Jane Foss Russell Building, University of Sydney

May 5, 2009

A new project at the University of Sydney draws strength from an all-embracing collegiate spirit far removed from the monolithic logic of the ivory tower.

Sydneysiders have watched with interest the construction of two very different buildings on the campus of the University of Sydney, the Jane Foss Russell Building (formerly known as USYD Central) by John Wardle Architects in association with Wilson Architects & GHD Sydney and the Faculty of Law Building by FJMT. Both are competition-winning designs from mature practices that are part of a major development initiative at the University of Sydney called Sydney 2010. Yet their coincidence is curious given the energy with which the University, like all tertiary institutions, is pursuing a distinct ‘brand’ for itself through slogans, graphics and strategic vision documents.

The projects that have been commissioned are somewhat contradictory in nature, but the University of Sydney is not alone in this regard – across town at UNSW architects as diverse as BVN, Lyons, FJMT and Lahz Nimmo have all undertaken major commissions in the last decade. This is not merely the accidental effect of different selection committees operating with little more than personal preferences and a set of generic catchphrases such as “excellence” and “world class”. In any case, at the University of Sydney a single jury that included members with architectural expertise awarded both commissions. It is arguable that this apparent eclecticism arises because of internal tensions around how the modern university sees itself in the world.

From my experience within academia there are two prevailing stories. One is that the university stands outside of the quotidian as the guardian of universal truth and rationality. The clearest architectural expression of this argument is found in Mies’ Master Plan for the Illinois Institute of Technology (1939-1956), with its self-referential, mathematically consistent and clear organisation of rectangular buildings around a central axis. The second story is that knowledge is always partial because it is culturally and historically specific. There is no single truth, only degrees of relevance validated by partnerships with industry and community. Alvar Aalto’s masterplan and buildings for the Helsinki University of Technology (1949-1974) suggest the open-endedness of the institution and, by extension, of knowledge using design tactics of discontinuity and irregularity.

With contemporary universities caught between the desire for intellectual freedom and their increased dependence on industry funding, it is not surprising to find the contemporary campus mixes its Mies and Aalto. Indeed, we are witnessing a period of intense experimentation as architects explore the complex programs and competing ideas with which universities are now engaged. Contemporaneous projects by JWA, such as the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland (2007) and the Hawke Centre at the University of South Australia (2007) house the kind of strange programmatic and quasi-public mix that is replacing the single discipline building. This new building for the University of Sydney accommodates a library, student services and a civic square flanked by retail outlets. An additional and overriding programmatic function sees the complex uniting the two campuses of the University as it eases pedestrians over City Road across a new bridge – also designed by JWA and continuous with the student services building – and through significant level changes to an open landscape called the Maze Green (that is most un-maze-like).

The response by JWA to programmatic complexity and to the ambiguity of the status of the university has been two fold. On the one hand, the practice has given priority to informal social space – those indoor and outdoor spaces where people might haphazardly meet while having a coffee, using the photocopier or walking to the library. The value of a little creative chaos in the workplace has become one of the mainstays of business management, but few practices have so successfully adapted this idea for the academic environment. The student services wing of the Jane Foss Russell Building applies lessons already learnt in the provision of a dynamic workspace. Areas of open plan, single offices and interview rooms are augmented by intensely coloured and richly patterned public areas such as kitchens, the lift lobby, stairs and breakout areas. The red Forbo surface of the main internal stair is alone worth a visit to the building.

The need for a public thoroughfare through the site created additional opportunities for supporting rich social exchange. Their original proposal for the complex spelled out the ways in which paths through the site could be multiplied and in the completed building we see how these stranded paths work in concert with increased views in and out of enclosed spaces. Meeting rooms and informal spaces are located alongside the facades against which pedestrian routes pass closest. In the library, for example, the staff kitchen is a shopfront space overlooking the Maze Green and in view of the entry. If the bridge is like a river, the Jane Foss Russell Building is its delta. Instead of the unambiguous axis, John Wardle and Stefan Mee speak of the added liveliness of informal routes that branch and converge in the figure of a “Y”. This is most explicitly visible in the diagonal cuts across the four corners of the plaza.

On the other hand, the practice has sought to go beyond the provision of shared facilities so as to give the academic community fresh architectural representation. Like Aalto, JWA have developed a rich repertoire of forms that symbolically and practically serve social life across all types of building. The potential of these forms for elaboration and diverse configurations is again demonstrated in this new building. These include: frayed ends; fanned space; oblique and tangential lines; the scarf joint or monkey grip; folded planes in both the horizontal and vertical dimension, deftly worked sectional volumes; diagonal and intersecting paths of circulation; contrasts of raw materials against finer finishes; refined detailing of pre-cast concrete panels; rich accents of colour, etc.

The success of these forms in creating a rich landscape of social space is best seen in the part of the complex that is the Sciences and Technology Library. The original proposal was for a loftier space, but as the project became more constrained during design development, changes to the design of the plaza meant lowered ceiling heights to the library below. With a floor area of around 4500 square metres the subterranean library space could have felt oppressive and unbounded. Here JWA have deftly manipulated the level changes between City Road and Maze Green into more intimate strands – terraces of space that are reminiscent of rice paddies and lap against the eastern edge of Maze Green. The vertical dimension is further animated by the sectional opportunities of folding in two stepped amphitheatres either side of the plaza above. What is a large space is only gradually revealed as one moves through it, with intimate reading areas grouped along its edges and between book stacks and banquettes for small group study. The colours and patterns of foliage in the adjacent landscape are brought into the library and allowed to creep like ivy across tabletops, carpets, shelves and seating.

Irregularity and ambiguity reach a crescendo in the design of the facades, and it is here that audiences expecting the coherence of a pure object and a single narrative are most discomforted. The architects explain that each facade has been considered as a separate ‘fabric’ designed to suit its aspect and outlook. The Maze Green façade then is a blue glass curtain wall with a reflective folded geometry that fragments into a mosaic of cloud and sky. The plaza facade takes its cue from the canopy of heritage fig trees across City Road – a kind of foliage of green glass and multi-coloured spandrels. I’m sympathetic of the need for a story such as this that references site but also suspect that there are other motivations. Each of these facades is beautiful, eloquent and takes the glazed façade further than anything previously undertaken by the architects. Yet their discontinuity with each other, coupled with their continuity with the reflected landscape beyond, makes it impossible to form a single and coherent image of the building. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the project shifts in temperament. The essence of the building lies not in its coherence as an object, but in its seepage and blurred edges – it is frequently impossible to say whether one is inside or outside, above or below, in a public or private space. Indeed, the continuity in the design of the bridge and the building – initially conceived by the university as separate projects – and the way in which the foliage of the Maze is brought into the library, means that the project has no discernable boundaries.

Any project that seeks continuity and open-endedness such as this relies to some extent on its neighbours being open to such an approach. Likewise, its success in supporting social life depends on its inhabitation. At this point the project is yet to be fully realised – this is not the same as the formal evocation of incompletion. Sunshading to the plaza and a proposed glazed roof to the laneway like space to the south are pending the university’s long-term vision for the buildings to the either side. The shopfront spaces around the perimeter of the plaza are currently vacant. Without sun protection and the right mix of programs on its perimeter, the plaza will not fulfil its potential. Nevertheless, the right moves have been made architecturally for a lively set of spaces.

Together the Faculty of Law and the Jane Foss Russell building speak volumes about the contradictory enterprise of the contemporary university. The physical and visual porosity of JWA’s design talks to the University of Sydney’s interests in change and the future, the geometric completeness of FJMT’s project presents the institution as a bastion of historic knowledge and privilege. Both are, in a sense, accurate accounts, but only one spawns multiple plotlines and different endings.

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