Ahead of its imminent demolition, Oliver Watts takes a look at the now empty shell of Sydney's Sirius building, a public housing project that exemplified the 1970s-era hope for a free and equal society that has how become a failure of its 70s dream.
With a ministerial refusal to act on the NSW Heritage Council’s findings, Sydney’s Sirius building has lost its heritage appeal. Demolition is now imminent and the building has been, philosophically at least, abandoned. At night, its lights are out and it is merely a black, stepped shape against the slightly less black sky. There is a stairwell light, for security I suppose, and scattered around the 78 apartments, 12 or so residents still inhabit the place (although they will be rehoused soon).
In the daylight, the building has never looked better. Despite the lack of residents the rooftop gardens are flourishing as plants spill over their beds and down the cement walls. Sirius has finally become what Sydney Harbour always needed: an ornamental folly, an out-dated and Romantic ruin.
Driving southbound, I note that there is a large agave plant on the roof terrace, immediately at the level of the bridge deck, with a 2 metre long bloom spike hunched over under its own weight. The remaining gardens – by design or through a cruel form of natural selection – contain the most fashionable plants of the moment: hardy heath plants — exotic, sculptural and water saving. An agave flowers spectacularly but only once and the plant dies. It is the perfect floral symbol for the situation.
It is on the run to ruin that finally Sirius is telling its story most loudly. The empty shell of a building points to the failure of its 70s dream that even public and low cost housing should have a city water view. It embodied the idea that social housing should be mixed: from the elderly to the young; from families to singles; from essential services (teachers, cleaners etc.) to those on the pension.
The Sirius, by the architect Tao Gofers, is a product of its time. Built in 1979 – to provide public housing for people relocated from the Rocks during the time of the green bans – it lasted merely 37 years. Its failure communicates as much about society as its success. As Tim Edensor wrote in his book Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics and Materiality,
Ruined space is ripe with transgressive and transcendent possibilities… They offer opportunities for challenging and deconstructing the imprint of power on the city.
At its time, the building was seen as a marvel. In the post war period there was a public housing boom, with an attempt to house people in more hygienic, more modern and more comfortable homes. The documentary Utopia London is a very good starting point to explore the humanist values that drove the architects of public housing at this time.
The Sirius, although relatively late in this process, shared many of those hopes for architecture’s ability to change lives. Many of the original residents of the Sirius would not have had, even beside the harbour views, any of its comforts before – from modern plumbing to new kitchens. The public areas featured bespoke carpets, artwork, leisure areas and libraries. Roof top terraces and courtyard gardens provided for outdoor space. The Sirius also has tenant parking. These amenities fostered a sense of community that the residents remember fondly.
The Sirius references buildings such as Habitat 67 by the Canadian Moshe Safdie. Both share a modular unit made (carefully in the factory) from prefabricated concrete. The repetition has a clear graphic quality when seen from afar, and the curved frames around the windows create strong contrasting shadows and a futuristic, 2001: A Space Odyssey feel. At street level, the three storey sections fit sensitively within an area of similarly scaled and proportioned terraces.
Each module, one presumes, equals some sort of family unit, from singles to four bedroom doubles, and like a beehive, everyone is equal; the big move of the building is to represent a metaphor of togetherness and democratic value.
Brutalism was known as the human face of late modernism, replacing the universalising steel/glass box with a more site specific and materially rich experience. Overall the whole grain of the building becomes more detailed and humane. At the Sirius, complex bricks are used in garden areas, bespoke steel is used for fine handrails, and the architect himself designed elegant wooden sculptures for the common areas. The concrete has the impressed cast of natural wood grain, not a machined smoothness. To understand the building you have to come close to it to experience these textures and materials. Obviously the major softening device is the garden bed that breaks up the hard edges of the module successfully and turns the raked building into a form of urban cliff face with hardy windswept trees.
There is a real generosity of spirit in this building, it is respectful of the residents’ original suggestions and it is built to the highest quality. Many in the architectural fraternity mark this period as the last when the architect, rather than the developer, led the project.
It exemplifies a 70s-era hope for a free and equal society. Indeed it is now demonstrable that the period was the most equitable in human history. Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century suggests that since then, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened. The story of the Sirius Building is a manifestation of this fall.
Rem Koolhaas, one of the world’s leading architects, recently opined,
In the last 30 years, architecture has been deeply influenced by the conversion of things: Thatcher and Reagan, moving from a welfare state to a market economy. Architects used to be connected to good intentions, notionally at least. With the market economy, we’ve slowly found ourselves supporting, at best, individual ambitions and, at worst, pure profit motives. In that sense, every crisis perhaps presents an opportunity.
I applaud Koolhaas’s optimism. In the meantime The Sirius Building as ruin signifies a radical shift away from modernist utopian faith in social justice and the beautiful life for everyone.
If I were in a kingly position I would knock the building down as soon as possible to silence its ethical evocation once and for all.