There’s a dead zone between King St, Parramatta Rd and Sydney University, the kind of place you’d expect to have an abandoned, multi-storey building. Which is exactly what the Queen Mary Building used to be: eleven floors of accommodation for nurses, then left abandoned for the past decade. Now it’s the flagship for USyd’s housing developments: about 800 single-bed rooms in a building that tries too hard to be cool.
Walking into the foyer feels like entering a hotel lobby, which it may as well be: the majority of students seem to be from overseas, whether for their whole degree or for a semester’s exchange. The uptake of accommodation appears high, which makes sense when you realise that housing in Sydney is generally undersupplied and tough to navigate for international students.
The building parades its past: proud murals of its history as nursing accommodation are dotted throughout and the original furnishing was refurbished for the women’s-only floor (buying into the idea that nursing is a fundamentally feminine profession). But then there’s an eclectic mix of styles: from the Carslaw-esque study area (incl. the infamous pods) to a leisure room reminiscent of Courtyard Café, minus the airy whiteness. Each floor has two wings marked out in putridly bright orange or green: on the doors, the carpet, and every spot possible—including the inexplicably many meeting rooms. Each of these is sparse and identical to the next. It feels like a corporate nightmare.
And that’s the heart of the Queen Mary Building. USyd has thrown piles of money at the place, hoping desparately it will work. It falls directly into their grand strategy of becoming a world-class university that attracts wealthy international students (making plenty of money along the way to throw straight back into infrastructure). Each resident pays $288 for a small room about 12m2—though they gain access to study spaces, a gym, a leisure lounge with pool tables, and an industrial kitchen in the style of Masterchef—they even plan to run an internal Masterchef competition, which is only one of the dozens of events they have planned. Again, this is the new direction for USyd housing: the fabrication of community spaces by throwing money at them.
But, it seems to be working: the residents I spoke to told me they thought the place was fantastic, though Uillo jokingly mentioned that he could “feel the capitalist hum” throughout the building. It stretches straight into the design choices, which are clinically ‘fun’ and ‘hip’: just one example is the 800 randomly arranged lockers in the kitchen. As my tour guide said, this “makes it fun.” The many events (and empty bottles scattered about) have made for a community, of sorts. But the extent to which this generated community will last is an open question.
On the rooftop terrace, you can gaze over the inner west and see Sydney University, the snaking line of King St, and the dozens of terraces inhabited by hundreds of students tumbling through the rising rental market, struggling in the face of strict welfare and an overpopulated labour market. The Queen Mary Building is good at what it does—but it does not supply affordable housing to those who need it.