In the 1970s my grandfather worked as a lab technician in the Physics department at Macquarie University. After he retired he kept up his sideline of watch repair and would come into the university to pick up the week’s watches from the newsagency. As a child I’d often accompany him on these trips. On the way to the union building we’d visit Frank in the Biological Sciences building. Contrary to what you may be imagining, Frank was not one of my grandfather’s past workmates. He was a large Kodiak bear who had lived at Taronga Zoo until his death in 1978, when he was donated to the university.
In his glass case Frank seemed colossal and I’d stare up at him in awe. A real bear was an extraordinary thing to behold and in my imagination Macquarie became a magical place. Inside the concrete buildings were unexpected things, ready for discovery.
Sydney has five universities, each with a particular character and mythology. Macquarie was designed and built in the 1960s. Back then its brutalist buildings rose starkly from the freshly cleared ground. Now the trees have grown up around them and the concrete has weathered, and there’s a harmony of greys, greens and browns. With the increasing respect for Brutalist architecture it has become easier to see the geometric beauty of these buildings, their shadows and shapes.
Macquarie was designed by architect Walter Abraham, who planned the university on a grid pattern around a central courtyard. To anyone arriving at the university for the first time and finding themselves among a maze of buildings with names like “E8A” and “C10A”, the pattern is perhaps not so obvious. Like all university campuses, Macquarie has its main thoroughfares, shortcuts and secret passageways. One of the thoroughfare’s is Wally’s Walk, a straight stretch of pathway lined with plane trees that was named after Abraham. Underneath Wally’s Walk is a tunnel, part of the network of tunnels that form a secret network underneath the campus.
The tunnels are inaccessible; other hidden treasures can be seen only occasionally. The Physics department in E6A is the home of the world’s largest laser transmission hologram, the beautiful “To Absent Friends” by Paula Dawson. The hologram is of a bar on New Year’s Eve, at the beginning, middle and end of the night. The room slips into greater disarray across the three panels. Peering into it, the illusion is such that the room seems perfectly real, like you could slip through the window and inhabit the red, sparkly world beyond. But once the lasers are turned off, the bar disappears and all there is to see is a conference room.
Of all the buildings at Macquarie University, it’s the Biological Sciences building, E8A, which has the highest density of curiousities. They begin with Frank in the foyer and continue in the Biological Sciences Museum, with its red walls and owls in perspex display bubbles.
At the back of the museum, lungfish dwell in a tank. They’re ancient creatures, having existed in pretty much the same form for 300 million years. Apart from the lungfish the museum is often deserted, the only clue to previous visitors the entries in the guestbook, which comment on the strange smell – a smell like laboratories and upholstery – and the more grisly of the exhibits.
In the nearby hallway there’s a dendrochronology display by the elevator, allowing you to ponder the history of the world as preserved in tree rings as you wait to ascend to class on the higher levels. At the back of the building is another trip through time, with the ancient trees of the Plant Evolution walk. As well as the concrete buildings, the other major contributor to the university’s atmosphere are the trees. The trees planted at the university’s beginnings have now grown tall. In the central courtyard 120 lemon scented gum trees were planted in a formation inspired by the phalanx, a unit of the Roman army lined up for battle. Sometimes after the rain, with the lemon scent of the trees in the air and the sound of the birds, it’s like being in a park rather than a university.
At the centre of the campus is the courtyard, surrounded by the Brutalist concrete buildings that were the first to be built in the 1960s. This included the library, a building of iconic sternness that was replicated on every computer catalogue card.
In 2011 the library moved to a new building and was the subject of much gossip for its automatic retrieval system, referred to by most as the “robot library”. This made me imagine a metal man like Robby the robot appearing with my books but meant that the majority of the library’s collection would be held behind the scenes in a 4 storey high storage system of metal boxes.
Another feature of the central zone of the university are the murals, which decorate the walkways around the courtyard. Outside the bank, a hand scatters cash – the old pre-1990s paper notes. In another mural by David Humphries, a psychedelic combination of colours and characters marches across the wall underneath the old library.
The campus is divided so that the sciences are on the east side and the arts to the west. As the Biological Sciences have their museum of skeletons and specimens, Arts has an Ancient Cultures museum with a similarly clandestine atmosphere. There is only an air conditioning hiss as I stare at the ancient caskets and statues, the pottery vessels and fragments of papyrus manuscripts.
In the nearby W6A is another museum, of Australian History, with a cabinet of milk bar ephemera and another with objects from one person’s year of living in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. A wooden drawer with a jumble of things, a tube of toothpaste, can of spraypaint, a Chick Corea cassette.
Out the back door of the museum is a courtyard and here Joy stands watching over the students who sit at the outdoor tables or shortcut through to other buildings. Like Frank, Joy has become another permanent, though inanimate, member of the university community. Joy’s first home was on Stanley Street in East Sydney and she was said to be the only statue of a sex worker on public display in the world. In 1996 Joy was damaged by a woman who attacked the statue with a hammer, seeing a resemblance between Joy and her recently deceased daughter. Other attacks followed, until in 1997 Joy was relocated to the “more peaceful, if duller life” in the W6A courtyard.
There are around 130 sculptures on the campus, as well as some unintended sculptural features, such as the “W3A steps to nowhere” and the “C10A Ramp to Nowhere”, created by various access modifications.
At the back of the gym is a wall with strange notches and protrusions which must have been designed for rock climbing practice but I like to think of it as a tribute to the old library catalogue cards.
When the university opened in the late 1960s, the students were described, by Phil Gibbs, as “a polyglot of hippies, yippies, pop fiends, acid rockers, student revolutionaries and social deviants”. There’s still traces of the university’s hippy past here and there, the Martin Sharp painting of Tiny Tim in the stairwell of C11A, the annual “Conception Day” festival, once a day of pranks (collecting garden gnomes from lawns across the North Shore, a street party stopping traffic on Epping Road) and now an unusually named music festival. The past issues of student magazine Arena, now bound into books and stored in the library, capture the spirit of the university’s early days.
Now God is more likely to accost you in the form of suspiciously friendly students wanting to invite you to prayer meetings, but Macquarie still has plenty of eccentricities. Alumni, wear your rings with pride.
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There is plenty of archived Macquarie University ephemera at the Jubilee website.
The Macquarie University Treasure Map was a part of the Creative Revisions exhibition at the Macquarie University Art Gallery.
A fence went up around the block on the corner, hemming in a string of houses. A pale green fibro, a house with the front room curving out into a rotunda, a house with tall conifers planted along the length of the driveway. They were unremarkable houses, their greatest distinction being their proximity to the busy intersection of Epping and Lane Cove Roads. The kind of houses that gave you cause to wonder what it would be like to live on such a busy road, beside the endless traffic.
It’s a familiar process. The fence goes up with the sign advertising the new development. The houses languish behind the fence for a while, quickly falling into disarray. Without people to care for them the gutters droop and windows break. Tags appear on the walls as the empty houses are explored. They stay like this for a while, the decaying structures taking on a solemn, ruined look. Then one day the bulldozers move in and the houses are gone. Though this has been expected the land looks bare without them.
This time the sign advertises “Live Next to the High Tech Village”, referring to the nearby business districts of Macquarie Park and North Ryde. There’s an artist’s impression of the proposed development, a collection of neat blocks of varying colours and textures. Behind the sign droops the remains of a brick cottage.
Most of the houses have been demolished now and the cold smell of plaster and smashed bricks floats out from behind the perimeter fence. The rubble has yet to be cleared and where each house once stood is a twisted pile of bits and pieces, bricks and tiles, wood, metal, the hairy wedges of insulation bats. The view from the overpass is a pattern of these house-sized piles. There’s no way to walk up onto the overpass, so this sight is only visible in glimpses while driving. From this aspect it looks less like demolition than a kind of weird magic, like the air has been sucked out of the houses until they collapsed inwards.
Closer to the road the fences and letterboxes remain as if nothing beyond them is out of the ordinary. The trees have been left also, arranged in seemingly odd patterns now the houses they once surrounded are gone. There are two big oak trees, their leaves turned golden for autumn. Leaves drift down to cover the churned-up ground below.
Further inside the site an excavator digs into a pile of debris and I watch it through a gap. The shadecloth that blocks the view has sagged in places and it’s here I look through at the piles of rubble that once were houses. Although the destruction makes me uneasy the demolition site is fascinating, how quickly familiar places can be reduced to nothing. The excavator claws up another bite.
Last year I went to Shanghai, a city which has been transformed by large scale demolition and reconstruction. I’d pass by huge blocks where hundreds of old houses were in the process of being torn down. One of the blocks where this was taking place had a fence around it made up of front doors, each a different colour and shape. Though the demolition was on a much greater scale to what occurs in Sydney it provoked the same feeling, a mixture of melancholy and curiosity, a tangible sense of time and change.
So much of what we know of cities are buildings. Even in Sydney, where the waterways divide up the land and the city’s natural setting is strongly apparent, we traverse the city by its structures. In the suburbs, the view out the car window of house after house becomes a memory game, a rehearsal of particular details. Most powerful are the signs that mean you’re almost home: mine are a fruit and vegetable shop with garishly painted signs, a weedy vacant lot, an apartment building with a big guava tree out the front. It is easy to regard these things as permanent and a shock when they are shown not to be.
The demolition site changes a little every day, but there’s one constant. At the western corner of the block a house remains. It is a solid red brick with white ironwork railings along the veranda. The lawn is meticulously kept, and along the front fence there are dahlias and rose bushes. The roses are flowering and large dark red blooms weight the ends of the branches. Here the concrete and plaster smell of demolition disappears underneath the scent of the roses.
Buildings are demolished, new ones are built. The process continues. The development takes shape and the construction site is busy with workers assembling the new apartment buildings. Once finished the blocks have a raw look, but with time the stark new surfaces take on a comfortable patina. They have an established look and there’s little reason to imagine what might have been there before. Until the cycle begins again. The run down apartment blocks are vacated and a fence surrounds the empty buildings. They quickly turn to disrepair. Then, one day, they too are gone.