City of Sydney steps in to save brutalist children’s court from demolition

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Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect's Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson.

Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect’s Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson. Image: Katherine Griffiths

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Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect's Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson.

Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect’s Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson. Image: Katherine Griffiths

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Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect's Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson.

Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect’s Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson. Image: Katherine Griffiths

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A sustained campaign by architects, community members and council to stave off the demolition of the Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre (MRC) in Glebe is heating up, with the City of Sydney approving a planning proposal to heritage list the historic building.

Designed in the late 1970s by the NSW Government Architect’s Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson, the multi-storey, white off-form concrete building is a rare example of a purpose-built remand centre and children’s court built in the late 20th century brutalist style.

Located off Glebe Point Road, it shares a site with the Victorian villa, Bidura House, designed by colonial architect Edmund Blacket, who lived in the house while working on designs for the University of Sydney. While the site is subject to heritage protections, the MRC is not captured in the listing.

If unprotected, the complex faces demolition to make way for townhouses and apartments proposed by developer Visual Land Glebe, which purchased the site from the state government three years ago. It has lodged a development application for the demolition of the MRC and construction of a seven-storey building with 73 apartments and nine two-storey dwellings. The application was rejected and will now be considered by the Land and Environment Court of NSW in late February 2018.

Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect’s Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson. Image:  Katherine Griffiths

“Given the current risk of demolition, we are seeking urgent heritage protection of the building,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said. “The City does not have powers to list the site on the state heritage register, so we are calling on the Heritage Council to consider this.”

The council previously petitioned heritage minister Mark Speakman to place an interim heritage order on the building in June 2016, but this request was formally rejected in November of that year.

“We continue to urge the Minister for Heritage to immediately place an interim heritage order on the building while its heritage significance is investigated,” said Lord Mayor Moore.

In April 2017, the Heritage Council recommended state heritage listing for the site, excluding the children’s court and remand centre building, but urged the City of Sydney to provide protection to the entire Bidura Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Precinct. In response, the City commissioned Robertson and Hindmarsh Architects to conduct an independent heritage and adaptability assessment of the complex.

Completed in October, the assessment recommended that the MRC be listed as a heritage item under the Sydney Local Environment Plan 2012 legislation, and found the building envelope was well suited to be adapted for new uses.

The National Trust of Australia placed the remand centre and court on its heritage list earlier this year, while the Australian Institute of Architects also includes it to its register of significant architecture.

“Architecture less than 50 years old is at the greatest risk of demolition or being irrevocably altered, as their true cultural and aesthetic significance is yet to be widely recognized,” the Institute’s NSW chapter president Andrew Nimmo said.

“The Australian Institute of Architects supports listing on the State Heritage Register of the former Bidura Children’s Court as a rare and fine example of late Brutalist architectural style.”

Bidura Metropolitan Remand Centre by the NSW Government Architect’s Office, led by J.W. (Ian) Thomson. Image:  Katherine Griffiths

Architects and heritage advocates have long called for the building to be protected, citing its importance both in terms of its architecture and the role it played in the child welfare system.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the centre was a critical part of the city’s history and architectural heritage.

“The NSW Government might be happy to sell off buildings of historical and heritage value to make way for developers, but we are going to keep fighting for their protection and maintenance,” she said.

The council voted to approve the planning proposal to heritage list the building and update planning controls on Thursday 30 November.

The planning proposal will now be submitted to the Greater Sydney Commission, with the council requesting approval for it to be placed on public exhibition.

The council will also seek the support of the heritage council in petitioning the Minister for Heritage to place an interim heritage order on the building.

Responding to the council’s actions, Urban Taskforce Australia, the peak body representing property developers in New South Wales, claimed that the recent interst in protecting brutalist buildings was a new way to stop housing projects, and reprented a “soverign risk” for developers purchasing government land.

“The brutalist BMRC building presents tall blank concrete walls to the street that have very little of the active uses the council normally requires,” Urban Taskforce CEO Chris Johnson said. “We are […] concerned about the growing trend to try and list as heritage items brutalist buildings that have poor relationships to the street and are seen by many people as being ugly.”


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