The are many ways for a building to sit lightly in the landscape, but heavy forms of robust concrete are not one of them. After visiting the former Ku-ring-gai CAE campus, now Lindfield Learning Village, you might not be so sure.

In a 1971 issue of Architecture in Australia, the educational facility was lauded as among the most exciting and successful works of architecture in Sydney in recent years, “But it is not a building which merges with its environment. The bold sculptural forms of board marked concrete contrast vividly with it”.

AAA looks at the Ku-ring-Gai CAE campus

But stopping short of carving classrooms and libraries out of the rockface itself, it is “gumtree brutalism” that nestles into the landscape as well as any. In parts a transplant in, in others an extension of, the rocky outcrop of the site. No small task for a building with a floor area of almost 29,000sqm.

Designed by David Turner from the NSW Government Architects Office, with landscape designers Bruce Mackenzie and Allan Correy, it is an extension of Frank Lloyd Wright’s conviction to work with, not against, the environment.

AAA looks at the Ku-ring-Gai CAE campus

Turner himself explained, “as it was a magnificent area of natural bushland, the exercise was to compact the buildings and facilities as much as possible for the preservation of the environment and continue the use of native plants throughout the buildings including courtyards, and on the roof”.

The result is an educational building that is largely indicative of the cross-pollination of Sydney School naturalism and institutional Brutalism widely occurring throughout the 1970s.

AAA looks at the Ku-ring-Gai CAE campus

These principles guide both design and construction, through to detailing. Its broader forms step down along the sloped rockface, avoiding cutting into either the rock or the surrounding bushland where possible. This conviction is distilled in the ramp to the library, wrapping around a rocky outcrop that borders it – an inclusive building considerate of both context and occupant.  

Turner’s core planning principle involved the establishment of a central circulation spine that weaves its way across the craggy outcrop. Program was then compartmentalised across this passageway, tightening and loosening as one descends downhill. It is inspired by an Italian Hill Village typology, pockets of communal space spotted throughout this circulatory negative space. Turner’s focus was on increasing “the effectiveness of these informal learning spaces”.

AAA looks at the Ku-ring-Gai CAE campus

The external form of the building is entirely the consequence of this inside-out design thinking. The series of spaces that run along the spine, from auditorium, to classrooms, to library, bulge and compress in elevation, shifting from exclusively board finished concrete, to brick infill, to double height glazing.

Energy efficiency was equally formative, much of its window openings covered by suspended precast sunshades. These vary in scale and orientation across the building based on their solar requirements, such that only the library, TV studios, and assembly hall required air conditioning.

AAA looks at the Ku-ring-Gai CAE campus

The scheme’s focus on landscape continues beyond the planted courtyards that break up its massing. Earthy green carpet runs through many of its interior spaces, cut with timber flooring in others. And, of course, bright pink handrails.

It is this level of holistic engagement that distinguish it from its contemporaries, awarded the Sulman Medal in 1978, as well as the Royal Australian Horticultural Society Award for Bush Landscape Design.

Initially built as the Ku-ring-gai College of Advanced Education, the campus was built across six stages from 1968-1994, mostly through the 1970s. It was amalgamated into UTS in 1989 and operated up until the end of 2015. Following partial refurbishment, it is now partly operating as The Lindfield Learning Village with over 350 students up to year 10.

AAA looks at the Ku-ring-Gai CAE campus

Further renovations are to continue up until 2021 with the intent to house 2000 students from kindergarten to year 12. The campus has been subject to relatively constant extension and renovation since its inception, a living and growing organism that reflects not only the design intent, but its function.

As the education facility enters into a new phase of life and use, it is worth acknowledging the versatility of Turner’s utilitarian design thinking, beyond its Brutal expression. As it continues to undergo an extensive (even more colourful) facelift, and is steadily refilled with students, it is the level of care taken in establishing an informal and collaborative learning environment that will ensure its revivification. And thankfully, the pink handrails stay.

UTS ku-ring-gai buildings

Prepared by the Australian Architecture Association, AAA: researched, photos and written by Jackson Birrell, edited by Tone Wheeler.

Additional Images: BVN, UTS, Flickr

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