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A vital new beating heart for the ANU

Remarks at the opening of the Kambri Precinct, ANU, Canberra, 11 February 2019

The establishment of this magnificent new Kambri precinct as the vital new beating heart of this great national university of ours – its name wonderfully gifted to us by the First Australian custodians of this land, to whose elders past and present I pay my own respects – is by far the biggest single development in the seven decades since the ANU was founded.

Projects of this massive size and impact, and world class quality, don't just happen: they are the product of years – in this case more than five – of planning, design, construction and transition management. It is my particular responsibility, and pleasure, this morning to thank at least some of the key players who have made all this happen.

I couldn't possibly single out them all, because – as well as the close to 2,000 men and women who have worked on the project from conception to implementation, including more than 700 construction workers on site each day at the height of the building phase – there are literally scores who played leadership roles in different aspects of the project at different stages.

There were, and no doubt remain, in the ANU community many very sentimentally attached to the old Union Court – and it is hard to see disappear places where you have spent some of the most formative and best years of your life. But I think most have been prepared to acknowledge that, in its last years, it looked and felt old, worn out and no longer fit for purpose as the communal heart of the university. And this was the perception that led to the decision of the University Council which I chair, back in 2013, to set about replacing it.

But implementing that decision – in the course of which our Chief Operating Officer Chris Grange has been the presiding genius throughout – meant overcoming a large number of challenges going beyond emotional attachment.

The first was to conceptualise what combination of buildings, in what kind of broad configuration, was likely to be necessary to meet the university’s needs – Phil Heaney, now with the project managers Colonysix, but involved with the enterprise from the very beginning, was the key player in developing the Union Court renewal master plan here, along with Joe Hruda of Civitas.

The second challenge was to involve the wider university community in testing those concepts as they evolved, contributing ideas about facilities and services, and providing a reality check on what was likely to be acceptable. Kate Meyrick of THI was the major consultant here, conducting over a thousand interviews with staff and students, under the very engaged internal leadership of our former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, and with the particularly close involvement of successive student leaders, especially Ben Gill, James Connolly, Eleanor Kay and Alyssa Shaw.

The third challenge was to work out how the hell to pay for it all. And here the financial wizardry of Chris Grange, working with our former Chief Financial Officer Alistair Sinton and external consultants Flagstaff, and with intense involvement throughout by my colleagues on the Finance and Major Projects Committees of Council, came up with the solution of utilising, through a long-term concessional arrangement, the capital otherwise tied up in existing student accommodation buildings, which released the $220 million for Kambri that you can see today has been so well spent.

The fourth challenge was to come up with a detailed design that brought all the different building elements together as a harmonious ensemble. This was the part of the enterprise with which I was most closely personally involved (some would no doubt think too involved, but I can live with that) and I have to say that in my judgement – and I hope and believe the overwhelming judgment of those here today – BVN, with its design team led by James Grose and Ninotschka Titchkosky, supported by ASPECT on landscaping issues, have succeeded absolutely brilliantly.

BVN has created exactly what the University Council asked for – not a competitively shrieking cacophony of ‘look at me’s, but a set of buildings that, while each is uniquely distinctive, together constitute an integrated ensemble of timeless elegance, drawing inspiration in both their form and colour palette from the lovely old heritage Chifley Library, an iconic ANU building which itself remains a core part of the precinct. There will be plenty of colour and movement and noise and vibrancy around these buildings, but that will come from the people using them, not the buildings themselves.

The fifth challenge was to engage project management and construction teams who could bring the whole enormous enterprise to completion on time and within budget – overcoming inevitable setbacks along the way (the biggest of them, of course, the flood of February 2018), not to mention maintaining productive industrial relations with our good friends in the CFMEU. I warmly thank in this respect the management teams from Lendlease and Colonysix, who have all performed with outstanding professionalism and commitment, as have all the guys and girls who worked on site, through all the cold and the wet and the heat that Canberra can turn on, to produce the buildings we now see, with a pride in their craftsmanship which is totally self-evident in the final product.

The sixth challenge was to secure the approval of the relevant government authorities for this huge project, which interfaces so directly with the life of the wider Canberra community. This was made easier to overcome by the compelling quality of the design team’s product, but I do want to express the University’s warm appreciation of the cooperative approach shown by the ACT government, and in particular the great support of the National Capital Authority, not least through the close engagement from the outset of the NCA’s former CEO, Malcolm Snow.

The seventh and final challenge was to manage the huge task of providing necessary transition facilities in the pop-up village and elsewhere during the two-year construction phase, and then managing the occupancy of all the new spaces. There are far too many contributors here for me to be comfortable singling out anyone – even the Drill Hall Director Terence Malloon, who just happened to drum up some $20 million worth of financial support, through the Sidney Nolan mural and the Indigenous paintings from the Craig Edwards collection which, as you can see, have set this Cultural Centre alight from the outset!

But this is the point at which I can’t not thank and congratulate –and I don’t think any of us can really thank him enough – our unflappable ANU Director of Major Projects, Robert Hitchcock, for his hands on, day-to-day supervision over the last three years of the whole enormously complex project through all its implementation stages.

It is through the huge contribution of every one I have mentioned individually, and many others as well – not least all my colleagues on successive University Councils, and the two Vice-Chancellors who have been involved in bringing the project to fruition, Ian Young and Brian Schmidt – that we have achieved the breathtaking, absolutely world class and indeed world-leading, development that we are opening here today.

The thought I want to leave you with, however, is that this is only the beginning. With the opening of Kambri, and the opening last week of the new Bruce and Wright Halls, the magnificent products of the vision and generosity of Graham and Louise Tuckwell, we are now on a roll so far as the future physical development of this campus is concerned – on a roll in terms of creating the unrivalled campus experience that our Strategic Plan demands.

The new Campus Master Plan, on which the Campus Planning Committee and external consultants have been working all last year, is just about complete and will be unveiled in the next few months. This will guide us over the next two decades or so in transforming the whole physical fabric of ANU:

  • concentrating new development around five clearly defined hubs (of which Kambri will be just one, albeit the mother of them all),
  • creating grand new gateways to the university (particularly at University Avenue, the transformation of which has already taken a big leap forward as part of the Kambri project),
  • bringing greater harmony and elegance to our future architecture (using the Kambri design palette as our guide),
  • transforming the circulation system by pushing out cars to the perimeter and giving primacy in the centre to pedestrians and bikes, and
  • making far more than we ever have before of our greatest physical asset, our fabulous natural bush setting.

We can all be hugely proud of what we have collectively achieved with Kambri. It’s a fabulous milestone in the life of this university. But – ANU, Canberra and the nation – you ain’t seen nothing yet!