Soul of Sirius: Meeting the 90 year-old fighting for one of Sydney’s most iconic buildings

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Words || Emma Harvey

To commuters on trains crossing the Harbour Bridge, the Sirius Building is instantly recognisable. The chunky concrete structure stands stoically at the base of the bridge, looking out over sweeping harbour views. It is a city icon, one that has polarised the public since the 70s. Its bulky, brutalist form has been branded “chicken boxes”, an “eyesore”, even likened to something out of “Clockwork Orange” by architectural critic, Norman Day.

Brutalism became a popular architectural movement in the latter half of the 20th century, its rugged, cubic design countering the moral seriousness of the 30s and 40s. More recently, it has become commonplace to apply the term ‘brutalist’ to large and unpopular buildings that seem to show a lack of regard for the aesthetics of a landscape. This label could be considered unfair, especially given that the fundamentals of brutalist architecture are, in fact, about meeting the needs of the surrounding environment.

“I didn’t even realise that what I was doing was brutalist,” admits Tao Gofers, the original architect of Sirius. He had been more concerned with the function of the building and how best to accommodate its residents. This decision to design around the people-flows of the building, is precisely what aligns Sirius with the brutalist movement.

Indeed, from its very inception, Sirius has been about people. Originally erected as social housing during the 70s, its rooms were promised to those who had been evicted by the State Government from their homes in Woolloomooloo, The Rocks and the City.

The design and construction of the building was a rushed affair. Gofers’ got word at 8am on Tuesday that the proposal needed to be completed by the following Friday. He and his architectural team scrambled together a “Mickey mouse presentation” for a 22 storey building with community facilities, to house 80 public housing tenants. “It was designed for everyone,” Gofers says. “Families, students, pensioners. It made the community unbelievably strong.” Handicap units were placed in central tower, equipped with emergency buttons, and lifts were made large enough to fit entire stretchers. The economic analysis at the time was reasonably optimistic and for four decades the building has served its purpose as public housing.

That is, until three years ago, when the NSW Government sent eviction notices to all residents of Sirius, in a move towards its proposed sale and demolition. NSW Australian Institute of Architects president and director of the Save Our Sirius Foundation, Shaun Carter, says that this is nothing but a money grab by developers, vying for the multimillion dollar land value and harbour views. In 2016, The Heritage Council unanimously recommended the Sirius Building for heritage listing, but the advice was ignored and the listing refused. Since the 2014, the Sirius Building has gradually emptied, and today, only two of the original 80 tenants remain.

Artwork: Brittney Klein

Myra’s Demetriou’s apartment is on the tenth floor, in what Gofers calls, “the best room” in all of Sirius. The harbour views from her living room window are breathtaking, but Myra’s grey armchair faces inward – she is 90 years old and almost entirely blind. Having lived in the Millers Point area for over sixty years, Myra relies on the familiarity of her surrounds to maintain relative independence. Her relocation to a suburban, possibly even rural area, would drastically affect her quality of life.

Despite her apparent frailty, Myra has been a constant source of strength and stubbornness in the fight for Sirius. Working with Save Our Sirius Foundation, she has become something of a media celebrity, appearing both locally and internationally, to defend her home and community. As part of this resistance, Myra has opened her apartment to the public for a series of guided tours.

Our tour group of ten is escorted up the lift by a security guard, along with local Millers Point resident, John Dunn. “It’s awful that you have 90-year-olds having to fight,” says Dunn, unlocking the door. He informs us that Myra’s hot water has finally been turned back on this morning, having been cut off for over a week.

“Ask Myra what [the government] want from her,” John says simply. “She’ll tell you they want her dead.”

The apartment is colourful and homely. In the living room, ceramic animals, CDs and other nick-knacks, crowd the shelves and bench-tops. On her bedside table stands dusty photographs of family, and a jewellery box made from seashells. The kitchen smells of pasta and there are dirty cutlery in the sink.

It feels strange and invasive to have so many people crammed into one woman’s home. I flinch as one guest plugs their phone charger into an outlet under the television. But Myra’s enormous hospitality is a form of defiance. The dirty cutlery, the still-damp bathroom tiles, send a very clear message: I live here.

All around the apartment are symbols of resistance. A Day of the Dead pamphlet reading ‘No Surrender’ is stuck to the side of the fridge. In the main window hangs a large light configuration in the letters SOS – Save Our Sirius. Even a single green grape lying at the bottom of a china bowl, has all the appropriate resonance.

We head downstairs to where Tao Gofers is conducting a tour around the outside of the building. He talks quickly and breathlessly about the planning of Sirius, the social and cultural heritage that is at stake. The tour is sold out and Gofers is using a microphone to be heard. As we weave through the courtyard, his fervent commentary regularly leads to small coughing fits, and our ear pieces crackle.

All through the bricked courtyard, there is an eerie sense of abandonment. A gate hangs off its hinges, a brick wall boasts some hastily scrawled graffiti, moss clings to the concrete panels. Among the slabs, vines and foliage are invading cracks in what looks like a slow process of swallowing the the building whole. “This place needs a bit of work,” Gofers acknowledges. “It’s a Housing Commission Policy – never maintain anything.”

We double back to where a small group are setting up chairs in the front courtyard for a drawing session of Myra – as part of the tour artists have been invited along to sketch portraits of her. The session was to be conducted in the beautiful Phillip Room, which, in its prime, hosted bingo and parties against the surreal harbour backdrop. Upon arrival today however, organisers discovered the Phillip Room locked, and the windows covered wall-to-wall with black tarpaulin. In the foyer stand a group of eight security guards hired for the day. Between them is a large plastic container of green grapes, which they eat by the handful.

The police have informed organisers that the courtyard of the building is a public space, and so the drawing is relocated there instead. Myra poses for 15 minute sessions, stopping in-between to chat and “wiggle [her] toes.”

After the first 15 minutes, she tells me much she enjoys having family come by her apartment. Her grandchildren especially found Miller’s Point the prime location to crash after a night out in the Rocks. Consequently, Myra is known as ‘The Queen’ by her grandchildren, and is always ensured a seat at the head of the table on Christmas.

The second 15 minutes passes and Myra turns to inform me that the room down the hall from hers is almost definitely haunted. I ask her if she’s afraid. Brief pause. “It’s not the ghosts I’m scared of.”

When the drawing session is up, Myra waves a plastic cup in the direction of the organisers. “Lunch timmeee,” she sings. Rather than brave the courtyard steps, two men lift both arms of her chair and The Queen is carried safely down.

In July last year, Barrister Bruce McClintock blasted Heritage Minister Mark Speakman’s decision to refuse heritage listing to Sirius. “If the government ignores the advice of its own Heritage Council, it undermines the very reason for heritage legislation and why it was set up.”

But for the community of Millers Point, saving the building isn’t just about architectural heritage. It is about everything Sirius stands for. Since 1976, Sirius has represented the inclusivity of Sydney, the strength of diverse communities, and the value of caring for the underprivileged in society. In Sydney’s current state of housing affordability, public housing means that the city, and the harbour, can be available to all, not just the wealthy and the privileged.

On the 8th of April 2017, Save Our Sirius challenged the current NSW Government in the Land and Environment Court, with the intention of blocking the sale and demolition of the housing block next to the Harbour Bridge. Their fight to preserve Sirius continues, and the community, including Myra, have no intentions of backing down.

The Sirius building is Sydney’s famous brutalist eyesore, and in the fight for its preservation, the Millers Point community intend to be just that. “We are going to be one big sore,” says Margaret Bishop, John Dunn’s wife and a fellow resident at Millers Point. “A big, painful scab.”