The battle to save one of Australia’s most controversial buildings
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and other supporters of the social housing block Sirius in The Rocks have spoken out against the State government’s plans to sell the building to developers and relocate all its tenants.
FROM her 10th floor apartment, Myra Demetriou has the kind of view many Australians would kill — or at least spend several million dollars — for.
The Sydney CBD soars to one side, while before her the Harbour sparkles as the Opera House bathes in the afternoon light.
The magnificence of the view is lost on the 91-year-old. “I’m blind, so I’m lucky if I can make out a ship,” she tells news.com.au.
She is one of just two remaining residents of Sirius which sits in the tourist mecca of The Rocks. Night and day the words ‘SOS’ flash from her bedroom window — ‘Save our Sirius’.
If the Government has its way the public housing structure could soon be rubble and Ms Demetriou will be out.
Sydneysiders may not know the name Sirius, but most will recognise the building. Situated next to the Harbour Bridge as you enter the city from the north, it looks like an all grey Lego set, the dark and brooding blocks stacked on top of one another as it flashes by. A small precursor of the skyscrapers to come.
Built in 1979, it’s been dubbed the ugliest building in Australia by its detractors. It’s fans say it’s an icon of period.
Last year, the NSW Environment and Heritage Minister, Mark Speakman, refused to heritage list Sirius. The announcement had developers salivating at the prospect of a prime plot with harbour views.
“Whatever its heritage value, that value is greatly outweighed by what would be a huge loss of extra funds from the sale of the site,” Mr Speakman said.
Shaun Carter, the former NSW President of the Australian Institute of Architects and the head of the Save our Sirius campaign, admits the building can be hard to warm to for fans of more historic buildings.
But, you know what, so is Madonna, he tells news.com.au.
“Sirius is a bit like Madonna, people either love it or they hate it, but at least they notice it.”
He is firmly in the former category.
“I used to see it when crossing the Harbour Bridge. I would sit on my dad’s knee when he was driving and I’d see it as we came into the city. It was one of the buildings that made me fall in love with architecture.”
In the 1970s, public housing tenants were being displaced from The Rocks as the previously working class suburb was gentrified.
Unions eventually placed a Green Ban on the upper end of Cumberland Street and refused to allow any building unless it rehoused those in the old terraces it was making way for. Sirius was the result.
It’s partly this role in Sydney’s history that has galvanised many to see it preserved.
It was ahead of its time. Richly designed community spaces were built in, all flats had access to the outdoors, palms lined rooftop gardens and units for elderly residents sported alarm bells to ensure help could be quickly beckoned.
In a TedX talk, Mr Carter compared it to the now much loved Queen Victoria Building in Sydney’s CBD which too was once threatened with demolition — to be replaced with a car park.
“The only way we knew how to value these buildings was through a financial model and a car park stacked up pretty well,” he says.
“I get that to try and understand brutalism is a struggle because it’s not the architectural orthodoxy. But these buildings have grand gestures, they are like medieval castles built as utilitarian structures.”
“If we spend time with these buildings, like the QVB, we can learn to love them all over again.”
The enthusiasm to save Sirius has surprised even Mr Carter. He estimates more than 1000 people have taken tours so far.
But the building’s fans haven’t been embraced by the Government.
When news.com.au visited, no less than eight security guards were standing watch in a building housing only two people. Apparently to prevent curious architecture nerds from running amok on the claustrophobic corridors.
While one of the main features of the building, the sculpture laden common room, is out of bounds. It’s windows are covered with black plastic so you can’t even peer in.
“I had my 90th birthday down there with my family,” says Ms Demetriou, up on the 10th floor. “And now they close it off, it’s just childish.”
The room used to hold meeting and parties for the residents, says the architect Tao Gofers. High ceilinged, an indoor balcony was supposed to be a lending library. “They didn’t use it for that, I think they were worried people would run off with the books. It was once used for a performance of Romeo and Juliet instead.”
He tells news.com.au it’s a “travesty” the public housing tenants are being kicked out. As he sees it people on low incomes — who moved into Sirius so big companies and hotels could colonise the rest of The Rocks — are now being shuffled so even more millionaires can have a harbour view.
He estimates it would take $25 million to refurbish the building. “If the Government is poor, sell off 30 apartments and keep the rest as low income housing but don’t knock it down. I could accept that.”
The fate of Sirius is currently in the courts with the building’s supporters arguing the importance of the building was not properly determined by the Government when it refused heritage listing.
The Government remains resolute. Heritage listing Sirius would reduce the site’s value by up to $70 million, money that could be spent on around 240 new social housing units.
Sirius campaigners scoff, pointing out the state is flush with cash having reaped tens of billions from the sale of the poles and wires.
If the Government’s decision is upheld, only the Green Ban will stop Sirius from falling, to be replaced by who knows what.
“To those people who want to see Sirius go, be careful what you wish for because we could get another Meriton block,” says Mr Carter.
Her back to the view she can’t even see, Ms Demetriou nevertheless loves Sirius and the community who inhabited it.
“I’ve lived in the city for over 50 years and everyone used to look down their noses at you here in The Rocks, now they all want to rush and live here, it makes me laugh,” she says.
But her smile doesn’t last long.
“They want to pull this building down and build a great high rise and spoil the view of everyone else, It’s wrong, it’s just wrong. I am determined to stay.”