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