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Chem I c.1970

Construction underway on the Science I and biochemistry buildings, around 1970. Image courtesy of Arthur Campbell.

With work now underway on a major redevelopment of the Science I building, it seems a good time to look back at the beginnings of this and the four large science buildings which neighbour it: Science II (like Science I, occupied by chemistry and human nutrition), Science III (physics, maths and statistics and the science library), the biochemistry building and the microbiology building.

These buildings were part of a major expansion of the university campus during the 1960s and 1970s, necessary to cater for rapidly rising student numbers. Growth was particularly evident in the science departments, which were straining at the seams in their original locations (now known as the registry and geology buildings). The Interim Science Building (discussed in an earlier blog post), provided some extra space from 1965, but much more was needed. In 1960 there were 300 students studying in the science faculty, by 1970 there were 1420 and by 1977, when the last of the five buildings was completed, there were 1663 science students. Meanwhile, moving microbiology and biochemistry into new buildings provided more space in the medical school, which also had to cater for a growing roll.

Development began with the demolition of existing buildings in the block bounded by Cumberland, St David, Castle and Union streets, which once accommodated around 100 low-cost dwellings, crowded together along little alleyways. In late 1968 construction commenced on the first new building, then known as the chemistry phase I building, with the department moving in early in 1971. Science I, as it is now called, was designed by Ministry of Works architects in light and dark tones of grey to ‘blend in’ with the older university buildings. Next out of the ground was the biochemistry building, designed by Allingham, Harrison and Partners as a home for this rapidly growing department, previously squeezed into the Lindo Ferguson Building with much of the medical school. Next was the chemistry research building (Science II), which adjoined the first two buildings on the east, along Castle Street. Designed by John Aimers of Mason and Wales, this ten-storey building towered over the campus; it was occupied in 1973.

Special attention was paid to the appearance of the fourth building in the complex, the microbiology building, designed by architectural firm Miller, White and Dunn. ‘We are taking particular care with the external treatment of the façade and the over-all form of the building’, explained E.A. Dews, the head of university works and services. ‘We want it to look a particularly attractive building since it is to be the focal point for the approach to the university’. There was a plan at the time to make a road from this point of Cumberland Street to the clock tower, which would make the building the ‘front door’ of the campus. The project was brought forward to cater for an increase in medical student numbers; like biochemistry, microbiology had previously been squeezed into the medical school buildings. Construction started late in 1972 and was competed in 1974. In the same year work started on the final building in the science complex, Science III. The design for this large building was a joint-project of the Ministry of Works and Allingham, Harris and Partners; its foundations required ‘one of the largest single [concrete] pours to be laid on a Dunedin site’, noted the Evening Star newspaper. It opened in 1977 to house the physics department and science library, with mathematics moving in a little later.

All of this building was a great boon to local trades firms. Fletcher Construction Ltd, which had grown into a building powerhouse since its small beginnings in Dunedin early in the century, was main contractor for the first three science buildings. The next two contracts went to another large firm, Naylor Love Construction Ltd. Building seems to have gone reasonably smoothly, but there was one major exception. In 1971, as a crane was lifted from one floor to another of the partially-completed Science II building, a wire rope broke and the crane fell 15 feet, landing on two young workers. One of them, Kenneth Copland, was killed.

The new science buildings feature at top right of this late-1970s aerial view of the central Dunedin campus. Photograph courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S12-192J.

The new science buildings feature at top right of this late-1970s aerial view of the central Dunedin campus. See this earlier blog post for further discussion of this image. Photograph courtesy of the Hocken Collections, S12-192J.

Opinions varied on the design of these buildings. Where space was concerned, they were a great improvement for the sciences. Chemistry researchers, for instance, had previously squeezed into the attics and basements of what is now the geology building, in conditions considered unsafe even in those less safety-conscious days; now they had two large purpose-designed buildings. The buildings were also well equipped. New biochemistry professor George Petersen put many hours into his application for the grant to equip the new building, accounting for every last rubber bung together with the expensive new machines needed for the best teaching and research. The department eventually obtained a government grant for over six million dollars in today’s values to equip the biochemistry building; it was, recalls Petersen, as well equipped as any biochemistry department he had seen and helped attract good staff to Otago.

All that concrete architecture took some getting used to, though. Stan Hughes, who had been a technician in the physics department since the 1920s, found the design of the Science III building ‘rather severe’. He preferred the old building (the south end of what is now the registry), which was ‘marvellous – every floor was different’. It was ‘pleasant to walk around’ and also ‘so variable that it is adaptable’. Four decades later, opinions of the architectural style of the 1970s science precinct remain mixed. The 2010 campus master plan noted that the science buildings were ‘from an architectural period that was not renowned for the subtlety of its aesthetics’, with somebody once describing Science II as ‘being designed by Stalin’s personal architect’. Part of the current project to redevelop Science I involves a new exterior design ‘to play down the concrete box appearance in favour of softened architectural lines’. The need to re-clad concrete buildings of this era for technical reasons – 1960s and 70s construction techniques have not stood the test of time, with surfaces crumbling – has already provided an opportunity for a little restyling. Recladding of the microbiology building was completed in 2010, though not everybody approves of its new look – a friend now calls it the Joan Rivers building, in honour of its ‘garish’ recladding!

Whatever you think of its style, the science precinct has been highly significant in the university’s history. Generations of students have learned all about science in its laboratories and lecture rooms and much exciting research has emerged from these buildings. Do you have any memories to share of the science complex?

The newly-refurbished microbiology building in 2010. Photograph courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.

The newly-refurbished microbiology building in 2010. Photograph courtesy of University of Otago Marketing and Communications.