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Sydney’s Frank Gehry building officially opened

Frank Gehry’s only Australian building – the University of Technology Sydney’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building – was officially opened on Tuesday before a high-level audience that included the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, federal education minister Christopher Pyne and Mr Gehry himself.

The building, an unconventional, undulating structure commonly referred to as “a crumpled brown paper bag”, is the result of a strategic decision by UTS to position itself as a global centre of innovation. It comes in at a cost of $180 million, over a mammoth $11,000 a square metre, though UTS is betting that the international pulling power of this starchitect-designed business school will more than pay off.

Dr Chau Chak Wing

Dr Chau Chak Wing

The building, named after its principal benefactor Dr Chau Chak Wing, who donated $20 million, forms the centrepiece of UTS’s $1.2 billion master plan to address the fragmentation of the university’s buildings and create a more unified campus environment among its many city assets, and perhaps also take some of the spotlight away from its most visible though least appealing building, the brutalist UTS Tower.

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Stainless-steel-stairOfficially opening the building was Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, with education minister Christopher Pyne in tow. Architect Frank Gehry was there for his only Australian appearance along with philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing, who donated $20 million to the building’s construction.

Chancellor VIcky Sara and architect Frank Gehry

Chancellor VIcky Sara and architect Frank Gehry

UTS Chancellor Professor Vicki Sara told media the building was a masterpiece of design and engineering, but its importance was in its symbolism.

“It epitomises our vision to be a world-leading university of technology, which is founded on the intersection of creativity and innovation,” Professor Sara said.

The Governor-General said the building had no comparisons to his own “austere and rigid” higher learning experience at the Royal Military College Duntroon.

He praised the functionality of the space, as well the originality and beauty, and the sense of awe and wonder the building provoked.

“We have this wonderful propensity in Australia to seek immediately to attach a tag,” he said, “and I have to tell you it’s the most beautiful squashed brown paper bag I have ever seen.”

Gehry hesitates on building’s success

Gehry, asked if the Dr Chau Chak Wing building was “his best one yet” told the audience he had some children and never tried to differentiate between them.

The greatest achievement, Gehry said, tongue in cheek, was that the building was built on time and budget.

Though asked a simple question – “Are you happy with it?” – Gehry hesitated.

“Oh boy. I’m Jewish and I feel guilty about everything… It takes me two years to come around. I see all the things I would change and want to change,” he said.

Frank Gehry

Frank Gehry

However, he then said he was pleased with the building, though he hadn’t seen it in operation.

And that’s where the success of this new building lies – in how the building works in practice and how students adapt to and use the myriad flexible spaces available to them, a flexibility Gehry said was now essential for the university sector.

When business students flow into the building for the first semester of university later this month is when we’ll see whether Gehry’s bold vision works in reality.

Pyne promotes deregulation

Education minister Christopher Pyne didn’t miss an opportunity to spruik the federal government’s plans for university deregulation.

“The wonderful thing about this marvellous building is that it shouts out to the world that the University of Technology Sydney is in the race in higher education,” he said. “It is a real competitor. That it is not content to sit back and receive large government support, student

Education minister Christopher Pyne came with a political message

Education minister Christopher Pyne came with a political message

support.”

Mr Pyne said deregulation would allow universities to attach a “real value” to the services they provided to students.

“So if UTS has the best entrepreneurship MBA in Australia it will be able to attach a real value to that rather than costing exactly the same as any other MBA in Australia regardless of whether other MBAs have the same quality,” he said.

However, as UTS’s Peter Booth has previously said, fees are already substantially deregulated and about 40 per cent of UTS students pay fees that the university sets. Fees for many postgraduate courses like the MBA have no Commonwealth Supported Places, and the price of an MBA at UTS ranges from $53,568 up to $118,080 for the Juris Doctor MBA.

Chancellor Sara, in what could have been a diplomatic rebuff, thanked the minister for “reminding us all what an exceptionally good, world-class university system Australia has”.

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