The Fight to Save Australia’s Most Endangered Brutalist Building

Iconic concrete structures are facing demolition around the world—but architects and historians are fighting back.

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Oct 21 2016, 7:37pm

Photography by Katherine Lu, courtesy of Save Our Sirius

Brutalist buildings—those towering concrete monsters commissioned throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that you either love or hate—are under threat around the world. So much so that the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt has launched #SOSBrutalism, a database that currently contains over 700 buildings facing uncertain futures. Towards the top of the endangered list is the Sirius Building, one of the last few remaining examples of Brutalism in Sydney. Sirius has been slated for demolition since 2015, but locals are fighting hard to preserve it.

The leaders of Save Our Sirius, many of them architects, argue that the building’s looming geometric blocks are unique to their era and deserve to be heritage listed. Sirius was designed in 1978 as a social housing apartment complex, and the New South Wales Heritage Council has unanimously voted to recommend that it become protected from demolition by law. The state government has ignored this advice, and instead plans to sell the land to luxury apartment developers. 

“The New South Wales Heritage Council’s job is to help the government identify these buildings, so we can protect them—not so much for people today but for future generations to understand,” Ben Peake, an architect and one of the organisers of Save Our Sirius, tells The Creators Project.

“They've unanimously said that Sirius needs to be maintained, but the minister is going against that expert opinion. Which is a real shame, I think.”

 Photography by Barton Taylor, courtesy of Save Our Sirius

There's something sinister about replacing social housing with luxury apartments, even if that social housing isn't as architecturally significant as Sirius. Of course, the Brutalist movement itself is inextricably tied with social housing—those stark slabs of concrete, now fashionable among architecture nerds everywhere, were utilitarian in their original purpose: a low cost solution for civil projects throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The symbolism of their demolition is fairly potent.

“A lot of public works of that era were done in that Brutalist understanding,” Peake explains. “The High Court in Canberra, the national gallery, a number of police stations and schools in Sydney. It was at the time very popular for governments and public organisations to use Brutalism because they believed in providing good robust architecture for people. It's born out of that movement and understanding, and that's part of its importance.”

Photography by Barton Taylor, courtesy of Save Our Sirius

It would seem that movement is very much over. “A key part of the motivation from the government here is that they can see the value of the land and they can't see past that re-sale value of demolishing it and putting something in its place,” Peake says. 

If you’re unfamiliar with The Rocks, picture the Sydney Harbour of postcards and tourist advertisements. Sirius is a landmark well known to commuters on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, who pass it in their cars every day. It is the only high rise building in the area, and working class people—the area’s original inhabitants—would unlikely be able to afford the spectacular view in any other circumstance.

In fact, the land on which Sirius stands has long been a battleground for Sydneysiders and the New South Wales state government. It was originally built to house residents who were to be displaced by the demolition of historical buildings in the 1970s—so-called “green ban” protests by local unions, whose workers refused to take part in the demolitions, helped make that happen.

Photography by Barton Taylor, courtesy of Save Our Sirius

Interestingly, those bans worked, and many of the area’s original heritage-listed structures are still standing today—but their inhabitants were still moved to Sirius upon its completion. History is repeating itself once more, with the Sirius Building now subject to its own green ban, from the Construction Forestry Mining & Energy Union. No company associated with union will be involved the proposed Sirius demolition.

Save Our Sirius hope that this, combined with continued pressure on the government from the Sydney community, will persuade the government to change its mind about Sirius.

“This area is significant to the community and also to the story of Sydney,” Peake says. “Sirius really was the compromise that came out of that original green ban movement, so people that were being moved on and displaced had somewhere to go, and they could remain in their communities. You can draw the dots—the reason we have The Rocks as the precinct it is today is because of the Sirius building.”

 Photography by Barton Taylor, courtesy of Save Our Sirius

He stresses that the fight to save Sirius rests on its historical, social and architectural significance—not just nostalgia. “Cities need to grow and develop and that's important—we're not anti-development,” he says.

“We just think we need to hold on to some parts of our city that help us understand where we've come from and potentially where we're going.”

You can find out more about Save Our Sirius here and #SOS Brutalism here.

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