Tall ambitions: Short Lane

As Sydney pursued a public conversation about brutalist architecture, a new building in Surry Hills was making its mark. This mixed-use project explores the expressive potential of concrete and engages effectively with the street below.

The high part of Surry Hills in Sydney, despite being one of the mostly densely populated parts of Australia, is quite a green, thickly foliaged place. Established trees line the main streets, creating dappled shade and fresh air and protecting buildings and people from the city’s heat island effect. The whole suburb has a gritty urban coolness that sometimes provides the feeling that the style police must be stationed at a velvet rope somewhere on the boundary. Into this context Woods Bagot and its client have inserted a clever and entirely appropriate residential and retail building. It is a syncopated play of concrete forms overflowing with precociously vigorous plants that brings to mind the phrase “a concrete jungle.”

Architects deal with constraints. The limitations of planning legislation, client brief and budget and the parameters set by context and heritage become as much elements of the architecture as materials and form. Successful architecture acknowledges all the constraints and then dances with them to create something wonderful. This building had plenty to deal with, from the state government’s newly minted Apartment Design Guide and a small site to its neighbours, a heritage-listed building to the north and a beautiful but degraded terrace shop to the south, the latter of which is also owned by the client.

The projecting balconies and abundance of plants animate the facade and bring to mind the phrase “a concrete jungle.”

The projecting balconies and abundance of plants animate the facade and bring to mind the phrase “a concrete jungle.”

Image: Trevor Mein

The result is a seven-storey building housing twenty-two apartments and a retail space, which is currently a bar. A new mini lane down the southern edge of the building grants access to the lift lobby at the eastern end and gives light and a second facade to the retail space, while also allowing locals in the know to cut through to the lane behind. The cobblestone paving of this lane charmingly extends as far as the lift doors, creating a feeling of public space right up to the private threshold.

Each street-facing apartment has a large balcony girt by a deep planter, all of which are, even at this early stage of the building’s life, overflowing with cup of gold vines ( Solandra maxima ) and large fiddle-leaf figs ( Ficus lyrata ) specified by 360 Degrees Landscape Architects. From the street the balconies create a rhythm that I tried to decipher while waiting to meet Domenic Alvaro, Amy Lee and Simon Lee from the Woods Bagot design team. The balconies are variably deep, shallow, wide and narrow, creating an irregular pattern that extends up the building. This organization allows all balconies a level of privacy from one another and enables residents to sneak a peek down Bourke Street toward the harbour. The street elevation reads to me like a kind of music – the balconies representing a drum score, the sweeping lines of the vines bursting from the balconies signalling the choreography for a contemporary dance.

The board-marked concrete visible inside the apartments is a deliberate act of crafting and demonstrates an absolute commitment to the material.

The board-marked concrete visible inside the apartments is a deliberate act of crafting and demonstrates an absolute commitment to the material.

Image: Trevor Mein

The apartments, a mix of one and two bedrooms, are economically planned and materials and details are in keeping with the concrete ceilings, walls and balconies: simple and carefully put together. The apartment mix and the gracious outdoor spaces will appeal to the young, employed and sociable set of Surry Hills. However, a real city is not a ghetto of well-groomed professionals who move away once they enter their procreating days, and a greater variety in apartment size and, by extension, social mix, might have contributed more to the long-term success of the building and the community it is part of.

The client is a builder first and a developer second, and when he was shown the earliest design sketches, he intuited straight away that it should be an entirely concrete building. Both the client and the architects remained committed to this material integrity throughout the project’s design and construction. The board-marked concrete directly references the extension to the state-heritage-listed 1847 Wesleyan Chapel to the north: a brutalist tower with integral sunshading, built in 1980. The board markings, so beloved by many architects yet so often derided by the general population, are the makers’ mark, a reminder of the timber that was the mould and the hands that put it there. Alvaro told me that, unhappy with the evenness of the boards when built into the form, the design team and the builder placed wedges and blocks behind some in order to create deeper shadows and ridges in the concrete for the Sydney light to reflect on. This deliberate act of crafting and sculpting shows an understanding of the medium of concrete and the importance of detail in architecture. The integrity of the construction contributes to the charm of the building, setting it apart from the cacophony of materials and colour often seen in new residential developments.

This building engages effectively with the public. At the ground plane, the laneway allows access through the site and respects the character of the neighbouring terrace to the south, while the facades create delight and interest along the variegated street wall of Bourke Street, making particular reference to the brutalist tower to the north. It is this willingness of the client and the architect to think beyond the site boundaries and to create something that contributes to the street context and the city more broadly that sets this project apart. It does this, presumably, while also being a viable economic proposition for the developer, demonstrating that quality construction and good design do return on their investment.

The building’s height, materiality and projecting forms reference the 1980 extension to the Wesleyan Chapel to the north.

The building’s height, materiality and projecting forms reference the 1980 extension to the Wesleyan Chapel to the north.

Image: Trevor Mein

As Short Lane was being finished and making its way to the National Architecture Awards, where it won a national award in the multiple housing category, Sydney was having a large and loud conversation about the uncertain future of Sirius, the brutalist public housing building designed by Tao Gofers in 1979. As a consequence the value of brutalist architecture in general was being tossed around. The public was at first, I think, bemused. What was it about these coarse and confronting concrete buildings that architects were so attached to? It was at this time that I first heard the phrase “a facade only an architect could love” about another rigorous and elegant concrete building – a reminder that sometimes those of us in the profession don’t see our buildings and cities the way the punters do. Where we see integrity, sculptural composition and skilful and innovative use of materials, they only see something, well, rather brutal.

So, as one brutalist building was being threatened with demolition, another was being freshly poured and winning awards. Could it be that the conversation about Sirius created an environment perfect for the development of this building and the revival of an honest approach to materials and construction in our architecture?

— Lee Hillam is a co-director of Dunn Hillam Architects.


Woods Bagot
Project Team
Simon Lee, Amy Lee, Domenic Alvaro (project architects)
Builder Komplete Construction
Site details
Location Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Site type Urban
Category Residential buildings
Type Apartments, Multi-residential, Residential
Project Details
Status Built



Published online: 22 May 2019
Words: Lee Hillam
Images: Trevor Mein


Architecture Australia, March 2019

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