‘The Riley Complex’: A Review of Univeristy of Western Australia’s, University House
“Every advantage so magnificent a site offers shall be the property of the community at large.” Sir John Winthrop Hackett, first chancellor of UWA.
For some people, completion of the new university house situated on Riley Oval may be considered an overwhelming success. The building’s facilities function the way UWA’s Senate originally intended: “they will be quality facilities, both linked to the club facilities for conferences and seminars, but able to be closed off, to keep academic and club activities separate.” Academic and teaching staff, along with their distinguished guests now possess a luxurious and comfortable place to relax and take stock amidst their busy work load. Here I argue that in the case of ‘the Riley Complex’ Hackett’s visions of unification between landscape and architecture have, over time, become unappreciated. The values behind the design for ‘the Riley Complex’ of “individualism” and “separation” are to the detriment of broader community involvement in UWA. In the words of a colleague, the building is a big ‘fuck off’.
Sir John Winthrop Hackett, UWA’s first chancellor argued that construction of a campus advantageous to both research and teaching needed to address and incorporate landscape with architecture. The chosen forty two hectare site for the UWA campus was on the shores of Matilda Bay. A letter written by Hackett addressed to the UWA Senate in 1914 stated that “special attention should be given to the laying out of the land on convenient, wide and spacious lines.” Hackett urged that “no large step should be taken without careful consideration of the needs and opportunities of the position.” He cited the river as the sites greatest asset: “the river front which this beautiful area is favoured can be made one of the rarest attractions offered of any of the universities of Australia.” Over a decade later, Hackett’s visions for the campus were suitably maintained by designer Leslie Wilkinson. Most significantly, Wilkinson understood the value of sustaining a visual and spatial dialogue between the campus and the river.
A slight but integral shift in architectural ideology took place in the post-world-war-two era. The post-war period observed a consultancy, rather than a competition based approach to development. An emphasis on courtyard and quadrangle configurations began the dichotomisation of the close relationship between landscape and architecture. In contrast to earlier methodology (a holistic approach to campus design) microcosmic spaces were created. The result was the emergence of separate and distinguishable spaces. These spaces were not defined by change in planting scheme, but by the new buildings themselves. Consequently, as Christopher Vernon (senior lecturer over at Landscape Architecture) concludes, “this approach incrementally obstructed, if not severed, the visual connection between the university and Matilda Bay.” A definitive, but by no means diabolical change in planning meant that one of the central and overarching ideals of the fore founders of the university had been eroded. The ideological tenet that these architects did not abandon was the notion that the university belonged to the community at large. In 2002, the UWA Senate announced the approval of plans and construction of a new university house under the working title ‘the Riley Complex.’
Championing a return to tradition, design for ‘the Riley Complex’ was put to competition. The winning entry came from Perth architectural firm Donaldson and Warn. Their website slogan states: “by seeing buildings not as monuments, but as natural sensate extensions of the individual, they [the firm] aim to empower people and enliven their environments.” Donaldson and Warn’s primary concern is clearly aimed toward the empowerment of the individual, not the community. Little surprise then that they won considering that the Senate’s visions for the building was to “keep academic and club activities separate” from the rest of the university and community. Both of these resolutions are at a complete impasse with Hackett’s original visions for the university: “every advantage so magnificent a site offers shall be the property of the community at large.” After one century there are bound to be changes in values and attitudes toward a place such as a university campus. It is whimsical to claim that attitudes and values should not change in the face of pertinent contemporary forces.
Nevertheless, any justification for the severance of the first visions for the campus must include and assume confidence in their prophetical values regarding the future. Such counter-utterances tacitly imply flaws in the values and methodology of the past. Therefore the physical manifestation of such a building based on these “individual” and “separate” principles would come to symbolise thinking of the “the community at large” as extraneous and outdated. In effect ‘the Riley Complex’ says ‘fuck you’ to Hackett, ‘fuck off’ to students and ‘suffer in your jocks’ to the community.
UWA’s signature building Winthrop Hall does not represent concepts such as “individual” and “separate”. While maintaining an atmosphere of prestige and excellence, Winthrop Hall stands as an icon of unity and invitation within a city bent on sprawl. Pedestrian access from Stirling highway into Whitfield Court involves a descent to the ground level of the Undercroft. Such a descent suggests a certain level of subservience on the universities part to the greater populus. The Undercroft itself was originally designed as a meeting place for students to engage and argue their ideas. Students were encouraged to fill an important place in the heart of the university.
‘The Riley Complex’ does not represent these endeavours; it merely nods toward Winthrop Hall via cream tinted brick and orange tile roofing. Supporting the design, Vernon concludes that “Geoff Warn’s design for University House strikes a resonant balance between the arguable anonymity of the more formulaic, context-driven design and, at the other extreme, architecture as fashion statement, if not advertisement.” Firstly, the anonymity is not arguable. Through Hackett’s formerly expressed wishes it certainly seems clear and unambiguous to me the parameters and rationale for a formulaic and context-driven design. It is to ensure that views to the river is for the many, not the few. Secondly, the “advertisement” does little to advance the social standing of the university; Winthrop Hall continues to provide this purpose with success. But if Winthrop Hall is considered outdated to this purpose, what kind of ‘fashion statement’ or ‘advertisement’ does the building represent? Where is UWA headed? In a global milieu where universities are forced to become fiscally self-sufficient, UWA decision makers, it must be assumed, are appealing to students who are also financially self-sufficient. For the moment at least, placements are still reserved for the less wealthy. However this ‘fashion statement’ known as ‘the Riley Complex’ basically says that if you’re not wearing a three piece Armani suit; find another university.
The eastern and primary façade of looks more like an army barracks than a meaningful place of conferral. On the main door, wood slats interlock with glass, creating a pill-box like quality. You can imagine erecting an M-60 inside this bad-boy.
But you have to ask yourself: to what end is an internal program of a building so important that the relationship between the internal and external is altered so as to be to the detriment of the users? The architects were so preoccupied with keeping riff-raff out, and out of view that it is at the expense of the patron’s views to the river.
In conclusion, ‘the Riley Complex’ goes against everything that makes UWA a great campus. It is a large step taken without careful consideration of the needs and opportunities of the position at the expense of the community at large. If you agree with me so far, here are some suggestions: write a letter to the Senate detailing your annoyance. While ‘the Riley Complex’ isn’t going to be pulled down anytime soon, it may prevent any elitist buildings planned in the future. Alternatively, if you’re a student and you have 10 minutes to spare go into the café or ballroom and ask for a meal or coffee. You’ll be asked to leave, but hopefully this will have two effects. You might spoil the meals of the snobs that are eating there and you’ll be forcing the staff to fabricate an illegitimate position of power. If they have any moral fibre this will make them distressed, resulting in poor service. Henceforth the building will start running at a loss on top of its $21 million price tag.