Saving Sirius has nothing to do with sexiness or leftist ideology, it’s the rule of law

In this response to an animated missive penned by NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet about the court ruling which has halted government plans to sell the Sirius building, ArchitectureAU acting editor Linda Cheng argues that a government sitting atop a $2.7 billion surplus, derived from the world’s second most unaffordable housing market, should reconsider whether selling Sirius was ever part of the answer.

The NSW government may understandably be displeased about the road block to its plans to sell the Sirius building, following a ruling in the Land and Environment Court ordering it to reconsider the building’s heritage significance. It also seems, however, to be refusing to accept the outcome as the result of its own errors and continues to cry poor over the $70 million loss in potential revenue the sale of the building could raise.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet unleashed a vitriolic diatribe via the Daily Telegraph on 28 July, dismissing the Sirius building as “a boxy blight on The Rocks,” made from “towering slabs of grimy concrete,” that stands as a “drab relic of union power.”

“Sirius represents the destructive, dehumanizing vandalism of the modernist movement; the legacy of the likes of architect Le Corbusier, high priest of the cult of ugliness, who was determined to demolish the stunning heritage of downtown Paris in favour of utilitarian concrete skyscrapers,” he proclaimed.

“You might say it’s brutal: the epitome of the out of touch left, putting ideology before people.”

On the contrary, the Tao Gofers-designed Sirius building represents the epitome of human-centred design, and did so long before the term became the defining buzzword of 21st century design.

In a submission to the Heritage Council, architectural historian professor Philip Goad said the building represented “an important move by the NSW Housing Commission in the mid-1970s, away from modernist ideals of housing in towers or slab blocks on cleared sites towards solutions that involved community participation and sympathetic contextual placement of such housing and retention of long time low income residents in historic inner urban precincts.”

(Side note: in 2016, 17 works of the “high priest of the cult of ugliness” were inscribed onto the list of World Heritage Sites.)

Like a schoolyard bully, Perrottet’s verbal abuse targets the victim’s appearance and blames others for the government’s own wrongdoing.

Responding to Elizabeth Farrelly’s characterization of the Sirius building as “at once elegant and sexy,” Perrottet said he found the building “as sexy as the car park at my local supermarket.”

He continued the diatribe on Facebook, where he wrote, “If you need a PhD in Architecture to ‘appreciate’ [sic] the Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people of NSW.”

The value of architecture is clearly lost on the state’s chief bean counter. Let’s not forget that in 2015, while he was then Minister for Finance, Services and Property, Perrottet presided over the decimation of the NSW Government Architect’s Office, a department with a more than 200-year history of public building works and 12 Sulman Medals, which recognize the most exceptional public architecture in NSW, to its name.

The question of government’s duties to consider the Sirius building’s heritage significance is not about “sexiness” or “ideology” at all. It’s about the rule of law. The court found that the government had made two errors of law, including one which the former heritage minister Mark Speakman was found to have “side-stepped the required assessment.” The court required the government to remake the decision “according to the law.”

The government was, in other words, chastised for not doing its homework, which it will now have to do again (properly this time).

But it seems intent on ignoring the unanimous recommendation of its own Heritage Council, simply because it cannot see past the pot of gold at the end of the Harbour Bridge-shaped rainbow.

When others look at the Sirius building and its neon “SOS” sign in the window and see a cry for help from its vulnerable residents facing forced eviction, Perrottet can only see dollar signs on “an ugly lump that happens to occupy a huge area of land that, if sold, would fund hundreds of homes for people in need.”

“The Liberals and Nationals government that I am part of wants to actually fund more social housing. We want to actually solve the social housing problem.”

Perrottet’s arguments are disingenuous and misleading. If the government really “wants to actually fund more social housing,” why is the funding “off budget” and dependent on the eviction of vulnerable residents and the divestment a public asset?

The government claimed in court that directing the Sirius building to be listed on the State Heritage Register would diminish the sale value of the site by approximately $70 million and this would cause the government to suffer “undue financial hardship.”

But how can the government cry poor when it has just reported a surplus of $2.7 billion in its state budget for 2017-18, with forecast surpluses of at least $1.5 billion each year for the next four years? How can the government cry poor when it has pocketed $1.98 billion in stamp duty revenue in the first quarter of 2017 alone, thanks to having the second most unaffordable housing market in the world? Shouldn’t a fair and just government use some of that revenue to “solve the social housing problem”?

Perrottet’s reasoning is like that of a greedy child throwing a tantrum over an ice-cream cone dropped on the pavement while hoarding a freezer full of Golden Gaytimes.

To borrow the treasurer’s own words: if you need a PhD in economics to understand the government’s funding logic for social housing, then it is clearly not a policy for the people.

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