New students and visitors to the evergreen Sydney Law School, while strolling down the corridors cutting through the second floor, may feel their eyes drawn to the steady gaze of a few old luminaries of the faculty, whose former presence is commemorated in a series of striking portraits. So at home do these characters look that these onlookers may be forgiven for imagining them wandering those same corridors many years ago. Indeed, it may be easier to place them within the modern glass palace than within a brutalist building inspired by an outdated pedagogy.
Yet their true home was the latter, an old brown building still standing proudly in Sydney’s legal precinct, bearing the university’s insignia despite having been sold to new masters. The former St James Campus’ brutalist style places it alongside the Sydney Masonic Centre, the Sirius Building, and the UTS Tower, buildings whose visual presence emanates from the exposed structures of raw concrete. Completed in 1969, the location was chosen to give easy access to students undertaking their articles of clerkship in between their studies, and the style fit the image of a disciplined, functional institution. It was in fact the Law School’s second incarnation on Philip Street, as half a century prior it had occupied the former Wigram Chambers nearby.
The building was sold in early 2015 to funds giants Galileo Group and ISPT for an estimated $45 million, who subsequently lodged an application to redevelop it into a luxury apartment building, while engaging various architects in a competitive design process. The Law School maintained possession until mid-2015. The timing is not surprising as Sydney is undergoing a redevelopment boom and cranes fill the skyline like never before. And so time passes.
In late 2015, I was given the privilege of walking through the building to take photos and reflect. During the limbo years, between the shift back to Camperdown and the sale of the old campus, the building was truly multipurpose. Alongside many of my peers, I attended classes in its old classrooms, given by barristers at their convenience, while the Refugee Advice and Case Service, and Justice Connect, worked hard at their offices upstairs. On a few idle days, the critically-acclaimed series Rake, about a self-destructive criminal defence barrister, used the classrooms and corridors to film certain scenes. It was just my luck that I would come across an old practice sheet from the script lying in a corner of the old library.
The tour was an exercise in slow, aimless wandering, as neither my guide nor I were sure what the building would reveal. The public interest organisations had recently moved, leaving behind law reports, crockery and all sorts of office paraphernalia. Within these rooms one could also find exposed wiring and hydraulic systems, the building’s exposed veins. The computers at the underground lecture theatres were oddly still logged on to the University of Sydney network.
In the library, disordered piles of folders lay alongside an old microfilm reader and an almost tactile silence. From the window-side desks students would have seen the Supreme Court and various chambers while flipping through exam notes. The desks are still there, the small graffiti engravings all the more apparent, and with a series of postcards laid out on one, suggesting an exotic world outside the embrace of these walls. I got to access the roof and took in a vantage that only the more adventurous students of yesteryear would have looked on. In 1969, with few buildings rising over 100 metres, the view would have been more breathtaking and commanding.
It was a time when students’ lives revolved to a greater extent to the study and practice of law. The Faculty gained a reputation for being isolated from the rest of campus culture, even managing to escape the reach of a university-wide indoor smoking ban for a few years, but also held its own college identity, with a highly idiosyncratic law revue and faculty songs. This history is still visible on the building’s walls, with some of the lower offices adorned with posters from the nineties and before. Within these offices also lay Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a series of Immanuel Kant volumes, and a Swedish dictionary. Fortunately, perhaps the faculty’s oldest historical touchstones, in the form of four relief sculptures known as the “Four Just Men”, were recently relocated to a wall upstairs from the new Law Library. These sculptures once adorned the facade of Wigram Chambers, and then of the St James campus, and were speculated to depict the first four law students to have failed.
To walk through such a storied building may evoke nostalgia for the many alumni and academics, among them renowned silks, judges and former Deans, who spent years there in passion and toil. But for me, who undertook first year classes in the newly-inaugurated Law School in 2009, the experience was more material. They were of a building recently freed from the academic functionality of the Law faculty which gave birth to it. As most students look forward to an education and career defined by the opportunities and constraints of the corporate legal market, these scattered remains, and the building itself, stand as fragments of a long, proud, history, quietly awaiting the next chapter.