Photography: Marwan El Hassan

Bruce Hall, the once grand monument to modern, co-educational tertiary education, is slowly being devoured at the top of University Avenue by demolition equipment after a last-minute legal attempt by the Bruce Hall Alumni Association was not enough to save the iconic residence hall.

The gardens and trees have been desecrated and heavy machinery has moved in, poised to dismantle more than 50 years of ANU undergraduate history, after the ANU succeeded in clearing all hurdles in the way of its demolition, despite previously concluding the buildings should be heritage listed.

The mad hope of the Bruce Hall Alumni Association (BHAA) was finally dashed at a Federal Court hearing on 4 April, when stop work orders were overturned, and the BHAA withdrew its case after a release of Environment Department documents showed that sufficient community consultation on the demolition application had taken place.

The hall, which opened in 1961 and was the first co-educational residential hall in Australia, has been the subject of a strong campaign led by former residents to save the buildings based on their social and historical importance.

The ANU initially denied plans to demolish the buildings but, after securing funding from Graham and Louise Tuckwell in 2016, announced that Bruce Hall would be demolished and replaced with two accommodation towers, which would provide funds to sustain the Tuckwell scholarship.

But critics say that the quickest way to increase the number of beds for students on campus would have been to construct new halls either side of Bruce Hall. The ANU said, while this was investigated, there were too many issues with this proposal.

The President of the BHAA, Bec Duncan, said that the group had ‘always been open to expanding Bruce Hall, even with major changes, but done in a way that was sympathetic to the heritage buildings, but [the ANU] would not listen.’

The ANU had previously concluded the Bruce Hall buildings were of significant heritage value, but the ACT Heritage Council’s decision in November not to add the buildings to the heritage opened up the possibility for their demolition.

A 2015 ANU heritage assessment recommended adding Bruce Hall to the Commonwealth Heritage List, that any future work be ‘informed by a heritage impact statement’ and: ‘The significant remnant features, should be maintained with any changes to the use or refurbishment of the building.’

The National Capital Authority, which controls development applications on the ANU campus, approved plans for the demolition of the residential wings in February and the demolition of the dining hall in late March.

The BHAA launched an emergency application in the Federal Court on Saturday, 1 April to prevent any irreversible demolition work before their challenge was heard the following week.

But this challenge’s legal basis evaporated after the Environment Department produced documentation supporting its claim that there had been sufficient community consultation on the works. The BHAA had been seeking this documentation, which was eventually released after the deadline, weeks previously.

‘ANU will now proceed with its plans in accordance with approvals granted by both the National Capital Authority and the Department of Environment and Energy,’ an ANU spokesman said in a statement.

Former ANU architect Derek Wrigley told The Canberra Times in September 2016 that he was shocked and saddened by the decision to demolish the hall, which he helped design, and that the plan to open up University Avenue to Clunies Ross Street was ‘pointless’.

‘If you look at the War Memorial, if you look at the Australian Memorial or you look at Parliament House you see terminal buildings at the end of each axis. If you imagine yourself looking down the University Avenue axis all you’ll see will be CSIRO buildings, which is appallingly bad, quite frankly,’ Wrigley told the Times.

When the plans to demolish Bruce Hall were confirmed, the vice-chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, said in a statement: ‘It is clear there is a great desire to preserve the unique culture and experience of living at Bruce Hall. The iconic furniture and art will be retained, and the dining room and social spaces will remain as focal points to bring people together in a community culture.’

But one former prominent resident of Bruce Hall said that the ANU had broken a number of promises made to the ANU community by moving the Hall from its original buildings to SA5.

They said that the ANU has increased the size of the Bruce Hall community – filling more space in SA5 – to the detriment of the community spirit of Bruce Hall.

But the president of the Bruce Hall Common Room Committee, Matthew Bowes, said that the current Bruce Hall community is ‘just looking to move forward, onto the next stage of transition.’

This comes despite reports of Bruce Hall returners being drawn to the half-demolished buildings, still home to pieces of Fred Ward furniture, with a strong sense of nostalgia, risking asbestos exposure to spend a few stolen hours late into the night at the former residence hall.

The ANU expects the new two-tower, 800-bed residence facility to be operational in 2019.

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