UTS Alumni Green, Aspect Studios
UTS Alumni Green, Aspect Studios. Image: Florian Groehn

The sticky wars: battling to keep students on campus

In the age of on-screen learning, who needs a physical campus? Two universities that are each currently mid-way through a billion dollar campus upgrade are trying to answer that question.

With education’s export revenue reaching $20 billion last year, it is not surprising that the federal government considers education to be ‘one of five key super-growth sectors that will support our transitioning economy into the next decade’. Education has soared past tourism, to become the third-largest export behind coal and iron ore. In response, universities are in development mode. Despite stayed budget cuts and fee deregulation, which have together left the sector in a state of purgatorial panic, plans to consolidate, expand and improve campus environments continue apace.

For some universities, investment in campus capacity merely reflects the need for more space. Student numbers continue to rise, and if further cuts or deregulation materialize, will rise even further. For other universities, however, supply and demand metrics have been parlayed into something larger: an opportunity to rethink what makes their campus special and different. While a cynic might view this plainly through the lens of marketing, it might also signal a more genuine attempt to adapt the historical character of a university, with its cloistered quadrants and elite mentality, to a new paradigm of contemporary education.

Whatever the motivation, recent years have seen a plethora of new attention-grabbing buildings, verdant parks and state-of-the-art cultural facilities on university campuses. In their rush to lure the best students, Vice-Chancellors have turned to architecture and landscape architecture. Meanwhile, the borders, both physical and organizational, have been opened up, as the space of privilege has given away to a mood of engagement.

In their rush to lure the best students, Vice-Chancellors have turned to architecture and landscape architecture.

This explosion of investment in the university campus offers an opportunity to explore two different universities, each representing two distinct approaches to the use of design as part of a university’s vision.

UTS is the new kid on the block, being an aggregation of numerous colleges transformed into one university less than a generation ago. It is the opposite of the traditional sandstone fortress of knowledge characterized by The University of Sydney, nearby. UTS is a loosely connected string of buildings that are embedded in the hustle and bustle of the inner city.

Monash University, though only a few decades older, is unmistakably born of a more conventional educational ethos. With its founding campus placed on the outskirts of Melbourne, its siting was a deliberate act of segregation, removing its students from the distractions of the city.

These are two very different starting points but each university has its own transformative mandate, to adapt and evolve their campus for the 21st century. Thankfully, given the investment levels at stake, both university masterplans are driven by strategic plans. While necessarily high level, it is interesting to note how these strategic plans significantly anticipate the university’s approach to their masterplans.

The UTS Strategic Plan 2009–2018 emphasizes four key goals, around resilience and sustainability, career focus, research quality and connectivity and engagement. In considering its four key goals, the strategic plan also lists 23 different indicators by which its goals will be delivered. Sadly, only one relates to campus environment. As a vision for the future of the university and its campus, it provides modest direction.

It is hard not to read this modesty as directly contributing to a masterplan that is less a plan, than a schedule of building work. Year after year, another signature building is revealed from behind hoarding. The university has completed the Frank Gehry-designed School of Business, as well as new homes for the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology by Denton Corker Marshall and the Faculty of Science and Health by Durbach Block Jaggers in association with BVN. It has also undertaken upgrades of Building One (the ‘tower’), while delivering Alumni Green by landscape architects Aspect Studios. Its latest undertaking is a silky reinvention of Building 2 by FJMT, working alongside architects Lacoste + Stevenson and Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke.

The completed projects have each rightly garnered praise and awards for their investment in architecture and landscape architecture. Some more than others represent genuine contributions to the fabric of the university and the city. However, the masterplan as a whole turns out to be no more than the sum of its parts, and those parts don’t much include the street. For any campus, that would be a wasted opportunity. For the crowded and stacked inner urban UTS campus, which so desperately needs investment at the ground level, it represents a huge executive failure of vision.

Circulation and legibility throughout the campus remains poor and the integration of the campus to its surrounding cityscape remains abrupt and without care. Getting from Denton Corker Marshall to Frank Gehry is as intuitive as a metro station without signs, and the only thing marking a transition from campus to city is the curb.

The exception to all this unloved ground plane is the Alumni Green, by Aspect Studios. It’s as if the university compressed all its ambition for the campus landscape into one controlled act of generous open space. While the campus as a whole twists and turns over streets and around buildings, like a stretched archipelago of education set within a sea of roads and commercial offices, the Alumni Green is like a green oasis. It is a sanctuary of order, that commands the attention of Building 1, the new Science and Health building and, in a couple of years, the new Building 2.

While the whole space is called a ‘Green’, the landscape is actually three distinct zones, only one of which is turfed. To the sheltered eastern end of the open space lies the ‘Garden’, providing outdoor study space and table tennis, among trees and garden beds. In the centre is the ‘Heart’: a paved ceremonial gathering spot, modeled on the civic character of Federation Square or just about any Italian town. To the west, the ‘Green’ is a raised lawn that sits above the fully automated underground library retrieval system. The lawn is framed by a concrete ribbon wall that doubles as long, outdoor bench seating.

It has taken decades for UTS to give its students a good quality outdoor space to gather and hang out, and the moment it was finished, it was of course heavily used. It is a perfect example of that not-so-new buzz-word ‘sticky’, which has grabbed the attention of every university strategic development manager in the country. A sticky place is a place that students choose to be, as opposed to a place they are required to be. For many designers, a sticky place means relaxed, comfortable and primary coloured: half crèche half Google HQ. The overriding consideration here, is to get students out of the places they otherwise gravitate to – like shopping malls, parks, libraries and, of course, their bedrooms – and into school.

For many designers, a sticky place means relaxed, comfortable and primary coloured: half crèche half Google HQ.

For landscape architects Aspect Studios, the challenge (and success) of Alumni Green, lies in getting the balance right between this version of sticky, reflected in the informality of the Garden, with its scattered study pods, benches and table tennis, and a competing ambition for the Green to establish a more traditional university atmosphere of formal order (for formal order, read manicured lawn). Perhaps it is precisely the success of the Green that, by contrast, it highlights how rambling and unloved the rest of UTS’ public domain is.

In comparing UTS to Monash University, it is important to first acknowledge the many significant differences, starting with scale. The Monash University main Clayton Campus would swallow 10 UTS campuses and still have room for dessert. Its student population however is not much greater than UTS, so while the latter has a problem with density and cramped conditions, Monash University’s problem is one of activation and population dispersal. While one is hemmed in by city, the other sits on the urban periphery, aspiring to the vitality of the dense inner city. Alongside these given differences, each university’s masterplan indicates a distinct attitude to how a campus design might shape the identity of its academic institution.

In contrast to the UTS strategic plan, the Monash University Strategic Plan 2015-2020 makes repeated reference to the role of the campus as a critical part of the university’s growth. This includes its role to ‘develop and reinforce student communities through increasing opportunities to live on campus…’ as well as to encourage student and staff interaction and innovation through … well-planned campuses, featuring formal and informal spaces that create vibrant, thriving social and cultural life’. Finally, it proposes to ‘open the life of our campuses to the surrounding community through high quality arts and sports precincts’.

Yet Monash University wasn’t always so concerned with its campus landscape. As founding Vice-Chancellor of the University, Louis Matheson famously declined to approve permanent pathways between buildings within Clayton’s 100 hectares of muddy paddocks. Being an engineer, Matheson reasoned that the students would determine the most efficient routes to take, and pathways would therefore grow according to need. Luckily, his influence was countered by the university’s Dean of Science Jock Marshall, who was as an early promoter of indigenous flora and a keen advocate of landscape design. His interventions helped introduce the first attempts at deliberate landscaping, minimizing introduced species in favour of indigenous planting.

Over the years, however, the Clayton Campus expanded, as student numbers grew and new faculties were formed. Development occurred piecemeal, with construction happening in fits and starts, and open spaces given modest on-going attention. After half a century both the campus, and in particular the Forum at its ceremonial heart, was a jigsaw of styles, periods and forms. Finally, around a decade ago, things started to change. Strategic planning that preceded the current document, resulted in a new masterplan that was commissioned of MGS Architects (as lead consultant). Its mandate was, put simply, to clean the place up.

In contrast to UTS, the Clayton Campus Masterplan 2011-2030 says very little about individual new buildings. No sinuous sparkling trophy buildings were prefigured in the plan. Instead, it establishes a hierarchy of spaces and walking networks. Principles were drawn up to improve access and wayfinding, the public realm, and to introduce future collaborative hubs and transport opportunities. A set of guidelines defines future public art, while design and development controls established a common palette of materials and protocols for use throughout the campus.

In essence, the masterplan was geared to a single primary outcome: to transform Clayton from a campus on the edge of the city, to a campus city. The consolidation of the campus and the building and design controls put in place were part of an ambitious plan to introduce thousands of new student residences over coming years, with corresponding increases to retail, hospitality and other amenities.

Into this new regime of controlled upgrades to the open space of the campus, a series of projects have been undertaken, ranging from the refurbishment of buildings such as the Louis Matheson Library by Cox, through to signature new buildings such the new Learning and Teaching Building by John Wardle Architects (both of which are under construction). It also includes the redesign of the Forum by landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean with Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design, as well as an Earth Sciences Garden by landscape architects Rush Wright Associates, envisaged as a living outdoor laboratory and educational tool.

Though each new building and feature landscape retains a distinct aesthetic, together they represent a significant investment in the campus public domain. Perhaps more important than the list of new projects, however, is the slow incremental improvements to quotidian aspects of a campus: its pedestrian walkways, the opening up of vistas, the replacing of bitumen with cobbles and the readdressing of every building on campus to make orientation and navigation more legible. These have been the real achievement of the masterplan and its implementation.

As two masterplans go, you could hardly find two approaches more distinct. Spending your money on the world’s most famous architect is canny communications. It will doubtless seed images of twisting, swirling Gehry brickwork in education publications and websites from Seoul to San Diego. But as we know, the only things that iconic buildings truly make sticky are design portals like Dezeen and ArchDaily.

Today’s students are good colonizers of space. They study anywhere there is Wi-Fi and coffee: from the local Westfield to the steps of the library. Making a campus sticky means competing against these public spaces, or a grassy knoll under a tree, or a food court.

To make a campus means getting the technology right, and providing a power source. It also means a loose clustering of furniture and services, instead of neat, serried ranks of benches. It might even mean shiny bright colours. But for universities, it mostly means getting the balance right, between the clarity, definition and control needed to manage a small city of 60,000 people, and the informality and loose-fit comfort of a café.

UTS have made a start with their Alumni Green. A very good start. But in the sticky wars, to lure the best students and win market share in a multi-billion dollar education business, you’d have to question the logic that invests so handsomely in key signature buildings, while playing so little attention to spaces between and around: pathways and benches, lobbies and bridges, bike tracks and bus stations. Of these prosaic civic details a sticky place is made.


Andrew Mackenzie’s consultancy CityLab, is occasionally contracted by Monash University to supply procurement services.