Two weeks ago the NSW Minister for Heritage, Mark Speakman, issued a media release announcing he had decided not to accept the Heritage Council’s recommendation to list the Sirius Apartments building in The Rocks on the State Heritage Register.
The Heritage Act requires the Minister to make a decision on the Heritage Council’s listing recommendations within two weeks of receiving them. In the case of Sirius, Minister Speakman took seven months.
I have been chair of the Save our Sirius group since November last year. We have consistently argued that the Sirius building is:
- fit for purpose as residential accommodation for low-income residents of the Millers Point / The Rocks precinct;
- an exemplary work of brutalist architecture that has been recognised by the pre-eminent expert on Australian architecture, Professor Philip Goad of the University of Melbourne; and
- significant as a physical manifestation of the Green Bans movement that achieved the conservation of the Millers Point / The Rocks and the re-housing of long-term residents threatened with displacement from the area.
We also endorsed the Heritage Council’s decision to recommend the listing of Sirius on the State Heritage Register.
Sirius is listed on the Chapter’s Register of Significant Architecture and the National Trust Register. It was described in the magazine Concrete (Issue 11) as ‘a bold and exceptional experiment in low-income public housing’. It was a conscious attempt to reduce the monolithic nature of most high-rise residential developments of the time, such as those in Redfern and Waterloo. The four wooden sculptures in the public areas of the building have aesthetic and technical significance and are rare surviving works by architect Tao Gofers.
Exemplar buildings that are recommended for heritage listing need to be protected. This is a fight we have to have.
In his letter advising me of his decision Minister Speakman noted that ‘there are conflicting views as to whether as an example of Brutalist architecture it is of such merit as to be of State heritage significance’. If there is such a conflict I would be prepared to take the word of Philip Goad any day.
He also noted ‘that it is not the only example of the late Brutalist architectural style in social housing by its architect’, presumably referring to Gofers’ building in Sans Souci, which has recently been refurbished. Is this supposed to mean that a building not owned by the government takes precedence over a government-owned building in a high value precinct when heritage listings are considered? The primary consideration for listing a building is surely whether or not it meets the threshold for State heritage significance.
But the clincher is his argument that ‘whatever the heritage significance of the Building, even at its highest (including even if it reached a threshold for State heritage significance), this is outweighed by the undue financial hardship its listing would cause to its owners, by diminishing what would otherwise be its sale value (possibly by in the order of $70 million), which would potentially represent foregone funds for additional social housing’.
In making its recommendations for listing the Heritage Council must take into account whether the conservation of the item – that is, the process of looking after it – would cause undue hardship for the owner.
In this case the government has not claimed that keeping the building would cause financial hardship. Instead, it has rejected the advice of its heritage experts on the grounds that the government itself would potentially not earn as much from the sale of the building as it would like. It has looked beyond the heritage significance of Sirius to the development value of its site. In other words, it is a conflict of interest.
By this reasoning, government-owned buildings have only monetary value. Their continued existence as part of the social and architectural fabric of the city is ephemeral. It’s just as well so much of the 200 year legacy of the Colonial and Government Architects is already listed on the State Heritage Register. Let’s hope this will prevent their demolition. But perhaps this government’s arguments for de-listing them will be equally as creative as its treatment of Sirius.