University of Otago Clocktower complex

Coordinates: 45°51′56″S 170°30′52″E / 45.86556°S 170.51444°E / -45.86556; 170.51444
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The University of Otago Registry Building, west side
Map of the Clocktower complex
1. Registry/Clocktower building
2. Geology Block
3. Professorial Houses (2)
4. Staff Club
5. Marama Hall
6. School of Mines / Archway building
7. Allen Hall Theatre
8. Home Science
9. St David Street footbridge
10. Union Street bridge
Chequered streets are pedestrian only.

The University of Otago Clocktower complex is a group of architecturally and historically significant buildings in the centre of the University of Otago campus. Founded in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1869, the University of Otago was the expression of the province's Scottish founders' commitment to higher education. They were also the inheritors of a strong architectural tradition and gritty determination. Defending the decision to build inexpensive materials in an elaborate historicizing manner the Chancellor, Dr. D.M. Stuart, said "the Council had some old-world notions and liked to have a university with some architectural style".[1] This attitude persisted for over fifty years and resulted in an impressive group of buildings.

Building history[edit]

The university was originally housed in William Mason’s post office in what is now the Exchange area of the central city. It was decided the building and the location was unsuitable and the university managed to acquire the site then housing the Botanic Gardens in North Dunedin beside the Water of Leith.[2]

This was two of the city blocks surveyed by Charles Kettle bounded by St David Street in the north, Albany Street to the south, Leith Street to the east, and Castle Street on the west side. It was bisected west to east by Union Street. The Water of Leith traversed it from the north running along its Castle Street margin though turning to flow eastward beyond the Union Street crossing. Architectural opinion of the day favored the site now occupied by Otago Boys' High School.[3] The university authorities were under the misapprehension that the city had given up the stretch of Union Street bisecting the site.[4]

An architectural competition was held and was won by Maxwell Bury (1825–1912). His plans to build in brick in the Classical style were changed to build in the Gothic style in stone.[5] His conception was of two parallel ranges running north and south in the more northerly of the two city blocks. One range with a clock tower would face west across the Leith to Castle Street. (University of Otago Clocktower Building.) The other behind it, now called the Geology Block, would run close along the eastern Leith Street boundary. There would be four professorial houses in two semidetached blocks, in brick in the Queen Anne Style, immediately to the north, facing St David Street.[6]

Construction began in 1878 and it seems the north part of the Geology Block was completed that year while the north part of the Clocktower Building and the Professorial Houses were completed in 1879.[7] Costs to that date were 31,275 pounds.[8] In 1883 Bury was called back to oversee a southward extension of the Geology Block. With this his work on the complex ended.[9]

The resulting two large ranges were of bluestone with Oamaru stone facings and slate roofs on foundations of Port Chalmers breccia. A contemporary described them as “Domestic Gothic, somewhat severe” and as “a venerable pile”.[10]

The reference to “Domestic” Gothic was perhaps inspired by the oriel window and the clock tower on the Clocktower Block but the rows of lancet windows give the structures an ecclesiastical air. They were clearly intended to evoke the ancient university buildings of England and Scotland which represent a domestic type of church architecture. The use of corbels, turrets, and undressed masonry give the buildings a specifically Scottish Baronial feeling.

It has been pointed out the tower shows the influence of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s (1811–1878) University of Glasgow completed in 1870.[11] It does but even at this early stage there were significant differences. Scott’s building was a hilltop monument while this is a low-lying structure in a riverside setting. Bury’s surviving drawings show he intended the ranges to be extended and the Clocktower Block to have a symmetrically balanced principal western facade.[12] In the event the whole group and this particular feature developed differently.

After a long pause, a building for the Dental School was completed on the corner of Castle and Union Streets in 1907 to the design of J.Louis Salmond (1868–1950).[13] (It is now the Staff Club.) In 1908 the School of Mines was constructed, designed by Edmund Anscombe (1874–1948). He now conceived and carried out a different development of the whole complex.[14]

Geology Block building
Archway Building, looking south through the arch
Marama Hall
One of two identical Professorial House buildings
Staff Club
Home Science Block

In 1913 he extended the Geology Block.[15] In 1914 he completed a southward extension of the Clocktower Block. The same year he completed the "Students’ Union": Allen Hall and another block which were linked to the School of Mines by an archway opening to Union Street.[16] In 1920 his Home Science School was completed across Union Street to the south.[17] The Home Science Building is a Category 1 historic place, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 2226).

In 1922 he completed the Clocktower Block with a further southward extension. The following year his Marama Hall, between the Geology Block and Allen Hall, was opened.[18] He also extended the Dental School.[19] All of these structures were built in complementary bluestone with Oamaru stone facings in the now thematic Gothic style. The cost of this new burst of the building was substantially more than 30,000 pounds.[20]

An ornamental footbridge had been put across the Leith at St David Street in 1903.[21] Following severe flooding in 1923 and 1929 the stream was extensively channeled where it passes the Clocktower Block.[22] After the 1929 flood, which damaged the Union Street vehicle bridge, it was repaired and furnished with ornamental bluestone and ironwork to match the buildings.[23] It provided new access to what had become the complex's formal entrance at the Archway. The whole northerly city block was surrounded by decorative cast iron railing.

Anscombe had effectively extended Bury's two parallel ranges into a notional quadrangle with a formal entrance from the south. Across Union Street from that he started another quadrangle, its west flank formed by the Home Science Building set high on a cliff above the Leith. He also subtly recomposed the Clocktower Block with the double gables of its western façade's southernmost extremity balancing the asymmetry created by the further extension of this reach from the tower which had originally been intended as the centre of the composition. Even Anscombe's infill buildings and blind walls contrive to seem not haphazard, utilitarian interventions but manifestations of the slow, organic evolution of centuries. The unity of the whole was nicely underlined by the bridges, channeling, and railing.

The result was an apparently self-contained, inward-focused cloister, the turreted precinct of other-worldly scholars, presenting a proud exterior face which could be viewed and its clock tower admired, from Castle Street, across the stream, or from several other points. The internal courtyard was a self-contained world of ecclesiastical Gothic bluestone, its textures and carefully wrought details the sources of intimate pleasure and delight.

That the effect was appreciated is clear from the frequency with which it was photographed and otherwise reproduced from this time. (The gargoyles above the Union Street Archway entrance have been one of several favored subjects.)

The cost of building this way was increasingly high. The university had started a satellite campus in King Street. For decades the clock tower complex remained essentially unchanged.

In that time revivalist architecture fell out of fashion and by the late 1950s, it was being suggested by the Ministry of Works that the Clocktower Building should be demolished as an earthquake risk. The university council responded by reinforcing the building instead. But when it did, at last, extend the complex it placed a standard Education Department teaching block at right angles to the Home Science School, forming the southern flank of Anscombe's next intended quadrangle, but now in Modernist design. It had fascias of rusticated concrete blocks, made of bluestone aggregate mixed with coloured cement, to contextualize it. The first two floors were completed in 1961.[24] Two more were added later.[25] It was then named the Gregory Wing.[26]

The university now, at last, acquired the intervening stretch of Union Street, closed it to traffic, and in 1973 paved and planted the Union Street bridge which became the Bank of New Zealand Plaza, named after its sponsor. The same year saw the completion of the Archway Lecture Theatres designed by E.J.McCoy (Ted McCoy) (b. 1925). These extended onto the Union Street carriageway and were set very close to the Anscombe Home Science Building.[27] (This was apparently in anticipation of the latter's demolition and the demolition of the Archway Building.)[28]

The theatre block is a Modernist structure of cruciform plan with fair face concrete walls patterned into ribs to relieve their monotony. It is a contrast with the bluestone buildings but being more dynamic and thoughtfully finished than the 1960s Home Science extension it does more to recommend itself. The small courtyards it forms are intimate. It visibly leaves the way clear for vehicles to approach along the line of Union Street to arrive at the complex's formal entrance, Anscombe's Archway.

In the 1980s the university acquired and closed the stretch of Castle Street along the whole west boundary of its original property. The iron railings from St David Street to Union Street were removed. The university's architect, Colin Pilbrow, designed a new approach to the western side of the channel of the Leith.

That remained within its earlier walls, which describe an arc with its crown flattened where it grazes the flank of Castle Street, a characteristic constraining of nature within the formal grid of Kettle's street plan. But now Mr. Pilbrow allowed the echo of the full curve to be seen in a raised simulacrum of the wall's topmost coping swerving into and out of the former carriageway and providing a step from there down to the level of the channel walls with a semi-circular lawn between.

In the 1990s there was a contentious plan to build a new vehicular bridge at this point across the Leith to the Clocktower Block and then another for one further upstream which would have necessitated removing the St David Street footbridge. These plans were abandoned by a new Vice-Chancellor in the early 2000s. But consent has been granted to broaden the river channel into Castle Street and to replace the old, formally modeled, high retaining walls with more fluid, lower, Modernist ones. The future of the complex's buildings now seems fairly secure but not that of their long-established setting.

The buildings, especially the clock tower, have become a symbol of the university. The tower has been used at times in New Zealand as a signifier of academic life.[29] The complex is the most substantial and best-realized group of Gothic revival buildings in the country. In these respects, it is comparable with the notable assembly inaugurated by Edmund Blacket’s (1817-1883) 1861 range for the University of Sydney. The Otago group has impressed itself on the hearts and minds of generations and has inspired its share of art.[30]

Comparisons and Contrasts[edit]

As noted the complex’s main building and its tower resemble Gilbert Scott’s new building for the University of Glasgow of 1870, or at least the Glasgow structure’s principal range. Scott’s edifice was a Victorian re-interpretation of an older building, the University of Glasgow’s “Nova Erectio” (new building), two quadrangles constructed in the mid 17thC with a clock tower. Scott reproduced the two quadrangles on a larger scale. Later structures were added to this in Gothic revival style. Bury's original twin ranges for Otago were probably also intended to be developed as a quadrangle but the form this actually took was Anscombe's and is not very much like Scott's.[31]

While Scott's building was emulated elsewhere, and revivalist buildings and complexes for universities and their colleges built in the 19thC and later are numerous, they do not represent a very specific type. For example, they do not all have clock towers or archways. Even so, these ecclesiastic-seeming collegiate groups are a recurring phenomenon and may be compared.

As also noted the clear parallel in New Zealand is the group built for Canterbury College in Christchurch, now the Christchurch Arts Centre which is more modest in scale and less picturesque in its setting. There are also some school and college groups, such as those of Christ's College in Christchurch and Selwyn College, Otago and Knox College, Otago in Dunedin and St John's College, Auckland – the latter interesting for being constructed of timber. But none of these is on the scale of the Otago complex or so architecturally ambitious. Indeed, directly comparable complexes to the Otago and Canterbury ones, intended to accommodate university institutions and aiming to emulate medieval cloisters, were never built in Auckland and Wellington, the sites of New Zealand's other two 19thC tertiary foundations. There single buildings exist, but not elaborated complexes.

In Australia, the college and other buildings developed behind Blacket's principal building for the University of Sydney form a group more extensive than Otago's, though not so self-contained. There is a smaller group around the University of Melbourne’s Old Arts Building which has a clock tower. It was designed in the Tudor Gothic style by S.C. Brittingham and built between 1919 and 1924. The University of Adelaide’s Mitchell Building is also part of a group with Elder Hall, built from 1898 to 1900, and Bonython Hall, constructed between 1919 and 1924, both in Gothic revival style, the latter designed by Woods Bagot.

More distant in time is the group centred on Winthrop Hall in Perth for the University of Western Australia which was opened in 1932, designed by Conrad Sayce in what has been called a Romanesque Revival style. And, in Brisbane, the group centred on the University of Queensland’s Forgan Smith Building, completed in 1939 but extrapolated to 1979 is another. This has been called “Art Deco” but is fundamentally a revived Romanesque. The first building was designed by Hennessy, Hennessy & Co of Sydney.

In the United States Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has a comparable core, its McGraw Hall and Tower (McGraw Hall (Cornell University)) built from 1868 and at least partly designed by William Henry Miller. Yale University is noted for its principally Collegiate Gothic campus and has a number of such buildings, constructed of unreinforced stone, between 1917 and 1931, including Harkness Tower. These were designed by Henry Austin, Charles C. Haight and Russell Sturgis and form an imposing group.

In Canada the old part of the University of Toronto’s campus has University College’s building completed in 1858 in Gothic revival style and designed by Frederick Cumberland. There are courtyards and the buildings are mostly Romanesque and Gothic revival built between then and 1929, including Knox College, University of Toronto finished in 1915.

In Britain, apart from the grand complex of which Scott's building for Glasgow is the core there are several comparable groups to Otago's built for the Redbrick Universities (Red brick university).

The University of Manchester’s Old Quadrangle is impressive, the first part opened in 1873, another part, the Manchester Museum building, opened in 1888, and yet another, the former Christie Library, 1898, all designed by Alfred Waterhouse. It also includes Whitworth Hall built between 1895 and 1902, designed by his son Paul Waterhouse. These are all constructed of stone with red tile roofs in a matching revived the Gothic style and form a coherent whole. There is an archway and a large tower.

The University of Leeds’s Clothworkers Court was also designed by Alfred Waterhouse, in a revived Tudor Gothic style, though built-in brick and completed in 1879. It is connected to the Baines Wing started in 1882 and embraces the Great Hall designed by Cuthbert Brodrick and opened in 1894, all in a similar manner. This is another large group.

The Victoria Building, University of Liverpool was constructed in brick between 1889 and 1892 in revived Gothic style, again by Alfred Waterhouse and is backed by a quadrangle of other Gothic revival buildings. It too is impressive although its effect is not assisted by an immediately adjoining building in dissonant materials and style.

At the University of Sheffield Firth Court was completed in 1905 and a library in 1909, both designed by Edward Mitchell Gibbs (1847–1935). They are designed in the same revived Tudor Gothic style in brick and make an attractive group linked to the modernist Alfred Denny Building.[32]

The University of Birmingham has its Chancellor's Court whose original buildings and Great Hall were designed by Aston Webb and built between 1900 and 1909. Others in a similar manner, including a clock tower built in 1908, were designed by Ingress Bell. These domed brick buildings are said to have been inspired by the Palazzo Pubblico in the Piazza del Campo in Siena and were conceived as a walled city of scholars rather than as a cloister. But they are impressive and somewhat exotic, the domes suggestive of Venice or even Istanbul.

And the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building which has a Great Tower, a quadrangle and a large hall, represents a grand finale for university groups as ecclesiastic cloisters in Britain. Designed by Sir George Oatley in the Perpendicular Gothic style it was built of reinforced concrete faced with stone between 1915 and 1925, the protracted length of construction caused by the First World War, and was praised by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner for its scale, competence and conviction.

From about this time forms of classical revival architecture tended to be favored for university groups, projecting a different fiction, that of a Temple of the Muses or of an ancient Greek Academy. After the Second World War revivalism was generally displaced by modernism with the favored conception becoming that of an office block.

By comparison with its true peers the Otago group is distinguished by its stone construction, its scale in the Australasian context, its picturesque setting, completeness, and relative freedom from distracting other elements, and also by the austerity of its treatment and the grandeur it manages to project. Its enclosed space creates a world of its own while its exterior views successfully conjure belief in its unlikely fiction.


  1. ^ Quoted by Ballantyne in Porter (ed),1983 p.171.
  2. ^ Letter JLC Richardson/AC Strode 13/12/1874, Inwards Correspondence, Otago University Council.
  3. ^ Dr D.M. Stuart in Appendix to the Journal of the House of Representatives 1879, p.383 para 7725.
  4. ^ The Otago University Exchange Bill had a clause in it excluding that part of Union Street from the transfer of ownership to the university. New Zealand Statutes, 1875, p.22. That the university was unaware of this is made clear by a report of a city council meeting Otago Daily Times 27/10/1875.
  5. ^ Ballantyne in Porter (ed), 1983 p.171.
  6. ^ An observer writing in 1890 described them as in the Queen Anne Style and of “dark red brick”. Quoted by Ballantyne in Porter (ed), 1983 p.171. They are a Category 1 historic place, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 4406)
  7. ^ Galer, 1989, p.21 mentions that construction started in 1878 and that the north end of the Geology Block was the first completed. Rosemary Entwisle, 1999, gives the date as 1878. Entwisle gives the date of the completion of the north part of the Clocktower Block as 1879. Entwisle gives the date of completion of the Professorial Houses as 1877 but Ballantyne, in Porter (ed.), 1983 p.171 cites an Otago Witness which seems to confirm they were completed in that year.
  8. ^ Morrell, 1969, p.50.
  9. ^ Marchant, Anne. "Bury, Maxwell 1825 - 1912". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 27 September 2009.
  10. ^ Quoted by Ballantyne in Porter (ed.), 1983, p.171.
  11. ^ Ballantyne in Porter (ed), 1983, p.171 referring to E.J. McCoy in McCoy and Blackman, 1968.
  12. ^ They are now in the Hocken Collections, Dunedin.
  13. ^ Galer, 1989, p.48. The building is a Category 1 historic place, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 2230).
  14. ^ Galer, 1989, p.47 for the date of the School of Mines. The School of Mines is a Category 1 historic place, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 4771). The endpapers of Porter (ed) 1983 reproduce a drawing by Anscombe’s draughtsman DPB Hosie of 1915 or 1916 showing the essential idea of what would be achieved had been worked out by then.
  15. ^ Galer, 1989, p.21.
  16. ^ Morrell, 1969 p.95 gives the name of the first southward extension of the Clocktower Block: the "Oliver Classrooms". At p.103 he gives the name of the whole group extending to the School of Mines including the archway and Allen Hall as the “Students’ Union”. Entwisle, 1999; Galer, 1989 p.47. The Clocktower Block is a Category 1 historic place, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 62).
  17. ^ The foundation stone records it was laid 15/11/1918. Morrell, 1969 p.127 records its opening 26/4/1920.
  18. ^ Galer, 1989, pp.20 & 46. Marama Hall is a Category 1 historic place, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 2227).
  19. ^ Galer, 1989, p.48.
  20. ^ Morrell, 1969 gives the cost of the first construction of the Dental School as L3,150 p.93; the School of Mines as L5,389 p. 95; The Oliver Classrooms (southward extension of the Clocktower Block, 1914 as perhaps L4,000 p.102; the Students’ Union as L10,292 p.103; the Home Science School L5,971 p.103: totaling L29,702. This doesn’t include the further extension of the Dental School; the 1914 extension of the Geology Block; the final southward extension of the Clocktower Block or Marama Hall.
  21. ^ The bridge is a Category 2 historic place. Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 5253).
  22. ^ Cable, 2005, p.5 gives a summary of the construction and reconstruction of walls in this reach relying in part on an unpublished report to the city council of 1931. Work was proposed after 1916. After floods in 1923 and 1929 work was carried out to specifications by three engineers, including the Dunedin city engineer, with the result that the present appearance (apart from the modifications to the west of the Castle Street parapet of the 1980s) was achieved by 1939.
  23. ^ The Union Street bridge is a Category 2 historic place Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (List no. 2231). The bluestone abutments were built in 1912 and remain. There were repairs after the 1923 flood and major reconstruction after 1929 one. Cable 2005 p.5.
  24. ^ Morrell, 1969 p.238 gives the completion date as does School of Home Science History 1911-1961 which also records that the Education Department granted a total of L63,620 for its construction, pp.18 & 19.
  25. ^ Gould, 1988, says this was completed at some time between 1964 and 1968.
  26. ^ Morrell,1969, p.238.
  27. ^ McCoy, 2007, pp.125-127.
  28. ^ Personal communication Ted McCoy/Peter Entwisle.
  29. ^ It used to appear with a mortarboard on blotters issued to schools through the country.
  30. ^ Such as L.W. Wilson’s 1880s painting of the clock tower and F.V. Ellis’s 1920s engravings of the Archway.
  31. ^ Except where otherwise indicated citations for this section will be found in the cross-referenced articles.
  32. ^ Chapman, 1955.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ballantyne, Dorothy, ‘Educational Buildings of Otago’ in Porter, Frances (ed), Historic Buildings of New Zealand South Island, Methuen New Zealand, Auckland,1983, pp. 170–177.
  • Cable, Nicholas, Water of Leith Stone Walls University of Otago, Opus International for the Otago Regional Council, Dunedin, 2005.
  • Chapman, Arthur W, The Story of a Modern University, University of Sheffield and Oxford University Press, 1955.
  • Entwisle, Rosemary, Dunedin’s Iconic Buildings: The Registry (Clocktower Building), University of Otago, Port Daniel Press, Dunedin, 1999.
  • Galer, Lois (comp.), Historic Buildings of Otago and Southland, New Zealand Historic Places Trust, Wellington, 1989, ISBN 0-477-00021-5.
  • Gould, John, The University Grants Committee 1961-1986, a History, University Grants Committee, Wellington, 1988, ISBN 1-86940-033-X.
  • Knight, H & Wales, N, Buildings of Dunedin, John McIndoe Limited, Dunedin, 1988.
  • Morrell, W.P., The University of Otago a Centennial History, University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 1969.
  • McCoy, E.J., A Southern Architecture: the Work of Ted McCoy, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2007, ISBN 978-1-877372-48-3.
  • Otago Witness, Dunedin, 1851-1932.
  • School of Home Science History 1911-1961, School of Home Science, University of Otago, Dunedin, 1962.
  • Dunedin City Archives, 50 The Octagon, Dunedin.

45°51′56″S 170°30′52″E / 45.86556°S 170.51444°E / -45.86556; 170.51444