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Life Cycle: Christ College

October 27, 2011

Described in 1962 as ‘uncohesive, obvious, even characterless, but somehow TASMANIAN’, Dirk Bolt’s Christ College in Hobart is now considered a rare example of the Tasmanian strain of regional modernism.

“Uncohesive, obvious, even characterless, but somehow TASMANIAN… I hate this building for being a big, cold, concrete bastard, but I would also like to be friends with it.”

So wrote Peter Dermoudy in the Tasmanian Architect in 1962, in a prophetic critique of Christ College at the University of Tasmania, Hobart. Today, this residential college occupies a difficult position. Designed by Dirk Bolt of Hartley Wilson & Bolt, within Tasmania it’s widely considered to be the state’s most important modern building of the post-war period, with characteristics seen as particular to Tasmania. Nationally, it is listed in the top 43 significant buildings in an Australia-wide survey of 20th century architecture for the AIA (2000). Yet, as Dermoudy asserts, it can be a hard building to love and, as a consequence, it faces an uncertain future, with the University currently reviewing its student accommodation needs. In addition, the Tasmanian Heritage Council rejected the building’s inclusion on the Tasmanian Heritage Register (2000).

Designed for the Anglican Church, Christ College was the first of four residential colleges planned for the University’s Hobart campus, which was to be located on the hill behind the Sandy Bay campus established in the late 1950s. In the first stage of the college’s construction (1959–60), it was to provide accommodation for 50 students, with a chapel, library, common rooms, infirmary, staff quarters and a dining hall sufficient for a projected community of 144 student residents.

Dermoudy’s early claim of “Tasmanian-ness” lay largely in Bolt’s awareness of both the physical and cultural context of the work. An appropriate address to the physical context was made through the placement of the building in its environment. The facilities of the college were accommodated in a complex of four distinct buildings, which were carefully composed to create a non-orthogonal elevated courtyard in the hillside. As observed by Hobart-based architect and urban designer, Leigh Woolley, the building adopts a classical stance in the landscape. It is entered by a corner flight of steps created by an aperture in the cranked building form. Through this aperture, the expansive views afforded by the hillside site are also revealed, connecting the ‘cloistered’ court of the college to the greater setting of the Derwent Estuary. The result is an integration of landscape and building on a sloping site, recalling the Saynatsalo Town Hall (1951) by Alvar Aalto, but also significant to Hobart as a city compressed between mountain and river, where urban form is locked in an intimate relationship with the natural environment.

At Christ College, as in Bolt’s other Tasmanian works, which include Bolt’s own house, Quorn Street, Sandy Bay (1960), Long Beach Bathing Pavilion, Sandy Bay (1962), State Offices Building at 10 Murray Street, Hobart (1963), concerns with site were extended through a tectonic vocabulary that sought reciprocity between the natural and built worlds. Here, a raw expression of off-form concrete structural elements and unfinished concrete blocks of varying colour, shape and configuration prevails, including concrete grilles that screened and filtered light entering the library and chapel. The building was finished with an asbestos roof and in-fill wall panels. These manufactured materials were relieved by the use of copper roof plumbing and Tasmanian Huon pine window frames, which, in both cases, were left unfinished to patinate over time.

While the interiors have been largely altered since 1960, they originally featured a harsh use of off-form concrete, exposed concrete block, perlite ceilings and unfinished timber joinery. They were not, however, without artifice, seen for example in the careful disposition of glazing bars, apparently Cubist balustrading and Mondrian-inspired laminated toilet doors.

This functional and challenging aesthetic is tempered by some very specific intentions in the making of the building, which demand engagement.

To further understand the potential legacy of Christ College it is necessary to understand the background and context of Bolt’s professional practice. An immigrant from Groningen in the Netherlands, Bolt joined David Hartley Wilson in 1951, becoming a partner on graduation in 1957. Bolt rapidly established himself as a prominent and active member of the Institute, he wrote extensively in The Mercury newspaper on urban design and planning, heritage and building conservation, and he also promulgated professional engagement in industrial design.

Significantly, Bolt was closely involved with other architects, artists, designers and thinkers, who were exploring the distinctive qualities of the Tasmanian context and how they might shape modernist architecture and design. Within the community were local architects including Gordon Beattie, Barry McNeill, Peter Dermoudy, Terry Barwick, Brian and Bill Howroyd, Jimmy Moon, Ray Brownell, Brian Walch and Bob Nation, and artists including Steve Walker and Max Angus. This community also included committed environmentalists and landscape photographers Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis, and the architectural heritage photographer Frank Bolt (Dirk Bolt’s brother). Artists and designers Ron Sinclair and Kusha Bolt (Dirk’s wife), as well as local thinkers Leslie Green and Hans Westerman all contributed to what emerged as a broad-based local discourse seeking a regional approach to art, architecture and design.

When Hobart hosted the 10th National Convention of the RAIA (1960), Tasmanian Architect (edited at the time by Peter Dermoudy) issued a rallying call for a Tasmanian regionalism inspired by the particularities of the island’s wilderness environments: “The disease [the modernist curtain wall] will find more natural enemies in Tasmania than perhaps it has in the larger cities of the world, in that here, we have raw, masculine nature … [m]ountainscapes and seascapes that demand stone and brick, materials which bespeak the strength of man.”

In the early 1960s, Christ College offered a tangible manifestation of a search for distinctive qualities of Tasmania that immediately imbued the building with meaning, as a generation questioned modernist inheritances. Today, it stands as a touchstone to a community of thinkers and designers.

In 2006, Docomomo celebrated the diversity of the modern movement in architecture with its sixth international conference devoted to ‘other modernisms’, arguing for an increasingly accepted departure from the understanding of modernism as uniform in its character and linear in its development. This raises the question as to whether or not Christ College, and other contemporary Tasmanian works engaged in the same exploration of the local, might constitute an ‘other modernism’ – or at least, inform potential particularities of modernism in Tasmania.

It is interesting to note that each of the Australian mainland state capitals have been accorded regionally specific modernist genres, although no specificity is accorded to Tasmania’s contribution to the wider complexity of Australian modernism. The argument for the identification of a regionally specific Tasmanian modernism is inherently difficult, given the small number of local practitioners and works that might be deployed in making a robust case. However, this does not obviate the self-conscious search for local referents to mediate international design currents that occurred in the late 1950s and 60s, a context within which Christ College was conceived and built. While the derivative influence of developments in the mainland Australian states was certainly felt in Tasmania (for example, in the otherwise individualistic work of architects such as J Esmond Dorney), architectural experimentation was also international in outlook and independent of mainland developments. As recently expressed by Bolt, he and his peers imagined Tasmania “in relation to Australia as Scandinavia is seen in relation to Europe, less significant in terms of conventional economic and political criteria, but significant in terms of generating culture.”

Here we are, faced with the difficulty of assessing regional architecture at a national level. Modernist Tasmanian buildings are absent from national histories; when they become faced with development pressure, there is no significant national presence that can be marshalled to support their preservation. To see one consequence of this lack of validation, we need look no further than Hartley Wilson & Bolt’s most prominent (and now well-known) work, The State Offices Building at 10 Murray Street, Hobart, which has recently been approved for demolition. Against this backdrop, life has not been easy for Christ College. In 2000, the building was threatened with demolition. It still stands, and the external appearance of the building remains intact, retaining the intention of its presence in the landscape. Bolt’s courtyard arrangement still serves the college community well. However, the interiors and finishes of the building have fared less well. The upgrade and maintenance of the interior spaces has seen the raw expression of the building fabric softened through the painting out of concrete blockwork. At a detail level, maintenance programs have also seen the untreated Huon pine window joinery and copper flashings, which were intended to age naturally, painted and, in some cases, replaced with aluminium – a minor point perhaps, but one that highlights the challenge of maintaining and adapting a rigorous structure such as Christ College in the spirit of its original design.

The desire to increase accommodation within the college through the conversion of under-utilised spaces has also seen the former library and chapel refurbished as a combination of smaller common areas and student bedrooms. These communal spaces were originally given external expression by concrete block screens. The screens have been retained, but in tension with the new arrangement of smaller spaces behind them, while surely compromising the light quality of the new student rooms.

Despite the difficulties of loving ‘a bastard’ like Christ College, it marks an important period of optimism and exploration within Tasmanian culture. It provides a critical physical legacy of the design discourses of the late-1950s and 1960s – discourses which have extended into contemporary practice through forums such as the Hobart Architectural Cooperative (1980s), Cranbrook Conferences (1990s) and Weekends Away (2000s). As such, it has important relevance to the current discipline of architecture in Tasmania.

In design terms, the college is also an important precedent in terms of architectural place-making in the Tasmanian landscape. It presents an architectural proposition that demonstrates thinking at the levels of a state, region, city, campus and community. This is reified in a formal response to the landscape through siting and form-making, and extended to the level of material detailing. These are preoccupations that inform much other architecture in Tasmania. For these reasons, we all should try to get to know Christ College.

Dr Stuart King is a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Tasmania and a member of Docomomo.

Paul Johnston is principal of Paul Johnston Architects in Hobart, convenor of the AIA (Tasmanian Chapter) Twentieth Century Buildings Committee, and a Docomomo member.

Docomomo stands for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the modern movement. This international organisation was founded in the Netherlands in 1990, inspired by the recognition that urgent attention was needed to document, conserve and promote awareness and appreciation of the architecture of the modern era. Docomomo Australia has been involved in the ongoing compilation of an international register of significant modernist works, and has spoken out against the destruction or disfigurement of notable modern Australian sites.
www.docomomoaustralia.com.au

  • John Graham October 27th, 2011 6:33 am

    I was a student of Dirk’s at the Hobart Technical College in the 1960′s and a great admirer of his work, particularly Christ College, which is an inspired piece of work. To this day I encourage colleagues to visit it, despite the unfortunate treatment meted out to it over the years. Without doubt it is one of the most important buildings from any era on the island. It has considerable potential to continue to be adaptively reused and for its material and spatial delights to be recovered.


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