Busting brutalist campus architecture myths
The Tower at the University of Technology, Sydney is probably Sydney’s most hated edifice. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton described it last year as “a menacing concrete monolith in an architectural genre that the old East German Stasi brought to perfection”. The joke goes that the best city view is from the UTS Tower because you can’t see the UTS Tower.
During the tower’s troubled development from 1964 to 1975, student magazine Shoplift speculated that the architects had been briefed to create a building “in which students would not want to congregate”. Rumours persist that university architecture in this brutalist style is designed to thwart student activism. Is that true?
Brutalism wasn’t meant to be brutal. Named after the French for raw concrete — beton brut — it’s a utopian style that sought to create inexpensive, egalitarian spaces for people to live and work together. Brutalism is well represented on Australian university campuses because its 1960s and 1970s popularity coincided with significant expansion in higher education.
At the same time, the global student activist movement was snowballing. Protesters favoured mass meetings and sit-ins, techniques that prevented the easy flow of people from building to building, forcing confrontations with administrators and ideologically unwelcome guests. Accordingly, student lore has reimagined university buildings and campuses as not just ugly, but fortresses and battlegrounds that enabled administrators to hide and evade, while enabling security to disperse student gatherings.
Monash University opened in 1961 and radicalised early. Its Clayton campus is full of open, windswept spaces, which student activists put to good use. In May 1968, 2000 students voted to occupy the admin building to protest against a new discipline statute that would penalise students for off-campus activities. During the largest Monash student meeting, in May 1969, 6000 students out of 9500 voted to oppose the disciplinary statute.
Student lore has it that newer campuses deliberately replaced open ground with water features, forcing students to congregate where they could easily be corralled and observed. At Perth’s Curtin University, the only viable assembly space for large groups was in front of the library building. ”We were all pretty certain at Curtin that there was a sniper tower on top of the library,” writer and broadcaster Patrick Pittman recalls.
La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus, opened in 1967, is speculated to have been purpose-built as an anti-activist citadel with several police access points. “It was always my understanding that the student union at La Trobe was built apart from the other buildings and over the other side of the moat to make it harder for students to storm the admin building,” says alumna (and former Crikey journalist) Ruth Brown.
The university was reportedly worried that the plain concrete walls of Robin Boyd’s brutalist Menzies College (pictured below) would invite student protest graffiti. But as the story goes, Boyd refused to redesign, arguing that he’d be pleased to see his work as a canvas for dissent.
La Trobe soon supplanted Monash as Australia’s student activist hotbed. In 1972 the so-called “La Trobe Three” — Barry York, Brian Pola and Fergus Robinson — were expelled, banned from campus, and jailed when they tried to return.
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