A Melbourne landmark finally tells its story

14 October 2009

One of the goals of architectural historian and Deakin University senior lecturer Ursula de Jong when she was writing her book William Wardell and Genazzano FCJ Collegewas to let the building speak for itself.

"People often say 'I wish this building could talk' and that is what I have tried to do in this book, give the building a voice and let it tell the reader its own story – tell them about the materials used, about its scale and proportions, about the life it has had," Dr de Jong said.

Dr de Jong's book tells the story of architect William Wilkinson Wardell's 1889 design for the 'Convent and School, Kew' in Melbourne, now known as Genazzano FCJ College. One of the most important nineteenth century architects in Australia, Wardell's design was impressive and has resulted in a Melbourne landmark.

"It is a grand building, designed to last. It is beautifully but simply crafted and built for its purpose," Dr de Jong said.

"While only one perspective drawing by Wardell survives, it gives us a real sense of what he envisioned for the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) Sisters who commissioned the building. Wardell's proposal for 'Convent and School, Kew' is for a robust late Victorian Gothic asymmetrical three-storied brick building designed to integrate a convent, school, chapel and dormitories. Unfortunately Wardell's proposed chapel never eventuated.

"William Wardell is renowned as a Gothic Revival architect. St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, is arguably Wardell's finest building, and Australia's greatest early Victorian Gothic Revival Cathedral. In contrast to this bluestone building, Genazzano FCJ College is a simple late nineteenth century brick complex, whose allegiance to the nineteenth century Gothic Revival is clearly seen in the composition, the proportions and scale, the overall verticality of the elevations, and in the details.

"Genazzano was planned in an H configuration to allow for an abundance of light and air. Genazzano's late Victorian Gothic 'dress' demonstrates a clear shift in sensibility in Wardell's own work, in the use of materials from stone to brick, in the paring down of ornamentation, and in the simplifying of detail. The proposal demonstrates Wardell's training as an architect and engineer as well as his extensive experience in a practice already spanning forty-five years. His work for the Catholic Church in Britain and Australia included churches, presbyteries, monasteries, orphanages, convents and schools."

In the book, Dr de Jong also tells the story of the FCJ Sisters who were the driving force behind the building.

"I didn't expect to get so involved with the story of the Sisters, but as I did more and more research it became a really complex story – not just the story of a building. The book is a celebration of histories intersecting here in this place.

"The Sisters commissioned the building in a boom period, then there was a financial crash and they had to finish it with no money. They were extremely resourceful and kept going through all the challenges with a great sense of purpose. There were also fun times with their girls. I think they were fabulous women – the education they were providing to their students was holistic, preparing young women to take their place in the world."

Although it is 120 years since work on the building began, Dr de Jong believes many of the challenges faced at that time are relevant today.

"As well as the financial challenges, there were environmental challenges with the school affected by both bushfires and floods. The building was designed to be sustainable, well ventilated, sensitively orientated and with two million gallons of water storage on-site, gravity fed from the tower to the bathrooms and lower levels."

Dr de Jong hopes her book will positively influence how people see and experience their surroundings."I hope readers of my book will learn to look at buildings differently, with a better understanding of what goes into a building, from the design skills, to the cost and the challenges and also learn to look with new eyes at our built environment, both the old and the new," she said.

"I would like to think that, with education being so much a part of this story, it can also get young people enthused about history and architecture."


Media contact

Rebecca Tucker
Media and Corporate Communications
03 5227 8568, 0418 979 134
Email Rebecca

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