Sirius — a success story

Charles Pickett

Sirius is a success story of public housing design. It’s one of many similar achievements: As well as setting higher standards for workers’ housing, public housing has frequently created new urban and architectural forms.

These claims are likely to meet with disdain, given today’s association between public housing and social decay. It is widely assumed that public housing – certainly in apartment format – is a failure, costly both financially and socially. In this version of events, the importation of social housing practice from Europe and the USA also imported the consequences of flawed architectural and social theories.

In fact much of what we recognize as modern architecture originated in social housing, Modern apartment design was effectively founded in the public housing created in Germany, Holland and elsewhere during the 1920s. The million dollar apartments springing up around Sydney today are the direct descendants of these even down to the functional, ‘built-in’ modern kitchen, first designed by Margarete Lihotzky for public housing in Frankfurt and now a familiar part of every home and apartment.

Sirius is a demonstration of the fact that Australian housing authorities also worked at the cutting edge of housing theory and practice, all the more notable for being practised at the cheap end of the market. In the end the failings of public housing are less those of architecture than the consequences of a change in the purpose of public housing, away from the provision of exemplary housing to a form of emergency social security.

Although the architecture of apartment towers was widely regarded as an incentive to social dysfunction, the reality is more complicated as the success of apartment towers in the private market suggests.

The Rocks precinct is a classic demonstration of the potential of public housing and I want to briefly outline the beginnings of its history in public housing.

Following the outbreak of Bubonic plague in 1900 the Rocks precinct was resumed by the Sydney Harbour Trust, which was formed to rebuild the docks and dockside precinct. The official intention was to reconstruct the entire area for commercial uses, although the resumed area included 430 dwellings. However this strategy was compromised as a ‘large number of the residents within the Area are what is known as waterside workers, being employed in and around the wharves…It is recognised that these men…have to live close to their work, and hence special consideration has had to be extended to them’.[1]

Varney Parkes, son of former premier Sir Henry Parkes and a successful architect, chaired an Improvement Advisory Board which researched and proposed housing options, ‘including £180,000 for the construction of tenement houses’.[2] Remarkably, the proposed solutions were exposed to public scrutiny by their prospective tenants.[3] According to RRP Hickson, the Harbour Trust’s chairman, ‘there is a very strong feeling in all the areas under the control of the Harbour Trust against flats’, especially large tenements.[4] The initial plan for European-style tenement blocks was quickly abandoned in favour of a combination of renovated existing housing plus infill apartment housing on the sites of demolished buildings. This solution anticipated strategies adopted more than half a century later in inner city areas of Sydney and Melbourne.

Between 1906 and 1917 new housing was constructed in a variety of forms, including two-storey terrace houses in Windmill Street. At this time official opinion was strongly against apartment living, seen as an anti-social relic of the old world. The new terraces flouted the official preference for suburban cottages. Even more contentious was the construction of flats in High, Lower Fort and Cumberland Streets: ‘The limited space available…necessitated the construction of these dwellings on the flat system, and in order to compensate for the absence of yard space, the Commissioners have provided, in a central position, a common playground…for the younger children of the residents here and in the immediate neighbourhood…’[5]

The seventy-two High Street flats completed in 1910 have the appearance of terrace houses with generous verandas, but each terrace contains four flats. According to Henry Deane Walsh, chief engineer of the Harbour Trust, the flats “consist of three bedrooms, living room, wash-house, bathroom….each having a separate hall door, and with reinforced concrete floors between the upper and lower flats, thus rendering them fire-proof, water-proof, and nearly sound-proof, have proved most successful in providing homes for those who by the nature of their occupation must live in the vicinity of the wharves.”[6]

Also completed in 1910 were flats in Lower Fort Street. Designed by Government Architect Walter Vernon, who was responsible for the Art Gallery of NSW and the first stage of the State Library, these flats are more functional in appearance but similar in concept, with twenty seven three-bedroom flats grouped into five three-storey terrace-like structures.[7] The new flats coexisted comfortably with the colonial housing of Fort Street while offering a sophisticated balance of public and private spaces. They created a successful model of worker’s housing, unfortunately rarely revisited in succeeding decades.

The Daily Telegraph compared ‘the handsome new tenements erected by the Government’ with the ‘slum houses demolished’ in the same area.[8] Elsewhere, the Harbour Trust attracted a storm of criticism from housing reformers. JD Fitzgerald, for example, bemoaned the fact ‘the Rocks tenants…prefer the terrace, which eventually must become a slum, and the houses that the Government have recently built will become slums, because the principle is wrong’.[9] The architect James Nangle agreed: ‘One of the great reasons for the Resumption of the Rocks was the removal of the slums, but similar congested conditions of life would return with the tenement buildings. Flats are an evil, whether as residences of the wealthy or the poor’.[10]

To the contrary, a century of use has vindicated the judgement of Hickson and his Trust. It is testimony to their success that the Rocks and Millers Point continue as a public housing precinct, a considerable achievement of social, architectural and heritage dimensions.

Completed 1979 in Cumberland Street for residents displaced by the commercial redevelopment of the area, Sirius is the last public housing tower constructed in Sydney. Tellingly, this solitary residential tower replaced the several office and apartment towers planned for the area during the 1960s. Designed in consultation with its first tenants Sirius signalled a return to Australia’s first public housing projects, preserving ‘million-dollar views’ and city life for public tenants. After two decades of intense pressure to privatise the historic harbour sides of The Rocks and Woolloomooloo, this was an emphatic victory for the public realm.

Sirius was designed at the peak of reaction against public housing towers, part of a general reconsideration of the generic formats of Modernism. Moshe Safdie’s widely-applauded Habitat, built for Montreal’s Expo 67, created a new apartment format that was clearly influential on Tao Gofer’s design for Sirius.

Like the low-rise formats also popular during the 1970s, the Habitat format gave an individual presence to each component dwelling while reducing the monolithic and repetitive character of the whole. The Sydney Morning Herald[11] reported that it attracted ‘strong public criticism’ from several quarters including the National Trust. The architect was quoted to the effect: ‘I am not worried about the criticism. People will accept it in three or four years’. This prediction has proved to be correct.

Some public housing complexes were so successful architecturally that they eventually became sought-after and expensive addresses. Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation at Marseille, Lafayette Park, Detroit by Mies van der Rohe and London’s Barbican Estate are perhaps the best known.

Hopefully this fate does not await Sirius. It’s a special building that shows the potential of architecture geared to its site and its residents. Not generic in format like much public housing Sirius was designed for its site and its people. It deserves to continue as part of the Rocks.

[1] Annual Report of the Housing Board 1914, Sydney, Government Printer, p.4.

[2] Ibid., p.3.

[3] Gina Ghioni, Waterloo: A case study of public housing and redevelopment in Sydney, School of Architecture, University of Sydney, 1990, pp.7,8.

[4] Report of the Royal Commission 1909, q.2436.

[5] Annual Report of Sydney Harbour Trust 1912, Sydney, Government Printer 1912, p.3.

[6] Annual Report of Sydney Harbour Trust 1911, Sydney, Government Printer 1911, p.24.

[7] Max Kelly, Anchored in a small cove: A history and archaeology of the Rocks, Sydney, Sydney Cove Authority, pp.93-97.

[8] Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1912, p.1.

[9] Report of the Royal Commission 1909, q.2709.

[10] Building, May 1911, p.77.

[11] 20 March 1980.