The modernist movement’s Sydney footprint is a notable one and the subject of what to do with post-war towers of concrete and glass has polarised opinion.
Sydney’s City Council has developed a plan to protect nine prominent structures, including the MLC Centre, the former Sydney County Council building, Town Hall House and the Sydney Masonic Centre. Council hopes to protect these structures from being irrevocably altered or demolished altogether, as some would prefer.
The Council’s plan also takes in some less well-known examples including St Peter Julian’s Catholic Church and Monastery in Haymarket and the Earth Mother Play sculpture in Cook and Phillip Park.
Modernist architecture has riled Sydney-siders in the past. There was a hue and cry over the fate of brutalist icon Sirius in the Rocks, when NSW Government plans to demolish the building were overturned in the Land and Environment Court in 2017. The Government had hoped to sell the development and use the funds raised to build new social housing.
Sirius in the Rocks has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since it opened in 1980. The Government was chided by the court for not including the building on the State Heritage Register, and ‘Save our Sirius’ campaigners
celebrated in the streets after the decision.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Lord Mayor Clover Moore argued that modernist architecture was an important part of the city’s post-war heritage that should be preserved:
“Architects of the Modern Movement were reformers, responding to the social, political and economic upheaval caused by industrialisation and world wars and this architecture reflects a key moment in Sydney’s history.”
Some individuals have been moved to do what they can to preserve mid-twentieth century buildings. Architect Rory Toomey has campaigned to preserve Gaden House, a late 1960s modernist-style building in Double Bay. Toomey launched an online petition after the building’s owner filed a development application to the local council.
Citing the use of horizontal and vertical sun shades and a dramatic circular staircase as some of Gaden House’s most distinctive features, Toomey told ABC Radio News:
“I’m feeling a real sense of urgency because I’ve seen so many great 20th-century buildings get destroyed.”
The final outcome in the debate over Sydney’s modernist heritage is unclear and the Council plan is still being reviewed. Whether the city will defend more buildings remains to be seen, but for the moment conservationists are applauding small gains and interim victories.