An aerial view of the central Dunedin campus in the late 1970s. Photograph courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S12-192J.

An aerial view of the central Dunedin campus in the late 1970s. Photograph courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S12-192J.

The old stone clock tower building might be the University of Otago’s best known and most photographed piece of architecture, but this late-1970s image highlights what a profound effect modern design had on the central campus during a period of great building expansion in the 1960s and 1970s. An original concept plan for the campus development, drawn up by assistant government architect J.R. Blake-Kelly in the 1960s, envisioned a series of buildings linked by first-floor aerial walkways. The walkway idea was eventually rejected and instead, with the cooperation of the city council, some of the busy streets crossing the campus were closed to vehicles.

The Hocken Building (now known as the Richardson Building) is under construction, which dates the photograph to 1977-1979. The new building was designed by the much feted Dunedin architect Ted McCoy, who was also responsible for two of the other modern buildings which feature prominently on the left side of this image: the gleaming twin towers of University College (1969) and the striking cross-shaped geometry of the Archway Lecture Theatres (1973).

Several other buildings opened in the 1960s are also visible in this photograph: the University Union (1960); the new Home Science wing, now known as the Gregory Building (1961); the Interim Science Building (1965), with its unusual site crossing the Leith; the Library-Arts Building (1965); and the Arts Building (1969). Smithells Gymnasium opened in 1970. Dunedin architects Miller, White and Dunn drew up the plans for the Union and Mason and Wales were responsible for the design of the Burns Building. The Library-Arts Building was the work of two Auckland architectural students, Roland Adams and Brian Dodd, who won the competition to produce a design. In contrast to the tower blocks which predominated among the new buildings of this period, it was a large low-rise building, just two storeys tall, with an attractive courtyard at the centre.  Construction of this design was relatively economical, but sadly the building soon proved inadequate for the needs of the rapidly growing university. It took up significant ground space, making extensions impracticable, and it was also unsuitable for upwards extensions. The library had little choice but to develop its branch facilities, and eventually the building was replaced by the current Information Services Building (2001).

Across Castle Street from the clock tower is the block of new 1970s science buildings. The Science I building (1970) was designed by the Ministry of Works, but the others were the responsibility of various Dunedin architectural firms. John Aimers of Mason and Wales worked on the Science II building (1973), Allingham Harrison and Partners designed the Biochemistry (1971) and Science III (1977) buildings, while Miller, White and Dunn were responsible for the Microbiology Building (1974). There were also new university buildings which do not appear in this photograph, ranging from extensive new developments at the medical schools in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington to a new building at the Portobello Marine Biological Station and new residential college buildings at Studholme and Salmond Halls.

The opening of the Hocken Building marked the end of two decades of extensive construction. The university’s report for 1979 commented that “Dunedin architects and builders have noted the slow-down [in building activity] with considerable concern as the rolling programme of development at the university has been an important source of employment in recent years.” Given the importance of this period for Dunedin’s design and building trades, it seems appropriate that one of these buildings is now formally recognised as “historic”. In 2011 the New Zealand Historic Places Trust registered the Hocken/Richardson Building as a Category I Historic Place, recognising its significance in Otago’s history, and also its architectural value as “a bold and striking modernist building which has particular aesthetic presence in Dunedin.” Of course, not everybody admires Brutalist architecture. Otago design historian Michael Findlay, who reported on the building for the Historic Places Trust, commented: “Like the Otago Dental School before it, McCoy’s building continues to generate polarised opinions on the place of modernist architectural design in Dunedin. The Hocken Building was a critical success with the architectural profession but public resistance to its particular aesthetic has not greatly diminished over time.” The Dental School’s Walsh Building, completed in 1961 at the beginning of this great period of expansion, has also earned a Category I listing with the trust.

Were you at Otago in the 1960s and 1970s? At times, the central campus must have seemed like one huge building site. Do you have any interesting memories to share of reactions to these new buildings?