Building Tension

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Words || Emma Harvey

No joke, there is a secret network of tunnels underneath our campus. Originally built to carry services between buildings, they’re located below Wally’s Walk and are still accessible today. It is alleged that, in July 1974, the tunnels were used by students to gain access to Vice Chancellor Alex Mitchell’s office, which was being guarded during a student protest against administration-imposed changes to the union’s constitution.

Almost as cool was when, in 1969, Macquarie students set up a tent embassy in the Central Courtyard to protest the lack of student housing available. The protest swelled from 30 to 300 and the University administrators soon yielded to their demands.

It is not widely known that Macquarie University has such a badass radical history. Indeed, it’s not really in the interests of the administration to pay homage a time when students refused to tolerate the alienating, commercial nature of the University.

But there’s a character in these stories that is even more overlooked than the protests themselves: the architecture.

Macquarie is well known for its brutalist design – imposing, cubic structures of reinforced concrete looming over you as you walk between tutorials. The layout of the campus itself is tricky – with names like “E5B” and “W6A”, and no clear pattern to any of it, we’ve all stumbled in late to the first tute of the semester after wandering through gum trees and carparks for half an hour. There are Hogwarts-esque “steps to nowhere” at W6A, and a “ramp to nowhere” at C10A, as well as a good number of shortcuts and secret passageways.

But the campus isn’t just confusing, it’s becoming increasingly decentralised. The main Arts building, Y3A, is stationed just under a kilometre from the main campus – it even has its own bus stop (though no longer its own cafe…?) The starry-eyed Arts student, a university’s most dependable activist, is no doubt too worn-out from walking to class (and malnourished from the lack of available eateries) to stage a mass protest about Student Amenities Fees.

Furthermore, while the Chancellery was once located inside the Campus Hub building, directly accessible to all students, it is now tucked away behind some trees, safe from students, and with a really great view of the lake. The library, traditionally the intellectual heart of a university, was originally in the Central Courtyard, but has since ben moved to the car-park periphery of campus. Of recent importance is the impending demolition of the Campus Hub this year, which will see the construction of a Temporary Dining Hub near the library, spreading out the campus even more.

Research shows that the very structure and architectural flow of a space, directly affects the way in which people are able to stage successful group protests. In some cases, cities and public spaces have been specifically designed to prevent the collective dissent. When Australia’s cities were being constructed, they were modelled off European urban design, but with the deliberate omission of a key feature – the public square. The public square is one of the most significant ways for protest to pick up steam – it is a highly visible, easily accessible rallying point. Given Australia was a young, convict nation, Governor Richard Bourke specifically instructed to surveyors to leave it out of the designs for NSW cities, lest it promote rebellion.

Though it may be presumptuous to consider that all campus planning at Macquarie has been in the interests of preventing protest, there is no denying that further decentralisation will directly affect the ability for students to gather, coordinate, and maintain visible solidarity. This has very clear ramifications for the future of student activism, and also, simply, for the cohesion of Macquarie’s student community.

Infrastructure is, of course, not the only reason for the successes and failures of student activism, but it is an important one. And its role in shaping – or inhibiting – activism shouldn’t be underestimated.

If the university is seen as a microcosm of national trends, as it often is, then Macquarie’s Central Courtyard is our ‘public square,’ an accessible, moveable space in which activism can gain legitimacy and visibility.

Fittingly, the 120 lemon-scented gums that stand in the courtyard were deliberately planted in a formation of the phalanx – a unit of the Roman army lined up for battle.

It is quite literally our battleground.


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