Campus //

The garden gate to nowhere

The Physics Road Gate holds memories of a campus lost and a campus past.

Most doors on campus go somewhere. Be it a lecture theatre, an abandoned sex attic, or deep into the bowels of the Quad’s underground tunnel network. As a rule, architects and engineers and everything in between tend to like it when doors and their holes go somewhere.

Yet there’s one door, or perhaps more accurately, one gate, that doesn’t play by this centuries old gentleman’s agreement.

Behind the Physics Building, in the courtyard that divides Wilkinson’s Italianate magnum opus from its Nanoscience neighbour, there exists a garden gate to nowhere. Tucked away in the far-western corner of the courtyard and up a set of wall-hugging steps, one can find all the hallmarks of a functional doorway: an archway, an army green gate, even an indent behind the gate itself. 

Yet despite all those positive signifiers, this gate leads into a particularly solid wall.

How did it all go so terribly wrong?

Let’s take a trip back to 1922. Leslie Wilkinson, the University of Sydney’s foundational Professor of Architecture and the visionary behind countless campus gems, was busy sketching out his designs for none other than the Physics Building. Distinctly Mediterranean on account of his classicist sympathies (a fact that explains why the Manning Road entrance to Anderson Stuart spells faculty with a v instead of a u), these original plans feature the now pointless stairs and archway — meaning that they’ve been there since the very beginning. Originally, the gated archway would have led to the grounds of Pauls and Wesley — perhaps a shortcut for tired physicists, exhausted from a day of studying the sub-atomic, looking to return to their college dorms for a well-earned rest. 

You can see fingerprints of this college connection today. Trek round to the opposite side of the blocked-up gateway, sadly by trespassing on sacred Methodist-Collegial property, and you can see the reverse angle: an indented archway, sans gate, just peeking out of the earth its embedded in.

So when did this archway go from functional gateway to puzzling campus mystery?

Well, the last known photo of the archway before it was blocked up can be found in the Physics Building’s conservation management plan (CMP). Dated 2004, the photo depicts a gated archway in its most natural form: not blocked up with concrete and plaster. While the CMP asserts that it cannot be used to get onto college grounds because “fill and rubbish have been dumped in this area,” it’s still theoretically functional — a far cry from its present condition.

Luckily for us, what happens next is almost too obvious. Between 2004 and the present day, the biggest thing to happen to the occupants of Physics Road was the construction of the Nanoscience Hub. A steel-and-glass monstrosity, it certainly does not abide by Wilkinson’s Italianate intentions for the area. But its construction didn’t just disrupt the area’s architectural ethos, it also radically changed the landscape. If you compare that 2004 photo to today, you’ll see that not only has the archway been blocked up, the whole level of the area has been raised. For our purposes, tucked away in the landscaping plans for the Hub’s construction is a note that access to college grounds via the archway will be removed. Of course, these were just plans. The same document made frequent reference to the charming ground floor café that might spill out into the tiled courtyard area. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no such café exists. Maybe the Nanoscience Hub didn’t block up my precious gate. Perhaps that honour goes to some sort of vigilante structural engineer. But even in the café’s absence, that landscaping document offers the best explanation for how and why the garden gate to somewhere became the garden gate to nowhere.

Yet even with its origins and journey chronicled and explained, the gate still possesses a seductive allure. A mystique that can only come from over analysis and obsession. This mystique was briefly given life by the sudden appearance of a Qinghua bowl in front of the gate. About a month or so after my initial personal discovery of the gate in December of 2021, I was confronted by the porcelain vessel on one of my bi-weekly check-ins. Filled to brim with rainwater and soggy leaves, I couldn’t help but project my hopes and dreams of a more magical campus onto its sudden and confronting appearance. My mind flicked through the usual assumptions — occult offering bowl, alchemical basin, a gift from those on the other side — before deciding that it was probably just a regular bowl, there for regular reasons. 

But even without a more trite sort of magic, the Physics Gate is no less powerful. It holds memories of a campus lost and a campus past. Like so many structures and artefacts on USyd’s Camperdown grounds, it’s a remnant — a lone survivor of a University that is constantly reinventing and revamping its built environment. 

The Quadrangle’s trusty water pump. In the first few years of the University’s life, that pump was the only source of freshwater on campus — hydrating builders, academics, and students alike. Now it’s just a mechanical novelty for first years and tourists to crank on a whim.

If you stand in just the right spot at the entrance to the now-defunct Macleay Museum, you can see an elephant skull mounted on the wall.

The Woolley Building’s south tower features a clock face that perpetually reads 4:15.

Like all of these, the Physics Gate allows me to cast my mind back into the distant or not-so-distant past and ponder the mysteries of campus’ curiosities.

What did this do?

Where did this go?

How can I find out?