Architecture

The proposed demolition of the Sirius building in Sydney robs Australians of an iconic piece of Brutalist architecture. By Tim Ross.

The Sirius building

The Sirius building, at The Rocks, Sydney.
Credit: Allshots Imaging / Creative Commons

I certainly wasn’t the first slightly flabby Melburnian to be seduced by the Emerald City, but I might well be the first who could attribute his love affair to a Brutalist block of flats.

In the spring of 1997, I was on tour in Sydney and spent an afternoon wandering around the city that Robin Boyd had so simply and brilliantly described as being “so Australian”. 

On that day, the old Sydney mind tricks were in full swing. The sun was out and the harbour was doing its sparkly, suggestive thing and the sails on the most extraordinary building in the world were showing off as usual. I couldn’t help but swoon and sigh as I tightened the jumper I’d taken off and tied around my waist. It was the first time I felt the overpowering pull of a city that had such penetrating beauty it could instantly turn your walk into a skip.

I was basking in the clichés when I spotted a building on the other side of the bridge Hoges used to paint.

There it was: a stunning series of concrete-form boxes appearing to be stacked on top of each other like blocks, a futuristic mass of glorious 1970s Brutalism. These apartments, with their roof gardens and their intriguing purple stacks, immediately took me. As I stood there staring, a bloke walked by and mumbled, “Can you believe it’s full of housos?”

The building was Sirius, the last and arguably most successful example of Australia’s experiment with high-rise public housing. It was designed by government architect Tao Gofers in 1978-79 and was opened in 1980. 

The 79-apartment complex was a product of a tumultuous period in The Rocks during the ’60s and ’70s, when the unions enforced green bans and halted the widespread destruction of historic sections of the area.

Today it sits like a time capsule, virtually unchanged since 1980. It is a wonderful building to be in and be around. Like all great Brutalist architecture, it’s so functional it hurts; but when you are in contact with it, it’s softer, warmer, more attractive than you would imagine. 

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but enthusiasts of this style of architecture often draw their affection from its popularity in the new schools and universities built in the ’60s and ’70s. These buildings represented a changing of the guard in our built environment as we threw off the shackles of a colonial past and endeavoured to create a new nation in a brave new style.

Sirius certainly isn’t the New South Wales government’s cup of tea. Not only has the government elected to discontinue its contribution to public housing, but it has condemned this Sydney icon to the wrecking ball.

Not content at moving people from their homes to clean up this part of town for our new casino, the Baird government has rejected the building’s heritage listing despite a strong recommendation by both the state Heritage Council and the Australian Institute of Architects to do otherwise.

The minister for the environment and heritage, Mark Speakman, defended his decision based on the value of the property. “I am not listing it because, whatever its heritage value, even at its highest that value is greatly outweighed by what would be a huge loss of extra funds from the sale of the site,” he said.

This greedy grab for cash at the cost of an important part of Sydney’s history became even more farcical when the finance minister, Dominic Perrottet, chimed in: “Our city deserves better, and we now have a chance to deliver a building that genuinely complements our dazzling harbour rather than sticking out like a sore thumb.”

The absurdity of the heritage minister talking about money and the finance minister taking a stance on aesthetics makes it seem like these two bananas are playing a rather lame game of good vandal/bad vandal.

These two are no better than your average local council officials making decisions about design without adequate qualifications and, more frighteningly, taste.

It’s too easy to imply these guys are in bed with developers or big business. Besides, that would be giving these numbnuts way too much credit.

They’re too busy being the guys at a suburban barbecue who stand around in oversized check shirts and pleated chinos, boring everyone senseless about property prices.

Both made a judgement based on greed, one which ignored the opinion of experts. This isn’t a new phenomenon in NSW, where for a long time there was a great deal of contempt for the Opera House. Architecture isn’t pizza – not everyone is supposed to love it – but the government should understand that Sirius embodies a layer in the time span of a city, one that can be appreciated in different ways for many years to come.

In London, Brutalist landmarks such as the Barbican are widely acknowledged for the merit of design, and apartments there are highly sought after. There is no reason why the same thing cannot happen here.

If the government is hell-bent on getting its gold for the former homes of some of our most needy, at least it could give the building a chance to live on in another guise as a tower of sympathetically updated apartments, or as one of the great designer hotels of the world.

It wouldn’t take much more than a proper sandblasted clean for people to start seeing it as the impressive piece of architecture that it is.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Sirius losers". Subscribe here.

Tim Ross
is a comedian and writer, and the host of the forthcoming documentary Streets of Your Town.

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