Located within walking distance of the University of Sydney, UTS, TAFE NSW and Notre Dame Sydney, the Col James Student Accommodation building represents the newest affordable housing option for Sydney’s tertiary students.

Designed by Turner for clients Aboriginal Housing Company, Deicorp and Scape – and named in honour of Col James, an architect and academic who was dedicated to the provision of Aboriginal housing – the facility includes 519 rooms ranging from studios to twin-share and clusters that accommodate five students, each with their own rooms but shared facilities.

The site was specifically selected to ensure that more students could live within walking distance to their places of learning. To encourage walking, Turner purposefully removed all car parking spaces on site, instead providing more than 184 bike parking and end of trip facilities including a student ‘bike share’ programme.

Significantly, the new building sits on land given by the then-Labor Government to the Aboriginal Housing Company in the 1970s. Seen at the time as a major step on the path to Aboriginal self-determination, the location came to be known across Sydney as ‘the Block’.

The Col James Student Accommodation is part of a larger development called the Pemulwuy Precinct, which also includes a childcare centre, an art gallery, commercial and retail space, a gym, and housing for 62 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. On top of this, 110 of the beds in the new student accommodation are reserved specifically for indigenous students.

According to Turner Director Dan Szwaj, the practice has been involved in a number of urban design projects where designing with Country is integral to the design process and outcomes.

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“What makes this project special for Turner is the opportunity to be part of the Aboriginal Housing Company’s journey to deliver the Pemulwuy Precinct. The project supports the Aboriginal Housing Company’s purpose, which is to deliver affordable housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.

As such, Turner was always intent on honouring the Aboriginal Housing Company’s brief, which was to create an open, residential precinct that retains and celebrates Aboriginal culture.

“We approached this project with extreme sensitivity. For us, this was not just about the architecture,” says Szwaj. “It was about creating community. Our design creates a sense of ‘the backyard’, that can be found in pockets around the building and in the communal rooftop garden.”

Turner collaborated with landscape architect Scott Carver and indigenous artist Danny Eastwood to integrate public art into the building. For example, the Galaxy Soffit to the entry foyer provides orientation and relationship to Country; a pre-existing art wall in the public domain forecourt area, which celebrates First Nations history and connection to Country, has been retained and extended; and an embossed representation of turtles, intended to evoke notions of nurturing and belonging, has been included on the building façade.

The project has not been without controversy. Considering that what it replaces (The Block) was all aboriginal housing, the inclusion of student accommodation in the Pemulwuy Precinct has led to opposition by some in the indigenous community. For example, Activist Jenny Munro told the ABC that the project wasn’t in the community interest and “effectively erased our community footprint here on The Block.”


Brett Boardman

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