Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Brutalism eleven: Sirius building, The Rocks

This is the eleventh in a series of blogposts about brutalist buildings in Sydney. The development application and building application files for this building could not be located so I relied instead on material from published books. It is entirely fair to say that the fate of this building very much hangs in the balance at the time of publication.

I worked to find the DA and BA files for this building but they wouldn’t materialise. I first went to the city council but they told me that because the council was not the “consent authority” for the building they didn’t hold the files. Because the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority – which had owned the building – had been disestablished I then went to the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, which is where Property NSW sits in the government hierarchy. But they didn’t have the files either. They told me that they had checked with the Department of Planning – which is where the Government Architect’s office sits – and with the Department of Family and Community Services – which is where Housing NSW sits – but had had no luck at either place.

But not long ago I bought a book – Australian Architecture Since 1960 – written by academic Jennifer Taylor and published by what was then the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, in a second edition dated 1990. An officer at the city archives had helpfully shown me the council’s copy of the book and I had bought it online to read at home. It covers a particularly interesting period for the construction of built environment in Australia, and looks at the Opera House, Parliament House in Canberra, the buildings of Harry Seidler in Sydney and the High Court (which is also brutalist). Running to 264 pages, there is enough material in it of interest for a blogger concerned with brutalism to justify the purchase price.

The following text is in the book:
In 1962 the State government announced a competition for a high-rise development of the eastern side of The Rocks are in the central city. The location of the peninsula of The Rocks, along the western side of Sydney Cove, makes it a prime real estate zone. It is also the most historic site in Sydney, and for that matter, in Australia. The Rocks were settled in the beginning of Australia’s colonial period and retain a range of buildings testifying to the history of the area – not monuments of significance but buildings such as old hotels and workers’ cottages. Many of the houses are occupied by the families of the dock workers, aged couples and others who have spent their lives in this area. Later protests against the scheme focused on the social as well as the physical fabric.
In the mood of the times it appeared sensible to the government to clear the old, low-density buildings and economically exploit the area. The competition brief suggested housing and office space standing in squares and plazas relating to the waterfront. The submitted designs showed that the vision of the architects was again that of Corbusier’s town plans of the 1920s. Enthused with the project, a large number of Sydney’s leading firms submitted schemes. 
The competition was won by the developers James Wallace Pty Ltd with a proposal prepared by Edwards, Madigan and Torzillo [who would later design the High Court in Canberra]. It was a competent scheme with tall, commercial towers grouped in the southern precinct and lower, residential blocks to the north. Among the more imaginative proposals was Seidler’s design of winding, narrow, building slabs of curved and straight sections positioned to take maximum advantage of the splendid views. The viability and the desirability of such an extensive development of The Rocks came into question towards the end of the decade. 
The result was the abandonment of the project and the appointment of a special governmental body, The Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority responsible for ‘planning and promoting the revitalisation of The Rocks neighbourhood of Sydney by way of redevelopment and restoration’. The Authority was charged with financing the operation with proceeds from its own real estate ventures. In judging subsequent development of the eastern Rocks this restrictive financial structure must be kept in mind. The Rocks were officially divided into two zones along the line of the approaches to the Harbour Bridge. The eastern sector was placed under the control of the Authority while the responsibility for the western sector remained with the Sydney City Council and the Maritime Services Board. 
The initial proposals of the Authority showed a limited number of buildings to be conserved, the restoration of which would be financed by return from the development of the remainder of the area. Under protest from the trade unions, the architectural profession, conservation bodies (notably the National Trust) and the general public, the number of buildings to be retained was increased and by 1976 they covered a considerable part of the zone. Debate has continued over the development of The Rocks. As the earliest, still existing part of European settlement in the country, its cultural value is high indeed, and one can question the lack of empathy of much of the new work introduced by the Authority and the commercial emphasis on the reconditioning of the old. None the less, despite refurbishing rather than conservation, early housing has been saved, and under their new dress as shops, art galleries and restaurants the structures of the 19th century warehouses and hotels remain. The area is certainly enjoyed by tourists and Sydneysiders as are Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery in San Francisco. But today it is not in the eastern Rocks that a taste of the original settlement can still be experienced. 
Taylor points here finally to the fact that the original Rocks was still only able to be experienced in the suburb’s western half, that part leading up to the sandstone escarpment overlooking the docks (now Barangaroo) which you can see outlined in the drawing below. But the state government has emptied the western side of The Rocks of social housing tenants since her book was published, in the face of some public protests. Revenues generated from the sale of the resulting housing stock – as will also be the case for the Sirius building – is earmarked for development of new social housing at other sites in the city.

The drawing above shows Seidler’s ambitious design for The Rocks redevelopment, as presented in Taylor’s book. If implemented it would have resulted in serious and irrevocable destruction of built heritage. And the photo below shows what the area looked like at some unspecified point in time before the publication of the book, presumably at the time the redevelopment was being discussed in the community.

In her text, you can feel Taylor withholding judgement about the value of conserving working class communities near the city centre from her point of vantage late in the late 1980s. But by comparison she also looks in some detail at Woolloomooloo, which was similarly saved from rapacious overdevelopment in the 70s by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation. In regard to this part of the city, Taylor writes:
As with Glebe, the premise for this particular type of development is open to debate. Medium density of use for such centrally located land and the neo-vernacular character of the architecture can be challenged as retrogressive. Despite such reservations, the Woolloomooloo scheme provides a striking testimony to the idealism and ideals of the 1970s that countered the trend of the previous decade and brought a new humanism to the cities.
To be absolutely fair, the use of the world “retrogressive” in this context helps to tell us where someone like Taylor, who belonged to the elites, was coming from, as it – admittedly, in a nuanced fashion – posits the generally beneficial effects of development that were also promoted to a notable degree to the corrupt Liberal premier of NSW, Robert Askin, who lost the 1976 election to the Australian Labor Party’s Neville Wran. The author of a book on the NSW BLF, Meredith Burgmann, told me in an interview this month that the secretary of the union, Jack Mundey, had negotiated with Wran to build Sirius because despite the radical scaling back of development that was achieved in the face of plans put forward by the previous government, in the end parts of The Rocks were lost and some residents had to be provided with new homes.

While Taylor in her book to a large degree keeps silent about her personal opinion as to whether the government should maintain the presence of the working class in the city centre, or even whether heritage buildings should be conserved in the face of development, there is a new book that advocates strongly for both. It is titled simply Sirius and was written jointly by John Dunn, Ben Peake and Amiera Piscopo and published this year by Piper Press in Sydney in association with Save Our Sirius (SOS) Foundation and Carter Williamson Architects. The book emphasises the link between the NSW BLF and the construction of the building as though it had been questioned. (I will publish my Burgmann interview on this blog in the near future.)

The book is worth the $25 or so of the sticker price, and although it advocates strongly for the conservation of the building it is a bit uneven in quality, assembling numerous items by a variety of hands, including people from the SOS Foundation. It is something of a manifesto. 

Among other things, the book looks at the work of Tao Gophers, the government appointed architect who drew up the plans for the new building. But it also does something which is rare for books about architecture: it looks in detail at the objective value of the building from the point of view of the social fabric it fostered. 

What is clear from reading the book is that from the very beginning the building’s residents always took pride in their built environment, and looked after it. There are no serious reports of dysfunction, as might be visible for example by the presence of graffiti, even though the building contains several common areas used by all residents for various purposes. The original 70s furniture made for these areas was still in use when the book was published. City of Sydney Councillor Philip Thalis, recalling for the book’s authors the occasion of the opening on 8 June 2017 of an exhibition titled ‘This Is Sirius’, said:
Until I went on one of the tours and went into the foyer and went into the gardens and here was a building that was 40 years old, that was like the day it was built. Now buildings are only like that when the community loves them. And the foyer of Sirius is just a remarkable work. It really is a community room for the building, it’s actually a model of how you can build public housing for society, and not just as real estate.
The book also looks at the model for Sirius, a development named ‘The Laurels’ at Sans Souci (pictured below).

The book says:
Often referred to as the prototype for Sirius, The Laurels at Sans Souci adopted a modular construction where the arrangement of each module allowed different configurations of one, two and three-bedroom units. The structure is load bearing brickwork with concrete slabs. The various arrangement of split-level units provides each with a terrace of courtyard. 
The site was acquired by the Housing Commission of NSW in an attempt to integrate social housing into existing communities, instead of developing large Greenfield sites on the outskirts of Sydney and creating large areas with only Housing Commission tenants. 
The Housing Commission designed and developed the scheme. Like Sirius, construction documentation was undertaken by Alexander and Lloyd Architects. 
Tao Gophers created a model using Revlon eyeshadow boxes to help explain the design to colleagues, however the project needed the support of Housing Commission Jack Bourke to see it approved.
The Housing Commission published a small booklet to announce Sirius to the public and the city council has a copy in its archives. The booklet includes schematic drawings of the building’s characteristic residences – four-bedroom, split level units, two-bedroom units and “aged” units for elderly tenants – as well as images for unashamedly “glossy” PR designed to cultivate support for the building within the broader community. The following photo is one of the images in the booklet. It comes with the caption: “The old houses, bond stores and other picturesque buildings dating back to Australia’s first governor, Arthur Philip, have made a new home for local handicraft at The Rocks.”

The caption reminds me that when we were small mum used to take me and my brother down to The Rocks to visit the Argyle Cut. I remember there was a shop in the complex selling hand-made candles that we coveted. They were made by adding layers of different-coloured wax to a prepared core, and while you watched artisans would cut the warm, newly-solidified wax into folds, flaps and twists using a sharp implement. Elsewhere, there was a photographic business where you could don 19th century costumes and have your photo taken against a “period” backdrop. Outside and around the corner on George Street where it curves to follow the contour of the peninsula was an old, 19th century shop with big, glass front windows displaying the wares of the store inside. Here, you could find seashells, corals, sponges, sand dollars, dried starfish, semi-precious stones and other curiosities and ephemera that excited children could buy for little and take home to enjoy at leisure. 

The following drawing of Gophers’ plan is titled “The joy of living things” and emphasises the gardens on the roofs of the modular structures that make up the building.

Above: the Sirius building street frontage at 36-50 Cumberland Street, the Rocks, showing the driveway to the underground carpark. Each unit has its own car parking spot in the building.

Above: The ‘for sale’ sign outside the building on Cumberland Street.

Above: Part of the low-rise elements of the building, with street access.

Above: Looking north along Cumberland Street you can see how close to the Sirius building are the southern approaches of the Harbour Bridge.

Although development of the 3640-square-metre site appears inevitable now that it has been put up for sale by the NSW government, officials have placed a caveat over the site so that any new development can rise no higher than the deck of the bridge approaches. Whereas the book Sirius estimates that up to 200 units would be able to be built on the site if demolition were to go ahead, the government’s web page says:
The new controls could allow for a building ranging from 2 – 4 storeys and provide around 85 new apartments with ground floor commercial or retail uses.
There are 79 units in Sirius currently. Commercial and retail use is mandated in the control document. The web page also says:
Any application on the site for development over $10M would be subject to assessment by the Department under State Environmental Planning Policy (State and Regional Development) 2011.
This would mean that a plan to demolish the old building and build a new one would need to be approved by the state government, as well as by the city council. Nevertheless, the following can also be read in the new book on Sirius:
With Sirius in the background, a Green Ban was placed on the site [on 17 September 2017 at the ‘Save Our Sirius’ rally] by Jack Mundey, speaking on behalf of the CFMEU and Unions NSW.

In the above photo from the book, taken on 14 September 2016: Edwina Lloyd (ALP candidate for Sydney), Barney Gardiner (Millers Point resident), Paul McAleer (Maritime Union of Australia), Clover Moore (lord mayor of Sydney), Quentin Dempster (veteran journalist), Irene Doutey (Greens councillor, City of Sydney), Alex Greenwich (independent member for Sydney and NSW MLA). Moore was made a ‘Save Our Sirius’ ambassador along with Jack Mundey and 18 other people on the day.

Sirius was added to the 2018 Worldwide Monuments Watch list. The list was established in 1996 by the New York-based World Monuments Fund, “which issues a list every two years of cultural sites under imminent threat from conflict, natural disasters, climate change or conservation challenges.” From an October article in Architecture AU:
The Sirius building is the only site in Oceania and the youngest of the 25 sites on the 2018 watch list. 
It is threatened with sale and demolition if heritage protection is not secured. The building, which is located in The Rocks and was designed by Tao Gofers in 1979, was denied heritage protection in 2016 by the former NSW heritage minister Mark Speakman, contrary to a unanimous recommendation from the Heritage Council of NSW. 
Speakman said at time the building’s heritage value “is greatly outweighed by what would be huge loss of extra funds from the sale of the site.” 
In the Land and Environment Court the government claimed heritage listing would reduce the value of the site by approximately $70 million.
The new NSW heritage minister, Gabrielle Upton, said in October that the building “is not of state heritage significance”. In a story in The Fifth Estate:
[SOS Foundation chair Shaun] Carter told The Fifth Estate the government had placed “private hired heritage opinion” above that of its own independent council. 
“You need these independent expert groups that can provide frank and fearless advice so you know what you should value,” he said. 
“The Heritage Council is not out of control. They list 24-28 buildings a year.” 
He said it was rare for the council to recommend heritage listing on two criteria, unanimously, with the decision also supported by bodies including the National Trust, City of Sydney, [Australian Institute of Architects] and Historic Houses Association. 
“These are significant and substantial bodies that understand social, cultural and heritage [significance].”

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