In spite of their unique sculptural forms and historical significance, many buildings in the brutalist style have been targeted for demolition in Sydney, says Burdon, “it will not be until it is too late and Sirius is replaced by a building of far greater size that people will realise what this architecture truly represented. The social mix of young and old, small and large families, will be replaced by a homogenous grouping of nouveau rich. The great irony is that a site famed for its views will, with its new social mix, become more inward looking.” For architect Glenn Harper, a senior associate at PTW Architects working on a guide to brutalism in Sydney, “the current political climate does not see any worth in these buildings,” and this “is indicative of a shift in socio-political thinking in Sydney away from government ownership and government led design which emphasised the public domain and public ownership”.
Something in particular about brutalism provokes both interest and contempt amongst the local public. Sirius was completed in 1979. It and other buildings in this style were developed much later in Sydney than elsewhere often caused controversy. Sirius was immediately disliked by the public, Harper says, who preferred new post-modern architectural trends, “including a love for lurid colours and overt patterning.”
While people remain critical of the appearance Sirius or other buildings such as the University of Technology tower building, no one can deny their durability. Precast or poured concrete blocks gave these buildings a stocky and intense sculptural form. Yet Burdon maintains, “these buildings have stood the test of time remarkably well. Finely detailed and well built, Sirius has been almost totally neglected in terms of maintenance by its owner – the government.” In spite of this neglect, however, “Sirius is today as functional and aesthetically pleasing as when it was built.”
“The tragedy of Brutalism in Sydney was... unfortunately being equated with the term in English as ugly, instead of being translated correctly from the French term raw.” There was a misunderstanding of the translation of the word denoting the brutalist style. The French term, beton brut, describes the raw finish given to concrete structures by architect Le Courbusier. It was later translated by English critic Reyner Bahnam in his 1955 essay, The New Brutalism and popularized in Australia by architects such as Harry Seidler. People consider a brutalist building to be ugly because of what Reyner Banham describes as “precisely its brutality, its bloody-mindedness”.
The decision of the NSW Government defied expert opinions of the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, architect Tao Golfers and the NSW and national chapters of the Australian Institute of Architects. As Burdon says, “in the case of Sirius, the Minister... ignored the advice of the community in general (and design community in particular) who see aesthetic value and social purpose as having equal weight.” Now unions, critics and community groups have banded together to campaign to save Sirius. Harper attributes this growing community support to a “desire for authenticity” realised in the its particular architectural style. These groups value the building both for its social role and its aesthetic legacy. As Harper says, “the Brutalist buildings of Sydney were fundamentally about an honest expression of concrete (and in some cases textured face brickwork): and this is finding resonance with the community”.