Heritage forum speech by Shaun Carter

In Parliament |

Shaun Carter is the immediate past president of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects. Shaun first studied and worked in structural engineering and construction.. In 2005 he graduated in architecture with First Class Honours from UTS. In 2004 he established the Sydney practice Carterwilliamson Architects, as the founding architect.

Shaun has just finished 2 years as President of the Architects in NSW. He is also the chairperson of the SaveOurSirius Foundation leading the campaign to save the Sirius building in the Rocks.

This speech was delivered at '40 Years of the NSW Heritage Act - A Forum' on 18 April 2017.


Let me start by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of this land on which we meet today and pay respect to the elders past and present.

Today is a great day for NSW. We are here to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the NSW Heritage Act, and it’s companion the Heritage Register. 

It is a significant day, because it is when we began to enshrine in law, the protection of our social, cultural and environmental treasures. 

A day when we took another step to develop our own identity, our own culture: Sure we are a young nation, but we have a rich, and it must be said sometimes troubled and storied past. 

And as good, or as difficult it is in hearing, or learning of that past, it is wholly because of our past, that we are who we are today. We are the sum total of our history and our heritage. These are our storylines. 

And like the song lines of Aboriginal Culture, these stories, as ephemeral as they sometimes can seem to be, need to be kept, protected, told and retold. 

And like all good acts of civil society, we had to fight for the Heritage Act. 

In no small part because of great citizens like Jack Mundey and the green ban movement, and with the staunch helps of the Unions he helped lead. 

Thankyou Meredith for so beautifully telling us of the green bans and Jack. A great man and a great Australian. 

Today I will tell you of the struggle to save Sirius Apartments in the Rocks, and why it is important for us to win this fight. No just to keep this building, but as part of the bigger social and cultural mosaic that helps preserve our storylines. 

But let's start with some Perspective on the Heritage Council: 

at the 2011 census, there were 9,000,000 residential dwellings in Australia, with approximately 12,000,000 buildings all up. 

Add to that another 1,000,000 buildings for the last 5 years. 

Which means today. Right now. 

There is approximately 13,000,000 buildings in Australia. 

NSW has about 33% of these dwellings for a 4,250,000 buildings in this state alone. 

Last year in NSW a touch over 31,000 houses were built….approximately 33,000 buildings in total. 

Yet, only 15 buildings were recommended for State Heritage listing in 2016. 

There is only 1650 buildings on the state Heritage register. That’s 1650 out of 4,250,000. 

As a percentage that’s 0.039% of all buildings in built in NSW are on the State heritage Register. 

That’s 1 in every 2560 buildings. 

This is hardly a system out of control. In fact it seems entirely sensible and in complete control. 

The Heritage Council are, I would venture to say, in complete control because of the constitution of the Heritage Council. 

The council is comprised of 5 people with the following expertise:

  • archaeology,
  • architecture,
  • building, development and property industries,
  • conservation of the environmental heritage,
  • engineering,
  • New South Wales or Australian history,
  • local government,
  • moveable heritage,
  • natural heritage,
  • planning,
  • property, planning or environmental law,
  • property economics,
  • rural interests,
  • and cultural landscapes.

Add to that, another from the National Trust 

and

one more from Aboriginal heritage 

And, 

2 more appointments of the Minister 

This is hardly a group of rampant NIMBY’s. 

In my humble opinion the NSW Heritage Council acts with prudence, caution and proportion because they are a balanced cross section of the relevant interest groups that make up NSW’s cultural landscape. 

So it seems to me it is easy to deduce that Heritage Council is functioning very well and the system works. 

Yet, one of those 15 buildings that was recommended to be listed on the State Heritage register last year was refused by the Heritage Minister. 

That building was Sirius Apartments. 

Lets have a Sirius discussion about that in a minute. 

First, lets discuss why we need to keep our heritage? 

Our built heritage are the vessels that contain our culture. They are a snap shot in time of what the values of our society were. They are the markers that allow our stories to be traced and remembered.  

And it is through these we can join the dots to remember these stories so we can tell and retell these stories to our selves, to our children and for all future generations. 

These are our storylines of who we are. 

And,

  • we need to know who we were
  • and where we have come from
  • so we can know who we are.
  • And it is armed with this understanding that we can confidently embrace a great future. 

Sirius is a case in point. What we have heard today of the Green Bans, and of Jack Mundey is a very Sydney storyline. 

It speaks of a time in Sydney when people mattered. When home, and community and friendship was at the core of who we were. 

The fight that was fought and won, told us was that community was more important than the sum total of their bank balance. 

That community division between the haves and have-nots was not going to happen. That Sydney preferred a diverse city. This is how great cities are made. A win for The Rocks was a win for all of Sydney. 

And as a result of that victory we were given the gift of Sirius. A home that was promised to the Millers Point Community to replace those homes that were torn down by a rapacious government, a home for life, and they were promised they would never be removed again. 

Well, “Never” came around just 37 years later. 

The same language the Askin Government used in its attempt to erase Sydney’s cultural built heritage in the 60’s & 70’s is again being used to seek the demolition of Sirius. 

And for what? 

For….Market housing that only the wealthy can afford. 

Coupled with the political wedge that the proceeds are going to house these people “somewhere” else…..a somewhere else that to this day has not yet been located. Although I suspect somewhere else is a place to further entrench disadvantage. 

The then Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, now deputy Premier said “we” will build something more appropriate? 

But what is more appropriate than the architecture, that was THE architecture of the government in the 60’s and 70’s? 

If we followed Perrottet’s rationale…..Would we not be saying in 40 years time that this new “appropriate” architecture be no longer appropriate? Where does it end? How do we stop the cycle? 

To me this is a Cultural Cringe. 

A weakness that shows up sometimes in a young society, that is so desperate to please someone else, that they would throw out all they are…..in the hope of being “appropriate”. 

This is the Emperors new clothes of the built Environment. 

A callow, shallow, hollow version of ourselves. 

These are the words and actions of a person and a government that doesn’t believe in who we are. 

Who doesn’t believe in what we are.

Who doesn’t want us to be part of our past, or belong to our stories. 

People who don’t believe that we have a great future. 

It goes against the mature and deep understanding shown in articles and objects of the Heritage Act. 

Sirius Apartments was designed by Tao Gofers….Tao is here today. Hello Tao. Welcome and thankyou for your excellent work. 

Sirius is in the brutalist style of architecture. 

Brutalism is derived from the French word Breton Brut…simply meaning raw concrete. 

The English translation of Breton Brut - Brutalism is often used against the architecture that for 30 years was the architecture of all governments through out the world. 

A Big, strong civic architecture. Brutalist buildings are our Civic castles. 

They were built to last like Castle’s were…they were built to last for centuries. 

It is so wasteful to get rid of them after just 30 to 60 years. 

Think of all that energy wasted. That carbon released. Those homes and communities destroyed. Our culture and our stories lost. 

This is the great challenge of architecture and of growing cities. 

Did you know the most vulnerable time for buildings is between 30 and 60 years of age. 

As the social and political times change. An architecture that seemed “right” then, is not what is deemed as fashionable today. 

That’s fine, that is the evolution of architecture, of our society, of our culture and of our city. 

And let me state right here, that I am not advocating that all buildings of these periods need to be kept. 

That would be a very odd stance for someone like me, who earns a living in the development industry. 

What the Heritage Act and it’d functioning parts, the Heritage Council & Register does, is it’s seeks to keep only the very best, the most important buildings of these periods. Those deemed to be of State Significance. 

Again, so we can join the dots to trace our storylines. This is what great cities have always done. 

Yet today we are in danger of erasing much of our 20th century gems. Our 20th Century built heritage. 

We are loosing far too many culturally significant 20th century master pieces in our city and in our suburbs. 

Buildings by Woolley, Murcutt, Seidler, Ancher, Mortlock, Gruzman, Rickard to name but a few. 

Many of these don’t even have local heritage listing. 

To mix current terminologies, this is what I call the missing middle

Imagine if we hollow out our 20th century buildings, if we demolish the gems…..how do we then understand the progression of the city, of Sydney? 

How do we explain to people how we went from these golden sandstones of the 19th century to the shining modern skyscrapers of the 21st

It would be odd. There would be no obvious link……it wouldn’t make sense. 

This is why we need to support the Heritage Council & its register. This is why we need to keep Sirius. 

Sirius

Very rarely does a Minister refuse a unanimous recommendation of the Heritage Council to list a building. It may have happened only a handful of times. 

You have to be so careful as to not accept the recommendations of your very own experts. 

Sirius was recommended for listing because it is deemed to have achieved State significance on 2 criteria. It’s architecture being exemplary & its cultural value – its connection to the green ban movement & the Millers Point community and the Rocks, substantial.

Usually achieving State significance on 1 criteria alone is enough to get a building listed. Sirius achieved 2.  

But it was the reason for the refusal that is so damaging. And that reason? 

The financial value of the site over rode “whatever” heritage value the building had. 

The money was too great, and too tempting for a government more concerned about cash than it’s people and this place. 

And why is State Heritage listing so important…..it is important because it is illegal to demolish a State item. 

The then Heritage Minister, Mark Speakman set a dangerous precedent. He allowed money to trump heritage…..the exact opposite of the purpose of the Heritage Act. 

And Speakman knew what he was doing. He was a senior legal officer of the Court. Mark Speakman was a barrister before entering parliament. Silk. He knew exactly what he was doing. 

He claimed undue financial hardship would be caused to the government if Sirius was listed. The government would enact an undue financial hardship upon itself? 

Does that sound odd to you? 

This from the very same Government that trumpeted from the social media roof tops that it had a $4Billion surplus last year. 

But I think the Barrister for our SaveOurSirius court action, Bruce McClintok SC put it into perspective last week when he told the court…..a diminution of profit is not an undue financial hardship

And that is where we are today. Awaiting the judgment on this matter. 

2 weeks ago this Thursday we used the funds from our crowd funding campaign to finance a court case to have the ministers decision annulled. 

We have a great team. The Environmental Defenders Office, once a public institution, and our Barristers Shane Prince and Bruce McClintok SC have done a stellar job. 

We received a fair hearing. 

The matter was heard by acting Justice Simon Molesworth AO, QC, himself an expert on heritage and the environment. 

We are cautiously optimistic. 

So what does a win mean?

It means the Minister will be asked to remake that decision. 

Sure, they could make the same refusal again. They could that the very next day. 

But a victory would:

  • overturn a dangerous precedent; that money shouldn’t trump heritage.
  • It would be an embarrassment to a struggling government.
  • It would be a bad look for the now Attorney General, to have the highest law officer in this state to have looked like he played fast and loose with the law.
  • It would maybe slow the process of demolition down
  • and……and this is where I get all misty eyed and idealistic, but maybe the Premier will sit down with us, and talk of solutions that involve:
    • Heritage Listing Sirius
    • Keeping it for social and affordable housing, and in that process
    • Protecting a socially, culturally state significant site.

However a win is unlikely to be the end of our SaveOurSirius Campaign. We think the government will push on. They have said they would. 

So we continue to fight.

We are planning many more events. These will range from :

  • an art exhibition displaying the artistic out pouring of the community as they creatively express their concern.
  • Monthly tours of Sirius conducted by the multi talented Tao Gofers….this is part of our hearts and minds campaign,
    • So far we have had over 14 tours and 1000 people book them
    • Our monthly #FridayNightSirius afternoon drinks and social, with Tim “Rosso” Ross…..last month we had 600 people turn up in support.
    • And we will continue to pursue our middle ground solutions like Lend Lease purchasing Sirius, having it listed and used for Social and Affordable housing as part of their condition of consent to find 64 affordable housing apartments at Barangaroo or within 5 km’s of the site.
      • This is a practical solution.
      • We have to work within a context and find ways for all to gain and save face in the process. 

But we know the government is desperate to flog the Sirius site. We know they are preparing a DA right now to have it demolished and build a much bigger building. 

And we are preparing for that fight. 

A fight, as a society, we can not afford to lose.

Thank you.

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