Approaching the Sirius building I can see the group I am to join already assembled outside, waiting for the tour. They gather in the forecourt, a brick-paved area with circular garden beds, in which grow banksia trees and jade plants, and a hibiscus flowering with pink blooms. Among the people waiting there moves a tall man wearing a purple shirt. He is handing out flyers, talking with verve as he does so. This is Tao Gofers, the architect who, in 1976, designed the Sirius building, and has been working with the Save Our Sirius group to protect the building from demolition.
The Sirius is one of Sydney’s most iconic buildings, instantly recognisable due to its striking modular design and its prominent position beside the Harbour Bridge. Its stepped shape of concrete blocks and roof gardens with purple funnels rise up alongside the Bridge. It seems almost close enough to be able to reach out from the Harbour Bridge walkway to touch them. At least this is what I imagined as a child, as I, like generations of Sydney residents, wondered what it would be like to live there and explore on the rooftop gardens, looking out over the city.
The Sirius is a building that gives much to the imagination. It’s a people’s building, both because it was designed as social housing and operated successfully as such for four decades, and because it has such a strong physical presence in the cityscape. It’s a building that’s embedded in the city’s collective consciousness, as important and as controversial as it was when it opened in the late 1970s.
We are taken back to 1976 as Tao Gofers describes the process of designing the Sirius. At that time there had already been demolition of social housing properties and relocation of residents in the area. A condition of lifting the green ban that had been imposed on area by the Builders Labourers Federation was that that there be provisions for the working class community who had been living in the area for generations to remain in The Rocks. Until the Ban was lifted, the government could make no changes to their existing properties in The Rocks, and they were eager for the stalemate to be resolved.
The Sirius was the key factor in the lifting of the green ban. It all happened quickly: there was only 10 days between Gofers first hearing of the project to his presentation to the stakeholders. He describes the scene, the government officials in double-breasted suits, and the Rocks residents “like us”, people in their everyday clothes, who had gathered to see his proposals. He first showed a design for a small development of 14 terrace houses, which was unacceptable to the government. Next he showed a proposal for a 20 storey building with 8 apartments per floor, which was unacceptable to the residents. A third proposal, for a standard tower block of 80 units was also rejected for being aesthetically displeasing. Then Gofers presented the proposal for the Sirius. The design was presented as a compromise between two extremes, but it was the one that Gofers believed in, and the one that came to be built.
Sirius was based on The Laurels, an earlier apartment development Gofers had designed in Sans Souci. The model for The Laurels had been made with Revlon eyeshadow boxes, which had the right kind of dimensions for the windows that filled the ends of each concrete module. The Sirius was an expanded version of this design, which combined 1,2,3 and 4 bedroom apartments, as well as apartments specifically designed for the elderly and people with disabilities.
We walk around the building, looking up at the apartments as Tao describes how of the 79 units, 74 have access to a balcony, terrace or roof garden. “If you have just little boxes,” he says “people aren’t going to be happy.” His designs were made with people’s emotional bond to their homes in mind. These were not purely functional spaces, although their simple design made them adaptable to the multi-level site. It included numerous communal areas, including the Heritage Room on the 8th floor, designed as a common area for older residents, and the Phillip Room on the ground floor, with red patterned carpet, wood-panelled walls, and dramatic beams of raw concrete.
We cannot even glimpse into the Phillip Room now. The windows are completely blocked off with black plastic, for no other reason but to prevent us looking inside. All we can see is our own reflections moving by. The group is big, around a hundred people. We stand at the back of the building, staring up at the apartment balconies where succulents grow wild and unpruned from the planter boxes. Almost every one of these apartment is empty. The government has been moving residents out since 2014, with the intent to sell the building and have it demolished. Despite the recommendations of its own Heritage Council, heritage listing was refused, and it is this decision Save Our Sirius campaign is working to fight.
Accompanied by security guards, we crowd into the foyer, and then go in small groups in the lift up to level 10 for a look inside Myra’s apartment. Myra, who is 90 years old and has lived in this neighbourhood for almost 60 years, has become the face of the Sirius building. Myra is blind, and has no wish to move away from the familiar apartment and area she has been a part of for so long. This morning she is at the front of the building, sitting in the forecourt with a drawing group assembled around her, sketching her on their notepads. Upstairs, groups of people stand in her living room, looking around. It is the homely environment of an elderly person, with its teaspoon collection hanging on the wall, framed photos and knicknacks arranged on the shelves, and a horseshoe hung up in the hallway as a luck charm. The windows fill the entire of the eastern wall and through them is a view across the harbour.
This, Tao says a number of times during the tour, is a sticking point – the idea of people who are not privileged, not wealthy, living with this harbour view. Standing in Myra’s living room, looking out at the clouds moving across the sky and their reflection in the steel-grey water, it is indeed beautiful. No one could deny it, and anyone living with such a scene as part of their daily lives is lucky. But luck and beauty should not be the exclusive province of the wealthy. A city where money and privilege dominates pales even the most glorious view. From its inception the Sirius has been symbolic of the city and the harbour being available to all, and it is even more so now as the majority of its apartments lie empty, and the fight to save it continues.
Follow the Save Our Sirius campaign here with links to details of future tours and campaign events.