Friday, November 21, 2014

Getting Serious about Sirius

A guest appearance today from our Executive Officer, Julie Foreman on the importance of the Sirius apartments in Sydney's heritage.

“A landmark building”

“Housing is more than real estate”

“Cities should not be enclaves of the rich”

These are just a few comments from the speakers of a forum I attended last week. Held at the NSW Parliament, the forum shone a light on the social and historical importance of the Sirius building. Speakers reflected on important themes – many of which have been left out of the Government’s analysis and policy development regarding the Millers Point sell off.

Sirius apartments, watercolour and ink on board. Powerhouse Museum collection 2013/36/1

Panel members at the forum were the architect of the Sirius building, Tao Gofers, the Chair of Urban Planning and Policy at University of Sydney Professor Peter Phibbs, the Director of City Futures at University of NSW Professor Bill Randolph, curator and architecture writer Charlie Pickett, and Millers Point resident Mary Sutton.

They led an insightful discussion about the importance, and the history of social and affordable housing in NSW. I learnt much, including the fact that the compact kitchen we enjoy in apartments today was the result of the design and development of public housing in Holland in the 1920’s!

We heard about the iconic importance of Sirius - purpose built by the then Housing Commission. Tao Gofers, the architect talked with enthusiasm of breaking new ground with the design, which had input from the Resident Action Group and the Government.

The design is practical and beautiful; with murals in the entrance inspired by Spanish cave paintings, a photographic mural of the city skyline captured in 1978 hangs in the community room and pictures of the Harbour Bridge in various stages of completion adorn the walls of each of the floors. The roof visible to many via the Harbour Bridge became an important part of the design with roof top gardens.

Professor Peter Phibbs was the peer reviewer for the social impact assessment for the Millers Point sales. He expressed his astonishment that the Sirius building which was not included in the social impact study was then included in the sale proposal! No subsequent social impact of the sale of Sirius has been undertaken.

Peter noted that Sirius did not raise the same repair and maintenance issues as other homes in Millers Point. In fact it was a shining example of a number of Government policy directions – aging in place, need for smaller social housing stock and social mix.

He described the sales as a ‘clumsy and cruel’ policy particularly because of its impact on elderly tenants and because there are other financially viable alternatives. Options such as:
· building new purpose built homes for Millers Point residents or
· relocating residents from Millers Point to Sirius to maintain their social connections or
· slowing the sale process to allow residents to age in place or conducting a partial sale and using the funds to facilitate the sustainable upkeep of the remaining dwellings. [At least two independent, expert reports have identified financial viable alternatives]

Professor Bill Randolph broadened the debate to discuss the impact of the sale on all of Sydney and put it in an international context. His research demonstrates that Sydney is polarising, both socially and economically. Moving away from the more egalitarian city that existed 30 years ago, inner Sydney is set to become an enclave for the rich. Bill acknowledged that the real estate boom has only assisted a few and that Treasury today views public housing as a financial asset to be exploited rather than a social asset. You would have to agree with him that that seeing a city as “purely as real estate shows no imagination or maturity”. Sirius is a social asset paid for by all of us and belonging to all of us.

This is certainly how my father thought. As a child he would bring the family in by train from Wiley Park to enjoy the Rocks and Millers Point and proudly say to his children that this belonged to all of us. He didn’t feel jealous and he didn’t mind contributing taxes from his meagre wages to create a better city for all.

Bill also highlighted how the Treasury approach contrasted with trends in European and American cities. New York has inclusionary zoning, for example. European countries are expanding access to affordable housing in their cities.

Bill stated that the Millers Point and Sirius policy was another brick in the wall of social divide, noting that a disparate group - President Obama, Pope Frances and the head of the IMF cautioned against such policies, that encouraged social exclusion and led to further social and economic costs.

Charles Pickett confirmed the importance of Sirius in Australian architecture history and hailed its success as a public housing building. In the early 1900s the government built model workers public housing in the area - low rise and terraces. Critics at the time said it would become slums! Charles concluded that Sirius is the last major piece of architecture built in this tradition and must be retained.

Mary Sutton gave a detailed history of the building which we hope to soon bring to you on the blog.

If like me you value our social history and want to live in a socially inclusive city let the Minister for Heritage know and ask him to save our sirius.

The Hon. Rob Stokes, MP
Minister for Heritage
52 Martin Place

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1 comment:

  1. Patricia Olive CorowaNovember 23, 2014 at 2:54 AM

    Write today to the Minister for Heritage, Rob Stokes.. (1) Keep Sirius as purpose-built public housing for the Aged.. (2) Remaining tenants in Millers Point, Dawes Point and The Rocks, be relocated to the units now vacant in the Sirius Building.. (3) Preserve, protect and keep all Heritage-listed property in the Millers Point Public Housing Estate.. (4) Millers Point is not for sale..


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