant products and along the way solved some of the great puzzles of the day, among them the structures of the morphine group. Todd and Cornforth, in their Biographical Memoir of Robinson, summed up his work: "He never tackled anything easy; and his generalizations, fed by the immense reservoir of chemical structures and reactions stored in a remarkable brain, clarified the theory of organic reactions and stimulated the chemical study of biosynthesis." In 1947, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, "for his investigations on plant products of biological importance, especially the alkaloids".

At the 1960 IUPAC Symposium Robinson gave the Closing Address in the Great Hall and, a few days later, was Guest of Honour on the ABC. This was his first trip back to Sydney in 45 years and, as he observed, returning to a place after a long absence usually means finding "that the men have become very small boys, and the surrounding mountains have dwindled to moderate hills". "Not so here" he said. "Everything seems bigger and better than it was. Why, even the grousing of the pessimists seems to be louder. I would hardly have thought that possible."


Robert Robinson


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