Campus: Building Modern Australian Universities

The commitment to the environmental quality of university campuses is central to the modern contemporary tertiary experience and represents a growing multi-million dollar public investment in higher education infrastructure.

Photograph: Wolfgang Seivers, State Library of Victoria

The commitment to the environmental quality of university campuses is central to the modern contemporary tertiary experience and represents a growing multi-million dollar public investment in higher education infrastructure. In the post-world war 2 decades, campus development created unprecedented opportunities for experimental and influential planning, architectural and landscape design across Australia. Yet the origins of Australian campus design, its built legacies and challenges, have attracted little scholarly research.

A new Australian Research Council-funded research project led by Dr Andrew Saniga of the University of Melbourne addresses that oversight by seeking to acknowledge and learn from past and present innovative design strategies that will help frame vital choices and challenges for the future. There are many stories and lessons to be captured at a national scale.

The project has four main aims:

  1. To understand the physical design of modern Australian campuses as sites of experimentation at the intersection of the educational programs and institutional ideals of universities on the one hand, and broader national imperatives, environmental contexts and design trends on the other.
  2. To document and analyse the landscape, architectural and planning innovations that shaped university campus development in Australia from 1950 to the present day through comparative national and international themes, a categorisation of types, and in-depth case studies.
  3. To create a vivid picture of the physical attributes of campuses as ensembles of landscape and buildings by recording and comparing design ideas and spatial morphologies using innovative digital visualisation and web-based dissemination tools.
  4. To develop new national and comparative knowledge to help guide current and future campus planning, management and conservation informed by an historical perspective.

Across the postwar decades some clear patterns in Australian campus design begin to emerge. Architect/planners such as Wally Abraham (Macquarie University, NSW) and Roy Simpson (La Trobe University, Vic) tapped into international trends in architectural expression – especially a late modernist concern with bold form and rough-hewn materiality. A push for natural landscape plans carried undertones of cultural nationalism.  At Melbourne’s Monash University the landscape ensemble reflected an expanding use of native plant materials and ecological conservation a little at odds with the ambitions of Bates Smart and McCutcheon to create a picturesque modern campus setting looking to the Dandenong Ranges. Monash’s Robert Menzies School of Humanities Building, designed by Eggleston, Macdonald and Secomb (1961-65) was bold in form and became a striking eleven-storey landmark on the fringe of Melbourne’s suburbs that until then had been the domain of orchards and pasture-lands but were quickly becoming caked in 1960s suburbia. The ‘Ming Wing’, as the building was labelled, helped set a visually brutal backdrop for student protest which helped define Monash as a centre for radicalism in Australia. Exploring such interactions between international design trends and local motifs is at the heart of this research project.

This three-year interdisciplinary project will be the first comprehensive and national historical examination of the evolution of Australian campus design analysed through the disciplines of landscape, architecture and planning. Thematic investigations and detailed case studies will reveal and reflect upon the physical responses to governmental, institutional, cultural, environmental and strategic shifts and demands. The study is timely and significant, not only to produce new historical understandings, but also to show how campuses can be developed, adapted and managed to meet future needs in sustaining a vital tertiary sector.

A major co-authored publication on the modern campus in Australia is envisaged along with journal articles and conference papers along the way. A practitioner-focused workshop with key campus managers, designers, planners and heritage consultants is planned. A project website will be established as a mode of dissemination and communication of progress and outcomes, including published papers, digitised resources, and analyses of campus plans.

Project details

Major Sponsor

Australian Research Council (Discovery Project)

Research Partners

The University of New South Wales (UNSW)
The University of Sydney (US)
The University of Queensland (UQ)
University of South Australia (UniSA)

Chief Investigators

Associate Professor Andrew Saniga - Lead (University of Melbourne)
Professor Philip Goad (University of Melbourne)
Associate Professor Hannah Lewi (University of Melbourne)
Professor Robert Freestone (UNSW)
Dr Cameron Logan (US)
Dr Susan Holden (UQ)
Associate Professor Christine Garnaut (Uni SA)


Associate Professor Andrew Saniga