Jack Mundey was a giant of Australian life, weaving together unionism, politics, social and environmental concerns and a love of heritage. The recent glowing obituaries following his recent death attest to a life well lived that initiated extraordinary changes to our cities.

Mundey not only changed our city’s environment, he also changed peoples’ lives, and I was fortunate to be one of them. I met Jack Mundey only a few times, but his impact on me was profound. 

When I studied at the Sydney Uni architecture school in the early seventies, it was making strong forays into left-wing ideas and politics, focussing on social and environmental issues – (for instance, Liz Fell and Wendy Bacon were tutors – if that is not astonishing then look them up). At the same time, I worked on building sites as a labourer, not in architectural offices. It offered a worker’s eye view of architecture.

Suddenly these two seemingly unconnected worlds were joined when the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), led by a trio of formidable unionists, Jack Mundey, Bill Pringle and Joe Owens were approached by the upper middle-class residents of Hunters Hill to protect Kelly’s Bush, a remnant green area under threat from AV Jennings. The BLF instituted a black ban on the project, not for the usual safety or health reasons, but for environmental reasons. The ‘Green Ban’ was born.

Green bans were later instituted in Woolloomooloo to stop demolition of beautiful large-scale terraces on the Victoria St ridge and the removal of low-cost social housing in the valley below. Mundey, a member of the Communist party, was steering the BLF into social, urban and heritage issues. Some of my fellow students were aghast, while others were thrilled.

The death of editor Juanita Nielsen brought matters to a head and the left-wing deputy leader of the Federal Labor Party, Tom Uren, used his ministry, the Department of Urban Development or DURD, to purchase the land in Woolloomooloo (and Glebe) and start an urban renewal process that involved the residents.

Uren appointed Nielsen’s close friend, the architect Col James, as the residents’ advocate. James was also a newly appointed senior lecturer at the Sydney Uni architecture school and became my mentor, as he was to a whole generation of architects, gently urging them to find better social urban solutions. 

I first met Jack Mundey in 1974 in Col James’ office in Woolloomooloo. I was introduced as an architecture student with a love of building, though I doubt Mundey thought a callow youth with soft hands really belonged in the BLF. Nevertheless, Mundey told me that it was important for all architects to work on building sites, particularly to see it through the eyes of workers.

A hard command to follow, but like many other architects, I enjoy being on site and seeing the designs come alive, to see work at its most physical. I signed on to the BLF.

When cyclone Tracey hit Darwin later that year, the BLF and the BWIU (the tradies union) put out a call to members to volunteer to go to Darwin to help repair the houses. I took my union card into Trades Hall, signed up and a day later was on a flight to Darwin, less than a week after the cyclone had hit. 

A plane full of muscular men lands at night into the wild north, and the morning light shows utter devastation, every surface covered in trashed tin and broken boards. Those two weeks were the most intense experience you can imagine, working alongside building experts, it was tough, it was dangerous, full of camaraderie and hard work. I slept a few hours each night on the science laboratory bench at Nightcliffe High School (except for one night in Hospital when I fell off a roof), and I spent every day amazed.

You couldn’t do that now, even if you were Jack Mundey. I’m thinking how slow the response to the recent bushfires has been, driven by fears of dangerous conditions, asbestos, and site difficulties. There’s a bitter irony here: all these concerns on site safety and health concerns are issues that have been championed by the BLF and its successor, the CFMMEU. Where you could be gung-ho 45 years ago, Mundey and his successors have ensured a much better, but slower, process that protects workers.

We should thank Jack Mundey every day that safety is so much better for workers, even if building is still the second most dangerous activity after agriculture. Moreover, it is the buildings that were never built in Woolloomooloo, and elsewhere that are his legacy of the seventies.

Throughout the eighties Jack Mundey was a presence in politics, rallying the unionists to support Bob Hawke's election, even though Mundey was a communist. There was a growing awareness of the social and environmental implications of building our cities, formally led by deputy PM Brian Howe, but due in no small part to Jack Mundey.

I met Jack Mundey later when he was president of the Historic Houses Trust. I thought he might have mellowed in his old age, keen to discuss the battles of the past, me trying to compliment him on the Green Bans. He would not hear of it. He was only interested in the battles to come. 

The last time I saw Mundey was at a protest to prevent the sale and demolition of the Sirius social housing building in Sydney’s Rocks in 2017 when he was 87. The protests were co-ordinated, to his lasting credit, by Shaun Carter, architect and then president of the NSW AIA chapter, and the AIA later that year awarded Mundey the President’s Prize.

The demo’s were only halfway successful. The building still exists, although it will now be upmarket apartments not social housing. Somewhat like Mundey's life. His ideas and energy transformed cities, but they did more for the physical fabric than the socialist utopian ideals that he wished for. 

Mundey influenced so many lives, my life changed for the better after I met him, and he became a constant, if distant, lodestar. Our cities are all the better for his life’s work, and so many of us feel all the poorer for his passing.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. 

Pic: The Big Smoke