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A critical appraisal of the F23 building

Decoding the corporate code used to describe the Vice-Chancellors den

A pencil illustration of the F23 administration building. On the top of the building it says: "Vice-Chancellor's Summer Palace" and "Admin Building" Artwork by Mei Zheng.

From his new office on the very top floor of the new F23 Administration Building, Michael Spence enjoys expansive views over the city, its phallic structures providing an inspiring paean to corporate success. It’s a far cry from the Vice-Chancellor’s old digs on the ground floor of the quadrangle — quiet, academic, conservative. While it can be easy to read too much into such things, it is nevertheless worth examining the messages which the new Admin Building projects. After all, it is, in the words of its architects, the university’s “new visible presence to the world.”

Dr. Spence himself provides some useful insights: “F23…supports in a visual way the university values — openness and engagement; diversity and inclusion; respect and integrity; courage and creativity.” One must pause and wonder whether this former Oxford don has surrendered his mind to the corporate-speak which so unfortunately pervades the university’s public discourse, or whether he is merely speaking out of his arse. Nevertheless, some of these outwardly inane statements may tell us something about the university’s glowing new edifice. 

Openness and Engagement

If engagement was to be a core precept of the building’s design, then its architects have failed miserably. Good architecture is supposed to speak to the viewer, but the Admin Building is a hermit — content to remain mute and unnoticed. In spite of its location on the university’s most prominent corner, F23 somehow manages to hide itself from the casual gaze. Given the design of the building, which is remarkable only in its unremarkableness, this should not be a surprise. It is stout and blockish, with a peculiar resemblance to a hydraulically-pressed pagoda. It pays its dues to modernity with a glass facade, while grumpily acquiescing to sandstone over flammable cladding in an obligatory, but utterly meaningless nod to the university’s sandstone heritage. This leaves a bland, forgettable character as F23’s primary point of ‘engagement’. As to openness, a security desk takes pride of place in the polished concrete foyer, its guards zealously prohibiting access to the upper floors. 

Diversity and Inclusion

It is the utter meaninglessness of these words which is so dispiriting. The extent to which diversity and inclusion — those nebulous words adored by corporate PR teams — can be manifested in a piece of administrative architecture is highly questionable, let alone one with all the character and joy of any corporate office anywhere in the world. 

Respect and Integrity

In light of the myriad Sydney apartment buildings ridden with cracks and defects, structural integrity is indeed an achievement to be lauded. And it is true that the building remains standing. Such low aims, however, do not send a message of excellence to the engineering faculty. As to respect, the waiter at the posh new cafe on the ground floor was unfailingly polite as he served me my $24 ‘cheese selection’ entree. 

Courage and Creativity

Courage is a lofty aim for any design, let alone that of a home of bureaucracy. Inevitably, we reach the same conclusion as we have with all the other overstated values in Dr. Spence’s ode to the Admin Building. They mean nothing. It is this apathy to meaning which best describes this new building. It aspires to nothing beyond functionality, and achieves very little in adding to the campus. The apathetic tenor of Dr. Spence’s remarks are reflected in the new building: despite its position as the new home of the VC, it projects no meaning, and is both sterile and unavoidably corporate. Whether or not this is an issue is a different question, but certain things can be read into Dr. Spence’s move from the quadrangle to the top floor of a corporate office building.