Sirius residential development view from western side

Many Sydney architects have been involved with the design of innovative socially responsive housing – a tradition that’s been with us for at least 120 years and one of the city’s best kept secrets.

These important, dignified buildings consider differences in use and urban context: presenting either as interventions within an existing structure of streets and parks for low income families, or as urban landscapes for a range of families, sole parents, the homeless, older people and those with disabilities.

A study of these projects can reveal the evolution of public or social housing in Sydney. When the Sydney Harbour Trust and The Rocks Resumption Board were established in 1900, the Trust became the first government housing authority in NSW. With a portfolio of more than 800 properties, it was dedicated to the improvement of living conditions in inner-city waterfront Millers Point. Even the NSW Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, was commissioned during this period to design a number of projects to complement this existing urban structure.

Later, the Housing Board of NSW, set up in 1912, commenced construction of a community of freestanding houses at Daceyville with the aim of realising a model utopian garden suburb. SG Thorp won a public competition for single and semi-detached cottages for this new community.

Pyrmont Dwellings (Ways Terrace), City of Sydney Archives.

In the meantime, the Housing Act (1912) enabled the City of Sydney to borrow money to build housing for workers and undertake a range of unique city projects. These included the Strickland Building (1914) and Alexandra Dwellings (1927), both by Robert Brodrick; Ways Terrace (1925) by Professor Leslie Wilkinson; the Dowling Street Dwellings in Woolloomooloo (1925) by Peddle and Thorp; and the Stephen Street Apartments (1965) by Harry Seidler and Associates.

By the late 1940s, the Housing Commission of NSW had evolved to become a pioneer developer for the provision of innovative public housing. This was achieved either through using their own in-house design expertise or through direct engagement of private sector architects. Of particular interest and with an emphasis on economies of construction were the Rosebery Apartments (1967) by Harry Seidler and Associates; The Endeavour Project (1976) by Stafford Moor and Farrington; Sirius Apartments, The Rocks (1980) by Tao Gofers; and Little Bay Apartments (1982) by John Andrews.

As our society ages, and with a greater need and desire for the provision of communities integrated across generations, it’s time to reflect on the architectural relevance of these significant public housing projects.

Lively debates have appeared in the Sydney papers from 1880s onwards on the question of providing adequate housing for the working poor. The Daily Telegraph for example wrote on 10 July 1923:

“Sydney is growing by leaps and bounds and the clearest evidence of this fact is the daily refugees to the army of the homeless.”

Daceyville Garden suburb (first prize for single cottage), PTW Architects

The various workers’ housing projects undertaken by the City of Sydney before World War II searched for a model of housing appropriately accommodating the city’s workers – housing which was comfortable, having a maximum amount of fresh air and sunlight and with affordable rents (1936 Vade Mecum, City of Sydney).

Daceyville Garden suburb (first prize for semi-detached cottage), PTW Architects

The first three of these projects followed the low-rise flat model, while the Alexandra Dwellings (1927) was based on close but detached two-storey blocks, each comprising two flats. The Alexandra Dwellings represented a juncture between the low-rise flats of the inter-war period and the high rise blocks of public housing in the post-World War II period. The two-storey semi-detached buildings are closely spaced in a U-shaped configuration forming a central courtyard sub-divided for individual rear yards.

As part of his doctoral project on the typology of affordable housing in the 20th century, Michael Zanardo observes that the terrace and semi-detached plan types in a dense form give cohesive streetscapes enlivened by smaller frontages. This allowed each residence to have a specific street address, engendering a sense of identity and ownership, and enabled the buildings to be titled separately.

Indeed, these very qualities are being utilised currently to change the ownership of the Millers Point properties from public to private. While the current strategy proposes a wholesale change in tenure, the same typology easily allows for mixed tenure developments – and the intergenerational and socioeconomic diversity that the Committee for Sydney says would lead to “more productive engagement … greater wealth … and higher productivity for the city”.

The early social and public housing projects of Sydney were undertaken with reformist zeal in a search for new and appropriate models, which combined density with a sense of the individual “home”. Architects are quoted in terms of this search for, and commitment to, high quality of amenity and construction. Peddle and Thorp maintained that the Dowling Street Dwellings (1925) would be “equally good for another 150 years” (Labor Daily, 1925). This same dedication to quality can be seen in the early 20th century houses and flats of Millers Point, where 100-year-old double-hung and pivoting timber windows still operate perfectly; and where people in 2016 are willing to pay an average of $2 million for housing originally designed and built for the city’s workers.

In the contemporary context of the same acute need for affordable and social housing, the sociably responsible architects a century ago provide inspiration for our profession today. We have been left a repertoire of approaches that can inform renewed exploration for models suitable for our rapidly changing (and aging) demographic; models that go beyond the vertical stacking of open plan apartments (which suit a relatively narrow and short-lived domestic profile); models that allow people to move across the four “ages” of their lives.

Innovation in social housing is not a new idea in Sydney, and the early precedents, which transcend style and popularity, are bold architectural solutions underpinned by considerations of resident amenity, orientation and construction, social pattern and urban form.

Glenn Harper is senior associate at PTW Architects. Diane Jones is executive director of PTW Architects.