“CONCRETE CANCER” – IN DEFENCE OF BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE

The survival of one of Sydney’s most iconic buildings is currently in contention. The Sirius Building, tucked next to another of Sydney’s architectural marvels, the Sydney Harbour Bridge has been refused heritage listing and is currently proposed for demolition, an act which would deeply sadden many a Sydneysider. One of the city’s best example of brutalist architecture, Sirius has often been the punching bag for detractors to the architectural style, often branding Sirius as Sydney’s worst building; to them, an eyesore to be glared at on the morning commute across the Harbour Bridge. Though judging Sirius through our 21st-century perception of architecture misses the point, to truly appreciate and understand not only Sirius but the entire brutalist movement, some background knowledge is required.

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Born at the end of World War II, the brutalist style is characterised by large, rugged concrete slabs and a heavy use of cubism and right angles, the style mostly reserved for apartment, civil and government buildings. Incredibly popular throughout continental Europe, the Eastern Bloc, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, brutalism flourished through its use of cheap and plentiful building materials and clever use of space; in plainest terms, when it came to brutalism, form follows function. Though despite the apparent lack of conceited design inherent within these brutalist buildings, there’s a deep correlation between modernism and brutalism. Essentially a subsidiary of the modernist movement, the two styles are deeply entwined, the genesis being the architects behind them, architects like Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry, Ken Woolley, Frank Lloyd Wright and Harry Seidler who not only designed within the realms of modernism, but excelled through their experimentation with brutalism.

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Whilst the inherent beauty of brutalism may not come from its use of colour, a key factor in modernism, it excels through its use of raw geometry, its clever use of space, engineering genius and abstract construction. By removing colour from the architect’s toolbox, these great designers were forced to think laterally and rely solely on shapes to design the brutalist masterpieces, resulting in some of our most loved buildings, such as the California’s Geisel Library, a building which embraces its raw concrete façade to create a pedestalled engineering marvel. Brutalism even caries forward to the modern day with houses of recent years such as the exceptional Indigo Slam, a building with embraces its concrete exoskeleton to create what has been described as an inhabitable sculpture, a contributing factor leading to Indigo Slam winning the 1016 Robin Boyd Award.

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The work of Sydney’s favourite architect, Harry Seidler is a perfect example of a designer with a foot in both modernism and brutalism, his sublime Blues Point Tower one of Sydney’s best brutalist buildings. Built in 1962, Blues Point Tower is credited with bringing high-rise living to Sydney. Australia’s tallest apartment block in its day, its wrapped in a crème brick façade, the lack of colour led to Seidler designing the two balcony patterns which race up the towers 25 floors. Due to clever interior planning, each one of the 144 flats, regardless of number of rooms have a harbour view; even so Sydneysider’s were hard pressed to give up the quarter acre block in exchange for apartment living. Despite its rather sharp looks, Blues Point Tower has garnered the reputation of another of Sydney’s ugliest buildings, Seidler himself notorious in defending it, famously stating “anyone who can’t see anything in it ought to go back to school.”

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And that brings us back to the Sirius Building. Like Blues Point Tower, its revered by many as a blight on the city skyline. Completed in 1980, the architect who penned it, Tao Gofers took inspiration from another great brutalist building, Habitat 67 in Montreal. Sharing a clear cubist, constructivist aesthetic with its Canadian counterpart, what sets Sirius apart from many other brutalist buildings is it was designed under the guise of public housing, a role the building still plays to this day. Constructed to house struggling Australian’s, the harbour side building stands as a vital example of public housing within the heart of the city. Each room flanked with east and west facing windows, the majority of the apartments having views of another of our modernist gems, JØrn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. Brutalist architecture is inherently egalitarian; it is in itself a strictly inclusive architectural style accessible to everyone, and the fact Sirius, a public housing building sits is smack bang in one of the most valuable property markets in the world proves Sirius has succeeded in its goal of ensuring Sydney is within reach of every Australian.   

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Putting aside the philosophy behind brutalism, there’s an equally important reason why we should Save Our Sirius; it is a vital chapter in the story of Sydney’s architecture. Brutalist buildings like Sirius are right in the danger zone, that 30-40-year period which either makes or breaks a building. Whilst it must be conceited alongside the modern-day towers piercing the sky at evermore heights, brutalist buildings like Sirius stick out like dog’s balls; in the modern zeitgeist of the casual observer, it’s fair to say brutalism hasn’t aged well. Though looking across Sydney’s skyline, there is nothing like Sirius; it is completely unique. If we senselessly knock down Sirius, we lose an ever-rarer example of a supremely important architectural style, simply to turn a profit for the government and a developer. Sirius is quite simply one of the world’s great applications of brutalism, for that reason alone the building should be protected. We cannot let brutalism become the missing link between our colonial cottages and the ultra-modern buildings of tomorrow, simply because we value our architecture superficially.

"When a cities no longer inclusive, it has to be exclusive."
-Tao Gofers, Architect of Sirius