Ugly duckling turned brutalist beauty

The Sirius building. Photo by Eastberliner licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/).

Eliza Spencer explores the controversial plans to transform the Sirius building from public housing complex to boutique apartment building for the wealthy.

The Sirius building stands out on the harbour like a sore thumb, or a work of art, depending on who you ask. After over forty years in public hands, the former public housing units are set to be converted to the latest luxury apartment block, with plans released to the public last week.

Five years after the controversial $150 million sale of the site, private development company Sirius Developments has launched a slick website, offering one, two, three and four bedroom apartments on the harbour.

On public exhibition until 17 December, the plans reveal a dramatic revamp of the concrete boxes, with the addition of copper ‘pods’ to increase the building’s floor capacity from 6740 square metres to 8420 square metres. Designer rooftop gardens, bespoke balconies, and a private pool and gym, all mean the ‘new and improved’ Sirius is a far cry from the communal brutalist utopia envisioned by Tao Gofers in the late 1970s. 

An artist’s rendering of how the Sirius building will look after being converted to luxury apartments. Image: siriussydneyharbour.com.au.

Rich in history, richer in opinion

Built in response to the forced removal of Millers Point residents as part of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority Scheme, Sirius was borne of negotiation and activism. After the Builders Labourers Federation (now CFMEU), led by union kingpin Jack Mundey, imposed a green ban on the site, the state government conceded the fight to price out previous tenants, and the area was added to the public housing portfolio. 

Consultation with architects to design a space that was both accessible for older tenants, and centred in community, Gofers’ boxed brutalist design received the blessing of both the unions and the state government. While the final coat of cream paint never eventuated, due to budget constraints, the site was built to last – and to stay in public hands. 

Nearly half a century later, the final battle to keep the land public has been lost. The controversial sale of the heritage-listed block in 2019 formalised an end to the ‘Save Our Sirius’ (SOS) campaign, which fought to maintain its use as public housing. For key SOS member, architect and author Ben Peake, the end of one campaign is simply the next step into another. 

“Our next step of action is to really have a look at what’s being proposed, and having our voices heard throughout that process,” he said.

“The big question for us is what is [Sirius’] ongoing contribution to architecture, to social and cultural value, and to the issue of housing affordability?”

Protestors rally to save the Sirius building in 2016. Photo by Ben Guthrie licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The redevelopment plans reveal no intention to allocate units for public or affordable housing, with a social impact investigation revealing that the reduction of social housing dwellings on the site and their ‘reuse’ for 77 private residential dwellings was of ‘neutral’ impact. 

No action or mitigation was deemed required by investigators as “the Sirius site is currently vacant”. The vacancy, however, was due to residents being relocated to various sites across the city, with famed final tenant, Myra Demetriou being relocated to Pyrmont in 2018 after she was offered a unit that met her accessibility needs.

Former residents continue to work closely with Peake and the SOS campaign, even though the priorities of the campaign have evolved. 

“We had three main priorities,” Peake said. “The first was to save the building from demolition. 

“The second was for [Sirius] to be recognised for its heritage status,” which encompasses his third priority, as Peake believes “the heritage is not just the architecture of the building but heritage of use”.

He goes on to talk about the third priority: that the building retains “housing for low-income people or key workers or a combination; people that would otherwise be excluded from the city”.

When asked whether the city of Sydney is becoming inaccessible to lower income earners, a spokesperson for the Minister for Water, Property and Housing, Melinda Pavey rejected the premise of the questions, stating: “The sale of Millers Point properties has delivered nearly 1,800 new homes, almost 1,500 of which are now complete and occupied by tenants. Each property sold in Millers Point has enabled five new homes to be built throughout NSW.”

The spokesperson added: “Proceeds from the $150 million sale of Sirius is being injected directly into building new social housing to support about 630 people.” 

A diaspora of public housing, or hopeful future ahead?

While the selloff of Sirius continues to make headlines, tensions have also been rising for public housing tenants across the inner city. Developers set their sights on the trending suburb of Waterloo, with its enviable proximity to the CBD, upcoming Sydney Metro station, and bustling bar and café scenes; a veritable utopia for gentrification. 

As early as 2018, the Waterloo Estate was pencilled for redevelopment to make way for the new class of city crawler, with plans revealing up to 70 per cent of new housing on the public housing sites will be private, with 30 per cent dedicated to social housing. 

The redevelopment could more than triple the number of residents on the sprawling estate, but the same concerns raised at Millers Point in 1970 are easy to find in Waterloo. Illuminated windows continue to mark the local skyline as part of the WeLiveHere2017 campaign, and three years on the promise of a ‘right to return’ after redevelopment remains. Along with four other projects planning to provide social housing, a spokesperson for Minister Pavey said that the NSW Government will “increase social housing in the inner city by 340 homes – a 37 per cent increase on the existing social homes available across five locations.”

Of course, there is always the option to demolish Sirius altogether, at least according to NSW state treasurer Dominic Perrottet. Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald about his top ten iconic buildings to bulldoze, Perrottet said, “with tongue firmly planted in cheek … brutalism’s time is done.” 

For the foreseeable future however, the concrete block giant will remain standing in all its glory, before its transformation to boutique brutalist darling is complete. Development plans remain available for public comment until 17 December.

A note from the Sentinel …

The Sydney Sentinel is the progressive new publication Sydney needs. 

But launching a new media outlet isn’t cheap or easy – especially in a city where the ‘Murdochrasy’ and other corporate cabals dominate the Fourth Estate.

Unlike many media outlets, the Sentinel will never charge readers to access our content. Our content is your content. And unlike many media outlets, we will never expect our writers, photographers, illustrators and designers to work for free – for ‘experience’, ‘exposure’ or any other reason.

That’s why we’re reaching out to you to help us deliver the very best independent publication for the city we love.

So please consider helping the Sydney Sentinel by donating to our founding fund, to help us get off to a flying start: 

https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-sydney-sentinel-take-off

Thanks for your assistance.