This morning, the already fierce battle to save Sydney’s Sirius building – the brutalist icon by Tao Gofers that soars over The Rocks – intensified. The NSW government erected a cyclone wire fence around the site of the building – which has served as public housing for almost four decades – in an attempt to further alienate the last remaining residents from common spaces, and presumably to clear the area in preparation for demolition.
Since last year, when the government revealed their plans to sell the site and their corresponding refusal to acknowledge the building on the State Heritage Register, Shaun Carter has been one of Sirius’ most outspoken advocates. The former president of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) and chairman of the Save Our Sirius foundation (SOS) spoke to A&D about the ongoing relevance of Sirius to both our architectural and humanitarian legacy.
A&D: Can you run us through the history and significance of the Sirius building?
S.C.: Sirius is there because of the Green Bans movement [the years-long battle that played out in the 1960s and 70s between developers wanting to erect high-rises and the local community who opposed them]. It was a compromise between [Australian union and environmental activist] Jack Mundey, the state government, and the department of housing at the time. A Green Ban was put on the site [of Sirius] and effectively locked that site up [to developers]. The state government was running around looking to demolish all of the old terrace house buildings and social housing to put up this utopian vision of the future. It’s important to note that those utopian visions all failed; the success of the Green Ban was it saved us from ourselves. Jack Mundey gave the [state] government permission to build social housing on the site, and that’s how Sirius came to be.
When the government did that, they signed a 52-year lease. Sirius is about to have its 37th birthday. [The Green Ban] said to the people, ‘You’ll never again be displaced by government action’. And here we are, less than the term of that lease, and people are being kicked out of their homes by a government using the same language – the same rhetoric – as a government in the 1970s.
A&D: What about its recent history, since the government decided to sell it off to make way for new apartments? [The government has announced plans to build 250 new apartments on the current Sirius site.]
S.C.: Out of the Millers Point Action Group, the Save Our Sirius (SOS) foundation was formed. That’s when I came to be involved – not only with SOS, but with the Millers Point Action Group. A small group was cobbled together to fight the government’s action to have the Sirius building demolished. Because make no mistake: the government’s intention is to demolish the building. They’re making plans to build 250 apartments on the site. If you think you don’t like Sirius, you might just get a Meriton there instead. 250 apartments [would be] more than three times the size of what it is now [the Sirius building contains 79 apartments].
Sirius is completely fit for purpose and completely habitable as it is. These are our civic castles, these brutalist buildings. And then you’ve get the new Minister [for Family and Community Services in NSW, Pru Goward] running around saying they’re going to demolish Sirius and develop four to five times more affordable housing elsewhere. We just can’t see how you can get the uplift that they’re claiming unless you uplift the site. We worked out that [the new building] would [have to] be a 30-storey tower [if it were to contain 250 apartments]. They’re looking to put towers back in the rocks, just like in the 1970s. It’s history repeating itself.
Even if we assume they get this $125 million [the amount the government is predicting for the sale of Sirius], that presupposes that, if you’re able to build four to five times more affordable housing elsewhere just out of the revenue from Sirius, even on optimistic claims, they’ll have to buy the land and build the buildings on around $300,000. We all live in Sydney; we know that’s not even enough to buy a door handle. Are they honestly looking us in the eye and saying with all seriousness that they could build affordable housing somewhere in Sydney for that amount of money? If [Pru Goward] can do that, I’d love to see her do it. It’d be right there next to the Leprechaun and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a fallacy on so many different levels.
This is the same government that recently, for the Sydney Metro Line, they just bought a city building from [development company] Dexus with a book value of $223 million. This is the same government that seems to be so concerned about money. They just paid $109 million more for a Dexus building than its value. It plays into all of these narratives that the government only concerns itself with big business. [The government] can happily pay this amount to Dexus, but then it wants to kick out the most vulnerable people in our society [the residents of Sirius]? We’ve got Myra [Demetriou, one of the two remaining residents] in that building. She’s 90 years old, and Sirius is still her home. She’s legally blind and the government is kicking her out for a building that’s worth a lot less than they think it is.
I’m just so angry about all of it.
A&D: What do you think this morning’s developments [the government’s construction of a cyclone fence and the isolation of common areas] mean for the future of the Sirius building?
S.C.: I think it does two things. Prima facie – at face value – it looks like we’re one step closer to demolition. By extension, that means [Save Our Sirius and other activists are] one step closer to physically standing between the government and our buildings.
What I also believe – and it’s a real pity – is that it takes our [state] government one step closer to defeat. Here’s a government that is clearly out of touch with its people. [The government] thinks it can use the dead hand of bureaucracy to bully vulnerable people out of their homes. It’s clearly not about money, because it can afford to pay Dexus $109 million extra. It’s about ideology, because there’s no other sane reason it could be for. And this [kind of action] has brought down governments before. It wouldn’t be the first time.
A&D: Aside from its obvious social function, do you think Sirius is important as an architectural landmark?
S.C.: There are two other things [Sirius] does. We think it’s social, [and] we think it’s architectural – and for context, I’m the past president of the Australian Institute of Architects, which has [Sirius] on its heritage register. The state government’s very own heritage council recommended [that it go on the State Heritage Register], saying it was an exemplary example of the Brutalist style [of architecture]. And the government ignored these recommendations.
Maybe even more important than all of that is that [Sirius] acts as a cultural icon. It traces our stories; it tells us who we were, and we can measure that against who we are today. It stops us from repeating the mistakes of our past. And isn’t that the whole law of history? We remember it so we don’t make the same mistakes of the past. And that cultural story is the whole Green Bans movement; it changed the cultural course of the understanding of society.
The fourth one, I guess, is [Sirius’] environmental story. It’s a concrete building; there’s a lot of embodied energy locked up in this building. To demolish that is to release all that carbon – all that embodied energy – for housing that can only get the same number of people there. It’s just a complete and utter waste from an environmental point of view. Buildings that are already perfectly fit to service society, [knocking them down] is economic vandalism. It’s environmental vandalism.
A&D: Can you run me through the actions and purpose of the Save Our Sirius foundation so far?
S.C.: So far, we’ve had a crowd-funding campaign [that] raised over $52,000 with the aim of taking the government to court and to have the minister’s decision not to list Sirius [on the State Heritage Register] annulled.
We had a rally with 2,000 people who all marched to save Sirius. In that march we had Clover Moore, we had Alex Greenwich, we had Amy Parker, we had every political side covered except the state government itself. It’s not a partisan issue. We’ll collaborate with every [political] side. I mean, we’ve got Alan Jones who has come out in support of Myra in the Sirius building. It’s not a left versus right thing; it’s all shades of the political spectrum [in support of Sirius].
We’ve also done over 16 tours with over 1,100 people [attending in total]. In the tours, they can see that lovely, warm, human scale of Sirius, and get to understand the qualities of the places inside the building.
We’ve also done cultural things, like the Friday night ‘Siriuses’. Don’t have office drinks in your office, come and share it with us. Come and see the building for yourself after work.
Also in June we’ve got an art exhibition with works made by all kinds of people who have painted and built sculptures in support of Sirius. It [will include] everything from kids in high chairs who have built little models [of Sirius], to people like Reg Mombassa; artists who support the cause.
A&D: If it escapes its current fate, what would you like to see as the future of the Sirius building?
S.C.: In an ideal world – and for context, we’re not living in an ideal world at all – but in an ideal world, it would remain as social housing. What we’ve put to the government, we’ve said it’s fine if you want to sell the building, but at least sell it to someone like Lend Lease [and make them] come up with a certain number of affordable housing units within the building. And that would remain a connection to the area.
In a more practical world, why don’t they get someone to list Sirius on the heritage register? They can sell it to a community organisation that has a commitment to do some form of affordable housing on their site. But in an ideal world, it would stay as affordable housing.
A&D: Thanks for your time. Is there anything else you feel it’s important to mention?
S.C.: I will say that, governments are allowed to make mistakes. I get that; I get that it’s difficult to govern in this day and age. But we’re a country that values the ‘fair go’, and we expect our government to be fair and reasonable when dealing with their people. When they’re not [fair and reasonable], the people respond, and we’ve seen prime ministerships being lost over this. [Right now] we’re seeing a [state] government that’s so hell-bent on not listening to the people and not understanding fairness that it’s just bullying the most vulnerable people out of the way. It’s politically craziness; it’s political bastardry that leads to political craziness. They’re sowing the seeds for their own demise.
We’ve been really surprised at the viciousness and the callousness that sits in some of these government departments. They’re just so eager and cruel in handing out actions that they’re treating people in the most despicable ways. I mean, they turned Myra’s water off for a total of 13 days. She’s 90 years old! There should be a duty of care to look after these people, and not to bully them and thug them.
I don’t think we should lose our humanity to the extent it threatens people’s lives, and we’re seeing this from our state government right now.