The Sybil Langley Women’s Centre

Recalling The Past To Cast Forward Into The Future.

M3 Architects used Bowral Bricks Capitol Red to create the red-brick wings of the incredible Sybil Centre Women’s College, located on the grounds of the University of Sydney.

The Sybil Centre, designed by M3 Architects, presents a robust brick façade characterised by its circular fortification, as well as its copper frieze that depicts a procession of women resembling the shape of a Greek pediment. This artwork, along with the name of the centre, is a reference to the University of Sydney’s long tradition in Classics and Ancient History, and stands as a tribute to the college’s first principle, Louisa Macdonald.
The Sybil Centre celebrates the strong history of The Women’s College, and balances heritage-listed architecture with state-of-the-art student facilities. The project, designed by award-winning architecture firm M3 Architecture, provides a flexible space comprised of study and research areas, and a hall that can accommodate up to 250 people for lectures. This project encapsulates a profound understanding of the relationship between architecture and education, as architects gave particular consideration to creating environments women can learn, socialise and thrive in. As Dr Amanda Bell, The Women’s College Past Principle (2013-2019) said, ‘women socialise differently. They like to be connected and not feel isolated from their community. Women feel secure in this space.’

Dr Bell collaborated with M3 Architecture for the design of the Sybil Centre, guiding the architects through the rich history of The Women’s College to reinforce the importance of honouring its original structure. ‘It is inspiring to collaborate with an architect who first and foremost sought to profoundly understand the history and ambition of The Women’s College as first principle,’ Dr Bell says.
The Women’s College at University of Sydney opened in 1892, and was the first university college for women in Australia. In contrast to the religious-affiliated male colleges that dominated the campus, the Women’s centre was inherently secular, and this point of difference was articulated in the design of the building. Original architects Sulman and Power rejected the orthodox ideals of Gothic Revival cloisters in favour of outward-looking brick loggias and balconies, while the entry way proudly proclaimed the College’s motto ‘Together’ in stone.

In designing the new Sybil Centre, M3 Architects committed to harnessing the ideals of togetherness that were so engrained in the culture and history of the Women’s College, particularly in the context of the collaborative empowerment of women.

Dr Bell suggests that there is something in the bricks and mortar of the building that fostered the common purpose of collaboration and togetherness, informing M3 Architect’s decision to preserve the integrity of the original building as much as possible.
Upon early inspection, M3 Architects identified issues with minimal land allocation and expedient thoroughfares that compromised the grounds of the Centre, and accounted these issues to the ‘Y’ shaped design of the 1960s building.

Lead architect for the project Dr Michael Banney decided to build a circular orbit around the original building, completing the building ‘as if it were always intended’. This allowed the original building to remain a pivotal part of the new Women’s Centre, whilst also addressing logistical issues that prevented students and staff from experiencing the centre’s full potential.

The circular design expertly knits together the three arms of the original Langley building, whilst creating three protected outdoor courtyards. Brickwork played an integral role in connecting the new building to its rich history, as the new building, like the adjacent Sulman & Power’s late 1800’s Main Building, is built from brick.

M3 Architecture used the modularity of bricks to temper scale and material homogeneity, selecting Bowral Bricks Capitol Red to extend the lineage of brickwork used in other buildings from a number of eras. Dr Michael Banney says, ‘Brick is the conceptual set-up for the project- to build on the rich architectural and cultural history of the College, by making a formidable brick wall only then to break through it- the more formidable the wall, the more formidable the break through.’
The Sybil Centre stands atop of a concealed level of car parking, elevating the circular form to make bold impact on the university’s landscape. Here, on the buildings crown, depicts a scene from a College play in 1913, titled A Mask.Former principle of the College, Louisa MacDonald, commissioned the theatrical piece to celebrate the college’s 21st birthday, and its growth from four students to 250 during a time where women’s education was deemed unnecessary.

In the play, the main character Sibyl looks into the past to reveal a procession of famous women throughout history, praising the power of education and the achievements of women. As Dr Banney says, ‘These women tell their stories, so that something might be foretold of the future of women – a sort of call to arms.

The project acts as an architectural oracle – recalling the past to cast forward into the future.’ At the end of the play, the Sybil channels her prophetic nature to look into the future of womanhood, telling them to ‘go beyond the ermine hood/ to the greater life that calls.’ Evidently, the Sibyl remains as a symbol of the potential for history to reconstruct female voices, encouraging the next generation of women to strive for greatness.

‘The Sibyl Centre is so named after an Oracle- the one who could foretell the future based upon history,’ Dr Michael Banney says. ‘Similarly, the building casts back then forwards, using brickwork to build upon the gravitas of architectural predecessors, in a way that breathes new life into this marvellous institution.’

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