The Ming Wing's Salad Days
by David Bradley
They say it changed the climate in Moorabbin. By 1965 the great rectangular box was the first evidence to strike the traveller's eye from the deck of a ship coming through Port Phillip Heads of the existence of the City of Melbourne. Before the South Wing was constructed, both sides of the escalators were glassed. It was a real joy to run down, with the landscape wheeling dizzily about you, and nothing to obstruct the view of mountains and the grazing paddocks of the Talbot Colony for Epileptics, picturesquely dotted with cows and old cable-tram trolleys, where the Blackwood Hall and the Education Faculty now stand.
The Robert Gordon Menzies School of Humanities had been on the drawing board since 1960: a large building created to meet the unexpectedly great demand for places in the Humanities and Social Sciences, in what had been envisaged originally as a predominantly technical and scientific university. Its originality and some of its problems began there. The site layout of Monash had been designed by the firm of Bates, Smart & McCutcheon, and approved by the Universities Commission. The area set aside for the Ming Wing had thereby acquired a sacred status, but the optimum dimensions of Commission-approved staff accommodation were derived from an English document. The hierarchically graduated square-footage for various levels of staff was calculated on requirements for teaching in large seminar rooms and laboratories with private office-space. It fitted poorly with the Arts Faculty's concept of teaching in staff studies. Moreover, the English report's prescriptions would not divide easily into the square-footage of the site-plan, and the first version of the drawings produced long, small, studies, narrow to the window end, and impossibly uncomfortable for a class of ten or twelve, with the tutor's back to the light. Even the upper ranks did poorly. Some wit remarked that the space allocated to professors was less than that enjoyed by the villatic fowl in eighteenth-century reconstructions of Noah's Ark. That has not changed.
The genial Ralph Koren, the architect chiefly responsible, was, however, imaginative and accommodating. The building was to be cladded in prefabricated sections and thus had to be structured on a set of standard dimensions. We didn't know much about Le Corbusier in those days, and were never quite sure that the Dean of Economics was joking when he talked about 'nodules'; but the battle for space turned on modules. As the building was also original among modern concrete structures in being supported by its outside pillars, it was somewhat difficult to convince Ralph Koren that the problem could be solved by adopting different modules for either side. But, once convinced that it is impossible to see both sides of a building at the same time, he produced an ingenious solution that suited both Arts and Ecops, making the final adjustment by taking a ruler and drawing a line down the centre passages of the West wing. And that is why we have very useful cupboards on many of the upper floors.
There was a whiff of luxury in the air, and, if the electronic revolution was still far away, there was a chance of installing more sophisticated audio-visual equipment than older universities had - Language-labs and Listening Rooms; turntables and tape-decks cunningly concealed in lecture-benches; screens and projection facilities in two theatres. But few academics could work the machines, fewer still could find the janitor who had the keys, much of the equipment simply fell into disuse, some of it went out of fashion, there was never enough money to maintain it, and, finally, no one could find much of it at all - or the janitor who had abstracted it. However, the display cases and small museums, the departmental libraries, and the properly equipped seminar-rooms, have mostly survived, and were helpful then in creating a sense of an academic home-base.
Some little touches of class that are not now so popular, like the polished terrazzo in the undercroft, then seemed to us like a promise of civilization in the prevailing mud of the construction site. The lifts, of course, were, and are, slow goods-lifts, installed that way in order to carry the building materials of the East wing after the completion of the West. When the dust finally settled there was an attempt to restrict their use to 'Staff Only', a pitiful recrudescence of old Melbourne University ways that very soon fell apart in the shirt-sleeves-and-Christian-names ethos that had been the hall-mark of Monash's salad days. The original window-blinds were genuine touches of Corbusierism and innocently opened outwards. They were almost at once torn to pieces by the wind. And the wind - the wind you know about.