Architecture

The ingenuity of the historic Millers Point workers’ flats will be lost when the public housing’s harbour views are sold off. By Laura Harding.

Hidden history in Sydney’s Millers Point

We are repeatedly told that we are a suburban nation, and we most certainly revere the “garden suburb” – an early-20th-century planning idea that grew in response to the ills of industrialisation, pushing housing far beyond the boundaries of the corrupting city, to where fresh air, sunlight and cheap land abounded.

We rarely acknowledge Australia’s hidden housing tradition: the model urban housing schemes that viewed the city as something to be made rather than feared. These, too, date from the early 1900s, when Sydney was ravaged by poverty and plague, and the slums of Millers Point and Observatory Hill had been resumed and vested in progressive government agencies such as the Sydney Harbour Trust. 

The trust was tasked with reconstructing the city’s wharfage and rehousing the workers in hygienic and dignified conditions. In doing so, it transformed the city. 

The High Street workers’ flats are one component of a public-spirited and socially progressive story that has been overlooked in favour of the aspirational lure of individualism implicit in the suburban “dream”.

The flats occupied the site of an old government quarry. A platform was carved into the exposed bedrock, making a new urban terrace, a “high street”, with an arresting V-shaped form that pitched symmetrically to a point on the axis of the Observatory dome, where the trust built a kindergarten and playground. The quarried stone was used to reclaim a 30-metre-wide street, Hickson Road, along the harbour edge below, which was lined with emphatic brick shore sheds that linked a series of hardwood finger wharves. A bridge connected High Street to the shore sheds, allowing the workers to walk to work, suspended above the teeming traffic and filthy wharves. The Barangaroo casino will soon emerge from the vast container tarmac that destroyed the wharves in the 1970s. 

The workers’ flats are skilful and inventive model housing. The trust was principally staffed by engineers and brought a rationalist’s eye, technical prowess and constructive heft to the question of housing. Faced with strong resistance to the idea of monolithic tenement buildings, they developed a series of flats that masqueraded as terrace houses – a specifically Australian form of urbanism. The staggered walls and gables that serrate the High Street roof forms don’t separate individual houses, but groupings of four individual flats. 

The upper and lower flats were divided by ingenious concrete panel and slab systems, to prevent the spread of fire and noise – some of the earliest use of this now ubiquitous technology in Sydney housing. Each flat had its own ventilated laundry, bathroom and scullery at the rear to ensure hygienic living conditions could be maintained. 

The lower flats had a courtyard for clothes-drying and access to a rear lane for rubbish collection. The upper ones were given rooftop drying platforms. A minor engineering marvel, these platforms were made of solid hardwood beams, packed tightly side by side and bonded by steel tie rods. Brick chutes and concrete tubes allowed rubbish to be dropped to the lane below. This lane, with its syncopated chutes, latticed eyries and washing launched into the air by nifty pulley mechanisms, is a raw but captivating domestic scene. “Plain, useful, almost grim in their simplicity,” said The Sydney Morning Herald in 1912, they carry “a twinkle of imagination that may make the repose of the tired labour pleasant”. 

Following their tenure as workers’ residences, the High Street flats were transferred to the Department of Housing in the mid-1980s. Although neglected, they have remained a substantive part of the city’s public housing stock until the recent announcement that they, along with the trust’s other model housing projects, will be sold to the market in 2015.

The cost of maintaining old structures underpins the economic argument for these sales, not to mention the windfall uplift in property values afforded by the adjacent gentrification of Barangaroo. Among the Millers Point properties there are some more generic “terrace” housing types that lend themselves to a new life as market housing, but the most extraordinary and experimental of the trust’s model projects simply don’t. They are small, and their architectural typology is geared to housing as many people as possible through minimum means, not the burgeoning accoutrements of “lifestyle”.

A hundred years ago the Sydney Harbour Trust remade the city to support the booming maritime economy and its workers. Next year, we will relocate 400 public housing tenants to support the booming value of property. 

This is the problem with hidden histories – we don’t learn from them. How inept it will be if the fate of these radical social projects is to become a gutted heritage curio, to house a privileged few of the wealthiest among us, while we wring our hands over the provision of affordable housing in our cities, in ignorance of this astonishing architectural legacy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Hidden history". Subscribe here.

Laura Harding
is a Sydney-based designer and writer.