Why our campuses look the way they do

While the pandemic transformed the way universities taught mass undergraduate audiences, it has not delayed the changing distribution of campuses across the country.

The old distinctions of CBD, suburban and country continue to break down as university managements go to town on investments to attract students to capital city and regional centre CBDs.

“Today’s ‘sticky’ campus is intent on disrupting all-of-a-piece modernist orderliness in its striving for informality and the ephemeral simulacra of organic urbanism – cafes, ‘pop-ups’, maker studios, and the like,” Andrew Saniga (Uni Melbourne) and Robert Freestone (UNSW) argue in the introduction to their edited collection of essays on how the Australian university campus changed over time.

They and their contributors cover a lot of ground, from the interaction of policy and pedagogy in deciding what was built and for how many students, through what we got when planners were given empty landscapes to build for “primarily commuter and car-dependent student populations” through to architecture as marketing message.

“The campus is now, more than ever, the ‘shopwindow’ for rankings-conscious universities whose core business is to produce quality and impactful research outputs as well as provide enjoyable and client-responsive learning experiences and opportunities,” Freestone and Nicola Pullen write. And there Future Campus was thinking celebrity architect constructions were a symptom of Vice-Chancellors with Ozymandias Disease.

Philip Goad, Hannah Lewi and Andrew Murray write on the evolution of labs, libraries and lecture halls and the “repurposing, rethinking and reversion” of learning facilities as experience changes intents.

Lewi and Saniga set out how protesting students in the ‘60s and ‘70s subverted campus designs. “This was a time of architectural anxiety, which was expressed widely in reaction to mass public housing developments, destruction of town centres in favour of highways, and megastructures: ‘concrete architecture’ carried associations of alienation and domination,” they argue.

And in a stand-out essay, Saniga, Freestone, Lewi and Christine Garnaut consider the 200 plus  “city campuses,” existing, “in a state of transition, from campuses originally conceived as bounded enclaves to more porous sites where interaction with the wider city is encouraged and facilitated.”

They point to Uni Tasmania’s plan in progress to relocate to the Hobart CBD as demonstrating “the appeal of a city campus in delivering profile, marketability, a superior student experience, and accessibility, as well as faith that the university can thrive on activities and services that relate substantially to the city’s historic building fabric,” – a view which will not be shared by the vocal opponents to the move in the city. The ghosts of the residents of the working-class suburb of Darlington, demolished by Uni Sydney would also have something to spectrally say about such plans. 

Overall, this collection is substantial scholarship – one architects and planners who aspire to managing a university development need to read. And Vice-Chancellors with hearts of property developers should too. Saniga, Freestone and colleagues make no manifestos for or against change, but they will give readers who are in a position to rebuild campuses the guidance of past experience.

As to whether they will build on the foundations of past lessons, who knows? The collection comes from an Australian Research Council Discovery grant in 2016 and predates the pandemic. As such its context is a world where professional staff spent the working week on campus, academics some of it and while students weren’t always all in lectures they were on the lawns or the library.

In her forward now ex Monash U VC Margaret Gardner argues that whatever happens next, the campus will continue, that “there will be another period of experimentation in campus architecture and planning; that the landscape and its integration into the educational and research experience is likely to be a stronger feature of new and refurbished spaces; and that the sustainability of these environments will be a required part of their development.”

Maybe, maybe not – attending campus is not the only means to life-long learning and students who are also workers will surely question the hours devoured travelling and attending campus when classes and content are instantly available everywhere/

A future edition of this collection may need a new chapter on IT architecture for the virtual campus.

Andrew Saniga and Robert Freestone (eds) Campus: building modern Australian universities (UWA Publishing)



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