Fisher Library roof terrace

The University of Sydney campus is well known for its vast grounds and diverse spaces for research, study and socialising.

And yet, for over 30 years, one such space had languished unseen and untouched. In 2023, this all changed – thanks to a dedicated campaign led by student newspaper Honi Soit.

The history of the terrace

In 1963, Fisher Library opened on its current site. The building was a marvel of mid-century modern architecture, replete with an open-air roof terrace looking out over the campus and surrounding city.

Archival photographs from this era show the terrace as a bustling hive of activity, where students congregated to smoke, read and chat beneath a sunny Sydney sky. These images pay tribute to a generation forging their own intellectual identity, atop a place brimming with millions of stories even as they began to create their own. 

In the decades that followed its opening, the Fisher Library rooftop terrace was never updated. The same benches and signage were used by generations of students, up until the area was closed due to compliance and safety regulations over 30 years ago.

Following the closure of the terrace, there were various attempts by individual students to re-open the space to the University of Sydney community, but it wasn’t until student newspaper Honi Soit took up the torch in 2022 that the idea began to gain traction.

A student-led campaign

On Valentine’s Day, 2022, Honi Soit posted a very different kind of love letter, from contributor Roisin Murphy to the abandoned Fisher Library terrace.

Murphy had spotted the rooftop terrace while staring out a window on level 8 of the stacks. The article, titled It’s time to reopen Fisher Library’s rooftop courtyard, is both an investigation and a call to action. After discovering the closed terrace, Murphy had begun to ask questions. What had been the space’s original purpose? Why had it been closed? And why had it been neglected for so long?

There were a number of theories, some more dramatic than others. One more common theory, according to Murphy, was that the terrace had been closed to stop students from throwing special reserve books over the balcony to “friends standing in Victoria Park, in order to avoid being restricted by fines and 24-hour borrow times”.

Whatever the initial reason was for closing the rooftop, the University’s explanation for its ongoing closure in 2022 was that that the space didn’t comply with Building Code of Australia requirements. However, as Murphy pointed out, the rooftop simply needed higher railings, fresh tiles and new seating to make it safe to use again. All that was missing was the will and the funding to provide them.

It can be challenging to advocate for spending money where economic benefits aren’t clear. After all, an accessible terrace was unlikely to increase enrolments or improve the employability of University of Sydney graduates. However, it did promise to enrich the student experience on campus. 

A functioning rooftop terrace would also honour the legacy of Fisher Library’s original architects, who pioneered the inclusion of recreational facilities at the University and aimed to encourage a more engaged cohort. And this was what Roisin Murphy and the team at Honi Soit hoped to reclaim in advocating for renewed access.

In response to the article’s publication, interest in reopening the space began to grow. Thousands of students engaged online, and word spread on campus. As enthusiasm for the idea spread, the University’s Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Mark Scott, and University Librarian Philip Kent got on board.

“The rooftop was a quiet and sunny spot you could retreat to with friends. I was surprised it had been closed for so long and am delighted the investment has been made to open it to our community again.”

Mark Scott, Vice-Chancellor and President

“We are here to help students with their studies,” explained Philip Kent, “but we also want to enhance student life and wellbeing by providing inspirational communal spaces and amenities.”

Just a few months after posting their impassioned plea on 14 February 2022, Honi Soit was able to report that the remarkable terrace would reopen the following year. All thanks to the efforts of students and the receptiveness of the University.

The refurbishment

Construction on the rooftop terrace began in late 2022. Modern safety standards were applied, waterproofing was updated, and large sunshades were installed for year-round comfort and protection. Accessibility was also prioritised, with automatic doors, flat and ramped flooring, and wheelchair accessible furniture incorporated in the design.

The Library has collaborated with IndigiGrow, a not-for-profit native plant nursery, to create Indigenous gardens on the Fisher rooftoproof terrace. Twenty species of the local Eastern suburbs banksia family were planted, in hopes to revive the ecosystem and contribute to the wellbeing of the University of Sydney community.

The result is a peaceful sanctuary where students and staff can relax and take in the astounding views.

A Gadigal Language name for the roof terrace has also been proposed and submitted for consultation, and will be announced once the process is complete.

The reopening

On the 60th anniversary of the modern Fisher Library, 6 December 2023, the revitalised roof terracetop was officially unveiled and warmly received. Since then, all staff and students have been able to use their swipe cards to access the rooftop terrace via level 5 of the Library.

The successful campaign to reopen the rooftop terrace speaks to the power of student advocacy and journalism, and the importance of fostering a vibrant and thriving student culture. 

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