Philip Thalis: This is Sirius

Well thanks Shaun, for your overly generous introduction, and thanks also to the many people round the room. I’ve got a list of people to thank but it’s nowhere near enough. Of course, we’ve already heard the acknowledgement to the Gadigal people, as is correct, and imagine how much they must have enjoyed living here for tens of thousands of years on this beautiful slope of The Rocks, overlooking first the river bank and then the harbour itself.

Of course, I’d like to acknowledge Jack and Judy Mundey, two heroes of mine who I’ve known for more than 30 years and I couldn’t imagine my professional life without their personal influence. Great friends of mine. And the charismatic architect Tao Gofers. It wouldn’t be half the story without Tao’s fantastic involvement. Of course, tonight the National Trust, and Graham’s been hiding at the back, look, he’s quite tall.

Of course, Ben Peake and Shaun. Shaun’s been, I think amazing as an architect, speaking in public about things that are critical for the community, and isn’t that a welcome thing for the architectural community to be doing.

My fellow councillors, Deputy Lord Mayor Kerryn Phelps, and Jess Scully who’s just walked in.

Thanks to the artists who have made this exhibition possible, and what an extraordinary act of generosity it is on their part, and thank you to the residents of Sirius: Myra is here in the front and Cherie is here. Hi Cherie.

I have a prepared speech but I might like Shaun diverge a little bit. Now this is an area that I have been vitally interested in since the 1980s when I did a Masters Thesis, when I recorded and compared construction in Millers Point and The Rocks. And what was particularly striking to me doing this research, back when people weren’t interested in this area, was after all the commotion of the 70s, was that this is in fact the birth place of so much public policy in Australia.

This is the birth place of public housing in Australia. It is all around you. And this happened initially because of the plague. Arthur Payne, lorry driver at 10 Ferry Lane, was the first victim of the plague. Following the outbreak, the government resumed entirely The Rocks and Millers Point, all of Darling Harbour, all the waterfront of Pyrmont, out to White Bay. Today the government is talking again about redeveloping these areas, but these areas are public land because a far-sighted government in 1900, enacted legislation and bought it all for public good.

They were thinking wharfage, harbour bridges and the like. But what happened? Straight after 1900, is that the residents of this area said, “Hey, what about us?” And the residents spoke up and actually made progressive, inclusive public authorities- imagine that!, changed their mind and for the first time, built public housing. And in fact they engaged with a whole series of public authorities, some had just been set up and some were of long-standing.

There was The Rocks Improvement Board, who didn’t end up building anything. There was the Public Works Department, the Government Architects who built two buildings, which are disgracefully for sale this week in “Domain”. One in Gloucester Street, just down the hill from Sirius. And then, of critical importance, the Housing Board, who built a lot of the public housing in The Rocks, and the Sydney Harbour Trust, who built a lot of the public housing in Millers Point.

Public agencies actually created and charged all the … changing their … model, to build the first public housing in Australia. There may be one building in Newcastle which is older, but this is the birth place of public housing in Australia. But not only that, they built the best public housing, they built public housing of an international standard here, because they knew it was important to house the community.

And they didn’t just build housing, they built a community. They built coffee palaces, they built restaurants, for community use, they rebuilt some of the pubs. They knocked down 11 and built two. Bit of a social agenda, but they built community kindergartens in Australia as well.

They built the one in High Street. In the middle of that wonderful street. It’s still a public kindergarten. I think it’s actually run by the City of Sydney.

So, the community here actually forced the government’s hand and invented public housing in Australia. Then you had a period of neglect up to the 60s and 70s, when you had a Liberal government who thought, “You Beaut. The Rocks – ripe for redevelopment.” And that area was to be cleared. In fact, it was a Labor Government. It was Jack who corrected me there. But the Liberal government enacted the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority. One of the most infamous government agencies, up to this point, in the history of Sydney.

And they set about with their shiny new vision. Well aren’t we used to those again today? The cities and assemblies. We’re back in rapacious mode, where the city is seen as a field of real estate, rather than a social field that’s inclusive of all of us and many more. And so in that period in the 60s they thought, “Well there’s nothing of value, we’ve got to clear the place. It’s tabula rasa.” And you see that again happening in Barangaroo, at Darling Harbour, you see it in the Bays Precinct. There’s a risk of it at Waterloo, that we’re very keen to resist, and Waterloo of course the biggest public housing community in the state, so a very important issue coming up there.

But there was resistance, and this time the resistance came with the Builders Labourers Federation and the green bans, a world first. Incredible, the community turned, and in this case, a community of workers, turned to their unions for support. My mother was a teacher at the time. She reminded me just on the weekend, that in fact the Teachers’ Federation gave money to support the Builders Labourers Federation at that time.

Jack probably can give you a fuller account of that. And of course the famous photos of him being carried out with the fat sergeant, as you can see in “Rocking the Foundations”. It’s very entertaining that film … And then of course what happened? They built Sirius. So Sirius is the one new work of public housing built to, in a sense, assuage the guilt of the Askin government – the Wran government committed to it and built Sirius.

Socially, there isn’t perhaps a more important work of public housing than Sirius because it is to say, well the viability of a community is something worth reinstating, worth fighting for. So it’s a great work of resistance, a work of correction, hard to beat in terms of any project that I’m aware of in the state. So important because the Wran Government recognised the importance of the community. And the community of Millers Point and The Rocks is without parallel in urban Australia. You have generations of people under the benign dictatorship of the MSB that transferred all the housing to the Housing Commission, I believe in 1989 to 1991. Someone will know, who it affected in the time? But up to that time it had been really, more than just people, it was social housing exactly in the sense that Shaun talked about.

So it was for a broad, inclusive community, as we know from probably people in this room, people were born and died in this area. Quite a remarkable story. Really without parallel. And so the Sirius building wanted to give those people a new, dignified, life. I didn’t know, even though I’d drawn the area and walked past Sirius hundreds of times, I didn’t get it. 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.

And we’re obsessed with real estate in Sydney. We’ve allowed it to completely skew our whole idea of what housing is for. It’s actually to house our community in a dignified, sustainable way. It’s not just about a quick buck on Saturday while reading Domain. So it’s about the dignity of our society, it’s about the sustainability of our housing. From a sustainability point of view, the last thing we would do is knock down a perfectly good 40 year old building that’s in pretty well mint condition. We’d be looking to adapt it, we’d be looking to adapt it socially as Shaun has said, as well as architecturally.

This building could actually easily be added to, and added to for a larger programme. So I think that’s testament to the skill of Tao’s design. And to perhaps also, the Department of Housing, when they were a bit more progressive, at that time. They hadn’t always been the most progressive authority, but maybe, you know, in the 70s they were.

And there’s a period in the 70s when Woolloomooloo, after the Whitman government where also there was a more progressive tender.

So the building, I know has been fenced now, but many of you might have been in it previously. Now we all know about the case with the Land and Environment Court that Shaun and others have been instrumental in launching. That’s a critically important case, and Shaun can probably talk better about that than me. But of course the government’s own experts, the Heritage Council of New South Wales recommended that it be listed, and then we had, and this is really going to cut very deeply, and then we had the Heritage Minister saying, “Well we can’t afford to, on financial grounds.”

Then we had Dominic Perrottet, now the Treasurer, who was then Finance Minster, wasn’t he? And he said, “Well, it’s a heap of rubbish.” As if he would know!

[Audience: As if he would know!]

He wouldn’t know anything.

[Audience: Philistine!]

Philistine at best!

So here you have a government saying, “Well the building’s declared by experts to be Heritage listed, but we can’t afford to list it”. Then we’ve had the Finance Minister saying, “Sirius is rubbish.”

But in fact, this is the test case, because if the government wins in court – and this is where the Commissioner will be under huge stress – if it wins in court, basically the government or anybody else, can knock down any heritage building in the state based on duress. What a load of rubbish!

That completely undermines the Heritage Act and would be an appalling precedent. You can’t imagine how any Land and Environment Board Commissioner could reasonably come to that point of view as a precedent for the state, so that’s why it’s so important to look at this case and to put public pressure such as this on our courts who are meant to be independent but in fact they’re very important public institutions, and we’re looking to them to succeed where the government has manifestly failed us.

This building is so important for Sydney and it’s so important for the residents. And it’s so important for its future residents as well. And it’s so important as a fight that we must win for all the reasons that Shaun has said.

So it’s fantastic, and again I can’t think of too many built things that actually excited public art exhibitions in the history of Sydney. There certainly have been lots of paintings of The Rocks, but not as many as on display today. So it is quite a remarkable event that we’re at, and I’d like to particularly commend the work of the Sirius Foundation, and thank the National Trust, the Historic Houses Association and particularly the Millers Point community who have suffered so much, and if you’ll know the city of Sydney has been supporting them, not only through these sorts of actions, but through, manifestly through supporting them through the Redfern legal aid and help fighting their battles, which they shouldn’t have to fight with a state government. So the city absolutely stands with you in this battle. I’m sure Clover would be even more impassioned than I am. Though I give her a close run on this one.

And so it’s my absolute pleasure to declare this exhibition open.