The Wilkinson Axis

Thousands of students walk past it every day. Tim Lee stares down a campus architectural mystery.

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Art by Ann Ding.

It’s widely accepted that we have a fairly beautiful campus. The Charles Perkins Centre and the Law Building are new, glassy and impressive; Anderson Stuart is grand and old; and the mid-century polish of the Chemistry Building and Fisher Library, although not everyone’s cup of tea, still have a whiff of Mad Men chic.

But in the rogue’s gallery of campus buildings, it’s the Quad that gets the glory. The most beautiful building in Camperdown, however, has one angle that makes it even better.

Come up out of Victoria Park and look over the perfectly aligned path, and you can see the Quad’s central tower. From the iron gates on City Road to the clock on top, it’s a 500 metre, uninterrupted view, with everything all-lined up, like a straight-rule twice the size of the Titanic. I mean, the flagpole is slightly to one side, but that symmetrical view (or axis), is pretty much perfect.

This didn’t happen without effort. For many years the straight boulevard disappeared, and was only restored to its current glory through close coordination between local council and university. The final piece of the vista, those steps halfway up, were only finished in 2002.

But it’s just a facsimile, the sidekick of a more ancient, less obvious axis over by Manning Road. The Wilkinson Axis is an architectural phenomenon-stroke-masterplan dreamt up and created by the University’s first professor of architecture. It’s a line carved through the west half of our campus.

If you stand at the top of the Refectory (next to the Holme Building), you could, at any point from 1925 onwards, see in an unbroken line to the Physics Building: Mediterranean-inspired, heritage-listed, full of cathode ray tubes.

And as the University of Sydney built up, well-meaning, idealistic architects wanting to play a part in this dead man’s blueprint, have done their best to obey it. That’s the reason why the Education and Old Teacher’s College split like the Red Sea.

The top half of the Wilkinson Axis is a bit muddled these days. Trees block it in front of the Refectory and, between the Woolley and Holme buildings, it’s become a road that veers off at the wrong angle. But what the top half lacks the bottom half makes up for. The 1991-built Education Building not only obeys the axis, but beautifully mirrors the Physics Building behind.

I remember standing on the little lawn outside the Education Building in my first year and taking in their perfect alignment. The bridge between Education and Old Teachers has the same slant as the careful Ionic portico of Physics. It’s a perfect, rare symmetry, like a picture frame made out of multi-storey buildings.

To get that view, architects in the 1990s had to co-ordinate their plans with buildings built nearly 70 years earlier. The Education Building might not make anyone’s list of loveliest buildings on campus, but its architects clearly tried extremely hard to get the building to harmonise with the eclectic platter of those around it. It would have been much easier to just join the two parts of the building together. But they broke the mould, split it in two like a clam and opened up a neglected line of sight on campus, displaying the beautiful Physics Building like it hung in a gallery.

There’s an objectively nice sense of order when buildings line up symmetrically. Canberra does it brilliantly along the Parliamentary Triangle. It’s grand, it’s formal, it says to the world ‘we’re serious and know what we’re doing’.

So when they announced the new Nanotechnology Hub behind the Physics Building, I kept a careful eye on it. The scaffolding went up. I fretted. I found flythroughs and architect’s impressions, but they were hard to interpret. This building landed squat across the axis, so I was interested to see how the architects would deal with it. Would there be something dead centre – a safe-pair of hands to keep the axis connected? Or two towers, like they have on the Physics Building, to force a kind of symmetry? I watched and waited.

As the scaffolding came down, it was clear something was wrong. The towers were there – two raised pillars on either side of the Physics portico. But they sat wrong. You could see the error from the Education lawn, poking up behind Physics, a sneaky off-centring detail like putting an epaulet on the Mona Lisa.

The towers stood a noticeable half-step too far to the left, in a gut-wrenching wrecking of symmetry. Like a perfect billiards shot painstakingly lined up over 100 years, spinning off at the last step. I needed to look at photos of Canberra just to calm down.

I reasoned that it wasn’t so bad. The towers looked like they were shifted to the left, but if you added a little bit to one tower they would even out again. You could just stick a bit of glass and plywood on it and symmetry would return. A few weeks later they made a different addition. A telescope dome, directly on their off-centre palace, like an unremovable hubcap that proved how wrong they’d got it. No amount of plywood and glass could fix that.

I started to avoid walking near the grass in front of the Education Building – the horror of that misaligned axis was too much to bear. I was mystified that there wasn’t a general outcry, that the Nanoscience Building – still incomplete – wasn’t being picketed by angry protesters. On several occasions I would corner an unsuspecting colleague, explain to them the problem, then drag them down to the lawn in front of the Education Building to point out the misalignment. Invariably they agreed with me that there was a problem (they also invariably had fear in their eyes).

How could this have happened? Is it really possible that the designers of the Nanoscience Building got it wrong in the year 2015, after the Greeks had been getting buildings to line up for 2,500 years?

The architects clearly knew about the Wilkinson Axis (why else have two towers with a dome exactly in-between?), but shifted the whole thing slightly too far to the left. Did the building have to be slightly askew because of some unexplained foundational issue? I was angry but prepared to accept a reasonable answer.

I needed more information. I requested the plans of the Nanoscience Building from Campus Infrastructure Services, and looked at them carefully. Here, the rear of the Physics Building had been drawn up next to the Nanoscience Building, so I could check exactly how they were aligned.

The main issue, of course, was the roof.

The dome and its towers were what made the whole thing so obviously out of whack. I drew my lines on the diagram very carefully, expecting at any moment to find the misalignment. But the more I looked the more I was mystified.

On paper, there was no issue. No matter how I sliced it, the Nanoscience Building lined up with the Physics Building perfectly.

Leslie Wilkinson was, by all accounts, a weird guy. A prodigy, he won medals for architecture while still in school. At just 19, he toured Europe on the Royal Academy of Arts’ dime. He wrote his USyd job application on the kind of calligraphed, colour-inked parchment monks made for old bibles and wore a top hat to his interview.

Initially, given a post in the science department, Wilkinson campaigned for the founding of the Faculty of Architecture, and got it in 1920. They made him the Dean.

His inaugural course was saturated with idealism and a focus on the intellectual and abstract, rather than bricks and mortar. Philosophy, design theory and architectural history were all compulsory.

In 1926, the NSW Institute of Architects spooked and made USyd appoint a second-in-command to bring him back to earth. Alfred Hook took over construction and practical courses, Wilkinson was relegated to teaching design and history, which you’d assume he’d enjoyed.

Whatever happened though, they couldn’t touch the Axis, formed as soon as Wilkinson plonked the Physics Building down in 1925. In many ways, it’s the ultimate legacy of this big-picture thinker who thought architecture was art. A crazy-beautiful vision of symmetry and uninterrupted sight, dreamt up in 1920 and still in place as 100 years of buildings popped up.

But now someone has fucked it up.  I decided that the plans could only help me so much. I had to get boots on the ground. I stood on the Education Building bridge, I climbed to the upper floor of the Holme Refectory, I walked through the Physics Building again and again. I visited the third floor of the Nanoscience Building to look back at the axis from the other direction.

Nothing made sense. Objects that lined up when looking from one direction seemed to be out of whack when looked at from the other side. Was it possible the back of the Physics Building was somehow misaligned with its own front? But not even that seemed to be the answer.

I had four suspects: Nanoscience, Physics, Education and the Refectory. They couldn’t all be innocent. In the rain, I wearily pulled down the brim of my fedora and sucked moodily on a cigarette. Had the trail gone cold? Where could I go for answers? I asked friends to walk along the axis so I could get the opinion. I bought binoculars.

The truth didn’t come in a single eureka moment. It settled over me slowly, as the horror of the situation was made clear. Vader was my father, the call was coming from inside the house, it was Planet Earth the whole time.

I had framed the wrong perpetrator. Like in an Agatha Christie novel, the real villain had pretended to be the innocent party from the start, only revealing its true nature in the last act. It’s clearest when standing behind the Physics Building, looking through the glass doors of the lobby and over the field. Line it up perfectly, and the Education Building is very clearly offset to the right. The Education building was wrong the whole time.

I should have seen it from the start. If you look from the Education lawn, turn towards Physics and line the bridge perfectly, you realise that it’s not pointed at the Physics Building head on, but actually comes in slightly to the left.

The eaves of Physics’ central roof look a little different on each side. It’s very subtle, but it’s clear. The Education bridge is definitely pointed at the Physics Building, just not from the right angle.

But it gets worse. I realised that even when you cut out Education, Physics doesn’t line up with the Refectory. From the Refectory roof, Physics looks very slightly shifted to the right. Physics, Education, Refectory: none of them are in line with each other. Although the Nanoscience Building looks wrong, it is actually the only innocent party. It lines up perfectly with the Physics Building directly in front of it, and we can’t really expect more from it than that.

There are so many obvious questions to be asked. Why was the Education Building built slightly offset? Why are the Refectory and the Physics Building not aligned with one another? And above all, was the Wilkinson Axis always just a dream, a subtle illusion shattered by a telescope dome? Can it really be true that there is no Wilkinson Axis, and there never was?

This was the end of my story of obsession, a dark period of straight-edges and binoculars. With the Wilkinson Axis really nothing more than four buildings in a wonky line, I learned that not everything can be perfect. The Champs Elysees in Paris – surely one of the longest and most famous symmetrical axes in any city in the world- has misaligned buildings at both ends.  Perhaps the lesson is that I need to have a lie down – though the flagpole on the Quad, I’m pretty sure, is slightly to one side.