The iconic Sirius apartment building in Sydney’s The Rocks is the latest battleground in the fight over who lives in our cities, writes Grace Karskens…
From Atherden Street in The Rocks, billed as the shortest street in Australia, the Sirius apartments rear up magnificently against the skyline. The rhythmic, piled-up units perch on a sheer cliff of ancient sandstone, the rock that gave the neighbourhood its name. Designed by architect Tao Gofers in 1978–79, Sirius has been home to low-income families and pensioners, many originally from the local neighbourhood.
Today it stands almost abandoned, quiet, waiting. The kitchens are empty, the communal meeting rooms locked up. Weeds sprout from paved courtyards and crevices. Every night from a topmost window a neon sign shines out over The Rocks and the harbour: SOS, Save Our Sirius.
Sirius has been a familiar name in Sydney from the beginning. HMS Sirius, named for the south star, ‘a fixed star of the first magnitude’, was one of the First Fleet ships. She carried first governor Arthur Phillip, future governor John Hunter and a bevy of other notables to found the colony of New South Wales in 1788. Sirius was a sturdy, workhorse ship, sailing back and forth for the colony’s much-needed supplies.
So Sirius was a good name for a visionary building with a great practical and social mission: a place where vulnerable people have found anchorage. It sits like a ship of cabins that has fetched up and come to rest on the rocky western promontory of Sydney Cove.
But for decades the Sirius apartment block was less shining star than a building Sydney loved to hate. From the deck of the Sydney Harbour Bridge only the blocky, bald concrete units at the very top could be seen by the millions of commuters going past every week. Most people abhorred the building as an eyesore. But when the state government announced its intention to sell the building in 2014, Sydneysiders looked again.
Sirius’s significant social and architectural story was rediscovered, a protest campaign ignited, supported by a coalition of local people, public housing supporters, architects, planners and heritage organisations. In September, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) placed an interim Green Ban on the building. Loathing has been transformed to love, and activism.
This is not only a struggle for ‘heritage’ or ‘history’ or ‘architecture’, but a deeper ideological struggle over the politics of urban space, and who gets to live where. Urban space is not, and never was, neutral. It has been shaped and charged by power, money and desire, but also by ideals and hope, memory and amnesia. And by urban morphology. The Rocks, for example, has come full circle, from the bustling centre of convict enterprise and mercantilism, to a demonised nineteenth-century slum; now once more it is desirable and expensive city real estate.
Similarly, the driving convictions of the Green Ban movement and the Battle for The Rocks in the 1970s were not so much heritage and architecture, and saving the fabric of old Sydney from obliteration by high-rise commercial development, as about the defence of social and urban rights, the rights of poor and working-class communities to remain in their familiar city neighbourhoods.
“There must be in all this city area provision for people of low and middle income to be able to reside in the area,” declared Builders Labourers Federation leader Jack Mundey. It was a battle for better planning and decent urban conditions too. “It’s not much good winning a 35-hour week,” Mundey continued, “if we’re going to choke to death in planless and polluted cities.”
Against all the odds (and they were massive odds), the fight for The Rocks was won. But the people were rehoused nonetheless, and the population continued to decline because the area was redeveloped – as a heritage tourist precinct, dubiously rebadged ‘Australia’s birthplace’. The Sirius apartment building was the child of the Green Bans because it was built for the residents, many of whom were by then elderly.
Public housing in NSW has a chequered history, to say the least. The success of early flats in Millers Point, cottages at Daceyville, the refurbishment of terrace housing in Woolloomooloo, contrast with the isolation of the vast outer-suburban developments of the 1950s and 1960s, the forbidding high-rise towers in Waterloo, and the award-winning but ultimately disastrous Radburn-style medium-rise development at Villawood (built 1976, razed 1997).
But Sirius was different. It worked, because it did allow people to live in their familiar neighbourhood, with good amenities, and where they felt safe. It worked because Tao Gofers and his team thought about the social mix, combining units for pensioners with those for families. Because they actually talked to residents about their needs – some units were even designed with particular families in mind. This project nurtured the community. The building itself seemed to look after frail and elderly people, particularly when it was fully functional.
So Sirius showed how high-density living, so often written off as ‘slums in the sky’, can be successful. Gofers’ building even outdid its inspirational model, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, a modular housing development built for Montreal’s Expo 67. Habitat 67 never became the idealistic, organic, affordable housing that Safdie envisaged, but it does survive as a block of highly sought after apartments for the wealthy.
If the Sirius apartment building does dodge the wrecker’s ball, the outcome may be similar. We’ll have a precious architectural legacy, but the ethos of fairness, community and urban wellbeing, the ideals that made Sirius shine, will be extinguished.
For now, the SOS light still shines from the top window of the darkened building.
Grace Karskens is a historian, writer and teacher. Her books include Inside the Rocks: The Archaeology of a Neighbourhood and The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney. Her latest book The Colony: A History of Early Sydney won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
On the Rocks was first published in UNSW Magazine – Uniken (Summer 2016/17) and was retrieved online from https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/social-affairs/rocks on 24 January 2017.