By Tina Perinotto
30 July 2009 – [Updated 9 August 2009] – One of Australia’s leading architects, Glenn Murcutt, has described as “unbelievable” that one of his earliest and most important buildings at the University of Newcastle campus has been “destroyed” by alterations carried out without his consent or consultation.
Professor Murcutt, winner of the international Pritzker prize and the Australian Institute of Architects gold Medal Award, also said the current administration at the university had “desecrated sculptures” and the ”most beautiful landscape” and called for the site to be listed.
The comments come as Philip Pollard, chief designer and leader of the university’s sustainability agenda, which gained world renown during his tenure between 1990 to 2005, claimed that the university had failed to maintain its leadership position in key areas of sustainability such as energy and respect for design integrity of buildings.
In addition, Mr Pollard said that much of the regenerated native understorey in the bushland landscape had been “cleared by machine.”
Mr Pollard recently submitted a Phd thesis that outlines sustainability achievements at the university, particularly during his tenure from 1990 to 2005.
The claims made by Mr Pollard and Professor Murcutt have been strenuously denied by the university which has defended its environmental record and commitment and said the views were a matter of opinion.
Professor Murcutt’s claims were part of a video produced by Mr Pollard In support of moves to have the site heritage listed.
Also on the video are fellow architects Lindsay Johnston, Brian Suters, Peter Stutchbury and Richard Leplastrier, each of whom had been closely connected with the university through either teaching or design of buildings. Each calls for respect for the university’s important architectural, landscape and sustainability achievements.
Professor Murcutt’s comments are the most outspoken.
He said in the video that work to the Staff House building which he designed when working with fellow architect Ken Woolley and which he considered one of his most important early works, had occurred without consent or consultation.
“I happened to call on the site and I saw all the trees cut down and I was amazed that they should cut all the trees down. And I learnt that some group was going to do some work on [the building] and I thought the least that could be done was to be asked what could be done and what should be done.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, just to be consulted. I was very happy to be consulted and I’ve got to say now the result is like Bunnings on a Saturday morning.
“Not a beautiful solution. It’s destroyed, I believe, a beautiful building.”
“I’ve seen documents of what’s going on there now…the desecration of sculpture. I just cannot believe that a body of intelligent people would allow this sort of thing to happen. It is to me an absolute desecration of a most beautiful landscape and it must now stop, it must now take a turn into respecting what is there.
Mr Pollard claims that large areas of the carefully constructed native landscaping have been cleared and that a storm water system built with swales and retention ponds to slow down storm water erosion and build top soil has been “largely dismantled by neglect or ignorance.”
He illustrated to The Fifth Estate what he said was evidence of these claims during a recent tour of the site.
A spokeswoman for the University of Newcastle said the university “welcomes the opportunity to discuss initiatives to reduce our impact on the environment and ongoing significant effort to improve sustainability.?
“The University is one of the lowest consumers of energy per square metre of all Australian universities, the spokeswoman said in an email.
“In the past decade, the University has:
• reduced energy consumption per square metre by 15 per cent
• reduced water consumption by 35 per cent
• maintained gas consumption at 1999 levels
“The University is also currently purchasing 10 per cent of its electrical energy as Green Power.
“Our policy with regard to campus vegetation is guided by the need to protect the safety and security of our staff and students. Our policy also includes provisions to reduce fire hazards, removing danger from falling trees and branches, and planned clearing needs to occur from time to time.
“I assume that your enquiry is based on Mr Pollard’s thesis Campus as Place, as per our phone conversation, and that you have quoted from this document. Please be aware that Mr Pollard’s thesis reflects his views.
“Other statements below [in the emailed list of key points including the allegations from Professor Murcutt – ed ] are from third parties that we aren’t able to comment on.”
Mr Pollard said the need to protect safety andsecurity of staff and students and to prevent fire hazard was a legitimate one.
However, he said: “The actions at the campus over the last four years in indiscriminately removing virtually all of the understorey were misguided and will do nothing to reduce these risks.”
He said the landscape system, designed by curator of grounds, Peter Stevens and bushland regeneration officer Mim Woodland, known as the landsoft system, clearly factored in both safety and fire hazard in the design.
In simple terms, the landscape involved partly creating a series of “lips” in largely denuded clay soil at the time, in order to capture water run off and trap siltation to build up top soil. It also involved redirecting all storm water to run above ground into a series of swales and retention ponds that slowed run off.
“The deeper top soils and their much greater retention of moisture in turn leads to the capacity of riparian local species becoming viable on the higher, drier areas of the site,” he said in his thesis.
“The local species that were deliberately selected for such propagation were those recognised as being fire resistant, and therefore unlikely to support a bushfire – even if started deliberately.”
In terms of safety, “landscaping close to pathways around the campus was kept relatively open, with sharp foliage such as spiky Grevillea shrubs and Lomandras used to discourage pedestrians wandering off the pathways, and with essentially very little mid-height foliage cover in areas which would be attractive to ‘predators’ to hide.
“However in order to channel pedestrians into target areas and to actually avoid providing potential offenders hiding spaces or areas likely to entrap victims, it is in some locations entirely appropriate to provide dense planting – generally the denser and more inhospitable (because of sharp leaves and flowers) the better – provided this does not unreasonably obstruct sight lines and unduly hinder natural surveillance.”
The thesis outlines other aspects such as traffic calming measures.
These used the “psychology of making conditions uncomfortable for drivers to travel at speed in an area,” such as “narrowing access roads in car parks, and providing low planting (while being very mindful of driver sight lines) which made driving quickly feel uncomfortable.”
However, Mr Pollard showed car park and driveways now cleared of low native grasses, and replaced with weeds, which needed to “be constantly whipper snipped or poisoned.”
He also pointed out the stumps of many native trees and shrubs that had been cut and new storm water pipework being installed in a “reversion to previously unsuccessful underground approach” to storm water.
Peter Dormand, the environment and climate change services manager said that during Mr Pollard’s time at the university there was a very close working relationship between the university and Newcastle City Council to the extent that he accompanied Mr Pollard on a visit to the Rocky Mountains Institute, a leading centre for sustainability, in 1999
“The audience was gobsmacked by Philip’s presentation of what the university was doing,” Mr Dormand said.
Today, he said, that “connection” beween the university and the council was no longer so evident.
In relation to sculptures at the university Mr Pollard showed a series of stone works by artist Richard Stutchbury had been altered with the attachment of memorial plaques,
Mr Stutchbury told TFE he did not know of the alternations and did not know how he felt about them because he had not seen them.
“It would have been nice to have been consulted. I haven’t seen it so I don’t’ know how I feel about it.”
Professor Murcutt called for the Newcastle University site to be heritage listed.
“I think it would be well worthwhile listing this whole thing,” he said in the video.
He said he did not understand how recent events could be allowed to happen.
“It ought not to happen.
“I have nothing further to say. Get on with it.”