5 May 2017
By Michael Smith, The Red and Black Architect
Architecture Christmas has once again arrived with the annual Australian Institute of Architects Conference kicking off for another year. This year it is Sydney’s turn to host the gathering of over 1000 architects from across the nation. From an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that Sydney is currently a hotbed of built environment issues. From the incredibly expensive and divisive Westconnex toll road, through to a housing affordability crisis, and serious question marks around public spaces and the public interest in sites such as Barangaroo.
Perhaps there is no place better to start the daily coverage on the 2017 conference than with the building which defines Sydney, The Sydney Opera House. As a fringe event for the conference, delegates could choose to visit one of the most iconic buildings ever built, and experience a living breathing documentary of the history, tectonics, politics and media surrounding Jorn Utzon’s masterpiece.
Delivering the in depth presentation was Architect Eoghan Lewis (Eoghan Lewis Architects) through the Sydney Architecture Walks organisation. Over two and a half hours, the story behind Utzon’s competition win, the rigorous thinking behind the scheme and the media and political reaction were all covered in detail.
Prior to the Sydney Opera House, Utzon’s largest completed project was a single house.
There was nothing to suggest in his prior built work that he could deliver such brilliance. The work he undertook in setting up this project over the first 7 years is tribute to fantastic skill and a personal determination that this would be the best building it could possibly be.
Perhaps what hit home the most about this story is the importance for architects to communicate what they do, not only to the immediate clients, or politicians in this case, but also to the wider community. Had a greater percentage of the public understood what their taxpayer dollars were building, perhaps it would not have been the ultimately compromised masterpiece it is today.
It cannot be stressed enough that a guided Sydney Opera House tour by Eoghan Lewis is a ‘must do’ experience for anyone wanting to understand Australia’s most famous building.
Another popular fringe event was the opportunity to tour the Sirius building by Tao Gofers. This building and site has been the subject of intense political controversy over the last 12 months. The cause of this recent discontent is in the intentions of the New South Wales State Government to remove the residents and sell off the public housing apartment building with the full expectation that it will be demolished.
The tour began with a short introduction by architect, activist and immediate past president of the NSW Chapter, Shaun Carter. As he explained to the group, buildings tell the story of where we have come from. If a city loses too many on these important buildings it loses its identity.
Next up it was the architect of Sirius Tao Gofers to tell the story of the building. The origins of this building were set against the backdrop of ‘green bans’ being implemented by the BLF (Builders and Labourers Federation) in the 1960s.
‘The Sirius is an architectural solution to a political problem’
As for the building itself, it has a level of amenity and craftsmanship that puts many of Australia’s newest apartment buildings to shame. The 79 apartments have an excellent mix of apartment types catering for a variety of family groups and single occupants. Communal areas for social interaction were all built in, and the rooftop gardens ensured that residents would have an easy connection to the outdoors.
As for the occasionally derided brutalist aesthetic, it is far from the ugly eyesore that the New South Wales Government would have you believe. It is poetry in concrete.
As the tour progressed the disturbing reality of the NSW State Government’s actions became more and more apparent. So determined to see the Sirius fall, the Planning Minister went against all expert advice that implored the building be protected with a heritage listing. Their argument was that the heritage listing would be a financial hardship on the State. The very same State that made a $4 Billion surplus just last year. This decision has since been taken to court by the Save Our Sirius Foundation, with a decision to be delivered in the next few weeks.
Before the government decided to sell, the Sirius was not just a building, it was a thriving community. As it is now, the majority of the perfectly habitable dwellings sit empty. There are however two brave residents, determined to fight to save their home. These two vulnerable people are elderly pensioners in need of public housing.
In response to their reluctance to bend to the whim of the Government, Their home is now subject to a regime of intimidation and hostile treatment. The water services have been cut off for up to four days at a time. Communal areas that they have every right to enjoy have been sealed off from use. Black plastic has been placed over the windows in these areas to prevent the SOS Foundation from being able to look in the windows during tours. All visitors are subject to the arbitrary and constantly changing rules of a private security company. This 24/7 private force outnumber the residents 8 to 2. In our case we weren’t allowed more than 15 people in the entire building at any one time.
The hostile treatment given to these vulnerable people by the New South Wales State Government through the Department of Family and Community Services is nothing short of an absolute disgrace. The Minister responsible for this should resign or be sacked.
The saga of Sirius is an important example of where architects need to be on the front foot in advocating for the public interest. I applaud all those standing up to protect the heritage of the City of Sydney and for the rights of those most vulnerable.
The day finished on a brighter note with the customary opening party. As always this was a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues across the nation.
Stay tuned for updates from the first day of presentations tomorrow.
You can also follow the conference on twitter via #Praxis2017
Architecture is for everyone.
To view more of Michael’s images from the PRAXIS: Fringe visit The Red and Black Architect.
All views expressed are those of the individual author and not the Institute.