Preserving our past while building the future
Heritage and development are often seen to be on opposite sides of the proverbial fence, but at ANU heritage plays a key role in the evolution of the campus.
What we have today is a multilayered cultural landscape, with examples from many different eras of our history.
Spread over almost 150 hectares, with 280 buildings and more than 10,000 trees, the ANU Acton campus is a city within a city and, much like any city, continues to grow and change to meet the demands of its population.
The campus is in flux as several major and history-defining developments are underway, but the question looms – can the campus retain its heritage value and character in the context of all this change?
“ANU has not seen development on this large a scale since the early 1960s when buildings were rapidly constructed to accommodate newly integrated undergraduates,” ANU Heritage Officer Amy Jarvis says.
Back to where it all began
Since its establishment in 1946, the campus has grown to be one of the unique mid-century estates in Australia, developing in parallel with Canberra.
The campus is rich in Aboriginal, historic and natural heritage, with remnants of prehistoric topography and geology, rare flora and fauna, important cultural sites, fragments of pastoral history and early structures from the development of Canberra. All of this is interwoven between iconic mid-century buildings, planned landscapes and modern, state-of-the-art facilities.
“It’s a pretty stark contrast from the early days of ANU which saw just a few ‘pre-fabs’ in the middle of an old pastoral property,” Jarvis says.
What did our former staff, students and scholars think of this so-called National University?
According to the pivotal history, The Making of the Australian National University 1946–1996 by SG Forster and Margaret Varghese, “some were bemused … it took a fair stretch of the imagination to accept the vision of a university in a paddock”.
Despite being built upon thousands of years of varied land use, the campus took many years to find its feet. Many of the leading academics who signed on opted to work abroad until a suitable campus was ready for them.
The first, ambitious and controversial plans from architect and planner Professor Brian Lewis took years to agree on and today remain largely unfulfilled. Lewis had travelled the world for examples of the best universities and said in 1948 he hoped ANU would be “one of the most modern in the world”.
Construction of the campus was plagued by an austere postwar economic climate.
Lewis designed several buildings for the fledgling campus, but none as iconic or timeless as University House, the crown jewels of his vision for ANU, completed in 1954.
The Age reported in 1953 that “in a time of great shortage of every form of building materials, little short of a miracle has been achieved in completing a building for the research school of physical sciences and in the speed in erecting University House”.
These were some of the first ‘permanent’ structures on the seemingly bare campus, closely followed by The John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR). The Research Schools of Pacific Studies and Social Sciences occupied buildings left over from Canberra’s early establishment until the labyrinthine hexagonal Coombs Building was completed in 1964.
In the ‘boom period’ of the 1960s, the campus finally began densifying and developing much of what we now recognise as its enduring form, and it has continued to evolve and change as the University has grown.
As Jarvis explains, “what we have today is a multilayered cultural landscape, with examples from many different eras of our history”.
As laid out in the University’s Strategic Plan 2017-2021, ANU has a vision, much like that of its original founders, to “sit among the great universities of the world, and be defined by a culture of excellence in everything that we do”. The plan also articulates the desire to offer an “unrivalled campus environment” that is “both contemporary and timeless” with world-class facilities for research, teaching, learning, accommodation and social life.
“The way we research, teach, learn and operate as an institution has changed dramatically over the last 70 years” says Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic). “We must be able to keep up and continue to be able to offer the highest quality environments for research and learning”.
Many of the existing buildings on campus were ‘purpose-built’ for the types of functions required at the time, but advances in technology, compliance, building codes, accessibility and environmental sustainability have changed the way in which buildings are constructed and retrofitted.
Take for example the Fenner School (2011) – the first 6 star green-rated building on campus – or the iconic new JCSMR with its precast ‘DNA’ patterned panels. Both are overtly modern buildings which demonstrate a new paradigm in architecture and construction.
So how do we balance the old with the new? How do we stay at the forefront of education while respecting our heritage?
“There are places at ANU which are sacrosanct – to be preserved in their original form – while some places can tolerate change and other places can no longer serve their purpose,” Jarvis says. “Of course we will retain and integrate examples from all eras, but it’s important we are able to make room for those places which may become the heritage of the future.”
It’s often a bit tricky to get your head around what ‘heritage’ really is and what it actually means in the context of campus development, especially when many people associate the term with age, i.e. that something has to be ‘old enough’ to be ‘heritage’. Heritage is so much more than ‘old stuff’ – it encompasses all those things from the past which are valued enough in the present to save for the future.
In 2012 a survey undertaken at ANU illustrated that almost 95 per cent of people questioned had no or very little knowledge of the heritage values of the University. There are many ideas about what heritage is and what the word means, but many of these ideas are misinformed.
Heritage can be tangible or intangible. Contrary to popular belief, heritage is not just about old buildings – it also includes people, events, landscapes, flora and fauna, trees, vistas, oral traditions, language, cultural practice and anything else that is passed on or inherited through generations.
Heritage in practice
Evolution of the campus can occur without losing touch with the past.
Many of the existing heritage sites at ANU are integrally important to our history and identity – think of Sullivans Creek, University Avenue, the Menzies Library and the historic buildings at Mount Stromlo Observatory – all of which have or will be undergoing conservation works to secure their future.
Other places are more flexible to adaptation. The award-winning adaptive reuse of the Florey Building (formerly JCSMR) demonstrated how complex modern functions, such as a medical school, can be creatively accommodated in a mid-century building.
At its reopening in 2015, Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said, “Innovative approaches were taken to preserve the building’s heritage values … the flexibility of the building ensures it can be many things to many people – state-of-the-art medical labs, modern office accommodation, student teaching and learning spaces, break-out spaces and private spaces”.
Adaptation provides a tangible link with the past and has inherent environmental benefits, while allowing for change and innovation to meet present day and future requirements.
While adaptation or reuse is always the first avenue explored, this is not always possible and in such cases the concepts of commemoration and interpretation of heritage values are employed.
Using new and old technologies, recording a place for posterity, collecting a place’s stories and salvaging and reimagining elements of a place are some of the ways ANU maintains connections to places that have made way for the new.
To demonstrate this, Jarvis points to the redevelopment of Union Court: “The buildings which are being removed are of little architectural significance, but the place has a strong social history as the backdrop to University life for generations of students, as a venue for music, celebration and activism.”
These experiences have been collected and recorded and have informed the design of the precinct. Historic images and interpretive artworks will form part of the new aesthetic, paying homage to the past history of the area. The design of the new Union Court precinct was also inspired by the historic planning of the campus and the city, and maintains key axes and relationships between buildings and landscapes.
The project offers a unique opportunity to link the past with the present.
“Change is inevitable, change often comes with loss, and loss can be distressing but the evolution of the campus can occur without losing touch with the past,” Jarvis says.
“Preserving our heritage does not mean that ANU must be frozen in time, heritage is dynamic and changing, and provides an opportunity for innovation rather than an opposition to progress.”
The natural environment and the 25,000 plus years of use of the area by the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngunawal and Ngairgu people also inform the Union Court redevelopment, with a bushfood garden, artworks and story places being integrated into the precinct.
As Ngambri Elder Matilda House says, “We can’t address the future if we can’t look after the past”.ANU is working to ensure the bright future of our University is informed by the heritage of our places and their stories.