A campus of constant change

October 17 / 198

Banner image shows desk graffiti on the Dookie campus
Banner image shows desk graffiti on the Dookie campus

With work on the Metro Tunnel and several major University construction and redevelopment projects now well underway, and with more to come, the next few years will see some major changes to the Parkville Campus. But as James Waghorne from the History of the University project notes, change has been a constant in our University’s physical development.

A visitor to the University of Melbourne at the end of the Second World War would have encountered a campus that had experienced two decades of considerable expansion. It had new buildings for Agriculture, Botany, Arts and Education, Union House, Chemistry, Commerce, Geology, Anatomy and Metallurgy. These buildings were dotted along an east-west axis between Monash Road and Tin Alley, which, drawing in Wilson Hall and the still three-sided Quadrangle, formed the spine of the campus.

To the north were the residential colleges arranged around recreational grounds. The five buildings of the Medical School defined the University’s eastern border along Swanston Street, and together with the Engineering buildings and laboratories to the south, bounded the separate Teachers’ College in the south-east corner. The west of the campus featured a row of five professors’ houses along today’s Professors’ Walk, leading south to the house recently constructed for the new salaried Vice-Chancellor. Between the buildings were open lawns and ornamental gardens.

The University campus was suburban, deliberately separated from the commerce and political interest of the city. It was for the most part self-contained and its buildings looked inward rather than facing the wider world.

Yet as the University’s interwar growth signalled, changes were already taking place to draw the University out of its isolation. 

The development of scientific laboratories and investment in engineering infrastructure gave the University a practical purpose in assisting colonial development from the late nineteenth century.

These steps accelerated after the First World War, and the campus housed more and increasingly complex laboratory apparatus, and facilities for Commonwealth research bodies, including a Commonwealth X-Ray and Radium Laboratory constructed in 1938. The Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (today CSIRO) was embedded in the Botany, Mining, Metallurgy and Physics departments, among others, and CSIR established its own tribophysics building (today’s Melbourne School of Government) in 1953.

Medicine divided over its wider engagement. On the campus, its buildings huddled around one another as if to protect their knowledge, but the later years of the Medical degrees were conducted at the teaching hospitals around Melbourne. So too, the University’s medical research department, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which rose to prominence in the interwar period, was based at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Lonsdale Street. The Dental College was established in Spring Street, while Veterinary Science had separate facilities in Parkville.

Many of the pre-1945 buildings remain, but the campus has transformed in the intervening years. The professors’ houses have given way to the construction of new and larger buildings. The University’s centre of gravity has shifted further to the south, and the old east-west axis is now the University’s northern end.

An obvious need for these changes is the dramatic expansion of student numbers, particularly in the past thirty years. In 1945, the University had 3800 students; today it has over 40 000. Ever larger buildings have been necessary, and the newer buildings dwarf the older ones. Union House, constructed just before the Second World War, was found to be hopelessly inadequate by 1950, and it was extended in 1957 and then dramatically reconfigured again in 1969, removing almost all trace of the 1962 Museum building.

The buildings have not only grown larger. Post-war the University connected its role directly with national development, and its buildings reflected this move. The new development embraced modernity rather than harking back to ancient traditions, as its earliest buildings had done. When the original Wilson Hall (1882) was destroyed by fire in 1952 it was not rebuilt in the perpendicular style. Instead it was replaced with a light and open Scandinavian-inspired design. The Baillieu Library, constructed in 1958 to relieve the pressure on the library in the Quadrangle, similarly embraced glass and steel. The recent priority on environmental sustainability (hyperlink: http://sustainablecampus.unimelb.edu.au) in the design of University facilities continues this legacy.

The scale of university work, and particularly the increasing complexity of university research, made a refashioning of the campus necessary. The Dental College relocated to Swanston Street after the war. The Royal Melbourne Hospital was opened on the site of the old [cow and pig] market site in 1945, and the Medical School left its old buildings to relocate to claim the south-west corner of the campus in the early 1960s, with the construction of new buildings for biochemistry, microbiology, and a new research institute, the Howard Florey connected to a major new faculty building. The original medical school constructed in 1863, but now hopelessly undersized, was demolished and replaced by new buildings for physics and earth sciences.

Other facilities also relocated in this century. The Faculty of Business and Economics, and the Melbourne Graduate Schools of Education and Law have moved south of the old boundary of Grattan Street, again moving into larger, modern buildings. The Medical Faculty has continued its inexorable expansion over Royal Parade and along Flemington Road.

In the process, the University campus has grown more intricate. It has transformed itself from a suburban body into a University precinct physically integrated into the city of Melbourne and the wider economy.

These shifts continue today with a wide range of projects underway. The Melbourne Metro rail link, which will improve access to the University campus, and the establishment of a Student Precinct on the site of the former Teachers’ College, re-establishing student services in the heart of the campus, are just two of the significant changes.


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