A brief history of the Chancellor’s Garden

The Vice Chancellor’s Garden’s ugly step-sister has more of a history than you might expect.

The Chancellor's Garden

If you’ve ever walked through the Vice Chancellor’s Garden, you would remember it.

Though you might not know its name, the courtyard — tucked between the north-west corner of the Quadrangle and Science Road — is surrounded by sandstone walls and lushly planted with camellias and azaleas. It was designed by Professor Leslie Wilkinson, the University’s then architect who was also tasked with completing the Quadrangle, and landscaped by Professor Eben Waterhouse, the same guy who planted the jacaranda. It’s considered so significant that the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage gave it a heritage listing.

The Chancellor’s Garden, on the other hand? Like most students, I didn’t realise the University even had one, though I’d been walking through it every day for two-and-a-half years. Those more observant than me might recognise it as the boggy patch of grass on the north side of Fisher Library. It’s not exactly a secret, given an inscription on the sandstone wall naming it as such. But apart from this feature, the garden seems entirely unremarkable. So how did it come into existence?

Richard Clough and John Lascelles’ successful sketch design for the Chancellor’s Garden (minus bog). Image courtesy of University of Sydney Archives

In December 1964, the President of the Standing Committee of Convocation (now far less pretentiously known as the Alumni Council) suggested a project funded by graduates as tribute to 90-year-old Chancellor Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn, who was retiring after a 23-year term — the longest in the University’s history.

The vague ‘project’ went through several different iterations, with Bickerton Blackburn first asking that the money to go towards finishing the Quadrangle’s cloisters and western tower (the Quadrangle was built in four different stages), and the Committee at one point having a “general feeling of approval of a fountain”. By May 1965, they’d decided on “a sunken garden with cascading waterway and shrubs on the northern side of the new Fisher Library”. However, between 1965 and now, the idyllic promise of a trickling stream and lush greenery somehow became a boggy patch of grass.

By November, the Committee had finally received approval from the Senate Buildings and Grounds Committee after a five month delay and had commissioned three architects to submit designs. The brief called for simple designs that reflected Fisher’s architecture — at that point minus the stacks, which weren’t completed until the late 1970s, despite the University predicting they would be complete in 1966. The architects also had to retain all the existing trees, and the design had to be able to be constructed for under £10,000.

One of the unsuccessful designs (feat. pools!) by CS Garth. Image courtesy of University of Sydney Archives

The adjudicators disappointingly rejected one design that included two long pools of water. This was a bold suggestion given that the brief basically discouraged including water because of “problem[s] associated with keeping the basins, channels or pools free from extraneous matter”. They also rejected another that would have extended the area by raising the sloped part to a flat patch of grass, and went with the design we have today, by USyd architecture graduate Richard Clough and John Lascelles. In his role at the National Capital Development Commission, Clough landscaped a number of major sites in Canberra, including Lake Burley Griffin. His design for the memorial centred on a  “quiet, simple and dignified character” and the adjudicators liked its relative simplicity and integration with the surrounding architecture.

One of the unsuccessful designs, by O’Mahoney, Neville and Morgan, Architects. Courtesy of University of Sydney Archives

As with all things at the University, the construction process was slow after difficulty raising funds from the graduates. It was eventually opened in a ceremony on March 22, 1968, by which time Bickerton Blackburn was nearly 94.

Nowadays, it’s hard to see the garden’s “simple and dignified character”.

In what was likely a cost-cutting measure, the sandstone paving and steps Clough included in his design were replaced with concrete. The tree the University insisted be retained casts almost constant shade over much of the grass, which struggles to grow. The grass is often cordoned off with fluoro ropes, and obscured by a ‘smoke-free campus’ sign (though the area is still very popular with smokers). When it rains, it becomes a bog.

However, there is a quiet peacefulness to the space, despite its function as a thoroughfare. The sandstone benches provide a relaxing, albeit hard, place to sit. And at dusk, if viewed at just the right angle, the glowing yellow lights of Fisher reflect off the puddles and contrast with the green of the grass in a way that is almost beautiful.