The NSW heritage minister has decided not to place an imperiled modernist student accommodation building at the University of New England on the state heritage register.
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.
Listed on the Australian Institute of Architects’ Register of Significant Architecture in NSW and the National Trust Register, the college complex is described in the register’s statement of significance as “one of the first modernist college buildings to be erected on a university campus outside of Sydney.”
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 signaled that it would not add the college to the NSW State Heritage Register.
However, as the matter had already been referred to the minister, a decision was required to be made.
“I note and do not disagree with the Heritage Council’s view that the College is of state heritage significance,” said heritage minister Gabrielle Upton in her decision, dated 29 July, before agreeing that the building met the criteria for historical, associative, aesthetic, social and rarity state heritage significance.
She said, however, that the evidence provided by the university persuaded her that “Robb College in its current form is incapable of reasonable use as a result of the state of repair, safety issues and the presence of hazardous materials. In my mind the level and degree of intervention to adaptively reuse the buildings and achieve the University’s objectives would create an unreasonable burden such as to render the building incapable of reasonable or economic use.”
“I consider that the long-term conservation of the accommodation buildings of Robb College is not necessary and that the significance of the college can be maintained in alternative ways.”
Upton also acknowledged “that the University has given its commitment to the Heritage Council to design and construct the accommodation buildings in a manner that is in keeping with Michael Dysart’s key heritage planning principles, these being the underlying geometric order, interlocking courtyard concept and use of indigenous materials in Robb College.”
The University of New England announced in February that it would partially demolish the building.
A group of leading NSW architects wrote to Upton in February, arguing that “Regional NSW is often left bereft of rare exemplars such as Robb College due to a number of factors, most particularly a lack of local advocacy as a result of smaller populations. So, as a result, demolition occurs making built heritage a rarity in the regional setting.”
They identified the building’s planned demolition as being part of a pattern of “Modernist buildings and landscapes of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s […] being destroyed on a hitherto unmatched scale.”
In a defense of its decision, the University of New England said that the building featured a number of design elements and 20th-century building materials that were non compliant with modern building and safety standards.
It also “fully acknowledged” the heritage value of the building and said that it would honour it in a number of different ways, including the retention of the college Dining Hall and the use of the original pinwheel arrangement of the residential buildings in the design of the replacement building. Certain building materials would also be recycled.