By Erin Snelgrove
Colin Leslie James (1936-2013)
“Make housing a verb” was his motto. Like this pledge, Col James was a true man of action. From the early days of housing activism in the 1970s James pushed for change, believing that investment should be made in community development and social capital rather than simply bricks and mortar.
“My notion of community is that it is something that has to be really nurtured. I like this notion of social capital, that you help to empower people with social capital which is power and access to resources and the strength of collective action… My vision of the future is more that social capital is what drives the world”.
Having studied architecture at the Sydney Technical College and the University of NSW, James won a scholarship to study at Harvard. Inspired by European architects who were calling for the discipline to serve the bulk of society – neglected and living in poor housing, James returned to live in Redfern in the mid-1960s and established Archanon or “Architecture for Anonymous Clients”.
Living not far from the Block, he joined the A Aboriginal civil rights movement and the campaign toestablish the Block as a grass-roots community. He worked closely with many Aboriginal organisations and described that this was “with the blessings of Mum Shirl. She actually was the one who decided what white fellas could do for black fellas”. He established Archanon, a collaborative dedicated to the anonymous client. Col’s work with friend and colleague Mick Mundine on the Aboriginal Housing Company, Australia’s first housing collective, spanned more than three decades.
James wanted to see a sense of ownership, or a sense of home for the people in Redfern. He was concerned to develop housing that is more respectful of Aboriginal culture and needs; housing that is affordable, sustainable and adaptable. To that end he remained engaged and active with the development of the Pemulwy Project, determined to see the Block transformed with affordable, appropriate, living housing.
A Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney for more than 40 years, he inspired respect from his students and co-workers alike. Exploring alternative affordable housing with the cardboard house project as part of the NSW Government’s 2004 Year of the Built Environment: houses of the future led to the launch of CRASH (Construction Industry Relief and Assistance for the Single Homeless), a project partnering vacant or underutilized properties with students and homeless individuals.
James was an early member of the Tenants’ Union of NSW and sat on the board of many community organisations including Shelter NSW, the Homeless Children’s Association, the South West Inner Sydney (SWISH) Housing Co-operative and South Sydney Community Aid.
Appointed by the federal Department of Urban and Regional Development as the Woolloomooloo residents’ advocate from 1973-1984, and one of three professional advisors to the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation on green-bans, James served on more than ten NSW government advisory committees. In 1994 he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for his service to architecture and the community.
In the words of one of his students “RIP Prof Col James AM. You made uni fun, hands on and bigger than one’s own personal ambitions”; the seed of community spirit successfully planted.
Col is survived by his partner, Karine Shellshear, and their daughter Zoe.