Clyde Cameron College
The tumultuous architectural and political history of one of Australia’s oddest buildings.
In July 2008, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects awarded its “25 Year Award for Enduring Architecture” to the former Clyde Cameron College building in Wodonga, Victoria.
The citation provided an opportunity to look back at the College’s inception and later demise, both architecturally and politically, since the college was mired in controversy from start to finish.
A Chaotic Structure
I visited the Clyde Cameron College site in January 2009. I’d read about it in The Age and via the RAIA but had never seen any photographs of it.
When I finally saw it for myself, I was initially confused yet also somewhat impressed; confused because of the eclectic array of buildings but impressed at the boldness of the design.
Clyde Cameron College (as I will refer to it) consists of an array of small satellite buildings arranged around a central administration centre. All of the buildings are linked by enclosed corridors, and the whole complex is composed of concrete, steel and glass. The front porte-cochère is a heavy mass of off-form concrete, with a smaller concrete tunnel leading visitors into the main reception. From there the rest of the College sprawls.
Taking a walking tour of the site, I could see how each component of the College contributed to the whole. In some cases, the design was more coherent than others, but at each turn my interest was aroused. Small classrooms were linked to apartments by enclosed glass corridors. Rooms were designed with jarring shapes, and a variety of textured concrete and besser bricks has been utilised.
Kevin Borland’s influence in the design of Clyde Cameron College is abundantly apparent, with many stylistic reminders of the Harold Holt Memorial Pool. Yet the design of the College is far more adventurous than Borland’s earlier work and contains far more detail, even if that detail consists of various rounded or square ‘chunks’, tubular tunnels and curved stairwells in keeping with the béton brut ideal.
As I strolled, I could feel the complex coax me further, if for no other reason than to see what architectural absurdity would be encountered next. I was not disappointed, for the absurdities were in heavy abundance.
It’s Time. Maybe.
As intriguing (and confusing) as the Clyde Cameron College complex is, the rise and fall of its tenant organisation, the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA) is as chaotic and brutal as the building that housed it. Brutalist architecture was wrapped in ideology, and understandably, so was TUTA.
TUTA was established under the Trade Union Training Authority Act 1975; a hasty attempt by the Whitlam Labor government to establish such an organisation before the government was thrown out of office.
Named in honour of the then-serving Minister for Labour, Clyde Cameron College was to provide participant-centred approaches to adult education courses which were ideologically and politically independent from individual unions and the Commonwealth Government. To achieve this, academics from the Centre for Continuing Education at the Australian National University guided the development of the curriculum in those early years.
The incoming Fraser Coalition government gave begrudging support for the establishment of TUTA, but only agreed to continue the building of the College on account of its status as being politically neutral.
Because of the tumultuous political environment of the 1970’s, TUTA didn’t believe that it’s funding for the project would be secure if there was a change of government. Hence, in what would be considered a scandalous affront to public administration today, the contract for building Clyde Cameron College was tendered at the design sketch stage. Construction was commenced in haste with the priority being that construction should be as advanced as possible as soon as possible, despite the lack of detailed architectural drawings and plans. It should come as no surprise that a massive budget blow-out occurred. A $3 million project quickly became a $6 million project.
Given the client, it was agreed that the building should be used to express the trades and craftsmanship of the builders who constructed it. Brutalism was believed to be the best way to fulfil that ideal.
Today, it could be seen as an absurd concept that a “raw” and “unembellished” building should showcase trade skills, but in the 1970’s that made good sense. And so it was that the Clyde Cameron College was eventually built.
Kevin Borland was proud of his team’s work in designing and building Clyde Cameron College, believing that he’d created an architectural masterpiece. Borland submitted his design to the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) in 1979 but received no award, as he later wrote with notable bitterness, in Architect magazine in 1982:
(Clyde Cameron College) was adjudged on completion in the 1979 Awards for the Building Awards, two architects regarding it as the best building of 1979, and two non-architects as the worst with the chairman not exercising his casting vote, hence it received no award, not even a citation. It has subsequently received a great deal of publicity overseas and is now the source of numerous visits by International Trade Union authorities.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the RAIA finally acknowledged his work with an award for enduring architecture.
In Accordance with Change
The first years of TUTA’s existence were a success. Aside from Clyde Cameron College, TUTA had campuses in each state and territory capital city which operated in a semi-autonomous manner. Enrolments rose, and feedback from students was positive.
However, according to Voll (1997), things changed when the Prices and Incomes Accord was enacted and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) started having direct involvement in the operations of TUTA.
I won’t detail those changes here, but suffice to say that the curriculum was changed at the insistence of the ACTU. As the union movement started to view TUTA as one of its own tools, the Accord was to be uncritically endorsed in the curriculum. Also at the insistence of the ACTU, the method of teaching changed from participant-centred to instructive. According to Voll (1997), enrolments and student satisfaction fell, especially when key courses were abolished and replaced with arguably partisan subject matter.
This change meant that the support which TUTA had received from the Coalition had evaporated. Abolition of TUTA was proposed as policy in John Hewson’s Fightback! campaign of 1993, and finally enacted when John Howard was elected to government in 1996. The Liberal Party believed that taxpayers’ money should not be used to advance the cause of unionism.
That year, the affairs of TUTA were wound-up and the Clyde Cameron College was closed. The building was sold to private owners, who used it as the basis for establishing the Murray Valley Private Hospital.
As it Currently Stands
Fortunately, and despite its tumultuous past, the Clyde Cameron College building remains largely intact, save for a small extension on it’s northern side. Given that the building was designed as a residential college, its transformation into a hospital has been remarkably successful.
That said, the building has not aged well, as is common for many Brutalist buildings. The concrete, most especially on the tunnels, has become stained with black grime and requires cleaning. The gardens, which were once so well maintained have been allowed to disintegrate on many parts of the site.
Not long after I visited the Clyde Cameron College in January 2009, the Heritage Council added the building to the Victorian Heritage Register.
With its controversial political past, it’s hastily-executed construction and it’s status as a unique example of Australian Brutalist architecture, I hope that funds will be made available to perform some restorative works on a unique Australian building.
- Borland, K. (1982) Projects in the Albury-Wodonga area. Architect, August, p. 17
- Cupper, L. (1980) Public funded trade union education in Australia. Industrial Relations Journal 11 (1): 57-68.
- Day, N. (1977) Essential Speed. Architecture Australia 66 (1): 78-82
- Evans, D. et al. (2006) Kevin Borland: Architecture from the Heart. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Press, Melbourne, Australia. ISBN: 9781921166204
- Hutson, A.E.W. (2003) ‘Architects Group and the pipe dreams of Clyde Cameron College’ in Gusheh, M. & Stead, N. (eds), Progress: The proceedings of the twentieth annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. pp.158-162. Sydney, Australia.
- McDougall, M. (2009) Adding to the recent past: Challenges in distinguishing new work from the not so old. Proceedings of the ‘(Un)Loved Modern’ Conference. Sydney, Australia. [Full Text]
- Szego, J. (2005) To be Brutal, our modern heritage is set in concrete. The Age, 23 December, p.8
- Voll, G.R. (1997) Time’s up for TUTA – A Corporatist Casualty. Proceedings of the Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand Conference. pp.592-599. Brisbane, Australia. [Full Text]