We have just acquired this watercolour elevation of the Sirius public housing apartments in the Rocks. Most architects’ elevations use a street level viewpoint – this bird’s eye view is different and striking.
Sirius was built to rehouse public tenants displaced during the controversial redevelopment of the Rocks during the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually building work in the Rocks was halted by union Green Bans and resident opposition. In 1975 the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority agreed to suspend most of its development plans and rehouse displaced public housing tenants in new public housing.
Most of Sirius’ original tenants had lived in terraces on George, Playfair and Atherden Streets. Somewhat ironically, Sirius is the only high-rise building in the Rocks.
Sirius was designed in 1978-1979 by Tao Gofers for the NSW Housing Department. The painting was presumably produced in the architect’s office during the approval and commissioning stage of the project. It hung in the Sirius site office and was given to the donor’s father Jack Nagle, a construction foreman, at the conclusion of the job.
Sirius was designed to accommodate 200 people in 79 apartments of one, two, three and four bedrooms, ranging from single storey and split-level units to two and three storey walk-ups at street level. Unusually, potential tenants were interviewed during the design phase. Many of the apartments were designed with particular families in mind, while a central part of the building brief was the tenants’ preference for ‘a design…that was neither of orthodox square or rectangular design but which would blend in with the then existing skyline’.
The result is a twelve storey structure resembling individual flats stacked to form an apparently rambling, terraced pile. The flats benefit from a combination of roof gardens – one tenant’s roof is another’s garden – street level courtyards and balconies. There is a communal garden on the eighth floor.
Apparently Tao Gofers wanted Sirius to be finished in white – as in the painting – to match the Opera House on the other side of Sydney Cove. Unfortunately budget got in the way and Sirius is standard Brutalist grey, although its original interiors were certainly colourful as you can see in the photos from the Housing Department booklet.
Sirius is an artefact of a time when governments believed that all citizens deserved quality housing. For much of the twentieth century public housing was at the cutting edge of apartment design. Some of Sydney’s first apartment buildings are a few streets away in Lower Fort Street, designed by Walter Vernon and built in 1910 as public housing for people left homeless by the first, post-Plague, Rocks ‘slum-clearance’.
The 1950s and 1960s saw massive public housing developments, most of them aimed at low-income workers as well as well as those not in the workforce. In both Victoria and NSW the housing commissions were the major developers of housing in this period. The abiding visual image of this period is of apartment towers, yet cottages and walk-up flats were also rolled out in large numbers. Although community housing organisations such as Mission Australia provide an increasing share, the infrastructure of post-war public housing remains the main form of shelter available to the unemployed and the socially challenged.
The architecture of apartment towers was widely regarded as an incentive to social dysfunction, however the reality is more complicated as the success of apartment towers in the private market suggests. The liveability of public housing estates has proved to be mainly dependent on the resident social mixture plus the availability of basic community facilities such as a concierge service, shops and transport. Yet there is no doubt that the architecture and construction (frequently using concrete prefabrication systems) of many public housing towers was defective and inappropriate, in some cases resulting in their eventual demolition.
A small number of public housing towers were ground-breaking architecturally and widely influential. Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation at Marseilles and Lafayette Park, Detroit by Mies van der Rohe are in this category. Some other housing estates survived initial dysfunction to become sought-after addresses – these include London’s Barbican Estate and Trellick Tower.
Sirius was designed at the peak of reaction against public housing towers, part of a general reconsideration of the generic formats of Modernism. Moshe Safdie’s widely-applauded Habitat, built for Montreal’s Expo 67, created a new apartment format that was clearly influential on Tao Gofer’s design for Sirius.
Like the low-rise formats also popular during the 1970s, the Habitat format gave an individual presence to each component dwelling while reducing the monolithic and repetitive character of the whole. Some other Housing Department developments of the 1980s adopted this approach. Gofers designed a similar low-rise Housing Department complex at Sans Souci, while Habitat’s influence is also apparent in Suters & Snell’s design for the sprawling Newcastle East public housing precinct completed in 1989.
Sirius was completed in March 1980. The Sydney Morning Herald (20 March 1980) reported that it attracted ‘strong public criticism’ from several quarters including the National Trust. The architect was quoted to the effect: ‘I am not worried about the criticism. People will accept it in three or four years’. This prediction has proved to be correct.
Charles Pickett, Curator.