Ken Woolley (Design Architect),
Edward Herbert (Ted) Farmer (NSW Government Architects Office)
& Tom E O’Mahoney
date of completion
University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW
– NSW State Agency Section 170 Heritage Register
The Fisher Library was one of the most significant and successful public architectural projects in Sydney in the 1960s. Initiated in 1953 as enrolments grew quickly, the new library marked a transition from an older conception of the institution as a privileged enclave of scholarship and elite networking towards a modern, knowledge-centred, public resource.
The Fisher Library houses what are arguably the university’s most important collections, its books, manuscripts and archives, in a pair of buildings. The first of the two to be constructed, and the award winner, was the five storey undergraduate library. It is a frankly expressed column and slab structure, with columns clad in bronze and infill panels in sandstone.
The second stage of the development, its contrasting vertical component, was the eight story “bookstacks” building. The two elements are linked via an expansive vestibule that that retains much of its original architectural interest and spatial quality. The selection of fine materials – terrazzo flooring, stone clad walls and Australian hardwood balustrades – announces its importance in the overall hierarchy of university buildings. It is a formally dignified, yet tactile and visually warm building that maintains more of its original character and quality than one might expect for a building of this vintage.
Text adapted from an entry by Cameron Logan in Australia Modern: Architecture, Landscape and Design 1925-1975, Hannah Lewi and Philip Goad (2019, Thames and Hudson).
An assessment of significance has been undertaken in 2008 in the Conservation Management Plan prepared by Clive Lucas Stapleton and Partners in 2008. The building won both the Sulman Award and the RIBA Bronze Medal in 1962. The Library is regarded as fine example of the post WW2 work by the NSW Government Architect and the design architect, Ken Woolley, and Tom O’Mahony of O’Mahony, Neville and Morgan.
The building is regarded as having outstanding architectural merit.
The library was an important focal point of the new Eastern Avenue precinct which developed in the late 1950s-1960s. The development of this precinct, with its own entrance on City Road, together with the extension of the campus into Darlington changed both the focus and flow of University life for many students and staff away from its traditional heart in the main quadrangle and Science Road.
The first stage of the Fisher Library is an international modern style reinforced concrete framed three-storey building with cantilevered floor and roof slabs. The design of the building clearly shows the influence of Mies Van de Rohe. Externally the frame and cantilever to the slabs is clad with copper/bronze (confirm). The building rests on a terrace that appears to float. At ground level, the walls, which are set behind the frame, are clad with stone. Seating is cantilevered in alternate bays. The first floor is glazed and the second floor contains an extensive roof terrace which is formed by a continuation of the external frame.
The second stage, the bookstack is a multistorey copper/bronze-clad building with limited openings to prevent light from reaching the books. The large air conditioning plant is expressed as a separate element on the roof.
The new library, replacing the original Fisher Library built as part of the main quadrangle in 1902-1909, was designed by joint architects E H Farmer (the NSW Government Architect) and T E O’Mahony. Planned for construction in stages the library comprised two separate sections, one for undergraduates and the other for staff and senior scholars, linked by administration and special services, with the main entrance serving both. The first stage, a five-storey undergraduate wing with seating for approximately 2,000 had open access book stacks and individual carrels. The air conditioning plant was the largest of its type then in Australia. The building was colloquially known, during construction, as ‘The tea-house of the August moon’, a reference to a film then current and its Japanese-style appearance. The first stage, the undergraduate wing was opened in 1962. The nine-storey, copper-clad, stack section was completed in 1971 by the firm of O’Mahony Neville & Morgan. Although originally designed as the research library for senior scholars and staff, the stack section became an open access area for all readers. The two basement levels were used as University offices including the offices of the Chancellor.