Sirius

Sirius was designed by Theo (Tao) Gofers in the late 1970s for the Housing Commission. Sited beside the southern approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it looks out to Circular Quay and the Opera House. The original plans for the development included a commercial block to the south of the main residential block, but only the larger residential block was built. Sirius is currently listed on both the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and Australian Institute of Architects (NSW) heritage registers due to its architectural and social significance.

On this page is the story of Sirius, including photos, original plans and its history. This page and others on the site are updated regularly. For the latest news on the Save Our Sirius campaign, look to the News section of this site or one of the following…

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In October 2014, the National Trust of Australia (NSW) nominated Sirius to be listed on the State Heritage Register but Mark Speakman, Minister for the Environment rejected this recommendation and called for the demolition of Sirius. This has provided a great challenge for the Save Our Sirius campaign.

Sirius was designed and built as a consequence of the Green Bans of the early 1970s and community opposition to plans by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority to demolish the historic buildings along the western side of Circular Quay in order to build high-rise office towers. Below is the 1963 proposal that was halted by The Rocks Green Ban and community action.

1963 redevelopment plan

The preliminary sketch plans for Sirius were prepared based on a mixed high and low-rise development providing aged and family accommodation. Tao Gofers, the architect for Sirius, writes:

“The brief that Jack Burke (Chairman of the NSW Housing Commission) and I prepared  for the design of Sirius was quite simple. The Building was to provide for a range of units from pensioner one-bedroom units, accessible two-bedroom units, two, three and four-bedroom split level units with balconies, roof gardens or terraces. The complex was to encompass community facility area and a special pensioners’ community space. The complex was to include undercover parking. The designs were to be based on the three-storey prototype built at Sans Souci although all accessible and pensioner unit were serviced by the lifts. Special features of the accessible / pensioner units included  emergency call buttons and special electronic locks on the unit doors in case of accidents or medical emergencies. There are a lot of ideas that were developed within the general framework as the design development and construction documents were being prepared.”

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It was unusual for the Housing Commission to combine aged and family units in the one development, and the early 1970s was a time when many Housing Commission high-rise towers elsewhere were failing to provide safe and secure accommodation for residents. Why was this development different? Mixing old and young people was a success right from the start.

The aged units are located in the tower, where there are no steps at the entrance and units are accessible by lift. The entrance foyer is still adorned with the laminated timber animals designed by architect Penny Rosier as part of the original plans, loosely based on prehistoric cave paintings and looking entirely at home in the cave-like foyer, they are a mark of the way this development has been valued by residents because they remain unmarked after 35 years except for their deteriorating varnish. Architect Theo Gofers calls these sculptures UROs, not quite UFOs but unidentified running objects. The original plans proposed a commercial area to the south of the existing buildings, but this commercial area was not built. The commercial area plans can be seen here.

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Also in the foyer is the distress-call panel with lights for every aged unit which can be activated by residents from inside their unit. The distress-call panel is no longer maintained by Housing NSW, but it is an indication of the consideration towards residents’ needs that went into the original designs. Also on the ground floor and opposite the entrance is the Phillip Room, the large community room in which the Friends of Millers Point presented the S.O.S. Save our Sirius exhibition for an afternoon advertised as Open Sirius to correspond with Open Sydney 2014. The Phillip room is below, and other interior photos are here.

The unmaintained distress-call panel and the exhibition title provided inspiration for crowning Sirius with a new name. The S.O.S. lights inside Myra’s unit on the tenth floor flashed their message every night from November 2014 until June 2015. They were turned off while Minister Brad Hazzard considered how he might be able to save the social housing tenants of Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks from ‘relocation’ and thereby avoid the destruction of this community. In December 2015 the S.O.S. lights were switched back on to broadcast a message that Sirius should be saved.

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Sirius incorporated an early example of rooftop gardens, described here by Tao Gofers:

“The proximity of the development to the Harbour Bridge southern approach and its constant traffic flow has added a “Fifth Elevation” the roof-scape, to the four elevations normally seen by a passerby. The roofs were designed with this aspect in mind and their landscaping was considered a major design element.

“On the accessible roof areas, plants have been confined to planter boxes to maximise human space available and to maintain control of the planting.

“These planted roof areas are repeated elsewhere in the complex providing a garden atmosphere for the tenants on the upper levels similar to those areas available to the tenants at ground floor and podium levels.

“These gardens in the sky are an integral part of the visual presentation of the complex and should become evident with the growth of the plants. This not been the case as the HC maintenance and caretaker roles have sadly lacked both planning and emphasis

“The colour of the exhaust vents and steel balustrades ranged from blue in the North to red in the South with a gradual gradation of eight colours from north to south. The most prominent colour was purple which was obvious because it could be seen from the bridge.”

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It should come as no surprise that tenants are not allowed access to any of the rooftop gardens.

(Mrs A. Gorrel admires the view from the 10th floor balcony of the new housing commission complex at The Rocks in Sydney, 19 March 1980.  Photo: Andy Zakaras) Read the full article in the Herald here.

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Now the Phillip Room is used by Housing NSW’s Relocation Team for office space and an event they run which has become known amongst locals as Housing Lotto, where residents are asked to bid against one another for vacant properties elsewhere. Housing Lotto is a sad parody, the Phillip Room set up like an estate agent’s auction rooms, with interview desks, television monitors, and colour brochures showing houses and flats that residents can bid on. Most weeks there are three properties presented in this way. Some properties have received more than a dozen bids by residents, unsettling most bidders as they mentally prepare to leave only to miss out.

One Relocation Officer tried to entice Myra to view a selection of Housing Lotto properties on the big screen, but she escaped by reminding the officer that she was blind and had never seen her granddaughter’s face, so was unable to look at the presentation. Nevertheless, Ministers Gabrielle Upton and Pru Goward vowed to move 88-year-old Myra before March 2016, and if this happens, it would not be just the familiar layout of her unit and the community she knows so well that she will lose, but also the independence she enjoys as she has learned to navigate this part of Sydney very well in the fifty years she has lived here. If it were offered to her, Myra would move to other accommodation in The Rocks or Millers Point, just as she and most Housing tenants in this area have done before, but until recently this was the one option firmly not on offer by Housing’s Relocation Team.

Meanwhile, Housing NSW is making it difficult for residents to remain in Sirius. All the common areas have been taken from residents: they are locked out of the Heritage Room and the Library, the eastern courtyard accessed through the Phillip Room is now inaccessible, and the Phillip Room is available to them only if they collect the key from Surry Hills one day and return it the following day. Recently Housing NSW switched to new security access keys for entry to Sirius and locked out many vulnerable residents by turning off existing access keys.

This is a localised version of what the government has been doing across Millers Point and The Rocks – forcing neighbourhood shops and other facilities to close, and boarding up some houses it has emptied, which has made whole neighbourhoods appear untidy and places about which nobody cares. However, this community continues to care for the properties and each other and looks forward to discussing alternatives to eviction with Housing NSW and the State Government.

This story was researched and written by John Dunn following conversations with Tao Gofers; it incorporates Tao Gofers’ archive of plans and photos of Sirius and other projects. Originally posted 2014. Regularly updated and extended, and other stories on this subject are posted to this site. © John Dunn and Tao Gofers. Reproduction is permitted when accompanied by acknowledgement of site and author.

In August 2016, the NSW Government has rejected its own NSW Heritage Council’s recommendation to list Sirius on the State Register. It wants the building demolished and the site sold. A full report is here, and there is now a dedicated website – SAVE OUR SIRIUS

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has responded to the international condemnation of the decision:

“Sydney’s making international news for all the wrong reasons. This time it’s the State Government’s decision to reject the Sirius building – against all recommendations – and in a blatant cash grab, replace the iconic building with luxury apartments. In just a few days, the Sirius Foundation has already raised almost half the money they need to tackle this decision in the courts – if you agree, will you chip in and help them take it on?”

Here are links to other stories about Sirius on this site and elsewhere: