Knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Sydney’s most famous Brutalist building and most high profile affordable housing sits in an area called the Rocks, known as the original settlement of the city.
History characterises the Rocks as a struggle between workers and capitalists, the local community of low-income families battling the economic value found in its proximity to the harbour and business district. In previous battles the local community fought off the desire for new commercial and residential property through worker power through a mobilisation of the New South Wales Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) into Green Bans protest, reducing the ability of the wealthy and powerful to demolish the area. The Green Bans occurred in 1968, and the idea that the Rocks existed as an area of protected built and natural environment remained, that is until 2014 when Pru Goward, a minister in the New South Wales state government, decided to sell all the public housing of the Rocks. The reasons this decision were extremely economic centric, that the sale would produce capital to produce more public housing, and that it would reduce the cost of maintaining historic building stock. While the Green Bans countered economic forces of material demolition, in 2014 these forces pivoted to social demolition due to the heritage protection placed on much of the Rocks area, however with one special case, the Sirius building.
Goward’s sale included Tao Goffer’s social housing, the Sirius building, constructed in 1978–79 in response to the forced displacement of residents due to pockets of demolition the green bans were unable to stop. The Sirius is an example of brutalist-style architecture and inspired by the ideas of growth found in the Japanese Metabolists and in particular Moshe Safdie’s project Housing 67. The timing of Goward’s decision in 2014 came as the Sirius building had no protection as had no official heritage significance. The choice of the state government, therefore, came under attack from two directions, a social concern directed towards the forced removal of residents to gain economic access to their housing, and an architectural one against the destruction of a building with cultural significance.
On the 2nd of July 2019, the NSW government announced that it had sold the Sirius building to a developer and that Sydney architects BVN were engaged in the retention and refurbishment of the building. Although heritage consultants had recommended to the NSW government that the building contributed to a significant era in Australian architecture, it had refused to list it as heritage-protected. Unfortunately in the controversy surrounding listing, threats of building demolition, and future development into luxury property, there are some who have criticised that activism, such as Save Our Sirius, focused too much on the building, rather than on the residents that were removed from the building and surrounding area. This view is both simplistic and sanctimonious. While a shallow fetishisation of the Sirius building towards an end goal of protection does seem to disregard social issues, the project of saving a building achieves more than architectural legacy as it focuses cultural discussion on a commonly experienced object, and help highlight how value and cost have become estranged in our time of neo-liberal capitalism. While there is definite criticism in the lack of architectural action in other spaces of low-income removal when no “architectural masterpieces” exist, such as Waterloo in Sydney, the campaign to save the Sirius is not reducible to a plight of material object versus human subject.
Value of nothing
In Lady Windermere’s Fan Oscar Wilde portrayed the cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. At the end of 2016, Jack Mundey stated the same in response to the New South Wales government’s decision to sell Sirius, and it’s surrounding land. Mundey directed Wilde’s quote towards NSW Environment and Heritage Minister Mark Speakman, who publicly announced the gain of 70 million dollars in resale value from denying heritage listing. At this moment the Sirius sat at the nexus of two systems of thought, one of a possibility of public space funded and shared by all people, and the other as space as a site of individual economic choice in funding and use. The Sirius emerged at a time when public housing formed part of a broader idea of architecture that served community interests and based access on citizenship rather economic means. As the Sirius passes over into private development hands the building reflects a change in thinking around the public and how architecture has become politically stripped of its social impact, in particular erasing the Sirius’s role in shaping Sydney’s social and cultural identity.
Economics beyond capital
In governance it seems a clear cut decision, Sydney needs social housing, Sirius provided 79 apartments on valuable land. The sale value of the Sirius could provide capital to build many more subsidised and affordable residencies in other locations. Understood within the current NSW government’s political economy, sustainability is hijacked, social housing must individually sustain itself through income generated from social assets. The social must somehow generate capital to justify its existence.
Nearly all the residents of Sirius have been forcibly moved on to other social housing, away from friends, employment, amenities and familiar surroundings, but the building remains, its architectural fan base too late to save the once close-knit community held within. In a typical belligerent rehashing of previous mistakes, the NSW government threatens to achieve what the city governors tried in the 1960s, that is the demolition of buildings that express the personality of Sydney. This tendency is not without precedent, visitors to Sydney are astounded to learn that structures such as the iconic Queen Victoria Building were once penned for demolition despite their appearance and cultural importance.
The strict economic lens of this government misses the value in community and culture at a time when Sydney’s urban population need more resilient social structures to deal with gentrification, segregation and inequality, all which propagate perceptions of difference and fear. The mistake the NSW government makes today is to presume that the location of developments must align with the distribution of income, which must correlate with hard work, merit and a resulting contribution to society. This correlation is politically constructed, and far from the case in a city where trading of debt and unethical capital exchanges produce significantly more wealth than firefighters, police officers and nurses combined. Capitalism is unable to value contribution towards a healthy society beyond an ability to generate an economic surplus.
On the 27th of November 2016, I was lucky enough to be shown around Sirius by its lead architect Tao Goffers. It’s a remarkable building, but not for the obvious reasons. I was not overly impressed by the apartments and was surprised by the lack of natural light in some spaces, but this was not its remit. Sirius is more about its common spaces, its rooftop gardens, its viewing platforms, its double-height conference room (images here). These spaces provide the opportunity to meet, communicate, cultivate common interests and form bonds of community. When left purely to an economic analysis of space and value, these common areas would be the first to disappear to maximise private commodifiable space.
You may love the look of Sirius or not, but it is essential to understand that the value of the building is not in its purchase cost or land, but absorbed into the context around its design and the ideas realised in material form. The building encapsulates a legacy through its social focus and innovative method of construction. The modular construction and distribution of different sized apartments imagined a possibility of equality and sought to benefit lower incomes citizens who helped support the maintenance of Sydney rather than serving the wealthy. As the building evolves, this is the narrative we must remember.
At the end of the tour, Tao handed out USB sticks containing a repository of all the information about Sirius collected over the last 36 years. It was an extraordinary and generous gesture and made me realise that the building represents something more substantial than an object in the city, it is an attitude towards creating architecture that produces social benefit rather than serving economic surplus. Although the building will continue with a luxury facelift the ideas embedded in its construction and organisation need to live on in digital form to express what was previously possible and convey what values we should fight to retain in future, all the information is downloadable here.