This is Sirius

This article first appeared on Open Journal on April 20, 2017. Images courtesy of Sirius Foundation/Barton Taylor.

The Sirius building was designed in the late-1970s. Built in response to public protests and the Green Ban (no unionised workforce would work on the project) against plans that would see historic buildings in The Rocks demolished and replaced with high-rise office towers.

“It put construction here, in this part of town, to a complete standstill,” says John Dunn of the Sirius Foundation and Friends of Millers Point, on the impact of The Rocks Green Ban in the ’70s. “That was a more enlightened time. Rather than fighting against it, the Housing Commission worked with the local community. It actually changed how planning was done around the world.”

Brutalist beauty

Located on Cumberland Street in The Rocks, Sirius was purpose-built as social housing in 1979, specifically for the residents displaced by the redevelopment of The Rocks. Designed by Tao Gofers for the Housing Commission, it was a unique building from its inception.

With its stacked box shape and raw concrete exterior, Sirius is a rare example of Brutalist architecture in Sydney. Its design was a clear shift away from the tall high-rise public housing of years prior. Sirius was a more community-focused style of apartment living, which brought together all ages, in social housing designed for both older residents and families.

Sirius’s 79 units are a mix of accessible one and two-bedroom units and two, three, and four-bedroom split-level units, with balconies, terraces and roof gardens, and private and public spaces throughout. Each space was designed to maximise its location at the base of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with striking views across Circular Quay and the Opera House.

Creating community through design

“It does have – especially for social housing – a large number of common spaces, that are graduated. There are large spaces that anyone can use, such as the Phillip Room and the large courtyards, front and back, but then there are rooms like the Heritage Room. The Heritage Room was restricted to a place for older residents,” explains John, who has meticulously documented, through photos and articles, the people, spaces and stories of Sirius on the Millers Point Community site.

“Vertically, there’s a rooftop garden on almost every level and there are some huge balconies,” says John. He notes that Sirius is a very early example of rooftops being used as activated garden spaces – some 40 years before the use of green walls and rooftop gardens became popular in Australia.

“There are also two large indoor rooms [the aforementioned Heritage Room and Phillip Room] used by residents. It meant there were opportunities for residents to connect in all sorts of ways – and people did. It’s also the hope for the building. In that, it’s what gives the building this fabulous heritage quality.”

The people of Sirius

The Sirius building was home to some 400 residents. Sadly, nearly all of them have been moved on and out of the area since the state government’s decision to evict them and sell the building in 2014.

“If you know Millers Point, it has a reputation for being this isolated little village in the middle of the city and, part of the reason is, people neither moved in or out the area. You were here for generations,” says John, noting the area’s deep maritime history.

“I don’t think they [the Department of Housing] ever really understood the community. It never really made sense to them what this place was about.”

One of Sirius’s last remaining residents is 90-year-old Myra who has lived in The Rocks and Millers Point area for the last 60 years, and in Sirius for close to a decade. Each night – not long after the battle to save Sirius began in 2014 – Myra switches on the big, bright S.O.S lights that illuminate the window of her tenth-floor unit in Sirius.

“Myra’s SOS lights face the overseas passenger terminal. Each night – because through the summer months there is a new cruise ship that leaves at 6pm – just as it pulls out, on go Myra’s SOS lights,” says John. “You’ve then have got a couple of thousands of tourists thinking: What’s going on here? What’s this SOS about in this building?”

The SOS Sirius campaign is also included (and potentially even inspired) the #SOSBrutalism database of German architecture museum, Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM). The growing database, to date, includes over 1000 Brutalist buildings from around the world, and highlights those, such as Sirius, that are in danger of being lost. The #SOSBrutalism project will be adapted into an exhibition to be shown at DAM in October.

Community matters

Sirius’s Brutalist beauty has long fascinated and attracted people – including John. While he and his wife Margaret have lived in the Millers Point community for over seven years, his relationship with Sirius dates back decades.

“I’ve had a connection with it for a long time. Because in the 1970s I sat between Tao Gofers [the main architect behind Sirius] and Penny Rosier [whose designs and artworks feature throughout the building],” John explains. “At the time, it was my one-year working in architecture before subsequently heading into art education and art publishing.”

John and Margaret are among many of the passionate Millers Point locals working and campaigning tirelessly to save Sirius. Collectively, locals, community action groups and Sirius supporters have organised various events to raise awareness, funds and support for the Save Our Sirius (SOS) campaign.

Get involved

Events have included Open Sirius (an event inspired by Open Sydney, held in 2014); building and artwork tours led by Sirius architect Tao Gofers (tours are running until August); and the rally last October, which saw activist Jack Mundey announce a Green Ban, with the CMFEU and Unions NSW coming together to protect Sirius.

Next up is ‘This is Sirius’, an art exhibition celebrating the building and its residents to be held in the Annie Wyatt room at the National Trust on Observatory Hill, Sydney, from June 8-16.

“These are little things,” John says. “They’re not angry protests. They’re events to celebrate Sirius. The more we tell people about it, the more they know it – and it seems to me – the more they love it.”

The fight continues

In April, the Millers Point Community Association pursued legal action through the Land and Environment Court against the current NSW state government. The case challenges the decision made by Mark Speakman, former NSW Minister for Environment and Heritage (now Attorney General of NSW) to not list the Sirius Building on the state heritage register.

Sirius is currently listed on the heritage registers of the Australian Institute of Architects (NSW) and the National Trust of Australia (NSW). However – despite a unanimous recommendation from the State Heritage Council for Sirius to be listed – the NSW government has chosen to ignore it and push ahead with its proposed sale and subsequent demolition. Should the legal action be successful and state heritage listing occur, Sirius could be saved from demolition.

Public support pivotal to Sirius being saved

The public’s response to the Save Our Sirius campaign has also been remarkable. It was through the contributions of over 600 individuals via crowdfunding that saw more than $50,000 raised to take the state government to court. “I think public opinion is the only thing that is going to save Sirius, ultimately,” says John.

The appointing of 20 diverse Save Our Sirius ambassadors is also helping to further promote the campaign.

Ambassadors include Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney; comedian Tim Ross; environmental activist Jack Mundey; Ken Maher, national president of Australian Institute of Architects; Shaun Carter, NSW president of Australian Institute of Architects; Anthony Burke, head of architecture at the University of Technology Sydney; and Labour MP Anthony Albanese MP.

“This building is a symbol of community values that still exist – values like inclusion and respect for diversity,” said Anthony Albanese on saving Sirius. “Such values are still important to millions of Australians who take pride in living in a nation that cares about all of its citizens, not just those with big bank balances.”

The ‘This is Sirius’ art exhibition will be held in the Annie Wyatt room at the National Trust on Observatory Hill, Sydney, from June 8-16, 2017. Open 10am–5pm daily.