3 October 2021

Student living in the heart of Redfern…

Previously referred to as ‘The Block’, this triangular-shaped site is now home for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander students, and non-Indigenous students coming from interstate and overseas. A special site with years of history and the heart of the Aboriginal community, this project, named Col James Student Accommodation, is considerably more than just student accommodation. Years in the making, it involved numerous parties, including the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) which owns the land, the local community, State Government, the City of Sydney Council and Scape (student housing provider). This project, developed by Deicorp, was driven by a design integrity process, not just from approving Turner’s design, but following the process from the start through to its implementation. A project that began ten years ago has, of July this year, been completed.

Given the prominent location, adjacent to Redfern Station, its presence not only had to address the needs of students but also the approval of the wider community, given its visibility to the existing urban context. The site (approximately 2,400 square metres), bordered by Eveleigh and Lawson streets, now features a high-rise development by Turner. A staggered form over several levels, from two storeys and reaching its apex at 24 levels, the different heights respond to the different contexts. To the West, the terrace houses respond to the scale of the neighbourhood and on the East, the building responds to the grittier urban environment of the city. “We were conscious of the scale and also teasing out the finer grain in the neighbourhood,” says architect Dan Szwaj, a director of Turner. Turner’s building forms part of a larger scheme that includes affordable housing and a commercial segment that’s presently under construction. Turner was also involved in the public spaces surrounding this precinct, working with landscape architect Scott Carver and artists, such as Indigenous artist Danny Eastwood, responsible for the art walls and ceiling paintings that provide a sense of welcome in the main foyer.

Turner took its design inspiration from the immediate surrounds, playing with the effect of light and how it responds to the different treatment of the facades. There are slim, grey ribbed precast concrete panels that evoke the texture of the surrounding trees. While other external treatments include terracotta panels in hues of colours that reflect the original endemic form of the site and change through the seasons. “Angling some of the walls also creates depth, shadow and protection from direct sunlight. But there’s also the work of local Indigenous artists who have helped to craft this building,” says designer Carla Bisanti, an associate of the practice, pointing out an embossed mural in the concrete façade depicting a family of turtles. One of the facades, for example, also appears like the skin of a turtle with a series of faceted apertures creating a slightly rough texture from a distance.

While responding to the different urban conditions was pivotal for the appropriate design outcome, so was the need to create a family environment that would make students feel secure, welcomed and at home, and for many (the age cohort is 18 to 24) this may be the first time they have lived away from home let alone travelled to another country. This goal is enmeshed with Turner’s vision in making a positive change for people and places, for both residents and the broader community. Rather than just create outdoor spaces, here there’s a sense of the ‘back yard’, but instead of being attached to a detached house, it can be found in pockets around the building and in the communal rooftop garden, complete with barbeques and amenities. However, unlike the apartment or house left behind, here there are private and communal study areas, recreational facilities, a gymnasium, and spaces, including kitchens and other amenities. Gathering areas, at the heart of the Indigenous culture, are important to the program of the building, allowing students to gravitate to their own tribes, friends and those who share common interests. So, whether they’re interested in music, or keen to get together to do their hair/makeup before going out (with dedicated rooms provided), there’s a sense of a home environment.

Turner was keen to create both pleasurable and efficient spaces for students. It was also important to have a variety of accommodation, rather than simply cell-style dorms. Here there are 519 rooms ranging from studios to twin-share and clusters that accommodate five students, each with their own rooms but sharing facilities, such as the kitchen. However, even when the design is for one, this space features high ceilings, a separate bedroom, a galley-style kitchen, and nifty features such as a kitchen bench ‘morphing’ into a built-in desk. Colour also features strongly, with vibrant shades on each level used both to individualise levels and as a means of wayfinding.

Redfern has changed significantly over the years. It’s certainly no longer ‘The Block’ but home to considerably more people who weren’t raised here. However, what does clearly remain is the memory and the storytelling of the Indigenous community. Danny Eastwood painted the starry sky on the soffit leading to the lobby and on the ceiling past the front door. While this calls on memory, students staying here today will create their own memories from different perspectives, including views of Sydney’s skyline through to Botany Bay.

Click here to visit the project page.

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