The history of the Institute Building

The intriguing history of this USyd gem

Artwork by Robin Eames

Walking around campus at night, lit up by the corporate glow of the new five-story Administration Building, it might be hard to believe that in 1883 the land surrounding the University of Sydney was made up of mostly farmland dotted with cottages. As the student population of the young University grew, the campus expanded over newly cleared bushland.

As these changes were taking place, the University held an architectural competition to decide who would design the Institute Building. Benjamin Backhouse, a distinguished architect from Brisbane, won the competition.

A cream palace sitting on City Road, the Institute Building is a mismatch of French Gothic and Italianate architecture with symmetric towering columns. The building is well known to government and business students, and houses the US Studies Centre, a government-funded research centre which was founded under the Howard government.

The building was not initially intended for student use. It was home to the Institute for the Deaf and Blind, which explains its curious name. When the Institute moved to North West Sydney, the building was used as a temporary hospital during an influenza outbreak, and later by the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War.

By 1962, the building made its way into the hands of the University. After the acquisition, the building underwent significant renovations to make it suitable for students. But even today, against the buzz of the cityscape, the building appears faithful to Backhouse’s original vision.

Backhouse was a modest social reformer, joining the City of Sydney improvement board, working towards creating a better Sydney.

The Backhouses had other links to the University. Benjamin’s son, Alfred Paxton, served as a founding member of the USU, a fellow at St Paul’s college and an acting chancellor.

Today, if you look closely at the fence around the building, you can still see Backhouse’s insignia on the stone piers of the Institute Building.

Julia Horne, the University historian at USyd who sits on the Heritage Advisory Group, tells me about the process of protecting buildings of historical significance.

“It’s often a matter of saying, ‘Right. We’ve been told we have to keep this building by the federal government or the state government because it’s seen as high, high historical significance. So we can’t start mucking around!”

“What architects have managed to do pretty well,” she continues, “is to recognise that these grand old buildings often have been set in a way where the space surrounding it is as important as the building itself. So the laneways and the byways and the vistas and all of that is what creates that environment. That has pretty much been adhered to throughout the University’s history.”

Like the Institute Building, plenty of the classrooms and lecture theatres we spend hours in each week, many of the routes we walk along staring at our phones or the ground, have a life that predates USyd. Whether they were used by charities or the military, when we look back there is so much more to learn about the place where we study.