The conventional history of Stucco begins with the trite tale of an abandoned glass factory. A glass factory turned squatters’ den, turned legitimate University of Sydney owned, but not operated, accommodation. It’s an interesting tale of successful collective student action, radical democratic self management and sticking the middle finger to an increasingly competitive rental market of the inner-city suburbs in its first waves of yuppification. And, yet this tale is one that ends, oddly enough, when the co-operative begins.
But history told in this way reduces Stucco to its mere origins, and overlooks three decades of colourful residents and their ongoing allegiance to keep the co-operative alive. The Wikipedia page, reportage online and even the odd, fleeting mention in the Honi archives, all fail to articulate what makes Stucco so treasured to those who come to live within its walls. Unfortunately, as trite as it were, not everyone will come across the University’s co-op during their degree. So, I guess before the tale is retired and rewritten, let us give the obligatory Stucco brief history.
Our tale begins in 1985. Gorbachev becomes Soviet leader, and Tears for Fears plays in the distance from a Sony Walkman. On the top floor of the University of Sydney’s Manning Bar, a bunch of architecture students meet every second Monday as the ‘Sydney University Housing Co-operative’, later to be known as ‘Stucco.’ They are drawing up the plans for a new, alternative type of affordable housing. The ‘co-operative’ model, as it were, imagined residents as shareholders, working for the building. It was revolutionary, anti-capitalist and sexy.
After years of lobbying, in 1988, Stucco were awarded funds by the Department of Housing and, surprisingly, the University of Sydney, to purchase the old F.W Gissing’s glass factory on Wilson Street.
The building too had a radical history. Abandoned sometime in the mid-century, the old warehouse was prime estate in the 70s for anarchist squatters. Stucco came to life as student accommodation, as a living, breathing co-operative in 1991. And so often here the story closes, neatly ending, just when it gets interesting.
Every new resident enters Stucco as one person and leaves having metamorphosed into someone new. As every new resident arrives, the co-operative itself is unequivocally altered. Residents leave their indent on Stucco, shaping the culture, the dynamics, and the rulebook itself. The individual residents are just as important to the history and workings of the co-operative as the beams that hold the building together. You can’t reduce this tale to the origins of the building, the bricks, the timber and their former functions because truly this is not the story of Stucco at all…
“The Stucco Housing Co-operative,” colloquially referred to as “Stucco” is a housing co-operative partially owned by the University of Sydney — its residents are referred to as “Stuccwits,” once an on-campus insult, since reclaimed. Rooms go for $105 a week. At any time, Stucco houses forty University of Sydney students (exclusively University of Sydney students) in eight self-contained units. Stucco stands just off Newtown’s King Street, a 15-minute walk from campus and is centrally concerned with providing equitable housing for low-income students.
What’s the catch? I mean, the price of rent in an Inner West share house would easily be double or more, especially if it was affiliated with the University of Sydney. So, why then aren’t you hearing about it?
It’s no secret that the University keeps Stucco at arm’s length. Finding the Stucco Housing Cooperative on the University website or in their accommodation guides is like finding El Dorado. It exists in obscured hyperlinks, fleeting mentions or is completely absent. “They didn’t want the liability I guess,” says Julian, a resident who lived at Stucco from 1996 to 2000. “There’s this sense that Stucco is its own institution.”
Perhaps. Or maybe it’s simply that Stucco is too hard to explain. It exists outside the realm of your typical accommodation models; not quite a sharehouse, not quite a college, not quite a single room studio like the Queen Mary Building or The Regiment. Stucco describes itself as a “democratically managed,” “non-for-profit,” “co-operative” but that doesn’t paint the clearest picture. For those outside the know, Stucco can be just a little bit weird.
“A lot of people in Stucco are pretty weird…” says Shimmy, a resident from 2015 to 2019 “really, really weird people. I don’t know if you lived with Jane* she used to walk around naked with a strap-on on.”
Anyway, while the University of Sydney continues to partially fund Stucco, the co-op is fundamentally self-governed and uses rent money to maintain the building and its functions. A warehouse built over a hundred years ago can be time consuming, not to mention expensive to maintain.
Heritage listed by the City of Sydney, not only do Stucco residents work the building, but they must do so while retaining the aesthetic “industrial character” of the old F.W Gissing’s factory. Just making sure “the roof doesn’t fall in and the bills are paid,” as Julian puts it, can often supersede less pressing or less apparent matters of Stucco’s maintenance, say, advertising and outreach.
When Stuccwits do try to get the word out, we often lean on the same, perhaps still confusing, explanations to make sense of what we are and what we do. We say; “we work for the building,” or “we are our own landlords,” but what does this actually look like? What does this really mean?
“There is this huge brick building, down Wilson Street” says Edie, a resident from 2016 to 2019, “you walk inside and it’s an open courtyard; light, plants, green.”
We spoke to Edie about the first time she entered Stucco. “Everyone was bringing food out into the courtyard,” she says. Edie was offered a plate of dinner and everyone went about introducing themselves.
“I was sort of hit with this sense of community” and then the GM began, the General Meeting that is, a fortnightly forum for all forty residents to discuss issues and solutions to cooperative living.
“I remember there was a 45-minute discussion about the choice of a vacuum cleaner,” she says Ryobi was a particularly contentious brand at the time.
Residents gather in a circle on faded and worn street couches. A disco ball dances above and someone cracks open a beer. The GM is Stucco’s democratic self management in action. It’s the major delegation of finances and the trivial choice of vacuum cleaner. Dinner is served up in a big soup-kitchen pot, that is, before state-mandated lockdowns. In the last few months, GMs have been held over Zoom.
As you can imagine, a forty person consensus can be difficult to manage. As bohemian as Stucco may seem, that sort of intricate decision-making can become bureaucratic. Sammy, the partner of a current resident, says she struggled to follow what was happening in her first meeting.
“I didn’t even know there were rules to the way you had to talk. Like, you had to put up your hand, you had to put these signs.”
For GMs, there is a set procedure, a speaking list and little Stucco-quirks, cultivated throughout years of collaboration. It can be like a whole new language.
“It was very niche, but kind of cool,” says Sammy, “The more time I spent here, the more I fell in love with it.”
These formalities of Stucco are important to note, because they are a part of Stucco’s preservation. Gems like the hand signs, are the relics of generations of Stucco residents, a part of behaviours and mechanisms moulded and adapted, passed down and refined throughout Stucco’s thirty-year lineage to make co-operative democracy possible.
Sarah, a resident from 2013 to 2018 says that learning the Stucco dialect, attending GMs, and cooking the communal dinner, can be what connects residents to the space, to have people feel like they are “pieces of a bigger something.” Laws, norms, etiquette, are begun, yes, but also continued. Those who do so are equally, if not more important to the longevity of the co-operative. One thing to understand, one thing missing from the recorded history is that it is unjust to hold Stucco’s modus operandi to a singular mind, or a fixed and definite time.
“You have thirty-nine opinions, and none of them can be the same all the time,” explains Shimmy.
Not only does Stucco mould and bend to its forty or so inhabitants, but before the gate can close behind them a new resident comes prodding in, bright-eyed and eager. There is little time to reconcile.
“If you want to live in a place like Stucco,” says Shimmy, “you have to have the mindset prepared to compromise.”
Nick, a resident from 2016 to 2021, says because Stucco “thinks about everyone equally,” it’s never dominated by a single figure, echoing Sammy’s philosophy that Stucco is never just “one person, saying one thing.”
Of course, a constant flux can mean decision making is “a bit bureaucratic at times,” admits Edie. “But that’s democracy.”
More than just a roundtable for progressive politics, Edie says Stucco was radically different to all the “exploitative natures embedded in every other part of the social fabric.” She says, Stucco was “the first time I really found a queer community that I could really be a part of.” There is this sort of understanding, maybe fundamentally by its alternative decision-making, that Stucco can be understood in every facet as a sort of counter-culture.
Julian lived through an early Stucco steeped in the grungy, hoodlum scene of the 1990s; a time when psychedelic cacti freely grew on the “ivory towers” of units 7 and 8 and the “sexual politics was massive.” He says Stucco, back then, was “a place where people who didn’t quite fit in, could be in a space that was somewhat safe.”
Shimmy came to live in Stucco some two decades later. She recalls, “naked dinners,” figure drawing and a “DJ set in the laundry room.” It was during the co-operative’s infamous annual music and arts festival, StuccoFest, that Shimmy made perhaps her most fantastical contribution to Stucco’s patrimony. She undressed, doused herself in yellow paint and made her way into the courtyard. Faint, droplets of yellow still glisten on the stairs today.
Of course, Stucco is not always as wild as our big festivals or gatherings. Freya, a resident from 2008 to 2012, says her time in unit 8 was mostly quiet. Studying post-grad, she says her unit wouldn’t really party, but would “have meals together.” She admits it was a different pace, “but it was still amazing system” and still very much felt “part of the co-op.”
In all of the Stucco’s against-the-grain ethos, the co-operative was conjured as an opposition to the exploitative rental market in the 1980s, an era that chewed up low-income students and spat them out into the suburbs. Edie says Stucco’s collectivism and “affordable housing for those who need it […] is just so radically different or radically oppositional to everything, all the exploitative natures embedded in every other part of the societal fabric.”
For Eilish, “finding Stucco was a real blessing.” Eilish currently lives in Stucco and moved from her hometown, some 800 kilometres outside the city. She says she underestimated how “expensive [of a] place” Sydney was.
Eilish became a permanent resident after spending time in Stucco’s temporary accommodation. The building has six spare rooms which must be kept ready for students in urgent need of housing. Eilish says that in Stucco, “I found so many people that were passionate about the fact that I needed housing and were also so caring and willing to offer me a place.”
Catherine, a resident from 1998 to 1999, says before mobile phones, the SRC “just had people show up.” “You would hear a knock on the door and someone would be there with a suitcase saying ‘apparently there should be a room for me here’. It’s like ‘oh, alright let’s have a look around.’”
To live in Stucco is to be a part of shaping the co-operative. The etchings on the walls are dusted off and rewritten to match the needs of the people inside, constantly, over and over again. Stuccwits can only stay the duration of their degree, or for five-years, whichever comes first. Kat, a current resident says because of this, “we can kind of provide a safe space for people to grow and become more secure in themselves, their housing and financial situations, and then let them go and live life because they have had that time to become stable”.
While there are changes that occur within Stucco’s internal world, what can be telling for Stucco and its community is how, as a collective, we come together to adapt to the world around us.
At the start of last year, Stucco, along with the rest of the world, were growing fearful of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government was considering new regulations and potential lockdown measures for different kinds of households; the nuclear household, the sharehouse, apartment blocks. A cold wind rustled through the courtyard and wet washing flapped on the balcony railing. There was no roadmap for a co-operative model. Stucco wondered how it would function, isolated, in a co-operative that can only succeed insofar as its community.
As whispers of a government-mandated lockdown surrounded Stucco in early 2020, residents decided to meet in the courtyard, distanced by 1.5 metres. At this point, no one really knew what was about to happen to the world. The GM was five hours long. Some stood watching on from their open bedroom windows. In the uncertainty, emotions were high. People speculated possible outcomes, shared their fears and spoke about a world we did not yet know.
Over a year later, we are still trudging through lockdowns together. The resilience and community spirit of Stucco has been amplified through these hard times. To call Stucco home is a privilege not bestowed upon many. When COVID hit it was challenging, but it was a challenge we took on together.
In our interviews, tracing back the thirty-year lineage of Stucco, there seemed to be ebbs and flows of continuity and change, some obvious, some nonsensical. Like Julian also living through a vacuum-related qualm, telling me about alleged embezzlement to get a vacuum “against the will of the GM,” and how it was “a point of contention for years” some two decades prior to Edie’s formative Ryobi dispute.
The solidarity shown by Stucco during the pandemic can be traced right to the founding ethos of Stucco as a collective community, a notion echoed in every interview. There is very much the sense within Stucco, that to live as a co-operative, is to live as a single body. It almost wasn’t a question, that if one person is getting locked down, we are all locked down. You take the good with the bad.
At a time when people are feeling profound levels of isolation, Sarah says the fact that “people have banded together more, is really radical.”
“That is community” she says, “That’s the world that I want to live in.”
In Stucco, nothing has been conjured overnight, no decision made has been single-serving. Stucco is a melting pot of people, their ideas, and their values, some newly conceived and others imagined, all those years ago on the top floor of Manning Bar.
Because Stucco is no ones, and it doesn’t exist fixed to a particular and absolute time. it is one that is shared, collectively. When we came together to write this article, we had no idea how hard it would be to put into words just how significant Stucco is. What you must understand, dear reader, is this article has really only scratched the surface, we fear not even that. Maybe it is worth acknowledging the founding thirty-year timeline presents a beginning to understand Stucco as a process but Stucco, the cooperative can only be caught in fragments or reflections like a fleeting flash in the pan.
When knowledges can be lost, like sand through fingers, it can be a discredit to Stucco and all it is, all it has and all it can be. And we wonder, quietly, longingly all the wonderful tales of Stucco that are encased in the minds of a few, now out in the world beyond where Stucco is a distant memory.
But for all that is lost, for all the histories that are forgotten, Stucco is uniquely free from stifling laws or norms or rules. It is a space nurturing progression, to experiment and come to understand a new way of living, so unlike the structures of individualism that exist outside its walls. It is empowering, and self-fulfilling in a way where you can be idle, or you can help. And time and time again people will help, for no reason other than to help the collective. This is why, 30 years on, Stucco is standing.
For more information on the Stucco Co-operative and how to apply for residency, visit us on https://www.stucco.org.au or on Facebook page.