Modernist college building facing imminent demolition

The announcement by the University of New England that it will proceed with the demolition of a modernist residential college at its Armidale campus has been roundly criticized by a number of architectural and heritage organizations, including the NSW chapters of the Australian Institute of Architects and the National Trust of Australia.

Robb College was designed in 1960 by architect Michael Dysart, who was then just 24 years old and a trainee at the NSW Government Architect’s Branch under E. H. Farmer. Dysart would go on to design a number of educational facilities across the state; many of them developments of the quadrangular form first demonstrated in Robb College.

The university said on 30 January that a demolition contractor had been appointed and that work would begin in the near future on pulling most of the college down. The dining hall, however, will be retained.

Aerial view of Robb College.

Aerial view of Robb College.

Image: UNE

The building has been empty since 2014, when students were relocated to other university colleges. The university placed plans to refurbish or redevelop the complex on hold while the Heritage Council of NSW decided whether or not to heritage list the buildings. In December 2017 the Council signalled that it would not add the college to the NSW State Heritage Register.

The building is listed on the Australian Institute of Architects’ Register of Significant Architecture in NSW and the National Trust Register.

The college complex, which consists of four quadrangular buildings arranged around a central open space, is described in the National Trust Register’s statement of significance as “one of the first modernist college buildings to be erected on a university campus outside of Sydney.”

“It is especially remarkable that it was the work of a 24 year old trainee in the NSW Government Architect’s Branch,” the statement notes. “This makes it a very apt building for a place dedicated to the nurturing of young minds. Robb College belongs to a sub-set, yet to be fully explored, of high quality substantial buildings designed in Australia by young architects.”

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Writing in the Architecture Bulletin in 2012, Cameron Logan described Dysart’s work at the Government Architect’s Branch as “perhaps the most significant shift in thinking in the period” in post-war education design in NSW.

National Trust CEO Debbie Mills condemned the announcement of the building’s impending demolition, and criticized the move in light of previous admissions by university staff that the refurbishment of the building was being considered. She said it was “an extraordinarily poor signal” from the university to disregard the principles of conservation and reuse. The National Trust highlighted the cost of restoring the building, $7 million, as one-third of the $21 million cost of a rebuild.

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The Institute, National Trust and Modern architecture preservation body Docomomo have all made urgent submissions to the Heritage Council. Docomomo’s submission said the college was particularly valuable for demonstrating Dysart’s “use of the traditional quadrangle form widely employed for university colleges,” which demonstrated “a renewed interest in the use of the Oxbridge model, rather than the American type campus planning of isolated buildings set in parklands.”

The university’s Chief Operating Officer, Peter Creamer, said that basalt from the building would be kept and used in the construction of the new college.

“We know how important Robb is to a lot of people,” he said. “By keeping the stones we are recognizing Robb’s origins. It is also in keeping with UNE’s commitment to sustainable redevelopment.”

An architect has not been appointed to design Robb College’s replacement, with the university saying an appointment is likely by late February.

The replacement will add a new 300-bed accommodation block in addition to a new Robb College.

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