The secret history of Eastern Avenue

If you’ve walked along Eastern Avenue in a non-flat shoe or manipulated anything with wheels, you’ll notice not all of it is paved flat. Naaman Zhou peers into the past of the University’s central walkway.

Eastern Avenue c. 1960

In the mid-noughties, an arcane and now-defunct University committee used to get the same complaint every meeting. For a year and a half, the Central Committee for Occupational Health and Safety would, after they discussed how much radiation was leaking from Physics, whether too many Vet students were being kicked by horses, and the state of the bins, talk about cobblestones.

If you’ve walked along Eastern Avenue in a non-flat shoe or manipulated anything with wheels, you’ll notice not all of it is paved flat. The uneven, cobbled footing (currently confined to the road’s far edges) used to run all the way up to Fisher, and basically, people were always tripping.

This was a legacy of the Avenue’s history as a motorway, park boulevard and, among other things, a $10 million refurbishment by a Danish man called Jeppe.

The first thing we could describe as ‘Eastern Avenue’ appears in the 1870s, and was used, in the early hours of certain mornings, to cart cadavers. It ran from the Quad to City Rd and behind Anderson Stuart, then the Medical school. The road never had a name, but allowed undertakers to discreetly bring in those who had donated their bodies to science and clumsy undergraduate practice.

Up until the 20s, Eastern Avenue was a part of Victoria Park. For whatever reason, the bounds of the Uni stopped at the St Paul’s gates, and they instead owned the land down near Broadway, where eel-infested Lake Northam sits. In 1924 they struck a deal with the council, giving them what is now Victoria Park in exchange for what is now Eastern Avenue.

The sole relic of this really canny trade is the fig tree outside Fisher, which has lived there since before foundation, a reminder that this whole thing was once flora.  

In the mind of Leslie Wilkinson, the University’s legendary first Professor of Architecture, Eastern Avenue was always supposed to be a park boulevard of pure sandstone. In his 1920 masterplan [note] Interestingly, the University had 3 years earlier commissioned one from Walter Burley Griffin but quietly shelved it for a) being too much like Canberra, and b) ignoring the boundaries of the colleges [/note] the Quad, Anderson Stuart and Madsen each opened up directly onto Victoria Park, merging gently into rolling grassland like a manor estate.

This all changed in the 60s, when an injection of Commonwealth funding kicked off a building boom. A mere seven years saw the construction of Chemistry, Edgeworth David (now demolished), Carslaw, Stephen Roberts Theatre (also demolished), Fisher and the City Rd Footbridge.

With this, Eastern Ave lost its connection to Victoria Park and became the boulevard and occasional wind tunnel we know today, flanked by buildings on both sides.

Wilkinson’s dream of park and sandstone was lost, but in a Faustian pact, Eastern Avenue stopped being second fiddle to Science Road. With the construction of Fisher, the rise of Redfern station, and the footbridge to link the two, it started to become the heart of the University landscape.

In a way, this is how our villainous cobblestones get their first start.

The architect of modern day Eastern Avenue is a Dane called Jeppe Aagaard Andersen, who in 2004 won an international competition to convert Eastern Avenue into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. From the 60s to the noughties, it had been a motorway (with parking!) first and foremost.  

Andersen (who would go on to design the park near Central Park, and a bit of Barangaroo) dreamed of using rainwater to create ground-level mirrors and would have capped the Avenue with a giant baroque circular pool.

Architecture Australia praised his “ingenious” plan but sledged the never-realistic Quad pool (“The University of Sydney, after all, is not Drottingholm, much less Versailles.”). An unsuccessful application from the firm Bligh Voller Nield sketched an Eastern Ave that was all grass, which would also have been nice.  

Instead, we have our culprit: a kind of paving material known in internal Uni documents as Granite Cobble Type P3. A 2015 evaluation described it as “Pavement not suitable for pedestrians”, with “high unevenness” that was “uncomfortable to walk on”.

Cobble P3’s objective shittiness is the result of something architects and landscape designers call “desire lines”. Smooth stones were laid where they predict people will walk, and rough ones laid to provide visual contrast where people don’t. Unfortunately, they predicted wrong.

Within months, complaints flooded in from people with mobility issues, wheelchairs and high heels. According to SRC caseworkers, they tried all sorts of solutions, from angle grinders to filling the cracks with some kind of sand. Eventually the whole forecourt of Fisher was ripped up and re-laid.

Like almost everything else that has happened to Eastern Avenue, it was a half-executed plan over another half-executed plan, another layer to go on top and for people to eventually forget about.