History in the making

The iconic emerald and fuchsia staircase at the Kuring-gai campus. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino

The iconic emerald and fuchsia staircase at the Kuring-gai campus. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino

In summary: 
  • For six years UTS has been building up to welcome the Kuring-gai campus to a consolidated City campus
  • On Saturday 7 November an alumni community event will be held and on Friday 13 November, all staff from the City and Kuring-gai will be welcome to attend a lunchtime barbecue

For 25 years, the Kuring-gai campus has been seen as UTS’s bushland oasis. As the university prepares to welcome all staff and students onto the City campus in 2016, we take a look at the history of Kuring-gai and how it has helped shape the UTS of today.

On 1 December 1994, UTS purchased the 55-acre Kuring-gai campus for $1. Yes, $1. While the Crown’s sale price was low, Kuring-gai’s value to UTS has been priceless.

The land, which originally belonged to the Guring-gai people, first made its way into the Commonwealth’s hands in 1915 when it was acquired for use as an army rifle range.

In 1961, though the land continued to be owned by the Crown, the State Government decided to build a “public institution”. By 1973, the William Balmain Teachers College completed its move to the campus and changed its name to the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education (KCAE). In 1990, KCAE merged with UTS.

“The Kuring-gai campus started, basically, as a teacher's college,” explains historian Annette Salt, co-editor of UTS’s history, Stories from the Tower.

“It certainly was a long way from what they started with in Balmain, where the Principal actually occupied a cupboard under the stairwell, like Harry Potter, and the science teacher had to prepare his lessons in the corridor.”

Kuring-gai campus under construction. Photographer: Sherran Evans Kuring-gai campus under construction. Photographer: Sherran Evans

The Kuring-gai building (which received the 1978 Sulman Medal, a RAIA Merit Award, Royal Australian Horticultural Society Award for Bush Landscape Design and an Enduring Architecture Award) could not have been more different. It is a neo-Brutalist concrete and steel structure, nestled amongst Lindfield’s bush, that spills down the hillside.

To soften the interior, architect David Turner included what would become the campus’s iconic fuchsia handrails and five kilometres of green carpet. So recognisable is the carpet, its Sydney suppliers labelled it ‘Kuring-gai green’. So important is it to staff that after the merger, the colour was added to the blue curtains UTS hung during City campus graduations. And in 1994, after the administration attempted to remove the carpet, staff launched a protest, and won.

Kuring-gai campus. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino Kuring-gai campus. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino

Says Salt, “It was a place that had a strong sense of unity; a strong belief in itself.” In fact, when the Federal Government brought in the 1989 Unified National System – a mandate for CAEs and universities to amalgamate – KCAE Principal (and later UTS Vice-Chancellor) Tony Blake tried to convince the government to let the college go it alone. His bids, however, failed.

“Kuring-gai looked at Sydney University, the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, but eventually chose UTS,” says Salt. “They thought it did not have tickets on itself, it was a new university, it was fresh, and it would be advantageous, to them, to unite.” The decision would irrevocably alter UTS.

“They brought with them a different sort of culture,” explains Salt. “UTS was very male-oriented; I think there was only one female toilet, if I recall correctly, in the whole Tower building.”

Kuring-gai campus 1994 bushfire damage. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino Kuring-gai campus 1994 bushfire damage. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino

“The old UTS was very bleak,” adds Blake. “There were no signs, no art. The Duke of Edinburgh once visited and commented that it looked like a public railway station!

“But it changed. I mean, I look at the place now. It’s extraordinary.”

Adjunct Professor Paul Ashton credits Blake with much of the merger’s success. “He's one of the few people I've met who could actually walk through a university campus and say hello to everyone by first name and would know something of what was happening with them.”

Since the amalgamation, Kuring-gai has been the site of many landmark events, and not just for the 40 000 education, nursing, business and law students who have graduated at the campus. In 1994, Kuring-gai bore witness to the worst bushfires in Sydney’s recent history.

“The intensity of the fire is very hard to imagine,” explains Ashton. “It actually burnt up within a meter of parts of the building, it melted the large light fittings on the exterior of the building, glass was cracked because of the intensity of the heat and there was a fern garden that was destroyed.

Kuring-gai bushland recovering from the 1994 fire. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino Kuring-gai bushland recovering from the 1994 fire. Photographer: Sarah Borsellino

“There were two staff members there – Paddy Parkhill and Trevor Simmonds – whose quick thinking and getting onto the fire brigade managed to save the building from what could have been devastation.”

“Given the speed the fire approached the campus, it was pretty amazing we got everyone out and the building shutdown so quickly,” adds Director of Facilities Management, Operations Glen Rabbitt.

Today, Rabbitt is overseeing Kuring-gai’s relocation to the City campus. “In some respects, closing Kuring-gai is like moving house, except it’s a big house with a big family!

“For six years we’ve been building up to welcoming the Kuring-gai campus to a consolidated City campus.”

In addition to new buildings like the Dr Chau Chak Wing building, those preparations have included building the Library’s new book retrieval system, developing additional learning spaces in the Blake Library, and in building 10, constructing new nursing labs and activity-based learning environments for higher degree research students.

City campus graduation circa 1990. photograph supplied by Glen Rabbitt City campus graduation circa 1990. photograph supplied by Glen Rabbitt

Similarly, in a move that will allow outdoor sport science and education classes to continue, and further strengthen the university’s links with the Sydney Cricket & Sports Ground Trust, UTS has made arrangements to book playing fields on a seasonal basis through the Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust.

Back at Eton Road, Rabbitt says, “There are a whole lot of activities that need to be de-commissioned, assets that need to be disposed of and assets we’ll transfer to the Department of Education and Communities, who plan to create an education precinct ranging from kindergarten to Year 12.

“Ideally we want to be able to hand the new owner the keys and turn off the lights by Christmas Eve.”

Before that happens, however, staff and the community will be invited to celebrate Kuring-gai’s 25 years with UTS. On Saturday 7 November an alumni community event will be held. On Friday 13 November, all staff from the City and Kuring-gai will be welcome to attend a lunchtime barbecue. Next year, a public exhibition, revisiting Kuring-gai’s contribution to UTS’s rich history and culture, will welcome all staff onto the City campus.

And while the building will no longer belong to UTS, the collegial, academically rigorous culture Kuring-gai imparted upon the City will remain.

And, says Ashton, “I think that's a very important legacy Kuring-gai has given UTS.”

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