sydney: circular quay meandering

On my recent Sydney trip, along with the Randwick Art Deco Walk brochure and the Brutalist Sydney Map, I had with me the Footpath Guides Sydney Architectural Walking Guides. I have their Melbourne Mid Century 1950-1970 book and on one of my Melbourne trips I followed the route suggested in that book and photographed all 25 buildings. This had involved a couple of early morning starts staying in Melbourne CBD.

I decided I wasn’t going to do the full walks set out in either the Sydney Inter-war (1915-1940) or Sydney Modern (1950-1990) books but would pick out places that interested me. There was only one building that was on my “I must see this or the whole trip is ruined” list. I was going to find the others if I got the chance because I’d planned to spend most of the week in and around Randwick rather than in the CBD.

The Sydney Modern book mentioned the Sirius apartment building and the AMP building, both of which were around the Circular Quay area. I’d heard of both of them, so I made that my first stop on my CBD day. Circular Quay is a convenient light rail ride from either Randwick or Kensington so I had no trouble getting there.

The first structure that caught my eye (apart from the gargantuan cruise ship) was the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Circular Quay (W.H. Withers & W.D.H. Baxter, 1952)

It was previously the Maritime Services Board building and replaced a much older building. It was planned in 1939 but was delayed because of shortages of labour and materials during the war. Work restarted in 1946 but further delays meant it wasn’t completed until 1952, by which time its design as considered somewhat dated.

Museum of Contemporary Art

The entrances are framed with pink Rob Roy granite, which came from quarries in Sodwalls, near Lithgow. The carved sandstone decorations under the clock tower (you can’t see them here) include a ship’s propeller, wheel and anchor signifying respectively the “driving force, guiding force and stability” of the Maritime Services Board.

Also, what visit to Circular Quay would be complete without a photo of the Sydney Opera House?

Sydney Opera House (Jorn Utzon, 1973)

I wasn’t there to see either of those structures! Circular Quay was packed with unmasked people and I didn’t want to stay there, so my search for Sirius began. It’s on Cumberland Street, which would be easy for anyone who isn’t as geographically challenged as I am to get to from Circular Quay.

According to Sydney Modern, the NSW Housing Commission built the Sirius apartment complex over the period 1975-1980 to re-house public tenants who were displaced during redevelopment of The Rocks. It included a total of 79 apartments of various sizes, and catered for 250 aged and family residents.

Its architect was Tao Gofers, who was a Housing Commission architect at the time. He originally wanted to paint it white, but they ran out of money so (I think, thankfully) that never happened.

A “rare and fine example” of Brutalist architecture (according to the NSW Heritage Council), Sirius looked like this:

Sirius (image by Katherine Lu. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

I knew it was in danger.

If I hadn’t already known, the bomb symbol next to the words “UNDER THREAT Demolition is imminent” in Sydney Modern (published in 2017) was difficult to miss.

The NSW government had announced in 2014 it would be selling the site to be redeveloped into luxury apartments. I hadn’t followed the story very closely but this was obviously very distressing for the residents of the complex, along with the broader community. They formed the Save Our Sirius Foundation to fight to save the complex.

In 2016 the NSW Heritage Minister refused to have Sirius listed as a heritage site, apparently because its heritage value was outweighed by its financial value to the government. The NSW Land & Environment Court didn’t agree.

By the end of 2017, however, Myra Demetriou was the only resident left at Sirius, and she moved out in February 2018 after the government finally put the complex up for sale. Myra passed away in 2021.

I’d heard there were plans to redevelop it into fancy boutique apartments rather than demolishing it but I hadn’t realised the work was actually underway until I (eventually) got there.

Sirius reimagined

That was disappointing, and I’m sad I never got to see it as it was.

Because I’d taken the long way round, by the time I found Sirius, I’d walked under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Continuing along Cumberland Street, past the bridge climb office, I found a random lift that went up to the bridge itself. I didn’t know you could walk on the bridge, so I went up to have a look.

Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932)

The bridge construction started in 1924 and was completed in 1932. I found the bridge plaque, which mentions the firm Dorman Long and Company, who were the contractors for design and construction. My great grandfather worked for that company in the 1920s and my mother says he was involved in the bridge design. I have no reason to disbelieve this. He was a structural engineer who specialised in bridges. He moved to Tasmania in 1925, so his involvement must have been only at the very early stages. (Or he wasn’t involved at all and it’s just a family urban legend!)

Sydney Harbour Bridge plaque

I decided not to take the lift to the top of the pylon. The view was pretty good from where I was.

Sydney Opera House from the Harbour Bridge

I didn’t want to go all the way across the bridge because I had other things to see. I’d been able to see a scaffold-clad building from the bridge and desperately hoped it wasn’t the AMP building which was also on my list to see . . .

I found this cool building on the way back. I have no idea what it is.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Coming off the bridge back down to The Rocks is the Cahill Walk, which accompanies the Cahill Expressway. I wondered if I was going to find myself in this Jeffrey Smart painting, but that’s further around the expressway.

I could see just one part of Siruis that hadn’t been covered over by the redevelopment work.

Sirius reimagined

The lone block made me think of Myra’s story, and what it might have been like for her to be the last person living in the complex.

There was a cool view of the skyline.

Sydney from the Harbour Bridge

Postscript for Sirius: I was at the Art Gallery of NSW later in the week and found a book about the struggle to save Sirius in the bookshop. It tells the history of the complex, from the Green Bans placed on The Rocks in the 1970s until the 2017 court ruling.

Sirius by John Dunn, Ben Peake & Amiera Piscopo

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