Sirius and the failed utopianism of Brutalist architecture

Brutalism is, at best, a contentious style of architecture. There is a sweeping, depressive quality to it. In the music video for Kanye West’s song ‘All of the Lights’, a very young girl makes her way alone through a maze of Brutalist public housing blocks. In the music video for Jarryd James’ ‘Do You Remember’, an alienated girl is placed against a backdrop of a London housing estate. In dystopian science fiction films, this kind of architecture is the setting for a decaying post-apocalyptic world: pigeons clinging to high, grey, metallic fences trimmed with barbed wire and Orwellian facades protruding out like bomb shelters.

Brutalism can, however, have very different connotations. In the Sydney Morning Herald last month, architect Elizabeth Farrelly mounted an impassioned defence of the style. ‘True Brutalism,’ she writes, ‘is at once elegant and sexy.’

For the residents of Sirius, a public housing apartment block in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Millers Point, more than just architectural theory is at stake. Since the state government announced plans to demolish the building and relocate its residents, it has become the subject of a huge community campaign. This week, the CFMEU declared a Green Ban on the site, ensuring that – for the time being, at least – no work involving unionised labour will occur.

Home to a large population of low-income and disadvantaged people, the Sirius building was built in the aftermath of the first Green Bans of the 1970s, when construction unions fought to protect working-class residences in the area from commercial redevelopment. Its Brutalist style is distinctive and original; a quality that campaigners have cited as a key reason to oppose its demolition.

To understand the relevance of this building’s architecture, it is worth exploring its origins. Despite appearances, Brutalism has nothing to do with the word ‘brutal’; rather, it is a term derived from the French phrase béton brut – literally, concrete in the raw. We are seeing the building stripped back to its fundamental elements; its skin undressed, exposed. Hence, Farrelly’s designation: ‘sexy’.

Brutalism came into prominence at a time when architects had started to make a distinct break from tradition and cultural reference points. Traditional or locally derived materials were no longer considered necessary. With new mass-produced materials available, architects began to explore building higher, bigger, faster, cheaper. As a highly profitable industry, construction was among the first to bear the hallmarks of the global economy – new, imposing construction techniques and a mutable, international style of architecture.

Brutalism was a movement in which building techniques were cutting construction times, cutting costs and cutting-edge. With money to be made on a grand scale, architects’ egos soared. The future was to be guided by their creative vision and their self-reverence. Their constructions drew attention to their materials, deconstructed the excess of detail and celebrated the fundamentals of the building itself.

Some Brutalist shapes and forms can be beautiful, even complex and structurally surprising. However, all the general public sees now is dirty concrete; scuffed, tired aggregate; and certain shades of brown and green timber associated with authoritarian government facilities such as council offices, police stations, prisons, public schools, hospital wards and public housing.

The Sirius building was to be painted a shade of white, in order to match the Opera House, but the budget – for both the initial work and ongoing maintenance – never materialised. It remains an imposing grey.

I can’t see past the grey of such buildings. It is a cold form of architecture; a harsh palette of mass-produced manufactured materials, typified by unpainted, reinforced concrete and entire windowless blank-wall facades of brown pebble aggregate. I get the sense that Brutalism is in need of getting dressed; clothed in white, perhaps, or some other colour in the Taubmans paint box, in order to push back the grey we already see all over our cities. It is the palette – the veneer – that needs to be rendered differently.

To do so, however, is to be deemed no longer Brutalist. It is to lose all aesthetic integrity and authenticity; to throw away the true intentions of the architect. Yet, the truth of Brutalism is at the core of the raw, cold concrete: an expansive, utopian vision for the future – part socialist monumentalism, part paternalism.

The architectural style of Brutalism is, in many ways, inseparable from the emergence of public housing. Northcott Place, in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, was opened in 1963 as a place to house war veterans and newly arrived immigrants. Our national figurehead herself, Queen Elizabeth II, cut the ribbon. Decades later, it was a vertical slum referred to by occupants as ‘the old bitch’.

Public housing in different countries takes different forms and has differing social outcomes. In some instances, massive social experiments to house the low-income masses have formed part of a utopian vision of equitable housing for all.

In his 1993 album Illmatic, legendary New York hip-hop artist and lyrical poet NAS super-imposed a photograph of his face as a child over the public housing block in the Queensbridge Projects where he grew up. The album’s lyrics present an honest, provocative portrayal of a culture of poverty, disadvantage and unemployment; its scenes of family dysfunction, firearms and drug trafficking story emblematic of a failed system.

In London, the public housing towers of the Elephant and Castle lay vacant for nearly a decade after being earmarked for demolition. Homeless people – perhaps, in some cases, former tenants who had been left in the hands of the private housing market – could be seen camped out around the footings of the empty residential buildings.

In Sydney, public housing has its own problems. With the Department of Housing underfunded and unable to keep up with decades worth of increasing demand and maintenance costs, the strata of society that fills public housing faces significant disadvantage. It is an enclave of concentrated poverty, associated with drugs, crime and violence; ultimately, deemed the un-aspirational class.

Paternal planning succeeds and fails on a grand scale. When Sirius was built, the concept was to house those in need in affordable residences close to where they were being pushed out from. Today, the stigma attached to public housing in Sydney makes for an ugly picture.

Centralising poverty can cause unforeseen issues in this city, as much as it does in others. But services in city localities can provide access to means of alleviating issues facing disadvantaged communities. Removing the Sirius building will only disperse those who have lived there for decades, dependent on government assistance for survival, into fringe suburbs devoid of services – not because of market forces, but because of government policy. Those in need will, in effect, be hidden.

The Sirius building, as it still stands today, is on the skyline adjacent to the Harbour Bridge. It has been a visible reminder of paternalistic government, and of what one failed utopian vision looks like. As such, it has been deemed necessary to erase it.

The utopian vision now is to hide those old ideas – to hide entrenched poverty, and the failure of a system – within the broader 30/70 societal mix. This new vision is to hide the ugliness of Brutalism within the suburbs, sprawling far beyond Sydney’s CBD.


There is a Save Our Sirius rally this Saturday (17 September) from 11.30 am.

Related piece: ‘No place like home’: Anwen Crawford on the fight to save Millers Point

Image: ‘Sirius Apartments monochrome’; Marek/Flickr

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