Book review by Abbie Foxton – SIRIUS written and compiled by John Dunn, Ben Peake and Amiera Piscopo
Sirius is an artifact of a time when governments believed that all citizens deserved quality housing – Charles Pickett
Designed for the Housing Commission of New South Wales in 1978–1979 by architect Tao Gofers, Sirius was to be the answer to rehouse public tenants displaced by redevelopment in Millers Point, The Rocks in Sydney. In 2015 plans emerged to sell the building, evict residents from its 79 apartments, and redevelop the site. A large number of opponents, including Save Our Sirius, sought to secure its protection as a heritage building. The NSW government declined to add the building to the State Heritage Register, and Sirius was put up for sale in 2017, through a competitive tender process which attracted national and international interest.
The story of Sirius was encased in bureaucracy from the day it was unveiled, things got more complicated after the Liberal State government at the time decided to rehouse those residents and kick them out of their ‘millionaire views’ in Sydney’s Millers Point in The Rocks. Originally, this socially aware project had the heart to lead the way of integration but when the government of the time decided to close all public housing in the city and move it out west, it did more than displace. Families were torn apart, mental illness, anxiety and depression fell upon residents who had never shown any symptoms before. The Rocks was where they had grown up, had lived for decades, built friendships and for an 80 year old woman to up digs and start again puts an emotional pressure that could shorten a life.
I have been obsessed with Sirius since I was a kid. We’d drive back from holidays up north and as we came over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we would look into the windows and cement at eye level and I would hear my Dad say “fancy living with all that noise”. It wasn’t until I dug deeper into the structures planning and components, that I discovered that architect Tao had designed Sirius with that in mind. To go up and deflect the highway, this would quash the sound of much of the traffic. He consulted the residents from the green ban protests of the 70s, painstakingly designing their new apartments interiors to help bigger families, to make the elderly feel protected, common rooms for social interaction, balconies for gardens that became protective roofs for others. Sirius had a big heart inside its brutal facade.
Known and acknowledged for its Brutalist demeanor, It wasn’t ever built with a brutalist’s eye. Tao said that the project fell short of funding and some sacrifices needed to be made, including the plan to incorporate white cement to reflect the Sydney Opera House across the Quay. Some things are meant to be, I much prefer the skinned majesty of those little boxes. This view however was to be the catalyst for utilising the land for something that the government of the time could use to their advantage and the public purse for a quick sell. Who made up the rule that socio economics should determine your view or where you live, they were winning and another battle ensued, this time inside the original compromise. Sirius was to be knocked down and replaced with luxury apartments. Gone the brutal squares of memories and stacked lives.
With news that Sirius was to be demolished came another protest and the momentum proving to be too hard to keep up. These residents have fought hardships of generations, wharfies, kids of WW1 and WW2 veterans. Though all around the rocks and further a field, the empathy had bubbled and once again they tried. Doorways of photos of those people being moved on to make way for beautification, the faces and stories prominent to make the public aware, yet it all felt like an art installation, a poignant vigil that worked well to get more groups of people together to help their cause. It is bloody hard to stop the megalith of government, the protestors were tired, and the housing commission had stopped maintaining the buildings, all through The Rocks, a long time before, as if the plan was decades in the making, the patience of mammon and dirty deals. About five years back, the last residents were being shifted and I wanted to capture what I thought would be the last photos of the building I grew up with, it was mysterious and so removed from my suburban streets though through the book I have discovered that its two story prototype was built a couple of suburbs away from where I grew up in, in the 70s in Sans Souci. I was always searching for answers of Sirius’s little mysteries, who was responsible for the ‘One Way! Jesus’ sign that was perched in the window, how did these little boxes work?
There were tours of Sirius organised as crowd funding rewards during the height of the ‘Save Our Sirius’ campaign, the architect himself front and centre, guiding people through it. This beautifully compiled book reveals all its secrets including architect drawings, individual stories of its residents, history and its significance as journalist Shirley Fitzgerald acknowledged it as ‘a ‘living cultural landscape’ with palpable high and rare degree of social significance’ and ‘its unity, authenticity of fabric and community and complexity of significant activities and events make it probably the rarest and most significant historic urban place in Australia’. It really did feel like the government did not want to be reminded of a time when governments undertook great public initiatives for our communities as if public housing was a utopic past time.
This book is one to be slowly savoured in one well paced sitting. It is easy to revisit again and again which I have done many times this past month, its timeless off white matte paper stock has you rubbing its seams gently. It contains a gallery of passionate photos as Sirius was the inspiration for artists and photographers from around the world, endlessly capturing the beauty and heart of this community and dwelling. Myself drawn to this, taking what I thought would be some final photos before it would be torn down. I was lucky enough to go inside one of the downstairs one bedroom apartments. I got to see the entrance way, the carpet, its fresh and unworn status, the ornate wood wall hangings, it was quite the time capsule.
Remembered as the face of Sirius and her neon ‘SOS’ in her window gleaming, Myra Demetriou, passed away on 23 October 2021 at the age of 94. Trying to get answers of where the latest project is at is proving difficult, will it remain? I prefer to think back at what Sirius Building’s purpose was and what it stood for, to thank those strangers and residents for trying, how they were pulled into the protest and focusing on the lives that tried to save it.