Architecture students seeking social alternatives

“All we leave behind are the memories”
– Deen Brothers demolitions, Brisbane

In the 1970s and 80s the Queensland government demolished over 60 Brisbane buildings of heritage value. By opposing aboriginal land rights, government failed to recognise prior ownership and prior occupancy of Meanjin (Brisbane). One third of Boggo Road jail was destroyed by fire because of the inhuman beatings and poor conditions inside condoned by the government. Furthermore, state-approved vandalism resulted in the destruction of iconic buildings like the Bellevue Hotel and Cloudland Ballroom. Demolition experts, the Deen Bros left their calling card on site to remind people of their gruesome work.

In 2018 the University of Queensland masterplan recommended demolition of the UQ Union student complex including another icon, the Schonell Theatre. These buildings are to be replaced by something akin to a shopping mall. The UQ administration of Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj was to make it into an appealing place for international students. Lacking in imagination, his administration saw the shopping mall as a kind of draw-card for recovery of the market in international students. These were facilities were once run by the student union, in name at least. They became a kind of ‘common’ for students, staff and visitors to the university – a place of social and political activity.

In response to the demolition proposal, a group called Save the UQ Union Complex applied for the buildings and the forum area to be heritage listed. This was knocked back on the spurious basis that the structures had been altered and hence had lost their heritage value.

Postgrad architecture students, Adele Mammone, Thomas Webster and Ali Rad Yousefnia are offering their alternative to wholesale demolition – a vision for the University of Qld Student Union complex – social alternatives to the current demolition proposal for the UQ student union building complex. They want things like an open space run by students, a co-op, free lunch days or cheap food, an op shop and much more.

Their postgrad architecture class have just finished a summer school which expresses their alternatives via an exhibition at the Zelman Cowan building. Led by a a didge-playing, Iranian architecture PhD candidate, Ali Rad Yousefnia, they hope to show how design can represent the interests of students and staff at UQ.

UQU Architecture Student exhibit – the steven trotter designed building was built in the 1960s itself an alternative to the sandstone structures around the Great Court

When asked what is a university, Adele answered ironically: “a business”. She went on to say it would be better if it were a place of ideas, where our ideas are challenged, quoting a local author, Anne Richards. In A Book of Doors Anne richards describes the forum area at UQU in this way:

“Just watching the ideas being ordered in their brains and then tumbling from their tongues was enticing. Admittedly some ideas were half-crazy, utopian rambles or socialist propaganda, but the cascade was beautiful. Even their enemies wished they had such wit to elaborate a point and hold a crowd.”

Is Prime Minister Scott Morrison afraid Unis will become hotbeds of radical discontent once more? He wants students to conform and to make this happen has increased fees in the Arts faculties. Architecture, itself a social science, has escaped this push with the federal government lowering its fees.

I wrote to both the previous and to the current vice-chancellors of the university requesting an interview regarding demolition and what the university has in mind for the site. On both occasions I was refused but received written responses. A representative for the previous Vice-Chancellor, Peter Hoj said that he was too busy for an interview. A representative for the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry AO, wrote back saying:

Many of our projects were placed on hold due to the pandemic – the student site complex being one of them. Work on the project is starting, and we will be engaging with staff and students as part of our planning. We want to ensure we invest in an inclusive space, that meets the needs of students today and into the future – while acknowledging The Forum’s contribution to fostering debate about a range of social issues.”

A meme by Yicheng (Charley) Han had this as a caption: “UQ authority had a different angle of approach towards the Union Complex as they were interested in making strategic decisions on commercial developments based on reports and surveys whereas the students were guided by their emotional faculties who made themselves comfortable as the direct users of the complex.

Here are some historic sounds that capture the state we were in from the 70s and 80s.

Ian Curr
11 Feb 2021