THE ROCKS is a part of one of the two main ridges that define central Sydney. It’s an amazing spot – elevated, and close to the city centre and Harbour Bridge. It’s here that nearly 40 years ago a social housing project grew out of the ridge to create an outcrop of fine Brutalism, that until recently has been home for low income and aged residents.
Sirius is not only a great example of Brutalist Architecture – the raw concrete style of late Modernism – it’s also a perfect example of diversity in housing. This is evident in both who lives here, and the types of dwellings within. There’s a mix of them – two, three and four bedroom dwellings, with balconies, roof gardens, social space – basically all of the things a contemporary housing project needs.
Let’s talk about the history of the building. In the ’70s the government wanted to build a series of residential towers at The Rocks. Protests, green bans and deals done, three options were put forward by the NSW Housing Department’s then architect, Tao Gofers. The one selected by powerful locals was the one now built – a skilful hybrid of traditional forms – Victorian terraces, and the more recent towers of Sydney.
So this great piece of singular design is an intelligent compromise between standard solutions and the over-development of the site – it came into being through negotiation. Tao Gofers, still very much alive, designed a varying building form using a standard module. The rounded ‘boxes’ that make up the building recall the Metabolist experiments of the ’70s (think Capsule Tower Tokyo and Habitat 67 Montreal) – though in Sirius’ case, the apartments each consist of several boxes – it’s more like a Tetris behind the façade.
The building changes from a low three storey to a more tower-like 10 storeys at its highest point. This varying form allows view corridors to be preserved, typically to the Harbour Bridge, but also allows views through the building. The staggered form creates the well-defined edges and profile, and it’s this articulation of form that gives the project its identity, connected through wonderful ‘brute’ concrete.
Sirius uses its roof brilliantly – as roof gardens with coloured vents (these form a colour spectrum across the building). The roof gardens provide private outdoor space, essential for families in urban environments. Communal garden areas and terraces are made with rounded brickwork landscaped areas that soften the building at is base. It’s this attention to the human experience that makes this project, well, human.
Sirius is also cleverly organised – the ‘ins and outs’ provide not only variation to the streetscape, but bring light in to deeper sections of the plan – more surface area creates better amenity. Many dwellings have light access from opposite sides, and this is made possible by the use of isolated sets of stairs and lifts – this also means there are no long nasty corridors that take people to their front doors.
We need to talk politics for a moment. With only five residents left (others have been encouraged to leave) in the 79 dwellings of Sirius, the building is under direct threat of demolition. A recent decision by the NSW Government has left the building without a heritage listing, to maximise its resale value. The intention is to sell the site and demolish Sirius for a new private housing development. Not good!
By housing a diverse range of people in central locales, cities are less likely to become wealthy enclaves and lifeless monocultures. In these situations (and this is happening in cities around the world) workers and others have to travel from outside the city to do their jobs – it’s not an efficient or equitable way for the city to be. Saving Sirius would help stop this trend, and would protect a vital piece of Sydney’s architectural heritage.
So what is heritage? A building of 40 years age, that is an exemplar of a certain style, that represents protest and struggle at the time (and now) fulfils all the requirements of a piece of cultural and architectural heritage.
Buildings like this tell us how to design well. They are living textbooks, reminding us that good design is for all.