Kensington Colleges Redevelopment Project


Location: University of New South Wales, Kensington campus

Structural Engineer: Robert Bird Group

Bricklayer: Lamio Masonry

Builder: Richard Crookes Constructions

Architect: Bates Smart

Photographer: Jacqui Dean, Peter Bennetts

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Architects have long used polychromatic brickwork to add pattern and design to walling. The acclaimed colonial-era architect John Horbury Hunt was a noted exponent.The designers of the new halls of residence at the University of New South Wales have given a new spin to this traditional design approach.

Over the five colleges, they used twenty brick colours, including sixteen glazed bricks, in various blends to give an individual identity to each college while maintaining a consistency between the colleges and with the overall campus.

The polychromatic brickwork of old used a limited brick colour palette, typically red, cream and brown, usually in bands or panels. In the UNSW project, the architects also used three brick colours in each major facade element, but in a blended pattern, more akin to pixellation.

The University of New South Wales can trace its roots back to the Sydney Mechanics Institute founded in 1843.The Kensington campus of the then newly-formed New South Wales University of Technology was established in the middle of the last century, its foundation buildings reflecting the then-popular Brutalist brick and concrete aesthetic.

Basser, Goldstein and Phillip Baxter colleges were founded in that era and despite being good examples of student housing at the time, at fifty years of age all three were in need of renewal.

Basser and Goldstein colleges were demolished and the site density increased substantially to accommodate five colleges: Fig Tree Hall, Colombo House and Philip Baxter College (replacing an older college elsewhere on the campus) joined the new Basser and Goldstein colleges. Together, the five buildings comprise 922 beds, five dean’s apartments, 23 tutor studios, student common areas, student services and teaching space.

The site describes an L-shape, with High Street to the north and Basser Steps, an internal pedestrian street, to the south. The colleges step up the site in response to the steep, east-west topography.

Four of the colleges are grouped around a large central courtyard, the exception being Colombo House which houses senior students in self-catered accommodation.The existing Goldstein Dining Hall, winner of the 1964 Sulman Medal Architecture Award, was renovated and enlarged and remains an important adjunct to all colleges.

The four undergraduate colleges vary between four and seven levels with accommodation arranged in single floor cohorts of 30 to 40 rooms, each floor supported by a resident tutor.All rooms are oriented east-west, allowing maximum light access. Generous balconies allow views to the north over the adjacent Royal Randwick racecourse and to the distant city, or to the south into the university grounds.

The internal planning and function is partly reflected externally. Basser, Baxter and Goldstein colleges have group balconies whereas Colombo House has individual balconies, as befits its senior students. Fig Tree Hall, specifically designed for the needs of Islamic students, is located on an elevated corner to increase privacy.

Brickwork was an obvious choice: it is the predominant material on the campus and the University is attracted to high-quality, low-maintenance finishes.“We agreed quite early on that brickwork’s robustness, its tactile quality, and its consistency with the surrounding context meant that it had to be the predominant facade material,” says Matthew Allen, Bates Smart’s design leader for the $110 million project. The project director was Guy Lake and Robert Graham was the project leader.

Allen had used glazed bricks while working in the UK and was attracted by what he calls “the playful quality in their colour and reflection.”The designers chose a broad colour palette of bricks, both glazed and conventional, to link back to the existing campus buildings while allowing the creation of an individual identity for each of the new colleges.

“Part of the architectural challenge was to synthesise the different bricks so there was a similarity between the colleges, and just enough difference to identify them individually,” he adds.

A number of prototype panels were constructed to finalise colour combinations and perfect techniques before the process of laying just under half a million bricks began.

The key to understanding the facade design is the use of three very different design approaches. Firstly, the top level external facades are rectilinear and apply a consistent brick palette to unite the appearance of the five colleges. “For that we selected a blend of three face bricks to respect the original clinker brickwork of the Dining Hall,” Allen explains. Typically, this is 60/30/10 mix of Bowral Purpose Made Commons, Bowral Simmental Silver and Austral Bricks Ultra Smooth Tempo, respectively.

On the upper levels in the courtyards of the four undergraduate colleges, each of the facetted facades use a blend of three glazed bricks to reflect light and give a “playful expression” of light and shade. Two of these bricks are common across all colleges at this level: a 60/30 blend of Dynasty glazed bricks in Brushed Leather and Karrington Silver.The junior partner in this blend comes from the Burlesque glazed brick series and gives that elusive touch of individuality to the building:

  • Basser College: Basser Burgundy (custom colour)
  • Fig Tree Hall: Deepening Green (standard colour)
  • Goldstein College: Bursting Orange (custom colour)
  • Philip Baxter College: Ocean Blue (custom colour)

These signature colours are picked up at the podium level, usually as the background colour, the exception being Fig Tree Hall where it appears in the three course band against a background of custom-made glazed bricks in two green shades.

The blend in the courtyard facade of Colombo House is more sober, with a 60/30/10 mix of Dynasty glazed bricks in Brushed Leather, Karrington Silver and Indulgent White respectively. The podium level is a discreet blend of 70 percent Burlesque Chilling Black (a standard colour) and 30 percent Burlesque Gallant Black (custom).

A relatively smaller number of Bowral Gertrudis Brown dry-pressed bricks have been applied in panels at or near ground level.

Although the Burlesque and Dynasty glazed brick series are available in a total of 10 standard colours, custom colours were required to help create a subtle identity for each college. The design team supplied samples which were colour-matched in production, allowing for some natural variation that is inherent in kiln-fired masonry.

“The Basser Burgundy and Kensington Brown were the hardest to get right, but they were all accurate in the end,” says Allen.

As well as creating more and a better standard of student accommodation, the college development project forms a new and vibrant urban precinct that bridges the upper and lower campuses.

The imaginative use of brickwork’s modularity of form and colour has allowed each of the colleges to maintain a distinct identity while reading collectively as part of the Kensington Colleges precinct and the broader university campus.

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