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Architecture, Empire and Enterprise

How ideology has influenced the University’s architectural aesthetic.

Art by Janina Osinsao

The architectural historian Charles Jencks once said that ‘architects make architecture, historians make history, and what they both make is myth’. Architecture is often used to translate political ideas into the real world, capturing our imagination through a visual spectacle to convince us of their plausibility. Across campus, examples of colonial architecture are woven together with contemporary styles. Look closely, and what emerges is an eclectic tapestry that serves as a living record of history and the ideologies that shape it.

The Quadrangle

In the face of the smog and thrashing machinery of the Industrial Revolution, and the collapse of feudal social hierarchy, Victorian architects found comfort in the medieval aesthetic of Gothic architecture. Critical of utilitarian industrial buildings that were polluting the once green rolling hills of Britain, they sought to transmogrify the smokestacks and grimy walls of burgeoning 19th century industry. By evoking the dreaming spires, pointed arches and vaulted ceilings of England’s ancient monasteries and universities, the Gothic Revival movement created a mythologised version of Britain’s history. The medieval period was romanticised as an age when morality and erudition were valued instead of profit and factory quotas.

The Quadrangle transports us to a time and place that never existed in Australia. Directly modelled on the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the Sydney Quadrangle is meant to evoke the “Old World” charm and prestige of those ancient and venerable institutions in the “New World”. Even the University’s motto, “The stars change, the mind remains the same,” echoes this sentiment, suggesting that Britain was an intellectual compass pointing Australia in the right direction.

The building gives the impression that it was constructed over many centuries organically with its haphazard asymmetrical layout and mysterious nooks and crannies. Standing in its grassy expanse, you could be forgiven for thinking that noble knights and pious monks once roamed the cloistered walkways, protected by battlements, and stepped buttresses. But the historicity of The Quadrangle is an illusion conjured up by its sandstone spires. There is no denying that it is one of the most beautiful buildings on campus, but its derivative design suggests that the intellectual aspirations of the colony needed to be legitimised by, and measured against British culture and history.

In The British Empire Through Buildings John M. Mackenzie points out that buildings and urban planning were used to reinforce the belief in the cultural and intellectual superiority of the British people. The Quadrangle’s imposing historical design reflected “terra nullius”: the idea that Australia had nothing recognisable as history before colonisation, displacing Indigenous heritage from Australia’s narrative. In 1789, the land on and around the University was seized from the Gadigal people and appropriated for the Crown. Formerly used for cultivation and as a corroboree ground for socialising, public ceremonies, and hunting kangaroos, the expansion of colonial settlement was a violent process that damaged the spiritual relationship between Indigenous people and their land. It is evident in the colonists’ architectural choices that they were disconnected from the land which they only sought to control.

The Quadrangle betrays its foreignness to the Australian continent not just aesthetically but also functionally. Gothic Revival is entirely inappropriate to the climate. The searing heat of the summer and the humid afternoons make The Quadrangle’s wood-panelled chambers feel stuffy and uncomfortable. The winter does nothing but create a chilly draft in its spacious sandstone rooms. While the shelters of Aboriginal people were attuned to the climate, colonial architecture had little regard for the natural and spiritual qualities of the land. Sacrificing functionality for the sake of aesthetics, The Quadrangle reflects the colonial philosophy of dominating Indigenous-owned land.

International House

International House holds an unassuming presence on 96 City Road with its weathered grey-brown façade. Deemed unworthy of preservation, it has been slated for demolition despite objections from alumni. Its aging appearance disguised its historic role in Australia’s Cold War strategy. Built in 1967 and designed by Walter Bunning, its Modernist style reflected its mission of fostering intercultural understanding and diplomacy by housing international students.

It was built at a time when Australia was transitioning away from being a bulwark of the British Empire to becoming a partner of newly independent countries in the Asia-Pacific region. With the spectre of the Cold War, it was hoped that by sponsoring and encouraging international students to study in Australia, alliances could be forged to prevent the spread of Communism. Here lies the origin of universities as a political and economic tool in Australia today.

The House was a melting pot where all cultures were welcome and its neutral architectural style helped to facilitate this. Modernism emphasised simple silhouettes and a lack of ornamentation, dissociating itself from any national style of architecture. Embracing the idea that all cultures were to be respected, the standout feature of the House was a rotunda that contained a large communal area situated on a single floor, intended to symbolise the idea that all cultures sit on the same level. Unlike in the older religious colleges, there was no place for symbols of hierarchy such as high tables and gowns – another tradition copied from England – in this egalitarian, multicultural space.

Modernism was an architectural attack on nationalism and imperialism. According to architectural historian Mark Crinson, modernism was to be “free of specific historical or geographical constraints” through using “place-less, history-less materials of steel, concrete and glass”. Unlike traditional European architecture, modernism eschewed architectural allusions to the classical world like grand archways and Greek columns, intended as a display of supposed cultural superiority in a colonial context. Aesthetically and functionally, the House sought to dissolve borders between cultures and remove the grime of cultural chauvinism stuck on the Western world.

Abercrombie Business School

The Abercrombie Business School (ABS) was completed in 2016 at the staggering cost of 250 million dollars. You could be mistaken for thinking the spiral staircase and curvaceous white surfaces of its atrium are that of famed modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright who designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Expensive, sleek but uncomfortable furniture abounds in fashionable colours like neon green and space grey. The University seems to have strategically devoted its resources to creating buildings for the degrees whose enrolment will be the most lucrative for its coffers.

Clearly inspired by the offices of Big Tech companies like Facebook, the design and purpose of the ABS reflects the University’s adoption of not just a corporate aesthetic but corporate governance. The building’s architects, Woods Bagot – using the grandiose phrases and awkward metaphors that constitute the jargon of 21st century business and education – explain that they intended to “reshape conventional higher education” by providing “sticky spaces” where staff and students can interact in a non-hierarchical way. Similarly, at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg sits at the same kind of desk amongst rank-and-file employees.

However, menacing similarities emerge between the neoliberal University and Big Tech in the exploitation of labour and absence of democratic decision making. At Facebook, power is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants through a special class of stock that entitles them to far more votes than ordinary shareholders. Meanwhile, in the University Senate, student fellows are outnumbered two-to-fifteen against fellows from senior management and the corporate sector.

Facebook moderators, who often have to police disturbing and explicit content, have voiced grievances over poor working conditions and lack of psychological care. Recently, the University has come under scrutiny over wage theft of casual workers. It is devastating, but the University’s transformation into a profit-driven degree-factory is just one example of the corporatisation of life. No wonder people speak of a crisis in capitalism. Perhaps those 250 million dollars should have gone somewhere else?

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In many ways, brick and mortar can capture ideas just as well as pen and ink.