On the 20-year anniversary of UniSA’s City West campus, we talk to the award-winning architect responsible for its successful design.

Just over 20 years ago, the West End of Adelaide’s city square mile was looking more than a little down at heel. Quite vibrant until the 1950s, that end of North Terrace had traipsed into obvious decline. In the early 1990s it was home to a handful of small scale businesses, a certain class of nightclub and ‘entertainment’ offerings, some very quiet hotels and a noisy open railway yard.

At its heart, Hindley Street, which had long suffered a reputation as the centre of the seedier side of the city, was nowhere near front-of-mind as the setting for an ambitious and transformative urban renewal and education project which would ultimately catalyse a new vibrancy for the West End into the 21st century. 

In 1994, just a few years after UniSA was established, when its leaders announced they intended to build a large, modern campus in the West End, many locals thought it a crazy plan. 

Guy Maron AM, wasn’t one of them.

“The University fathers, under the leadership of the then Vice Chancellor, David Robinson and his Council, displayed great courage and foresight,” Guy says.

The award-winning Australian architect and the man who designed and first brought City West campus to life, says the move to the west has proven to be farsighted.

“Back then, the west end of the city was all potential, waiting to be realised,” Guy says.

“In 1994, the west of the city presented great design challenges, which through today’s eyes no longer appear to be valid – but they were real and immediate at the time. 

“In the first instance the texture of the city was predominantly low-rise and the prevailing colour of the district was red, arising from the Lion Arts Centre and the Adelaide Remand Centre. 

“These realities were to be the guiding light for the development of the design and the ‘low-rise’ parameters of the existing fabric of the west worked well towards the creation of a low-rise ‘walk-up’ campus and the adoption of the distinct connectivity needed for the proper functioning of a university campus.

“The presence of the ‘eight lane freeway’, North Terrace, was also one of those ‘givens’ which governed the design of the City West campus from day one.

“It became the driving force in the establishment of the east-west pedestrian connectors in the planning of the Stage One campus, running parallel to North Terrace. It was a blessing in disguise at the time but an impediment perhaps to the connectivity across North Terrace for a campus that is seeking to reach far and wide beyond 2017.

“Another challenge was the near-universal academic predilection for fiefdom building,” Guy says. 

”With few exceptions worldwide, the planning of universities has followed the path dictated by the age-old funding formula of ‘one building at a time’ which plays into the hands of academia who see this as a chance to build their ‘own’ building, without much reference to the needs of a university as a whole. 

“My philosophy there is that the university needs common ownership of all spaces within the building – that’s quite different.”

Guy’s winning concept, in what was a national competition to secure a design for the new campus, set out to turn university planning in Australia on its head. Instead of adopting the well-trodden path of planning for separate departments where faculties ‘owned’ space, Guy opted for a system of planning referred to as ‘space function planning’. Under this system no one owns space but all space, such as academic offices and lecture spaces, are shared equally by all. 

Guy felt particularly rewarded by the total endorsement of the plan for City West by the Aboriginal Elders when they expressed the view that the openness of the plan, the endless vistas, and the ever present view of the sky, met with their cultural appreciation of space. 

I stuck my neck out by proposing this design and it won the national design competition for its innovative approach to campus planning,” Guy says proudly. 

“The concept proposed the much needed aspect of campus planning – connectivity both in a physical sense and educational sense – and it was intended that the plan would seriously encourage students from all disciplines to mingle and enjoy cross-cultural, academic encounters rather than ‘hide’ in their own enclaves.

“My other consideration was to incorporate my established personal philosophy for planning. 

“I call it ‘contingency planning’.  It makes provision for the unpredictable by adopting a flexible architectural planning approach and avoiding the adoption of a concrete ‘set-in-stone’ design philosophy. Any sensitive observer of the plan of Stage One of City West will recognise the plan as a series of long ‘tubes’ within which any number of alternative planning contingencies are able to be met, at any time in the life of the buildings.”

The value of this approach has served the University well in recent renovations, such as the new UniSA Business School fit-out, delivered in 2017 in the Yungondi Building.

Back in 1994 when that was the University Chancellery, the evolution of its use could not have been foreseen, but the ‘bones’ of the building have supported such changes.

“The winning concept for City West included connective bridges across all buildings including bridges over Hindley Street, exploring this very difficult site with a cross-fall of more than 10 metres from north to south,” Guy says.

“The physical challenge for the University was to acquire sufficient land to make the campus in the west a reality. 

“This had proven quite difficult and at one stage the whole campus design, which was based on a north-south plan had to be modified to accommodate the realities of funding and capital-raising by adopting an east-west plan.” 

Such a drastic scope change so late into a project could easily have derailed its delivery but Guy says “the change was achieved because of the great spirit of cooperation between the architect and the University”.  

His ‘contingency planning’ approach helped in no short measure as well. 

Guy says he’s very pleased with the fact that as intended, Stage One of the campus turned out to be efficient, with no space wasted and very high occupancy across all the buildings. 

But more pleasing to him was previous Vice Chancellor Peter Høj’s acknowledgement that Stage One City West had, at the time of their conversation, delivered UniSA fourth place in Australia for its low carbon footprint – a position the University has since improved upon, now ranked number two in the country for low carbon emissions by any Australian university. 

Over the years, Guy has voiced his personal disappointment that later stages of development on City West did not hold true to all of the design ideals he so deeply enshrined in the Stage One concept. 

And while he says there are always things you might want to do differently, “careers come with disappointments and compromises”, he firmly believes building the campus where it stands today was quite inspired.

“I am extremely proud that we delivered one of Australia’s most energy-efficient university campuses, well before people were so keenly focused on those issues and that it also has efficiencies in the way the campus is used by staff and students,” he says. 

Across the 20 years since City West opened, so much has changed around it.

“Ironically, I was responsible for the construction of some of the railway workshops which were demolished to make way for the new Royal Adelaide Hospital,” he says.

In terms of amenity, City West now has ‘streets’ running along both axes, having secured both Fenn Place and George Street as pedestrian-only carriageways.

As an architect, Guy laments that industry professionals don’t talk to each other enough about how their designs may better fit together.

“As a rationalist, I see so many architectural decisions made in arbitrary ways based on emotion, ego or simply opportunism.” he says. 

“When planners, designers and architects work together, there is more chance to build truly energising, effective precincts. At times it seemed to me that the voice of Stage One of City West was in danger of being drowned out in the ‘material’ development of the wider area. 

“If I look now though, I can conceive and perceive the new North Terrace health precinct and the Hindley Street precinct to have become the ‘bookends’ of the visual campus. 

“In a strange way Stage One has not been diminished in its vitality but rather, it now punctuates and anchors what must be one of the very progressive educational enclaves in our city.”

Guy says that while he has met and worked with many vice chancellors in his career as a campus planner and designer of university buildings both in North America and in Australia, UniSA Vice Chancellor, Professor David Lloyd has impressed him as someone who actually displays and commands an understanding of both educational and physical planning. 

“It would have been great to have had the privilege to work alongside David in 1994 – notwithstanding his youth,” he says.

It is a sentiment clearly shared by Prof Lloyd. 

The audacity of Guy’s design and the bravery demonstrated by the University in moving west back in 1994 cannot be overstated,” Prof Lloyd says.

“The stories and anecdotes I’ve heard about what was undertaken to make the first phase of City West a reality, truly demonstrate the enterprising spirit of UniSA,” Prof Lloyd says.

“I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in some of the key meetings at that time. Guy’s concept and design for the campus was quite revolutionary, while also being eminently practical. It has stood us in great stead across the past 20-plus years.” 

Some seven years after Guy’s work was completed, new buildings such as the Kaurna, Dorrit Black and Hawke (all built to house specific functions) have appeared and brought a different palette and texture to the campus. The Jeffrey Smart Building, completed in 2015, is now a multi-storey, vibrant student hub. And Guy’s vision for a polyfunctional City West has been subtly woven into the ever evolving campus.

As we head into 2018 with Pridham Hall – a home for student sport and graduations – almost complete, Guy recounts that he once provided the design for a major aquatic centre, commissioned by the government. That project, like so many development ideas, never saw the light of day but ironically later became the site for some of UniSA’s new buildings on the south side of Hindley Street. 

“The University has independently gone and built a pool where I had once designed one for another client,” he says.

In equal parts a pragmatist, rationalist and a passionate architect, Guy now sees the West End in a new light.

“The place has been transformed by the student presence and the education and health focus,” he says.

“The ambience here is of a new city – a new centre in the capital – and UniSA started it all.”