Opinion: This Saturday February 13, residents of the Explorer Street estate in Eveleigh, supported by Friends of Erskineville and Hands Off Glebe, will take to the streets in defence of their homes, which are slated for redevelopment. Architects who are serious about using their voice and skills for social good should consider making time to come along, first this Saturday and then every other time possible.
On a spring weekend in 2016, a column of protestors slowly snaked its way from NSW Customs House to The Rocks in inner Sydney. With placards and banners held aloft, the marchers made their demand known: state heritage listing and protection for the Sirius building, which the Baird Government had just announced plans to sell. Designed by Tao Gofers in the late 1970s, the 12-storey tower had long been a prominent fixture on the Sydney skyline, a stalwart Brutalist icon amidst increasingly sleek and slender neighbours. More importantly, Sirius was also one of the most visible public housing towers in Sydney.
And it was far from the only public housing development under threat. In 2014, the Baird Government announced that all public housing in Millers Point, Dawes Point, and The Rocks — including the Sirius building — were to be sold. In response, residents relaunched the Millers Point Action Group, a grassroots campaign to push back against the planned sales and save their homes.
The campaign gained traction, but the public’s attention wasn’t captured in earnest until the Save Our Sirius Foundation’s crowdfund campaign to take the state government to court launched in August 2016. Chaired by Shaun Carter, then-NSW Chapter President of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), the Foundation had a straightforward plan: they would mount a legal challenge to then-Heritage Minister Mark Speakman’s decision not to list Sirius on the State Heritage Register — and protect it from destruction — in spite of the Heritage Council’s unanimous recommendation to do so. To do this, the Foundation needed $35,000. In the end, it raised $50,690 from 647 donors — including $25,000 in a single week.
In the weeks that followed, the Sydney architecture profession threw its weight behind the campaign. Other prominent architects lent their voices in solidarity, including City of Sydney councillor Philip Thalis, former National President of the AIA Alec Tzannes, and the designer of Sirius himself, Tao Gofers.
Meanwhile, media personalities like Tim Ross also took up the cause and #saveoursirius spawned a vibrant groundswell of social media support. As the campaign gained momentum, the sense of being on the cusp of something transformative — for both public housing and the activist potential of the architecture profession — continued to grow.
In April 2017 the Save Our Sirius Foundation, together with the Millers Point Community Association, appeared before the Land and Environment Court to challenge Minister Speakman’s decision — and won.
At trial, the judge ruled Speakman’s decision invalid on the basis that he had failed to “properly consider the property’s heritage significance”. To the delight of local residents and their growing number of allies, the Minister was ordered to remake the decision according to law.
In the end, however, the victory was bittersweet. Months later the new Heritage Minister, Gabrielle Upton, remade the decision and decided once more to deny heritage listing. The massive headwind that had built up around the campaign slowly dwindled, and in 2018 the building was finally put on the market.
The following year, it was sold to Sirius Developments Pty Ltd for $150 million.
Today all 79 public housing apartments in the building stand empty, as they have done since the last resident, Myra Demetriou, moved out in January 2018.
Meanwhile, the waitlist for public housing in NSW alone has grown to 51,000. Nationwide, the public housing shortage is so dire that over 155,000 families and individuals are currently waiting for a home.
In spite of this, the state government is pressing ahead with plans to redevelop several existing public housing estates into a mixed-tenure model that experts criticise as oversimplified and inadequate.
In each case, low income people will be wrenched from their homes and the communities of which they’ve been a part for years.
Residents of the Franklyn Street estate in Glebe, in Sydney’s inner city, are among the thousands facing this fate.
Just before Christmas last year, the Berejiklian Government announced plans to sell off the estate and redevelop the site into a mixed-tenure model.
Yet unlike Sirius, Franklyn Street does not appear to be serving as a lightning rod for activist architects. At a recent rally in defence of the estate, there was no organised presence from the profession.
Several speakers stressed the connection to Cox and Richardson and the estate’s subsequent “architectural significance”, and their statements hung in the air.
Currently, the estate is home to over 100 households, many of whom have lived there since the estate’s construction in the late 1980s.
The parallels between Franklyn Street and Sirius are clear. Both are public housing in an intact condition; both stand to yield the state government a significant windfall; and both are architecturally significant, with Franklyn Street estate having been designed by Philip Cox and John Richardson of Cox Richardson (now Cox Architecture).
Both are also legacies of progressive urban policy: Sirius provided homes for people displaced by the limited redevelopment of The Rocks in the 1970s after negotiations between the government, residents, and the Builders Laborers Federation, while Franklyn Street was a direct product of Whitlam-era investment in cities and housing.
So far, most major architectural media platforms have been quiet on the topic of public housing, and the plight of the many communities preparing to defend their homes from destruction this year.
Will this continue? Or, as the grassroots campaign to defend and extend public housing gains ground, will architects once more unite and raise their collective voice? As we teeter on the precipice of a post-pandemic “recovery”, all of us face a choice between business as usual and fighting for a better future — a future we’ve glimpsed over the past year.
Around the world, everyday people are rediscovering the power of collective action in shaping our cities as fairer, more vibrant spaces. From communities uniting to prevent evictions during the pandemic to well-stocked street pantries, a blueprint is unfurling for the kind of equitable, accessible cities and communities we could have if we only tried.
At the end of March, the federal government is expected to slash the Jobseeker payment back to pre-pandemic rates and states are set to end remaining bans on evicting renters.
Together, the two moves will force hundreds of thousands of people into financial turmoil and housing uncertainty, with nowhere to turn but the overstressed public housing system.
Against this backdrop and with a federal election looming, housing is certain to feature prominently in the national conversation in months to come. And as people who play a crucial part in shaping our cities, spaces, and public places, architects must play a part in this conversation — whether or not the public housing in question is deemed worthy of heritage listing.
Several years ago, when I was an architecture student, I was taught that architecture was above all a social discipline — about people first, before profit and before, even, aesthetics. After all: what good is the most beautiful building if it stands empty?
This Saturday February 13, residents of the Explorer Street estate in Eveleigh, supported by Friends of Erskineville and Hands Off Glebe, will take to the streets in defence of their homes, which are slated for redevelopment.
Architects who are serious about using their voice and skills for social good should consider making time to come along, first this Saturday and then every other time possible thereafter to stand with communities facing down a bulldozer. Whether they’re in Eveleigh, Glebe, Waterloo, Arncliffe, or beyond, these communities need support — and they need it now. It’s time to turn the Sirius moment into a serious movement.
Patricia Arcilla is a Sydney-based writer who holds a Bachelor of Design in Architecture and Master of Urbanism, both from the University of Sydney.
The views expressed in this article are her own.