William Shaw

Idle Footsteps
A new cultural spine for the university of Melbourne

This thesis looks at ways of spatialising reconciliation on the University of Melbourne campus. It looks at the campus’s historic central axis and the universities collections to consider this, reframing the axis from one symbolic of colonial and institutional authority to a new critically invested cultural spine for the university.


In the 19th century, the University of Melbourne was planned along a deliberately symbolic central axis, probably according to the designs of Charles La Trobe Bateman. As is noted in Lovell Chen’s South Lawn Conservation Management plan, the axis was intended to be solemn and processional, drawn from the language of baroque representational landscaping. It established the Old Quad building as the symbolic centre of campus.

The axis bisects Elizabeth Street and skews the University away from the city. The campus is enclosed as an authoritative spatial realm, a site of interiority, prestige, and elite knowledge.

This spatial imposition trampled over a known site for trapping short-finned eels amongst the Wurundjeri peoples. The imposition of the solemn axis represents a symbolic scattering of prior inhabitants to the periphery, announcing destructive new ownership and symbolic control.

The design response seeks to negotiate with this symbolism. From a scattering of existing knowledges to the periphery, a gradual return of those knowledges to the axis is aimed at, hoping eventually for a kind of reconciliation and a kind of return to the centre of other knowledges.

Here architecture and the universities collections come together to provide the potential for this to occur.

Specifically, a series of interventions along the axis offer a progression of atmospheric and reflective experiences that provide alternative understandings of the universities symbolic heart and establish new connections within the collection.

There are 3 main interventions along the central axis.

  1. a collections gallery at the traditional Grattan St entrance, an addition to the existing brutalist engineering building
  2. an archival gallery in south lawn which pursues the central axis underground through the existing south lawn carpark structure.
  3. and finally, a renewed union theatre acknowledging the site of the old national museum.

Critically, the axis is repurposed as the same tool that can reconcile the Parkville campus’ historic meanings with the university’s contemporary values. The traveler who walks along the cultural spine, following their curiosity into the collection spaces, rewrites its history through idle footsteps.