Education by Design

An Architectural Marvel

Ariel view of Kuring-gaiKuring-gai’s antecedent institution, the Balmain Teachers’ College, spent most of its existence based in repurposed and temporary buildings. So when the Kuring-gai site was acquired in the early 1960s (for £44,000) there was a strong movement towards a purpose-built campus. The relocation and a $3,000,000 grant were announced in 1967, and the NSW Government Architects Office brought on board. Their intent was to provide new facilities in step with the social changes of the sixties – a campus ready for the following decade and beyond.

At the time, the Minister for Education Charles Cutler foresaw, “a split level design (retaining) as much of the natural beauty of trees, scrubs and rock as possible… an integrated complex of buildings varying from one to four storeys.” These buildings would provide for the first time, a teachers’ training ground designed fit for purpose with multiple sites and all training centralised at the Lindfield campus.

Unlike previous occasions, funds were readily available from the Commonwealth and the site would be constructed with a number of special amenities. There would be art and craft studios, workshops, music rooms, tape recorder bays, a typing room, a mapping room, and a unique one-way observation room to study children, learning and play. An extensive library of 70,000 books would provide generous reading and study areas. An audio-visual centre would provide television facilities, while art works and Persian carpets would provide decoration. There was even an astronomy tower, familiar to all those who attended the campus.

The member of the Public Works Department responsible for the new design was architect, David Don Turner. A number of influences including the ‘New Brutalism’ movement and the work of French architect Le Corbusier can be seen in his designs for the site. Additionally Turner’s “functionally generated forms” and the “internal Pedestrian Street forming the spine of the complex” are viewed as a nod to the work of the Australian architect, John Andrews.

“The building is the first in Australia to come to grips successfully with the essence of a college as a close collection of teachers and students – a social entity.”

Turner’s vision also reflected the philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright and the desire to work with, rather than against, the landscape. A philosophy that meshed well with Turner’s own ideas and desire to recreate the feel of an Italian Hill village, a cluster of buildings perched atop a hill. Like the work of Lloyd Wright it would feel new, sit easily within the landscape and retain as much natural flora as possible.

Turner placed rooms to have views of the grounds, planted courtyards and terraces with natural bush, and worked hand in hand with landscape architect Allan Corray and landscaper Bruce McKenzie to bring the bush into the building. This successful partnership led to the project winning the prestigious Landscape Institute Award.

The architecture was bold, consistent and produced with a great deal of thought. Nothing would feel temporary this time with the entire structure constructed in raw, unembellished concrete and built to last. Generously wide corridors and grounds allowed for future growth and brought a feeling of forethought and permanence. All the finishes were selected by Turner – white waffle slab ceilings, slatted natural timber, the fuchsia and purple highlights, and even the green carpet – all chosen to complement the concrete and bring colour to the interior. The tiniest details were designed to contribute to the greater whole. Jennifer Taylor, a former Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney once observed, “The parts of the building read as small, related segments at close range, but from a distance the whole has an heroic presence”.

The project was an award winner from the very beginning. It won a merit award from the NSW chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) in 1972, before it was even complete. The following year it won the Concrete Institute Award, reflecting Turner’s innovative use of the material. However, the strongest indication that Kuring-gai had met and exceeded expectations was the awarding of the RAIA Sulman Medal in 1978. The medal jury described the college building as: “a visually strong and dramatic structure. The building is the first in Australia to come to grips successfully with the essence of a college as a close collection of teachers and students – a social entity.”

George Muir with Architecture AwardAlthough the Medal was awarded to J.W. Thomson, the Government Architect at the time, he gave full credit to David Turner, his design and vision. It is a vision that created a line of continuity not often seen in the modern day. Turner’s involvement continued until the early 1990s and saw him design additions for the college even after he left the Public Works Department. It was a creative influence lasting over 20 years, and a continuing inspiration to those who followed him. As a result the Kuring-gai campus remains a remarkably memorable building to this day, beloved by all who walked its halls.

Story by James Cottam