There’s been some publicity lately for a proposal to transform the UTS Tower on Broadway. The idea is that the building could be clad with a lightweight mesh skin which would collect rain water, generate solar electricity and cool the tower, saving energy. Proposed by LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) the plan would also transform the appearance of this well-known but not well-loved tower.
Designed by the NSW Government Architect’s office (Michael Dysart was project architect), the building for what was then the NSW Institute of Technology was supposed to comprise three towers of varying heights plus a podium, as you can see in the photo of the 1969 presentation model.
However industrial trouble and budget over-runs meant that the complex took more than a decade to complete, despite losing the two shorter towers.
Since the 1980s the 27-floor tower has become a Sydney landmark and a regular ‘winner’ of the ‘Sydney’s ugliest building’ polls that are a favourite of certain sections of the media. The runner-up is usually Harry Seidler’s Blues Point Tower, another prominently located stand-alone. BPT’s notoriety also reflects ongoing debates about apartment living; if you want to know more about BPT and these controversies have a look at my book Homes in the Sky: Apartment living in Australia.
In contrast the UTS Tower is often reviled as an example of ‘Brutalism’, as are most large structures finished in bare concrete. It’s actually a compromised example of Brutalism, a movement which gained its name from Le Corbusier’s term ‘beton brut’ (raw concrete), as used in his signature Marseilles project, Unite d’Habitation. This public housing complex features enclosed pedestrian ‘streets’ as well as shops and other communal spaces, creating a less formal and more user-friendly version of Modernism. Designed with users’ needs as the paramount consideration, the exterior aesthetics of Brutalist structures was not the architectural focus, to put it politely. However the UTS Tower foyer is an example of the surprisingly inviting interior spaces which are a feature of Brutalism.
As Brutalism was most influential during the 1960s and 1970s it coincided with the post-War university boom and is over-represented in Australian campus architecture. Examples include the ANU’s Toad Hall, the Sydney University Law School at St James, UTS campus Kuringai College at Lindfield. and (in original design) the UTS Tower, which was planned as part of a self-contained campus, replacing the various Institute sites spread across Ultimo and Chinatown. The prototype for the ‘campus in one building’ was John Andrews’ Scarborough College, a self-contained campus for the University of Toronto.
The UTS is currently engaged in a major building program both for practical reasons and with the intention of ‘using architecture to establish its brand’. Work has begun on a new student residential tower, while Melbourne’s Denton Corker Marshall is designing a UTS ‘Gateway’ building for the corner of Broadway and Wattle Street. Celebrated US architect Frank Gehry is preparing a concept plan for a new Business faculty building on the former Dairy Farmers site between Ultimo Road and Mary Anne Street, directly opposite the Powerhouse curatorial office.
However the campus master plan includes no plans for the UTS Tower apart from ‘general refurbishment’. It may be that, for better or for worse, the Tower is finally valued as an essential part of the University’s identity.
It has been announced today that architect Chris Bosse has won an international design competition to tranform the UTS tower.
Charles Pickett, Curator Design & Built Environment.