City or country was the first in a series of decisions that would ultimately lead to the selection of the site that Monash University would occupy. Suburbia, was the answer that the Interim Council of Monash University eventually reached. A site in Clayton, approximately 20 kilometres from Melbourne’s centre, was purchased in November 1958, just months after the Act itself had been passed.
Although it took the Victorian government many years and several committees of inquiry to bring Monash University to life, hopes of a new university had been circulating for decades. As a result, even before the Monash University Act was passed, sites and general locations for a possible second university were being suggested to the Education Department. As early as 1956 several locations were proposed in metropolitan Melbourne and rural Victoria. Without any formal announcement of a new university or requests for potential sites, councils and shires offered land within their jurisdiction in advance, should a new university be established.
When Monash became a reality, Robert Blackwood, chairman of the university’s Interim Council, made the criteria for the selection of the site very clear – it had to be able to accommodate at least 12,000 students and it should be close to public transport. Many of the early, unsolicited suggestions and proposals, particularly those in country Victoria, were immediately ruled out.
By April 1958, submissions were flooding in and the Interim Council began to wade through the proposals. The appeal of providing the site for the new university was clear. In addition to any financial remuneration involved in securing the land, physically establishing a university required the construction of buildings and associated infrastructure. Jobs would be created and the surrounding areas and municipalities would benefit. A new university, thanks to the students and staff who would populate it, also created an unquestionable commercial opportunity that would boost local industries and economies well after the physical building of the site was complete. Perhaps because of these factors, many of the proposals read like tourist brochures, wooing and enticing the Education Department and the Interim Council.
The Alexandra Chamber of Commerce, for example, submitted a brochure singing the praises of the town of Alexandra, 81 miles from Melbourne, as a site for Monash. Their proposal had photographs and annotated maps. Similarly, the Council and citizens of the Shire of Whittlesea put forward a passionate argument that the new university be located there. Whittlesea, they reasoned, could become a university town similar to those already established in America and the United Kingdom.
There were other less elaborate proposals as well. Councils put forward parcels of land for consideration. Several large tracts of privately owned land were also offered to the State Government for purchase from individuals. Sites of 117 acres between South Moran and Mernda, 368 acres in Narre Warren and 47.5 acres in Vermont were just three examples.
The long list was eventually whittled down by the Interim Council to no less than fourteen sites. Included were the Caulfield Racecourse, several locations along Blackburn Road north of the Gippsland railway line, a site on Heatherton Road to the south of the Gippsland railway line, and the Kew Mental Hospital Reserve.
The Interim Council then further distilled their list to a top three: the adjacent Metropolitan and Huntingdale golf courses, an area to the south of Centre Road in Oakleigh, and the Talbot Home for Epileptics (also referred to as the Talbot Colony for Epileptics) in Clayton. Their first choice was the two golf courses. They were close to two train stations and covered a total area of 290 acres that was already exceptionally well landscaped. However, when the State Government considered the Council’s recommendations, it was not convinced. While its proximity to public transport was a major advantage, the government was hesitant to appropriate what was essentially a private recreational area. Rather, it felt that Talbot Colony was more suitable. Although some distance away, it was midway between Huntingdale and Clayton stations, and close to a bus service on North Road. In addition, it was believed to have superior elevation, outlook and general road accessibility than the golf courses.
The decision was finally made late in November 1958. Monash University would be located on the site of the Talbot Colony. During the decision making process, the chairman of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Dr FGW White had also approached the Interim Council with a proposal.
He suggested that the CSIRO be assigned a portion of the land that was set aside for Monash University to which CSIRO would relocate their Division of Industrial Chemistry and its related activities. He claimed that a close working relationship between the two institutions would be beneficial for both as teaching staff, equipment and research facilities could potentially be shared. It would assist in forging a strong alliance between Monash and industry, which would clearly affirm the new university’s commitment to science and technology. It was decided – Monash University and CSIRO’s Division of Industrial Chemistry would be located together on the site of the Talbot Colony.
Selecting the site for Monash University was only the beginning. Buildings to house staff and students had to be constructed, and built quickly if the Interim Council was going to meet the ambitious date it had set for opening.
Starting construction was not simply a matter of drawing up plans for the first buildings, breaking ground and starting construction. In practice, it was much, much more complicated. There was a time pressure: buildings had to be ready by March 1961. But it was not enough to design one or two buildings in time for the first student intake. Rather, a coordinated plan for the whole site was required; one that could accommodate future development and expansion. Other important questions about the future of the campus also had to be addressed at this early stage. What would the buildings look like? Should they all look the same, or would each one be unique? Where would the buildings be located in relation to each other? In faculty clusters and grouped disciplines, or dispersed across what was at the time, a relatively open expanse of land? Aware of the enormity of the task, the Interim Council speedily engaged architects Bates, Smart and McCutcheon to prepare a master plan for the development of the whole site.
The architects sought advice from various individuals including academics and staff at the University of Melbourne. To assist the planning process, Interim Council drafted a set of general principles to serve as a guide for Bates, Smart and McCutcheon. There were 25 main principles in total. Included in these was the requirement that the master plan accommodate for approximately 8,000 full time students. Planting and landscaping were also to be a major part of the planning scheme. The Interim Council stipulated that ideally, departments within each faculty would be grouped together wherever possible so they could share facilities like tea rooms. Similarly, allied faculties were to be united by combined libraries, coffee shop facilities and other amenities. Each faculty would have its own area or cluster of buildings and the desired maximum walking time between faculties would ideally not exceed five to six minutes.
The Interim Council stipulated that there would be a central library that serviced the humanities and two branch libraries, one for science, applied science and engineering, and the other for medicine. A centralised building would provide meals services. Buildings would, in general, be of a three-storey maximum with lecture theatres located on the ground floor and staff offices on the first where possible. The Interim Council also made it clear that no temporary buildings would be constructed during the developmental period. Only permanent buildings that were part of the university’s master plan would be constructed. This decision alone had major ramifications for the operation of Monash University in its earliest days.
Armed with advice and these guiding principles, Bates, Smart and McCutcheon devised a master plan for the overall campus layout. Faculties were organised in u-shaped clusters and were placed in a ‘logical’ order on the site. While most of the buildings were, as the Council had stipulated, two or three stories, a tall building (which later became known as the Menzies Building) was planned to provide a contrast. The student union was planned as the centre or focal point of the campus.
The master plan was elaborate and detailed. It was a blueprint for the development of Monash University and all that it was hoped to become. But the master plan was exactly that, a plan. A blueprint. Its approval by the Interim Council did not mean that work would commence on all buildings simultaneously, or that Bates, Smart and McCutcheon would design all of the buildings represented in the plan. Rather, a staged approach was adopted. It was decided that the science building would be constructed first and it would initially house all staff and students of Monash. Then, construction of the engineering building would commence. Gradually the campus would come to life.
Bates, Smart and McCutcheon designed the earliest buildings. They also developed a palette of materials and colours for use by future architects and builders, to avoid the campus looking like an odd assortment of mismatched buildings. Chocolate-coloured manganese bricks were prescribed – large supplies were purchased and stockpiled in anticipation – external columns were to have a white quartz-faced treatment, and buildings were to be flat-roofed.
With the master plan approved, preparation of the site could begin. Leveling of the ground on which the science building would stand commenced in 1959. Building works were interrupted by persistent rain, which in turn exacerbated existing drainage problems. The campus was a sea of mud – gumboots became a necessity for all. Yet somehow, despite the rain, poor drainage, mud and the enormity of the task at hand, by the time the first students arrived on campus, the science building was ready and waiting to house them.