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The future of Sirius, Sydney’s brutalist tower, is not looking bright. The boxy, concrete building is perched in a highly desirable location at The Rocks, sparking debate around the value of the land and its current use as social housing. In an effort to save the architectural merit of Sirius, the #SaveourSirius campaign is underway, spearheaded by former AIA NSW Chapter President Shaun Carter.
However, an alternate proposal by CplusC Architectural Workshop has also been put forward. This proposal is a speculative design, which aims to find some middle ground between the building’s architectural significance and potential financial gains for the government – an offer that could appease all involved.
ADR speaks with Clinton Cole, director of CplusC, to find out the motivation behind the abstract design proposal.
Can you talk through your proposed design?
It started after I went to the protest march about the retention of the building, which was done at a point when there was only a handful of tenants left. There are two very opposing views on the future of the building – one from the current NSW Government that sees the property as an asset for development and, in their opinion, not appropriate for public housing. The other is the architectural viewpoint that we need to preserve the building in a glass bottle and leave it untouched because of its architectural merit.
Neither party was looking at finding the middle ground and that became quite apparent at the march. The approach to the retention of the building was very adversarial – there was no consideration given to how the government could meet their objective of increasing the financial yield of the site while also retaining the building. That experience instigated the idea of developing a speculative project to see if we could find a middle ground and achieve something for both sides of the debate.
The abstract design proposal is reasonably flexible in being able to add or subtract volume or units to meet the financial needs of the government. I think the richness added by a mixed tenure or integrated social housing would ultimately add value to the building. I believe there is a healthy portion of the market who would be interested in living in a mixed tenure type of arrangement.
Why save Sirius?
Ironically, some of the people who are most concerned with saving it have more distance from public housing and also have higher levels of education. In contrast some people I know who grew up in social housing think it’s inappropriate and should be sold off.
City of Sydney data mapping shows that over time, working class people are moving out of the city. Light industrial areas which were employment hubs have turned into boutique, bourgeois venues or apartments and the working class people who, whether in social housing tenants, cleaners, tradespeople etc., literally all move out of the city. We’re left wondering why we need huge motorways which are opposed by local residents to get these workers back into the city to service our homes and businesses. It seems pretty obvious to me that this is inadvertent social cleansing and unsustainable in the long term.
Diversity in the city in terms of socio-economic backgrounds is clearly diminishing and has been over the last 30 years.
I think that in terms of housing affordability, a lot of the community’s position on this was a kind of envy. Property and location envy in the context of the people who were inhabiting that building i.e. people on welfare. I think that’s where a lot of the anger and objection came from and why the government has taken such a heavy-handed approach, because in their view it’s a simple case of ‘those people on welfare don’t deserve to live there.’
The architectural value of these buildings is often not recognised by the public. Why do you think that is?
The public’s view of architecture in general is limited, and it can be difficult to appreciate why certain projects are important without understanding a great deal of history and contextual information which isn’t always presented in an accessible manner. Therefore, pure dollar value solutions may be the more realistic path forward when looking to retain these historic buildings.
Heritage in a country like Australia, when you stand back and look at it objectively from a global scale, is sometimes a bit difficult to take seriously because we’re such a young country. Interestingly, the concept of heritage from a planning perspective starts from colonisation; there are no planning instruments that address anything prior to that point.
For a building that is of that age and is unique and beautiful in its own right, I just don’t think it’s enough to put it in a glass bottle and leave it alone forever.
What’s next for Sirius?
The foundations for the #SaveourSirius campaign have been laid and, if anything, our proposal throws a spanner in the works.
In an ideal world, this middle ground concept would be the way forward, where both opposing parties’ needs are met from a heritage, architectural and commercial basis. If it had already happened on a smaller scale project prior to this one, perhaps our office could have put something forward earlier and taken it to the minister’s office a lot earlier. Right now for Sirius, timing might be a difficult thing. Having said that, Gofer’s original design for the Sirius building was intended to act as a circuit breaker for the political challenges of the site at the time, so in some ways this is a continuation of that spirit.
Even if this battle is already lost, I think the conceptual approach we’ve taken to it would be of great value to any building currently slated for demolition.
The response so far?
The limited feedback we have had has been pretty extreme, from one end to the other. But at the end of the day, if it’s getting people talking about it then it’s a good result.
All renders courtesy CplusC Architectural Workshop