Suburban Brutalist: the last days of UTS Kuringai

The bright green carpet, the colour of grass in cartoons, absorbs my footsteps. The hallway echoes with sounds from elsewhere in the building, a click of a door shutting, a scrap of a conversation. The scene around me is as perfectly still, as if I am walking through a photograph from the 1970s. I’m moving through a cavernous space with towering beams and cylinders of concrete, inside the new William Balmain Teachers College, which opened in the Lindfield bushland in 1971.

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In truth it’s 2015 and it’s the end, rather than the beginning. UTS, which inherited the college, has operated here since 1990, and has swapped this brutalist bushland enclave for a former TAFE building in Ultimo, and this campus is soon to close.

When the teachers’ college opened in 1971, a Sydney Morning Herald article described how: “If it were in Japan or Italy architects would make a special point of visiting it. As it is just in the backblocks of Lindfield on Sydney’s North Shore, not many people will see it”. Backing onto the Lane Cove River bushland, at the end of the residential streets that trail down from the Pacific Highway, it is perhaps not a place one might expect to discover a brutalist fortress. Designed by architect David Turner, it won the Sulman Medal in 1978, though it is only with the recent upsurge of interest in Brutalism, and the sale of the surrounding land for development, that it has come back into general awareness as an significant building.

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Constructed to complement its bushland setting, the campus is a five storey split level structure, a complex network of courtyards, bridges, spiral stairs and walkways. It’s part Italian hill-top village, part castle, constructed in raw concrete. Navigating it is negotiation a labyrinth of levels and stairwells, a game-like exploration through corridors, rooms and halls.

 

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I get used to its spacious stillness and following its hallways at random becomes an adventure. I count the 1970s fixtures, circles of aqua vinyl lounge chairs, bright orange spherical light fittings, pink railings. In the same 1971 article that described the college’s suburban location the green carpet is noted as a surprising feature: “it must have taken a brave man to select such a colour for a public building”, Eva Buhrich writes, going on to detail the “sweeping balaustrades” that “just for the heck of it, are finished with lolly pink handrails”.

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I pass a table of free books set out for people to take and stop to flip through education textbooks from the 1970s, with black and white photographs of children playing and sitting to attention in classrooms. The surrounding office doors are decorated with postcards and notes, but all are shut and there is no one in sight. I pass a pottery workshop with a row of glazed miniature heads, a window display of pottery deep sea fish, a display cabinet of counting apparatuses and a giant size slide ruler.

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In 1955, the English architectural critic Reyner Banham, in his writing on the “New Brutalism” described how: “what moves a New Brutalist is the thing itself, in its totality, and with all its overtones of human association”. There is indeed something very total about the Kuringai building. Unlike its northern suburbs Brutalist contemporary – Macquarie University in North Ryde – this building folds many within it, into one complex, united structure. The slabs and cylinders of raw concrete have a monolithic presence, and seem almost of the same stuff as the sandstone of the ridge on which the university was built. This merging was accentuated by the landscaping by Bruce Mackenzie, which preserved as much of the surrounding bushland as possible, and incorporated roof gardens and courtyards planted with paperbark trees.

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There isn’t much time to visit the campus as it is – the university semester is almost over, and farewell gatherings for past students have been planned for November, after which it will close. After the university leaves the building will be converted into Lindfield Learning Village public school, to open in 2017. In it’s proposal, although “many aspects of the building will be retained”, some “internal elements” will be assessed for their “appropriateness for a school”. I guess that means the bright green carpet’s days are numbered.

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There are plenty of archival photos of UTS Kuringai here, featuring 70s hair, knee socks, boxy computers and clunky AV equipment, and the campus in its heyday.

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