Windows, Cupboards and Corridors: Status and Room-Size in the Menzies Building

by John Legge

The Menzies Building is now into its fourth decade and is beginning to show its age. With its eleven storeys it still dominates the campus, as a result of a quick judgment made at the beginning of time by the site architect, Mr Osborn McCutcheon. The story was that he looked at his rough plan for the site, put his hand down on the area near the Wellington Road boundary and said: 'There has to be a high building there.' This was simply an aesthetic judgment. The function of the buildings in that general area had still to be determined.

The western end of the building, up to the east side of the foyer, was constructed during 1962 and was open for business at the beginning of 1963. The eastern end followed a year later. The architects, Eggleston, McDonald and Secomb (also responsible for the Law School) were using what was, I believe, an unusual form of construction using the sheer wall principle. As I understood it, instead of being based on steel and concrete pillars, the building 'hangs' from three 'sheer walls, the eastern wall, the wall forming the eastern side of the foyer and the western wall. It sounded most unsafe to the original inhabitants. The intention of these paragraphs, however, is to set down, before it is forgotten, the agony that went into designing the internal layout.

The building was designed during the most restrictive period of control by the Australian Universities Commission over all aspects of university building construction. Amongst other things the Commission, under the chairmanship of the father of a future Monash Vice-Chancellor, laid down strict rules for various types of room size. Professors could have so many square feet, senior lecturers a lower quota, lecturers lower still, and tutors, of course, little more than a box. The architects were working on the basis of a five foot module, a term which was new to me at the time but which became increasingly familiar over the course of 1961 as we wrestled with the details of the preliminary plans. The interior of each floor was divided into class rooms, common rooms, departmental offices, and rooms for individual staff members, and whatever else, all opening out on either side of the long central corridor. But the actual size of those rooms depended on the initial choice of the five foot module. Windows were all to be exactly five feet wide and the width of the rooms behind them had to be in multiples of five: five feet, ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty five feet. The depth of rooms was, of course, already determined by the overall width of the building and the planned width of the corridor. Given the area prescriptions of the AUC, a lecturer's room could be no less and no more than ten feet wide.

It happened that the original members of the Faculty of Arts in 1961 were housed temporarily in the already constructed Mathematics building, also constructed on a five foot module. With the outside wall consisting of two five foot windows, and with the door to the corridor in the wall opposite, staff members were more or less compelled to place their desks side on to the windows. And it quickly became apparent that this was not a suitable arrangement for holding tutorials. There was just not enough room from side wall to side wall for a bookcase, the lecturer's chair and desk and a group of students.

The architects were asked to address this problem in designing the Menzies building. They replied that there was no solution. Three windows - fifteen feet - made the room far too big for a lecturer under the AUC guidelines. So ten feet it had to be. Bill Scott, as first arrival, put his case and was told that there was no other possibility. I arrived next and was also talked down. Then David Bradley arrived and asked why the module had to be five feet. Couldn't it be some other size - four feet, three feet, or even, perhaps, an inch, which would surely give enormous flexibility? At this point the architects began to waver. Yes, it was possible, theoretically, to have a different module, but the building plans had been approved on the basis of a five foot module.

More argument - and a strong plea advanced for a change to a four foot module. This would allow lecturers' rooms to be twelve feet wide - wide enough to accommodate bookcase, lecturer and class. A further problem then arose. Given the width of the building and of the corridor, twelve feet across would still be just a bit too big for a lecturer.

More argument, and the architects finally agreed to a simple compromise - a different module on the south side of the building. The north side would still be planned on the basis of a five foot module and the south side would have a four foot module. And lecturers and senior lecturers would be confined to the south side. And in order to conform to the guidelines about room size the corridor walls would have to be pushed in a bit to lessen the depth of a room twelve feet wide! This was achieved by putting cupboards along the walls of the corridors. Those cupboards in due course were to prove very useful for storing paper, dead files and whatnot, but their sole original function was to make the rooms behind them just a wee bit smaller!

A year later, when the eastern end of the building was under way, the AUC had modified its building guidelines and this device was no longer necessary. Some corridor cupboards were put in where they were felt to be desirable, but were not put in as a matter of course to reduce the space provided for lecturers.

And that is why the original Menzies Building - the long eleven storey slab that preceded the erection of the south wing - was really not one building but two buildings, each with a different module, joined together in the middle of the corridor. The struggle to get even that solution taught the original members of the Faculty of Arts a great deal about academic bureaucracy and about architects.