Don't Knock Down Old Buildings
Words By Harrison Dumesich
If you have ever driven over the Harbour Bridge, you might have looked over to the east side to find a series of blocky concrete extrusions and rounded off rectangular windows, an unmistakably brutalist style. Brutalism is a style of architecture that was popular in the 70’s and is present all around the campus of The University of Sydney (USYD). Brutalism is seen as dated in contemporary architecture. I study architecture at USYD and I have developed an ability to look past the facade of buildings. I used to make harsh and brutal judgements against parts of the built form around the world, casting them into a proverbial room 101. Now I try to think through my preconceptions. By researching the historical and cultural circumstances that led to the buildings, and more importantly, our perceptions of the buildings, I can appreciate them in a deeper sense. The nuance of planning and construction of buildings makes them beautiful in their symbol of cooperation.
A prominent dislike amongst planners and commentators are the droves of apartment developments around the world, highly prevalent in former soviet countries. There is a Czech word, Panelak, which describes the prefabricated paneled buildings. The conceptions of buildings and their effect on politics can be profound. Panelaks, and buildings like them arose in the post-war era of soviet nations as a cheap way to urbanize many people. They represented a society of equal outcome and unity. This system of housing was inspired by le Corbusier and his vision for modern cities, with common living quarters evening the playing field between classes. Through a western pro-capitalist lense these buildings can seem oppressive and bleak. However, too many the repetition and colorlessness, seems to many a suppression of vibrancy of life.
I myself had this view, but when I visited Croatia, I found that life invaded these apartment blocks. Clothes hung from strings across balconies. Cracks in the concrete filled in with vines. Local football team crests hung from multiple window frames. Lights strung around the railing of the balconies. As you enter the apartments, with 2 feet of head room, you take the elevator which creeks and walk through a hallway, with each doorway emitting a different culinary aroma. Each room occupied to the brim with families (most doors flung wide open) and no two apartments with the same decor. Views from the apartment show surrounding apartments, the hobby of tossing pistachio shells onto the basketball players below was one of my favorites. These buildings may conjure negative feelings and connotations of suppression in many, but activity within them can defy that view.
That is not to say there aren’t bad buildings and repressive developments, but there is a way to break through an initial judgement of a building and look deeper. A building isn’t just the balconies and windows we see popping up above the trees, it is a place where people sleep, eat and live.
The Sirius building’s history comes from the era of the Green-Bans that gifted us the Rock’s, an area that was planned for demolition and development. Workers at the time took a stand and made the choice not to demolish the area, in an attempt to conserve the working class families there. The buildings were left, but residents relocated to the Sirius building. The buildings of the rock’s are now owned by Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA). It is designed by Tao Gofers, one of the true examples of the Brutalist style in Australia as it relates to the idea of ethical architecture. The idea of the external display of materiality and structure as it relates to human use. Brutalism is often tied to ideas of a social utopia, in the way it is stripped of pretense and serves it’s raw and inherent function. The meaning behind these buildings is lost on many and consequently they describe them as “ugly”. Contemporary large buildings in cities have lots of glazing and simple facades, so a blocky and gravelly textured building like the Sirius can be deemed “ugly”. As a matter of taste in architecture people’s palettes shift, what we appreciate now, may become hideous in a few years and vice versa. I think Sirius is beautiful, and for clarity, I don’t find every brutalist building beautiful.
Older buildings we call beautiful and worthy of heritage status now, at one time would’ve seemed ordinary if not boring around the time they were built. Time heals all qualms it seems, eventually the nostalgia breeds affection in us.
In 2015 the building was sold by the Baird Coalition Government and is in high-risk of demolition. Currently the Sirius building is not under Heritage Status, but it is my opinion that it represents an important symbol of Sydney’s past.There have been many movements including the ‘Save Our Sirius’ movement, which I encourage you to look up. The NSW Heritage Council encouraged for it to receive status, saying that redevelopment would disrupt the views of The Sydney Opera House and other features of the Circular Quay. However, Heritage Council Minister Gabrielle Upton in 2017 denied Sirius heritage status, calling it “unworthy”. Worthiness of heritage has to be rethought, if the thousands of signatures and rallys don’t matter to the heritage minister then what will.
There has been plenty of activism surrounding this building, but it now has no occupants, and is threatened by demolition. It could become a symbol of community in Sydney as a public housing unit. If we destroy every old building on a whim, we lose the ability to see techniques of construction, the vision of a deceased architect. It speaks to the paradox of progress, we take two steps back and 1 step forward, rather than reinventing and recycling, we destroy and rebuild. Contemporary buildings can be beautiful and service communities well, but the Sirius has the potential to be a powerful symbol of communal living for years to come. The Sirius has hidden beauty that is characteristic of Brutalism. The beauty is in the social service, comfort and diversity. We have enough Skyscrapers.