BY JESSICA HILL
Sydney has a history of destroying its heritage. We’ve seen a number of important and iconic buildings demolished to make way for newer, modern development.
Tales of the structures that once stood proudly along Sydney’s streets filled my childhood. More often than not, these stories included a struggle between government, developers and the Sydney community. They also featured passionate people who fought to preserve Sydney’s heritage against demolition and redevelopment.
Juanita Neilson was one of these people. Her campaign against the development of Victoria Street in Kings Cross became infamous after her disappearance and suspected murder in 1975. No one knows exactly what happened to Neilson, the suspects in the case are no longer living, but her anti-development campaign is widely considered to be the motive for her disappearance.
Her story has become a metaphor for the destruction of heritage and the redevelopment in Sydney.
A little more than a decade on, just months before I was born, the Regent Theatre was torn down. It was located on George Street and hosted frequent, popular performances. When the owners of the building announced they were going to sell, the site was slated to be demolished. There was a huge, public outcry.
In response, the Minister for Planning and Local Government at the time placed the theatre on the Register of the National Estate* in a bid to save the building. The construction unions also showed their support and blacklisted the site in an attempt to protect it.
In 1988, the building was demolished despite its heritage listing. A change of government opened the way for an approval for redevelopment and a court decision lifted the permanent conservation order on the site.
All that’s left to remind us of the Regent Theatre is the building next door, which is now home to fast food chain KFC.
Sydney is facing a similar dilemma today and this time the NSW Government isn’t playing the hero. In 2014, the Baird Government announced the Sirius building would be sold.
Everyone knows the Sirius building, or at least anyone who has crossed the Harbour Bridge in the last forty years. It sits on prime real estate in The Rocks and is a focal point on the Sydney Harbour skyline. No matter your opinion on whether it should be knocked down, the consensus is, it’s iconic.
Sirius was designed by architect Tao Gofers and completed in 1980. It’s a prime example of the brutalist architecture movement which emerged out of the modernist era in the 1950s and 1960s. The buildings constructed in this period are strong, bold and graphic, and sometimes imposing. Sirius is one of the few examples left in Sydney.
Del Kathryn Barton, former Archibald winner, told 702 ABC Sydney: “The demolition of the Sirius building would be a cultural tragedy.” She also explained people around the world are celebrating brutalist architecture, not knocking it down.
The Save Our Sirius Foundation (SOS) was born out of the decision to sell off and demolish the building.
SOS has seen heavy weight support, including the National Trust, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and the Australian Institute of Architects. Shaun Carter, who is the NSW Chapter President of the Australia Institute of Architects, also chairs the Foundation.
Unions NSW and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union have placed a Green Ban on the building. Jack Mundey who fought against the redevelopment of The Rocks in the 1970s, and was instrumental in the construction of Sirius, endorses this ban.
They also have strong community backing from the Millers Point Residents Action Group; Friends of Millers Point; and Millers Point Public Housing Tenants Group.
In 2016, the NSW Heritage Council unanimously recommended the building be put on the State Heritage Register. This was denied by former NSW Heritage Minister, Mark Speakman.
Next month, the SOS foundation will take the state Government to court in an attempt to overturn the decision to exclude Sirius from the State Heritage Register.
We’re seeing a major shift in government policy since the attempt to save the Regent Theatre in the 1980s. Rather than listen to the Sydney community, the Government has put its bank balance before the city’s heritage.
Mr Speakman said the estimated $70 million from the sale of Sirius would generate necessary income to reinvest in community housing. He also said this money is more important than the preservation of the building.
No one can argue against the necessity of investing more money into the community-housing sector, but there’s still a strong case for the preservation of a culturally significant building. Is it too much to ask for both?
SOS is working on alternative development designs to present to the NSW Government. These would allow for the preservation and refurbishment of the building and still deliver on the government’s financial aims. Earlier this month architects CplusC also proposed a redevelopment plan that would save the original building from destruction.
It’s important to remember we’re not just talking about a building. The decision made by the NSW government also had a resounding effect on the community. This is the same community Sirius was built to protect and rehouse after they were displaced by the redevelopment of The Rocks 40 years ago.
All but one tenant of the Sirius building has been relocated. Myra Demetrious, who is 90 and legally blind, remains in the building in protest.
Sirius architect, Tao Gofers has called for more inclusive social housing in response to the potential destruction of Sirius. He wants homes provided in the city rather than a policy of segregation, which pushes people like Ms Demetrious out into the suburbs.
Sirius is important. For architectural enthusiasts it’s a rare example of Sydney’s brutalist design. For many Sydney-siders it’s an iconic landmark. And for people like Ms Demetrious, it’s home. But in the eyes of the NSW Government, it’s an uncashed cheque.
If it’s too late to save Sydney’s heritage, and history, let this at least be a lesson in how we treat some of our most vulnerable people.
* The Register of the National Estate was closed in 2007 and replaced by the Australian National Heritage List and the Commonwealth Heritage List.