How the Sirius building was lost

Patricia Arcilla and Sam Langford take a look at the impending loss of one of Sydney's most iconic buildings.

On a Thursday evening in May, I sat in the second row of a Wilkinson lecture theatre and listened to my peers outline conservation strategies for The Rocks' Sirius building in the face of then purely hypothetical destruction. 

The class was ARCH9074: Principles of Heritage Conservation and puns were flying thick and fast; over forty minutes, a series of social media-centric conservation campaigns exhaustively mined the catacombs of Dad jokes for hashtags such as #youcantbesirius, #saveoursirius, and, perhaps most poignantly, #siriusly?.

The undercurrent of wry humour in nearly everyone’s campaign did not escape me. A longstanding cult favourite of Sydney architecture, steeped in fraught political history, the notion that the iconic Sirius building would ever face a legitimate threat of destruction was distant and ridiculous. Yet three months on, the threat is no longer laughable so much as it is impending. At the end of July, the NSW Environment and Heritage Minister Mark Speakman announced the state government’s refusal to heritage list the building, even following months of lobbying by the NSW Heritage Council, Australian Institute of Architects, and local community groups. If community appeals fail, the building will be demolished in the near future.

It’s just one casualty in what’s starting to look like an urban planning war.

"It's a bit like Madonna in many ways, this building – it forces you to a position. I think it’s a building of great character."

Photo: Eastberliner via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC-BY 4.0

You've almost certainly seen the Sirius building. It rises out of The Rocks next to the harbour bridge, and to the untrained eye, looks like a bunch of rounded concrete blocks stacked atop one other; a hulking urban Lego set. It has unkempt rooftop gardens, and sepia-toned windows that turn sunset light nostalgic. For a long time, a sign in the window of unit 74 proclaimed "One Way! Jesus" to peak hour motorists stuck in traffic on the bridge.

To anyone maintaining even a dilettante’s interest in the state of planning and the built environment in NSW, the decision not to heritage list Sirius is disheartening but unsurprising. While fans of architecture gush about its typifying of Brutalist architecture and redolence to Moshe Safdie’s widely-lauded Habitat 67, Sirius has for years proved a divisive rent in Sydney’s urban fabric. Many are confounded by its massive concrete presence in the steel-and-glass stalagmite of Sydney’s skyline; others still are bewildered that such an unyielding structure has been allowed to remain on prime development ground for as long as it has. NSW Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet sniped in a tweet earlier this month that “if you need a PhD in Architecture to 'appreciate’ the #Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people of NSW”.

The irony of Perrottet’s tweet is that the Sirius building is first and foremost a building for the people of NSW. Designed by Department of Public Works architect Tao Gofers, Sirius was built in the wake of the historic 1970s green bans. As NSW chapter president of the Australian Institute of Architects and core Save Our Sirius campaigner Shaun Carter tells it, “the Government was hell bent on erasing those lovely Victorian and Georgian buildings down there at The Rocks. The Builders Labourers Federation noticed that its cultural heritage was being erased and didn’t think that was appropriate".

Union members and local activists imposed green bans on the area, refusing to perform demolition or construction work on the sites unless the government made provisions to keep the area’s working class community intact. The Sirius building was constructed for that community, housing the residents who would otherwise have been displaced.

The Sirius building continued to be public housing until recently, greying with its ageing tenants. To Shaun, it’s “fundamentally imbued in the Sydney story. It has other stories sewn into it; the idea of egalitarianism, of a civic and ethical architecture that housed its most needy in some of its best places, gave them great amenity and allowed them to hope for more”.

Sirius’ precarious situation has attracted a flood of media coverage recently, but the building’s predicament is only symptomatic of a broader, systemic issue in contemporary NSW planning and the built environment.

In February 2016, the 120-person NSW Office of the Government Architect was collapsed into four staff members in the Department of Planning and the Environment. This restructuring ended an era: 200 years that saw the Office oversee the design and construction of Taronga Zoo, Central Station, the GPO at Martin Place, and countless other icons.

Post-restructure, the design of public architecture in NSW will be put out to tender or determined by competitions, such as that launched in 2014 for the Sydney Modern Project of the Art Gallery of NSW. The move is economically sensible, attracting designs from big-name architects that in turn raise the city’s profile and entice foreign investments and tourism. Culturally, the move is both blessing and curse; there’s no guarantee that new designs will be cohesive with the existing city.

The Australian stance on heritage has not always been so bleak. In August 1979, the Australian arm of the International Council on Monuments and Sites was globally lauded for the Burra Charter, the first document to codify the conservation of items of cultural rather than purely architectural significance. Under the Whitlam government, heritage conservation in Australia continued to flourish: we joined the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1974 and subsequently enacted the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975. The Act established the Australian Heritage Commission, a federal statutory authority responsible for the Register of the National Estate, under which items of “aesthetic, historic, scientific, or social significance” were protected.

But in 2004, under pressure from mining and development lobbies, the Act was repealed by the Howard government, and the Australian Heritage Commission superseded by the Australian Heritage Council, which comprises individual councils for each state or territory. The name of the new body is similar, but according to architectural historian and heritage consultant Dr. Bronwyn Hanna, its power is substantially diminished.

“The Australian Heritage Commission was originally set up so that its recommendations didn’t have to go to a minister – it would make a recommendation that a place should be listed, and it would be listed, there was no ministerial sign-off. I think that was one of the reasons it was phased out – governments have to wear the implications of the listing decisions, and so they want to have the final say.”

Dr. Hanna worked in the heritage division of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage from 2003 to 2015, and saw the system change dramatically over that period. “I think there’s all sorts of ways the heritage management system has been undermined over those 12 years,” she says. “The number of people and organisations represented on the NSW Heritage Council has been reduced. This means not only is there less diversity and expertise for the council to draw on, but it sometimes fails to get the required quorum and can’t meet at all.”

Over the course of her employment, her formerly independent department was subsumed first into the Department of Planning, and then into the Office of Environment and Heritage.

“I think there were 800 people in [the Department of Planning], and we were a group of 40 within 800, and then we became a group of 40 within 3000 people in the Office of Environment and Heritage. We became a much smaller cog.”

With each move, the layers of bureaucracy between the heritage officers and the Minister increased. “I think when I left there were 12 levels of sign-off in the Office of Environment and Heritage between my director and the Minister. Whereas when I started, my director reported straight to the Minister. It was an enormous shift in autonomy.”

Growing bureaucratic creep across the board left her with the impression that “you were just managing systems rather than doing the work.”

"We had the heritage minister talking dollars and finance, and we had a finance minister sort of bumble and stumble his way through some half-arsed comment about aesthetics, and you think 'what's this government playing at?'"

Photo by Hpeterswald via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 4.0

In the brave new world of today's heritage legislation, Speakman’s decision not to heritage list the Sirius building is, technically, perfectly valid. Dr. Hanna concedes she can see the minister’s reasoning: "I think he thinks a lot of people would rather have the $70 million than the funny-looking building beside the bridge".

But as Shaun Carter rightly notes, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced this predicament. In the early 1900s, and again in the late 50s, the Queen Victoria Building was threatened with demolition. Both times, this game of architectural chicken amounted to nothing, and the building was eventually restored, but there was a period where it looked probable that it would be replaced with a car park.

“Not so long ago,” says Shaun Carter of the close shave, “we had people in charge that weren’t necessarily bad people, but they were people with misplaced visions and a lack of understanding, and they probably weren’t listening to the experts”.

He draws a parallel with the recent Sirius decision, where “we had the heritage minister talking dollars and finance, and we had a finance minister sort of bumble and stumble his way through some half-arsed comment about aesthetics, and you think ‘what’s this government playing at?’ Maybe these two dudes don’t really get what their portfolios are for”.

For Shaun, it’s imperative that architects step in in these circumstances. Though he acknowledges that the community and residents of areas under threat are crucial voices (and in the case of the Sirius building, are “the genesis of that movement”), when governments do not listen to their constituents he feels the architectural community is obligated to “be that critical friend – to be able to stick a hand in the air and say ‘we think you’re wrong here’.”

So why aren’t there more hands in the air? For a building born out of a strong union movement that forced the hand of governments past, Sirius’ contemporary defence squad is surprisingly humble. It’s spearheaded by the building’s remaining residents, and the Millers Point community, along with architects like Shaun Carter, and a growing contingent of students. It also has the implicit support of the National Trust of Australia (NSW), which first nominated Sirius for heritage listing, and Lord Mayor Clover Moore. It’s a dedicated group, but they’re throwing up red flags, not green bans.

Part of the decline is understandable – union strength overall has been decreasing for decades; the Builders Labourers Federation, the union at the heart of the green bans, no longer exists. Dr. Hanna suggests that the development of heritage legislation in the 1970s may also have contributed to the broader public’s complacency, making them feel “like heritage was being looked after, and the just didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”

The consequence of this is that “if you’ve got a government like this, that isn’t very pro-heritage and keeps making decisions that end up really destroying heritage, they’re doing it all legally according to the legislation.” Then again, Dr. Hanna notes that the flipside of this is that “people are shocked. They think ‘this isn’t supposed to happen, it’s supposed to be protected’. So I think that might force people to come out”.

Shaun Carter certainly hopes so. The Save Our Sirius Foundation plans to challenge Speakman’s decision, and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund a legal case they hope to run through the Environmental Defenders Office. Five days in, they’ve amassed $20,000 of their $35,000 goal, thanking backers with rewards ranging from photographs of the iconic building to guided tours, and a VIP night with the remaining residents. They’re planning a protest on September 17 at the building, trying to “raise the stakes, raise the attention, raise the building in people’s consciousness”. He doesn’t need people to love the building, but he does want people to care.

“It’s a bit like Madonna in many ways, this building – it forces you to a position. I think it’s a building of great character… part of that great diversity and richness of the social fabric that makes a city interesting.” That kind of diversity and richness can’t be bought; it’s the kind that accrues over time, greys with age.

“With current housing shortages, we know we need to get on and start building a city at a bit of a clip,” Shaun says. “But we shouldn’t do that at any cost – we shouldn’t do that by erasing the significant moments of our past.”

“You don’t have to love every building in your city. Cities don’t always have to be shining and polished and glistening, they can be a little bit gritty and a little bit ugly.”