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The front of University College in its early days - the cantilevered entry was quite a feature until additions built it out. The John Middleditch sculpture was a centenary gift to the university from the Association of Staff Wives. Image courtesy of Hocken Collections, c/nE3724/44a, S15-008a.

The front of University College in its early days – the cantilevered entry was quite a feature until additions built it out. The John Middleditch sculpture was a centenary gift to the university from the Association of Staff Wives. Image courtesy of Hocken Collections, c/nE3724/44a, S15-008a.

As this is the 100th post on this blog (that went fast!) I decided to write something with a centenary theme. The university’s centenary gift to itself in 1969 was the largest university residential college in Australasia: University College, most often known as UniCol, built right on campus. ‘Our tradition dictates that we should celebrate our centenary by strengthening the communal and broader cultural aspects of university life’, stated vice-chancellor Arthur Beacham as he launched a fundraising campaign for the new college in 1964. Student numbers were increasing rapidly and accommodation for the many who came from beyond Dunedin was in short supply. The campaign kicked off with large donations from the Dunedin City Council and Otago Savings Bank and later a very substantial gift from old investment firm the National Mortgage and Agency Company made building possible; the government offered a 2 for 1 subsidy on money raised by the university.

One of the tower blocks, 2006. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

One of the tower blocks, 2006. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

The original plan was for 300 residents, but to make the most of the subsidies on offer the capacity was increased to 324 beds (double the size of any existing Dunedin college). The extras were squeezed into the basement and spaces originally allocated to kitchenettes – residents quickly christened these smaller rooms the gimp rooms. Acclaimed local architect Ted McCoy came up with a striking modernist design featuring two ten-storey bedroom tower blocks with the main communal areas in a single-storey block at the front; it was to be the tallest building in Dunedin. The towers, explained McCoy, featured recessions and balconies ‘to avoid a big rectangular block, or a great square building’. The original pre-cast concrete fronts of the balconies were later replaced with perforated steel and higher glass fronts to improve safety and security.

A 1972 report by the college’s master and council chair noted the challenges and successes of its first four years. Despite doomsayers, it proved popular with students, achieving full occupancy and better than average academic pass rates. But building had been expensive and the college had large debts. The number of students brought its own challenge: ‘There is probably no more lonely or isolated person in any residential hall in Dunedin than the last member of University College who enters the dining room for the first time.’ The ‘architecture tends to control social patterns’, noted the report. ‘At meal times each lift delivers to the ground floor about ten or a dozen people largely from the same floor. These people join the lunch time queue in the dining room together and tend to sit at the same table.’ By default, the ‘floor’ became the main social unit of UniCol – most floors housed 18 people.

Though it was a mixed-gender college, right from the beginning UniCol developed quite a ‘blokey’ culture, probably as a way for the male residents to assert themselves amidst the rather chauvinistic culture of the university and all-male colleges like Selwyn, Knox, Arana and Aquinas. The separation of men and women within UniCol didn’t help. Women had the north tower and men the south tower and visiting was strictly regulated – as people formed their closest bonds with people sharing their floor this reduced integration. UniCol was founded at a time when mixed flatting was a hot topic and many students desired greater freedom to make their own lifestyle choices, so it’s no great surprise that a campaign for integration of the towers began early on; it was sparked off by a speech from visiting broadcaster Brian Edwards in 1971. Despite overwhelming support from the residents, the master and council resisted requests for mixing of the towers for many years, in part due to a concern that female residents needed protection from the robust behaviour of the men of UniCol. When integration was finally implemented in 1989, after a trial the previous year, it had a positive effect on college life: among other changes, there was less noise and less damage. A few floors remained single-sex for those who preferred that option.

Residents studying in the sunshine, 2009. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

Residents studying in the sunshine, 2009. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

Integration didn’t entirely end rowdy behaviour, of course, though fortunately the dangerous skyrocket wars between the college and flats on Clyde Street had gone; they were a feature of Guy Fawkes season in the mid-1970s and again in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s UniCol continued its well-established reputation as a ‘party’ college; reforms around the turn of the century increased pastoral care, raised behavioural expectations and modified the worst excesses. Renovations smartened up the facilities and in 2004 the dining hall was extended to cater for more students; the addition of two new four-storey wings took the roll up by over 100 people that year.

UniCol has provided a home for a considerable proportion of Otago students over the past few decades; it was an inspired choice for the university’s centenary project. It is a big, noisy, colourful place, as you would expect from the home of over 500 bright young people! Do you have any memories to share of Otago’s largest college?

A view across campus from one of the communal balconies, 2013. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

A view across campus from one of the communal balconies, 2013. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

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