Egalitarianism set in concrete

4 March 2021 | Posted In: #138 Autumn 2021, Archive, Public Housing,

When the NSW government put Sirius up for sale, it signalled the end for one of Australia’s greatest public housing projects. Christopher Kelly reports.

It’s as polarising as Vegemite. As controversial as Pete Evans’s social feed. As contentious as e-scooters in cycleways. It’s either one of Australia’s “most notable examples of Brutalist architecture” or “a sore thumb”, blighting the Sydney skyscape.

It is, of course, the Sirius building. When the design plans to transform the public housing block into boutique luxury apartments were revealed at the end of last year, it marked the end of a vigorous fight to keep the iconic property for the local community. Nestled in The Rocks, with expansive views of the Harbour Bridge, Circular Quay and the Opera House, Sirius was always going to be sold off and snapped up.

Public housing has a long history in The Rocks and its surrounds. Throughout the 19th century, the district was home to sailors, traders, wharf workers and their families, and an assortment of ne’er-do-wells. When, in January 1900, the bubonic plague hit the area, the state government seized the opportunity to clean up the neighbourhood and, in the process, purpose-built homes for waterfront workers. “This is the birthplace of public housing in Australia,” said Philip Thalis, independent City of Sydney councillor and public housing advocate. “It is all around you. These areas are public land because a far-sighted government in 1900 enacted legislation and resumed it all for public good.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, a construction boom gripped the city and the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority announced plans to demolish the public housing properties along the western side of Circular Quay to clear the way for high-rise office towers. “You had a NSW government who thought, ‘The Rocks: ripe for redevelopment’,” said Thalis. According to Sirius architect, Tao Gofers, in a speech delivered at the 2018 NSW Architecture Awards, “[Former NSW premier] Bob Askin wanted to change Sydney into the New York of the south — even if he had to destroy communities and their heritage to achieve this.”

But SCRA hadn’t reckoned on the fierce resistance to their plans, led by Jack Mundey and the all-powerful Builders Labourers Federation. “Tellingly,” said Thalis, “the community turned to the unions for support.” After much negotiation, the BLF agreed to allow SCRA to build its high-rise offices, but only if a large block of public housing was constructed nearby to accommodate displaced community members. A building application was duly submitted to SCRA in 1977.

Construction began in 1979, completed in 1980, with the first tenants moving in shortly after. “Sirius,” said Thalis, “is the one new work of public housing built, in a sense, to assuage the guilt of
former NSW governments.” Gofer saw it as an architectural solution to a political problem: “It was never a solution created for monetary profit.”

Gofer’s designs for Sirius were based on a three-storey prototype built at Sans Souci and was “a conscious effort to reduce the monolithic nature of the most high-rise residential developments”. Rather than three storeys, however, Sirius would have five, housing 79 units in all — with balconies, terraces, and roof gardens. “The roof gardens were part of the original design concept,” said Gofer, “not only to provide additional private outdoor space but also to create a fifth elevation as 90 percent of Sydneysiders only ever saw Sirius from the Harbour Bridge approach.” Originally intended to have a white finish to compliment the nearby Opera House, due to budget constraints, the building kept its stark concrete skin.

Interior features included emergency call buttons and electronic locks on unit doors in case of accidents or medical emergencies. As well, in the foyer, a state-of-the-art distress-call panel was built into the wall, enabling residents to signal the alarm. Crucially, Sirius contained three internal community areas designed to encourage the varied mix of tenants to interact with one another.

The largest of these was the Phillip Room. Located just off the main entrance, the Phillip Room was used for all sorts of activities — including an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet — and functions, such as birthday parties and weddings. “The timber linings and cave-art sculptures created a unique space for a housing commission complex,” said Gofer. Another community space was established on the eighth floor, allowing the building’s elderly and disabled residents to view such events as the New Year’s Eve fireworks displays. Meanwhile, a large viewing platform on the top of the building was used by tenants for barbeques.

The NSW government first flagged its intention to sell-off Sirius in March 2014 — three years later it was finally placed on the private market. As for the 200-or so residents, they were informed that they had just months to vacate their homes of many years. The government pledged that the money from the deal would be reinvested toward more public housing, while insisting that the funds raised could house, not just hundreds, but thousands of people in need. Public housing advocates, meanwhile, perceived the move as nothing more than a grubby cash grab.

In response, a community conglomerate — supported by the National Trust of Australia — established the Save Our Sirius Foundation in the hope of keeping the building in public hands. But despite the marches, the protests — and a campaign to list Sirius on the State Heritage Register — eviction notices were eventually issued alongside offers of “alternative accommodation”. Gradually, unit by unit, the building began to empty. Until there was only one tenant left: Myra Demetriou. After almost 60 years, Myra eventually left Sirius in January 2018 to be rehoused in Pyrmont. She told the Sydney Morning Herald: “They finally got me out!”

A year on, the “stack of concrete boxes” was sold for $150 million amid fears that Sirius would be bulldozed. However, the new owners — JDH Capital — insisted that the building would be retained. In a statement, JDH Capital said they were excited about the opportunity to “revitalise this iconic Sydney building, which holds a special place in the heart of so many Sydneysiders. Once complete, we believe that the revitalised Sirius will be a building that all of Sydney can be proud of.” A strong supporter of Sirius, Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore posted on her Facebook feed that, while she was happy that the building was to be saved, she was “extremely disappointed that the public asset — purpose built to house people on low incomes — has been sold for market housing”.

The new, “revitalised” Sirius is to consist of 76 apartments — plus retail and commercial spaces — and a “holistic urban garden”. Internal walls will be demolished to combine units so as to increase floor space. To “clearly articulate the new against the restored concrete of the existing building”, prefabricated copper pods will be added to the main structure.

But never mind the pods, what of the people? Cherie Johnson had lived in Sirius for three decades or more. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Johnson said the sell-off amounted to a social cleansing of the area. “It is with great arrogance that they have treated us, as if we are not worthy of living here anymore. We need a mix of people living in Sydney otherwise it is them and us with classes and that is not Sydney, that is not Australia, that is not who we are supposed to be.”

And that’s it — in a nutshell. Sirius was far more than prime real estate. Sirius was Aussie egalitarianism set in concrete. Where some of Sydney’s most disadvantaged citizens shared multi-million-dollar waterfront views alongside film-stars, prime ministers, and bombastic talkback hosts. “Socially,” said Thalis, “there isn’t perhaps a more important work of public housing than Sirius. It’s hard to beat in terms of any project that I’m aware of in the state. They didn’t just build housing; they built a community.”

Source material: John Dunn 

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