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What the University of Sydney Quad Could Have Looked Like

Drawing inspiration from the vast collection of the University Archives, the Quad might have looked very different had the story taken a different turn, with five alternate visions for the Carillon Tower and a forgotten blueprint for its iconic façade.

Crown steeple and an elongated quadrangle

It’s hard to imagine an alternative to what looms ahead of University Avenue when ascending from the steps of Victoria Park – USyd’s iconic quadrangle clad in Sydney sandstone. Yet the institution’s imposing facade could have seen a very different future if the University had adopted a different vision for the Fisher Library.

In 1890 a plan was drawn up where the Carillon steeple would have been accompanied by a huge, elaborate crown steeple rising directly behind it. This structure was one of the earliest iterations of the Fisher Library following a bequest of £32,000 from the estate of Thomas Fisher, the equivalent of over $3.5 million today. Located just below the crown tower, this Fisher library was to house a large, airy chamber resembling a rotunda. The Rotunda separated the USyd’s Carillon Room and the Anderson Fellow’s Room and would have occupied two stories above the Quadrilateral’s main entrance, projecting into the Quad by a substantial degree.

The crown chosen for the 1890s design is probably an imperial crown, similar to those of King’s College in Aberdeen and St Giles’ Kirk in Edinburgh. At King’s College, such a crowned tower represented claims to “universal dominion” rather than mere royal connection. For USyd architectural historian Professor Andrew Leach, the elaborate early plans for the Fisher Library are evident of an institution seeking to project itself as a bastion of moral authority and cement its place within of the British Empire. Despite USyd’s roots in benthamist secularism, the influence of High Anglicans and Protestants among its founding faculty was indelible.

“Gothic Revival architecture was one of the languages ​​used by institutions with moral underpinnings that universities were meant to have, a Gothic building suggests what your moral mission is,” Professor Leach said. Honi. “It was designed as a British building in Gadigal country.”

In this light, USyd’s plan for a crown steeple, had the University Senate opted for that option, would have further cemented the institution’s reputation as a symbol of the British invasion of Europe. Australia, exacerbating an already violent relationship between the University of Sydney and Gadigal Land.

Another feature that was dropped was a double cloister that would have dressed the USyd Quadrangle. The plan would have seen two internal arcades clad in Corinthian columns in a classic Italian style reminiscent of ancient Italian universities like Padua.

Another change to this plan was an extension of the building’s facade beyond the Great Hall, with an ornate Tudor arch and second lead spire to rival the Carillon Tower where the MacLeay Museum now stands. Next to Nicholson was a radically different look for the now dormant Nicholson Museum in what looks like an ecclesiastical chapter house, originally planned just behind the great hall where the vice-chancellor’s office now resides.

However, all was not lost with an early prototype from the MacCleay Museum clearly visible in the west elevation (or rear of the Quad). Here, the first MacCleay Museum, identical in structure to what was eventually made, features a double-height gallery surrounded by two floors reserved for exhibits of specimens. However, unlike the 1890 plan, MacCleay was not built in the perpendicular sandstone of its initial design, but rather cast in Romanesque red brick instead.

Little is known about why the plan failed. However, USyd eventually commissioned NSW government architect Walter Liberty Vernon, along with William Mitchell and George McRae, to build the Nicholson Museum and the former Fisher Library in their current incarnation.

Five visions of the Tower

If things had turned out differently, the Carillon Tower might have looked very different from its current shape. Boasting one of Australia’s only carillons along with Canberra and Bathurst, it has been instrumental in welcoming countless new students and congratulating graduates. Prior to construction, colonial architect Edmund Blacket designed five other versions of the structure, ranging from more austere but playful plans to much more ornate designs.

One design would have seen the Tower rise with a set of crocketed sandstone pillars, with curled leaf designs, adorned with a lead-sheathed spire. Not to be beaten, another design saw the Quad topped with a series of pinnacles atop a mansard roof and adorned with a tiny gold flag at its peak.

Among the simpler designs was a tower topped with a lead mansard roof, somewhat echoing what was built for the University of Otago Registry Building. A similar design shows a series of decorative crenellated ramparts, eschewing spiers altogether, putting the Quad on par with the romantic architecture of Scottish castles. As for Professor Leach, these two plans were his favorites because of his affinity for Scottish baronial architecture which was reflected in these seemingly uncluttered, “playful” but striking designs.

“I just have a bit of a sucker for Scottish baronialism, so that’s my reason there, there’s kind of a playful addition, just because it sounds so ridiculous. For me, it’s a draw between the Disney Princess Tower and the Attic [roof], which would have been silly but also made them fun! said Professor Leach.

A radically different physics building

Design by Gorrie McLeish Blair and Vernon for the Physics Department where the Brennan MacCallum Building now stands. Plan reproduced by kind permission of the University of Sydney Archives.

A neo-Gothic vision plan for the USyd physics building was also scrapped. If the University had carried out the plan, designed by NSW government chief designer architect Gorrie McLeish Blair in 1917 under the tutelage of Walter Vernon – famous for the Mitchell Library and Sydney Central Station – Manning Road would have looked very different. According to Blair and Vernon’s master plan, the physics would have been located directly behind the Quad where the MacCallum building stands today.

In Leach’s view, the plans for the pair, although on an “extraordinary” scale, were not “ambitious” in terms of outlook, being intended to complement the style of the old Fisher library as continuous and harmonious complex. According to the design, a grand entrance, flanked by two massive towers, would have welcomed students and faculty to where the MacCallum Learning Hub currently stands. The Gothic building was designed to house three departments: Organic, Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, as well as a small extension for the arts.

The building formed what was the Vernon Science Complex, which established a master plan for USyd’s science district. The plans, Leach observes, were scrapped when Professor Leslie Wilkinson was appointed University Architect a year later in 1918.

“The interesting thing about Wilkinson’s nomination is that in 1917 they are [USyd] already interviewing for this job,” Leach said, with 1917 being the same year of Blair and Vernon’s plan. “When the President [of Architecture] was wanted, all research and discussions took place in London.

“So I think [Blair and Vernon’s plans] was a victim of Wilkinson’s ambitions which is not necessarily a bad thing!

Indeed, Leach praises what Wilkinson and Keith Harris designed for the Physics Building in 1926, opting for a simpler Italian Renaissance style as opposed to the aging neo-Gothic already taken up by the Quad. For him, Wilkinson’s Italianate style offered a far more refreshing campus than the Perpendicular Gothic repetition of years past.

“The previous generation was built so we can be seen everywhere, the Fisher library is about visibility everywhere whereas Wilkinson would like to be low to the ground as long as we are able to see along an axis,” Leach said, referring to what is popularly known as the Wilkinson Axis with the Edward Ford Building, also Wilkinson’s brainchild.

“I think the Physics Building is one of the best buildings of this generation on campus. It’s nice.”

The future of campus design

It is hard to imagine that, until the 1950s, the USyd appointed its own university architect, far from the multifactorial and complex work of the file of the modern architect. Today, much of this work is collaborative, with architects embodied as companies rather than tied to a specific individual.

Following its 2032 strategy, USyd will embark on a major development beyond what it has built for Darlington. In Parramatta and Westmead alone, developments to match 25,000 students and 2,500 additional staff are planned for 2055. This means that a university exceeding 100,000 students is a very real possibility over the next decade.

Earlier this year, Roisin Murphy told the story of Darlington’s fierce resistance to the USyd’s post-1957 expansion plan in response to the destruction of community and heritage as part of the expansion of the ‘USyd. The architecture of USyd’s expansion plans would be wise to learn lessons from its former campus designers. Development at all costs, especially in the context where the sheer scale of its current campus contributes structurally to the atomization of student life, each being left to fierce competition for the star and fending for itself among 75,000 others in the endless pursuit of the USyd. employability and reductive rankings.

What the abandoned and ultimately realized plans that ultimately constitute the physical campus of USyd show is that its physical infrastructure is also affected by how the institution itself and governments articulate higher education. Where 19th century romanticism restricted knowledge to a privileged elite and 1960s brutalism paved the way for a radicalized generation of students, the next chapter awaits to be written.

History has much to pass on, inform and teach how the campus should evolve in the future, USyd would be well advised to take this into account.

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