Campus Horrors: Architectural Critiques of Campus Buildings


“Why yes, ANU does have pretty grounds. Lots of trees.”…goes every conversation about ANU. The early years of ANU wasn’t a good time for architecture: our campus is littered with brute and nasty architectural horrors. Perhaps it’s time to get Sirius with them… Kaaaaabooooom!

The School of Music

An Orwellian exercise in brutalism, this heavy concrete lump is a travesty of the human imagination. Blunt, harsh and foreboding – it speaks more of a cold-war nuclear installation, than a temple of music. Grimly grey, awkwardly girt by a sea of carparks and other thoughtless arrangements of space, it howls an arrogance and bloodymindedness. With no real sense of an entrance (with the needs of the person an afterthought) patrons must scurry round the edges, down corridors, up stairs, round corners and through door after door. The belly of the beast is large, and cathedral like – adding the only sense of openness to the building. Whilst the newish refurbishment has softened the interior with honey-coloured woods and scarlet fabrics: you can’t polish execrable architecture. The actual seating, particularly in the upper levels, much like the mind of the architect – is detached from the reality of humans needs. If you’re caught sitting upstairs, far from a royal box – you weirdly stare at your counterpart across the room, thus rendering the need for peripheral vision to see the stage. Admittedly, the upper level which sports a well stocked café has a nice expansive view of Black Mountain – but the story of the Englishman who ate his dinner in the Eifel Tower, because it was the only place where he could go in Paris where he could not see the Eiffel Tower, comes to mind.

The Chancellery

The Chancellery is an imposing composition, with the faintest echoes of collegial gothic. The perpendicular ribbing which intersperse the narrow windows down the flanks of the building, and which end in blunted finials, add to the sense that it is referencing a medieval chapel: though without the sense of awe, beauty or purpose of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge or Keble College in Oxford. The large glass east and west windows, far from being great illuminating stained-glass windows, shed light only onto stairwells. This alone betrays the limitations of translating beauty with the sparse vocabulary of a modernist high rise. Besides some blank wood paneling, the interior reveals no great surprises, adopting the white anonymity which is the default of the blank modern office. Ignoring the charmless, dark and heavy blocks which break off the main chancellery tower complex, the broad, cloister like walk is the most elegant and inviting aspect of the building. With the gentle sounds of the fountain bubbling, and shedding dancing light over the serene sculpture of a reading woman – it is about the only aspect of the building that evokes the ageless beauty and academical contemplation which it awkwardly fails to capture in any other sense.

Union Building

A cantankerous, ungainly creature, the union building is merely a placeholder until the will and the means exist to replace it. Giving off the sense that it was the result of a failing architects first project, it speaks of a suburban arcade that ultimately went into early liquidation because people would rather drive to the next town to buy their goods and chattels, than venture forth into its dimly lit hodge-podgery. It’s like how you’d imagine the Burrow – the abode of the Weasley family – except rendered in 70s drab brick and concrete. It has the aesthetic of a carpet warehouse in Fyshwick crossed with the amenity of an RSL club, whose specialty just happens to be providing cut-price student eats instead of weekly pensioner bingo. Ultimately, the only warmth this building inspires is conjured from a fresh Campus Bakery Pie. In the long run, we’re likely to remember the pie far longer in our nostalgic reflection on the halcyon days of university life.


What this building lacks in logic, it makes up in legend: known to many as ‘The Catacoombs’. Labyrinthine and confusing, only the foolhardy and the foolish venture into this lair of the minotaur. Enter if ye dare. Besides the fact that each mezzanine floor doesn’t really line up with any other, and it’s difficult to tell whether the elderly bearded chaps are professors or lost students from the ‘60s, it has a certain ‘stockholm syndrome’ charm. Whether this is genuine charm, or mere bafflement, is hard to tell. The hexagonal design is seemingly an architect’s joke reference to its namesake HC ‘Nugget Coombs’, or the result of a lost bet in the pub.

Other horrors on campus (sorry Fenner, you don’t count):  

Burgmann College: the USSR called and wants its military base back.

John XIII College: good strategic use of trees and foliage to block its hideosity.

Ursula Hall: creative adaptive use of multi-story carpark.

College under construction: it’s a pity the scaffolding will come down.

New Science Buildings: designed entirely on SIMS, and with the same childlike glee.

BNG: those giant concrete emergency stairs nicely accentuate the historic charm of the anonymous red brick.

Unilodge: the future ain’t pretty.

AD. Hope: forsake all hope.

Crawford School: good thing it’s so far away, choice use of stone.

Bruce Hall: are they selling popcorn to spectators on demolition day?

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