The UTS tower: A brutalist fortress

The UTS Tower is testament to the tension between student action and authority.

A watercolour image of the UTS tower Image: Eloise Myatt

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Tower is a monolithic construct and an iconic feature of the Sydney skyline. Unfortunately, many observers would rather describe the building as ‘infamous’ rather than ‘iconic’, but this is often the case with brutalist architecture. In spite of those who find the building distasteful, the UTS Tower is a source of both beauty and mystery to those interested in design.

Construction of the tower began in 1969. Almost a decade later it was officially opened. It was during this period that brutalist architecture hit its peak in the West — a style particularly popular in the design of government buildings and educational institutions. Despite its functional popularity, Prince Charles once said that brutalist architecture resembled “piles of concrete”.

But Brutalism is far more complex: it symbolically represents both rebellion and control. It is a radical rejection of frivolous (read: beautiful) design movements, such as Art Deco, and is associated with the idea of a socialist utopia. Confusingly, it is also a reminder of government control, totalitarian ideology, and urban decay.

Adelaide Lehmann, a Bachelor of Architecture and Design (IV) student at UTS and a tutor’s aid for first year students within her faculty, says this notion of control was a key consideration in the towers design.

“Construction began on UTS immediately after student revolts around Europe. Although the University has never confirmed this, it’s a popular myth among students and academics that the UTS tower was build in response to the demonstrations in Paris,” she says.

Adelaide refers to the civil unrest and protests against capitalism that shut down France in May, 1968. The occupations of universities and factories crippled the national economy and the crisis became so pressing that President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled to West Germany.

These protests began at the Sorbonne — regarded as the most prestigious university in the Francophone world — before spreading throughout the country. As Parisian students battled police on the streets, Adelaide believes that architects took into account this radical student protestation when designing the tower halfway across the world.

“They began work on the tower in 1969, a year after what happened in Paris,” she says.

“There is a lack of space where students can actually gather in groups. The whole tower is built like a fortress, with low ceilings and tiny windows.”

Many contemporary students see the building as a powerful statement against the elitism of the Australian sandstone universities. In a comment to the Sydney Morning Herald, UTS Architecture and Design PhD student Jesse Adams Stein described the tower lovingly as “complicit in an architectural ‘up yours’ to all things beautiful”.

It certainly stands in contrast to the neo-gothic excess of the University of Sydney’s own Quadrangle. The tower subverts the traditional standards of architectural beauty displayed by our university, becoming somewhat radical in its rejection.

It also differs from USyd’s many open spaces, which have been utilised effectively to protest. A famous example of this was the 1969 anti-Vietnam war protest. While construction of the UTS Tower was commencing, students confronted Sir Roden Cutler VC, then the Governor of NSW and honorary colonel of the University of Sydney Regiment. Sir Cutler was struck with a tomato.

Was this considered in the architect’s plans?

The rumours behind the design of the UTS Tower are still relevant in our contemporary political climate. The rise of right wing populism in many western democracies is beginning to destabilise a mono-hegemonic international system that has existed since the end of the Cold War.

As we stand in fear of totalitarianism, we can begin to truly understand brutalism as a contextual art form for the first time in decades. Depending on the person, the UTS tower can be considered either a symbol of radicalism or of oppression.