Court approves demolition of brutalist former children’s court in Sydney

The demolition of a brutalist former court building in Sydney’s Glebe has been approved following a ruling in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court.

A developer, Visual Land Glebe, purchased the site, which comprises the former Children’s Court and Metropolitan Remand Centre (MRC) and the state heritage-listed Bidura House, from the state government in 2014.

The developer later lodged a concept 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 by the council and later referred to the court.

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 substantially intact example of a purpose-built remand centre and children’s court built in the late 20th century brutalist style.

The MRC appears on non-statutory heritage lists, including the Australian Institute of Architects’ register of significant 20th century architecture and the National Trust’s heritage list. It shares a site with a Victorian villa, Bidura House, designed by colonial architect Edmund Blacket, who lived in the house while working on designs for the University of Sydney. The site is subject to state heritage protections, but the MRC is not captured in the listing.

The council has twice petitioned the state heritage minister to place the building on the list. On both occasions the minister declined to act.

In the court ruling, available online here, senior commissioner Susan Dixon said, “Although the demolition of the MRC is controversial, it is clear to me from the evidence that the building should be demolished to provide for a replacement building that will enable the orderly and economic redevelopment of the site consistent with the planning controls and compatible with the local area.”

“[It] is my considered opinion that the Concept Development application in a modified form should be approved.”

Dixon notes in her decision a preference for the developer’s heritage evidence, provided by heritage consultant Paul Davies, rather than that given by the council’s expert, Glenn Harper, despite Harper being “clearly an expert of Brutatlist architecture.”

“[Harper is] a media advocate for the retention of this form of architecture (even after the commencement of this hearing) [and] these matters in my opinion diminish his evidence for the retention of the MRC,” Dixon concluded. “While there is no issue that the criteria set out in Mr Harper’s Significance Assessment […] are appropriate I am faced with evaluating these experts’ opinions and in that circumstance it is appropriate to prefer the objective assessment provided by Mr Davies.”

She added that the adaptive re-use options proposed by Harper including for use as a commercial building; a school for 600 primary school children; or an integrated residential development with a community library and gym, sports facility, would be “simply not feasible or achievable or economically viable.”

She accepted Davies’s assessment that the building is not significant, innovative, exemplary, nor rare and unsuitable for reuse in its current form.

Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore said via Twitter she had asked the council CEO, Monica Barone, to “investigate options for appealing this terrible decision.”

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