Getting Around  the Orthodoxy

Getting Around the Orthodoxy

There is a possibility that I wrote this entire feature in order to begin with the fact that I was in New York over the summer break. With that in mind, I was in New York over the summer break. One night, I found myself in a SoHo loft, deep in conversation with an architect. In an alignment of bizarre coincidences, I soon discovered that this architect was part of the firm that designed Otago University’s Information Services Building (or as normal people like to call it, the library). Since returning to university, it continually strikes me how much history exists, not only inside the University’s walls but also literally within, on top of, and around them. Furthermore, the process of creating a university campus involves such a variety of ideas and people that, like the design of the Archway Lecture Theatres, it is barely comprehensible.


While the Otago settlement developed, one-eighth of the profits from the sale of land in Otago was kept aside for “religious and educational uses” but funds remained limited due to the slow economic growth of the area. This changed after the discovery of gold in 1861, which briefly turned Dunedin into an industrial centre. Otago University was conceived in 1869, when the Otago Provincial Council provided 100,000 acres of pastoral land as an endowment and authorised the University to grant degrees in Arts, Medicine, Law and Music. In July of 1871, the University’s three Professors opened the doors to students for the first time (the opening party must have been awkwardly empty) and the University has since developed into a 20,000 student strong institution.

Although you may not realise that Dunedin extends beyond the Octagon, the University was originally housed in the William Mason’s Post Office building (later the Stock Exchange) on Princes Street. However, with the completion of the Clocktower and Geology buildings in 1878 and 1879 respectively, the University moved to its present site, previously known as the Botanical Gardens Reserve. The Clocktower and Geology buildings represented a Gothic revival style of architecture inspired by buildings on the Glasgow University campus in Scotland.

The Tunnel

Now don’t get me wrong, Dunedin is a very important city and I’m sure that the rest of the world views it this way. Thus I am certain that Dunedin’s fear of a Japanese invasion or bombings in WWII were well founded. However, only two words came to mind when I heard that, in anticipation of this catastrophe, our academic ancestors built a tunnel beneath the University. Those two words were “paranoid schizophrenia.” This lesser-known tunnel is located underneath the Quadrangle and Geology buildings.

The Richardson

C ritic’s editor convinced German tourists that Richardson was a product of New Zealand’s short-lived communist era. Another Critic staff member heard that this building was modelled on a prison for detaining overzealous students, from back in the glory days when riots were common and today’s apathy had not yet spread throughout the student community.

The Richardson, completed in 1979, was formerly known as the Hocken building, but the Hocken ended up moving to an old dairy factory on Anzac Avenue. The building’s current name comes from John Larkins Cheese Richardson, who was the first Vice-Chancellor of the University. There was appropriate uproar within a sector of the public when the building wasn’t called “Cheese.” This late Modernist building was designed by the Dunedin firm McCoy & Wixon – apparently the use of precast concrete panels interlaced with glass passageways avoids the ruthless gridded feel that is typical of high rises. Although architect Ted McCoy was determined to avoid a diagrammatic and bland outcome when creating such a large building, I have yet to meet one person who admires it.

Commerce Building

Further on from this area is the comparatively modern Commerce building. Speculation abounds that the building was originally designed without a roof for somewhere either in Fiji or Hawaii. When the project fell through, the University bought the plans instead but had to retrofit a roof to the original design. This faulty collaborative effort has been used to explain the building’s occasional leaks in heavy rain. A warning to you – allegedly the Commerce building is prime real estate on the post-town bonk circuit so those puddles you slip in on a Monday morning might not be made of raindrops.

The Archway

Every day when you walk onto campus using one of the university’s infinite entrances, you’re entering wrong. Since its completion in 1914, the Archway between Archway Lecture Theaters and the Quadrangle was the formal entrance to the University. The Archway used to be called the “Tunnel of Tears,” a nickname adopted from times when the notice boards that line its walls were used to post exam results. However, both the enactment of the Privacy Act and practicality (with around 20,000 students to deal with) has meant this was discontinued.

The mysteries of the Archway continue if you walk through it towards the Archway Lecture Theatres then turn to face it. You may be surprised, as I was, at the extent of your inability to be observant. Carved in stone above Archway are figures more grotesque than your ethereal aunt’s collection of Troll Dam dolls. Each figure represents the various branches of learning, from Law to Mining (from the days when subjects that provided students with practical skills weren’t a sign of social inferiority).

The final mystery of the Archway may have you mistrusting everyone. It turns out that only one of the towers on the Archway gatehouse is actually real – the rest are solid concrete.

Archway Lecture Theatres

The Archway Lecture Theatres have to be one of the most polarising buildings on campus. At least twice a week back in second-year law, this circle of identical-looking lecture rooms would spew a confused, non-law student into our lecture theatre. In another class, it was reported that a student spontaneously threw up in one of the theatres and ran out. The bizarreness of Archway was embodied in a surreal, David Lynch-esque incident when the theatre’s emergency phone rung. After our lecturer questioned us as to whether he should answer it, he did so, and then proceeded to ask us whether anyone in the theatre was quietly dying. Nobody, including the dead person, had any idea what was going on.

McCoy & Wixon designed archway as well, in 1974. Either the firm’s architecture doesn’t age well, or they were specifically employed to stimulate critical thinking. Although the building looks like a concrete spaceship discarded from the set of Startrek, it was actually modelled on Louis Kahn’s Tenton Bathhouse. Unfortunately, the intended central courtyard was discarded in favour of a poorly coordinated toilet block. The terror continues to the outside of Archway, which features a cluster of outdoor spiral staircases, jail-like toilets continuing the prison theme of the Richardson and four 1970s graphics painted on the building’s external walls. The four arrow graphics are waiting for a Da Vinci code assessment and I am certain the theatres have a central control where a squat alien resides, living out its days smoking cigarettes and wallowing in the repetitive grief of Property Law.


The Clocktower is a complex similar to Helen Clark – it is fun to take a photo with but most students don’t want to go inside. Although it was built in 1878, it was not until 1931 that it obtained its first clock, which was donated by the University Chancellor at the time, Sir Thomas Sidey. Between completion of the Clocktower and the addition of its clock, New Zealand’s first radio programme aired from its basement in 1921.

Today, the Clocktower houses only the University administration, but over the years it has been the focal point for the odd student protest, including in 1996 when the Council Chamber was occupied by students for several days to protest student fees. If you are a classy person (which you must be because you’re reading Critic) and you have accidentally splattered mud on your boots, the Clocktower has a boot scraper right of the front steps (which were initially necessary because Dunedin’s streets were not paved until 1879). Finally, if for some reason you find yourself actually inside the Clocktower, try and find the Council Chamber where old desktops from lecture theatres with student carvings are displayed. One generation’s graffiti is another generation’s artifact.

Burns Building

I am morally torn whether or not to tell you about this architectural quirk. Oh – you’ve convinced me. The Burns Building, named after the University’s first Chancellor, Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, has become rather less holy than its namesake. One Monday last year, I had a three-hour gap between lectures and I decided to use the time to catch up on study in the library. I tightened the straps on my canvas backpack, feeling my books hot against my spine, eager to be caressed by my studious hands. However, as I made my way to a spare desk that had a direct view of the Burns building, I saw something that meant I could never go to that side of the library again. The head of a man was hunched over his body, moving back and forth. A coldness went through me. After a few more head bobs, the man stood up, pressed something behind him then washed his hands and I realised I had just witnessed a staff member choking the snake. I looked up to the next floor and saw another staff member doing the same. The one-sided glass of the Burns building is one-sided no more.

Information Services Building

Despite ten years of thorough planning, the library is not safe from oddity. There are two seat structures on the centre of the second floor that may cause you to re-think your study spot. Keeping with the theme of political movements predominant in the WWII, the two identical study spots with four bent walls resemble Swastikas from above. In stark contrast to the communist design of the Richardson building, these fascist structures were the only way the University could subtly encourage balanced political thinking.

This is Not a Phone Booth

Behind the Clocktower complex, facing onto the Quadrangle is an emergency phone. This phone is not just for ordinary emergencies: it also takes calls for cross-dimensional troubles. Some believe that this phone is actually a TARDIS; and everyone knows that a properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time, anywhere in the universe. However, when I viewed the TARDIS for the first time, I wasn’t sure if it could be categorised as “properly maintained.” If it were a TARDIS I’d go back in time to tell myself not to make the effort in searching for it. I’d also warn McCoy from McCoy & Wixon architects to stay away from Wixon.

Marples Building

The science buildings on Great King St also have their wonders. Near the Cook is the Marples Building where the Zoology department now resides. The top floor of this building has a deliberately sloping floor ending at a drainage gutter. This setup was arranged to wash away blood and other fluids from the times when the building housed the Dental School – giving rise to the phrase, “head in the gutter.”

Annexed to the Zoology building is the most exciting place on campus, the Glassblowing Unit. The Glassblowing Unit makes an array of glass products. One of the unit’s recent projects involved making a replica glass snail shell to observe how a hermit crab fits inside a shell. Take your friends along – it’s open from Monday to Friday between 9.30am to 5.00pm.

Lindo Ferguson Building

Further down Great King is the Lindo Ferguson Building. This building was originally designed in 1901, but due to lack of funds and the distraction of WWI, the building was only completed in 1927. During construction, the building had a railway track built on top so a steam crane could move across the site to install the roof trusses and lift building materials.

The Lindo Ferguson Building was designed with two lift shafts – one of which was originally used to move bodies up from mortuary in the basement. The bodies were elevated using a hand-operated rope lift system. The rope lift was too narrow to move bodies up on a gurney so instead, they were propped up vertically, prompting ongoing complaints.

The wonders of the Lindo Ferguson Building continue in its accommodation of the W.D. Trotter Anatomy Museum. The museum, established in 1874, displays an almost 50/50 ratio of donated bodies and models. Despite it being a lesser-known institution, it retains international significance thanks to its extensive collections. Students and staff of the Department of Anatomy can bring friends and family members into the museum, but students have to ask the Museum Curator for permission before they do this.
This article first appeared in Issue 11, 2013.
Posted 2:26pm Sunday 12th May 2013 by Loulou Callister-Baker.