The University of NSW’s new Kensington Colleges provide an education in public housing. By Laura Harding.

Bates Smart’s new Kensington colleges at UNSW

Bates Smart’s Kensington Colleges at the University of NSW.
Bates Smart’s Kensington Colleges at the University of NSW.
Credit: Peter Bennetts
Booms combined with scarcity of supply are not the ideal preconditions for architectural quality, as the broader housing market shamefully attests. But student housing is a slightly different proposition and has seen exponential growth in recent times. Student housing isn’t flogged off the plan to investors, but is held and maintained over the long term by the people who procure it. Housing availability is also becoming a critical factor in students’ campus selection. Accordingly, the performance, durability and quality of student housing is starting to receive serious attention. 

The Kensington Colleges at the University of New South Wales were designed by architects Bates Smart, and replaced three of the most esteemed colleges on campus – Basser, Baxter and Goldstein. Two new colleges have also been founded: Colombo, which caters exclusively to senior students; and Fig Tree, which offers Islamic students a gender-segregated and alcohol-free living environment. Each semester, more than 900 students call these colleges home.

The former Goldstein College received the prestigious Sulman Medal for Architecture in 1965, and is considered an important work of the modern period. The dining hall and courtyard were retained in the new works, but the decision to demolish the residential component was highly contentious. The much greater scale of the new colleges certainly dominates these architecturally significant forebears, but not fatally so. Their emphatic, brutalist countenance ensures that they hold their own. The dining hall remains a magical, clinker brick “Hogwarts”, and the courtyard, with its superb Flugelman sculpture, is still one of the most sublime spaces on campus. Their restoration by Tanner Kibble Denton Architects is skilled and long overdue.

Adjacent to Goldstein, four colleges ring a central garden, each holding a sentinel corner. The courtyard form evokes ancient architectural and university traditions – its enclosure signifying the protective ethos of pastoral care and collegiality, while forming a steadfast foil to the exploratory zeal of young lives testing the limits of new-found freedom. The courtyard is a physical and symbolic core – members of the public pass through it, the colleges share it for recreation, and the surrounding rooms look into it.

The intensity of this social cauldron incites a powerful architectural response above a more hesitant ground plane. The enclosing brick walls fold and ripple like a heat haze, as if deformed by the space’s latent, voyeuristic potential. The thrilling proximity of private space to public spectacle is resolved through geometry, framing outlook on the oblique so that views from room to room and resident to passer-by slide past each other, ricocheting off angled surfaces. The patina of old clinker bricks is evoked in carefully selected contemporary blends, but with a signature glazed brick for each college that sparks within the matt surface and accents the walls of key common spaces in strident, saturated colour. 

The richness of this architectural expression does not signal budgetary profligacy. The architects have used humble materials and means, but exploited them intelligently. The great conundrum of contemporary housing is expertly judged in this project – how to deploy the rigour and pragmatism needed to realise a building in fraught commercial reality, but leaven it with qualities and experiences that elevate daily life.

Student bedrooms are compact and receive good light and natural ventilation, but appropriately, it is the common spaces that most engage. Living rooms and roof terraces are distributed to share views of the city and the surreal industrial landscape of Port Botany. In Colombo’s shared kitchens, students cook MasterChef style on rows of long stainless-steel benches with serious commercial equipment.

The outer walls of the colleges reveal small glimpses of this life within. They are strictly orthogonal, and have small, cubic balconies that punch out of the brickwork in skip-stop arrangements. This forms a powerful symbolic face: from a distance it reads as an encrusted, almost prickly outer skin, but more closely as a collection of tiny belvederes that pierce the colleges’ intensely inward focus. Out on this edge students glimpse the future. Soon they’ll breach the walls and become one against the world.

There’s increasing discussion about the role of the public sector in setting standards that mandate design quality in housing. Projects such as this remind us that authorities have another potent form of intervention at their disposal. With deep institutional knowledge and a desire to chase more than the bottom line, they are well placed to lead the development of innovative and life-affirming housing models. Wielded strategically, by a range of authorities across metropolitan areas, projects of this type could visibly lift the bar of housing quality for all of us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 9, 2014 as "Different class".

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Laura Harding is a Sydney-based designer and writer.

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