Australia has a hierarchy of heritage laws that cascade from National listing, to State and down to the Local level.

And above all this is World Heritage listing which picks up the very exceptional items like the Sydney Opera House. A recent spate of unloved concrete structures and buildings have been proposed for State level heritage listing in NSW, leading to debate in the community about just what heritage is.

One of the proposed heritage listings is the concrete control tower that sits in the middle of heritage houses at Millers Point. The tower was constructed in 1974 as part of converting the old timber finger wharves to a concrete slab for the move to containers. The tower was needed to enable supervision of ships coming under the Harbour Bridge and manoeuvring into the container wharves.

Of course, the container wharves were a disaster. They required hundreds of large trucks to traverse through the already clogged city streets. They had giant lighting poles to floodlight the tarmac at night, creating visual pollution for nearby residents along with the crashing of containers as cranes swung them across the site.

Ultimately sense prevailed and the port uses were moved to a purpose-built container port a few kilometres away at Port Botany. At the time, the National Trust held rallies to stop the process as they saw the ‘working port’ as being an important element to keep in Sydney Harbour. They didn’t seem to understand that Sydney still has a working port but it has become a massive operation with hectares of flat concrete slabs with cranes and robotic gantries rushing across the site in a giant chess game of coloured containers. This operation is just not compatible with a modern mixed use city with equal numbers of residential towers and commercial towers.

The concrete control tower was part of this unfortunate intervention into the city fabric but the National Trust, having lost the retention of the ‘heritage’ container terminal, have now gone misty-eyed over the 100-metre control tower whose useful function was replaced many years ago by a revolving radar scanner on top of Blues Point Tower. The NSW Heritage Council also became enamoured with the concrete control tower and proposed that it should be state listed as an important heritage item. Good sense has prevailed, however, at the ministerial level with the NSW Heritage Minister overruling the Heritage Council’s recommendation, allowing the tower to be demolished.

Sydney Harbour Control Tower

Sydney Harbour Control Tower

The next focus of the heritage community I suspect will be to list the revolving radar scanner as being representative of the working harbour and its support structure Blues Point Tower. This will open up an even more interesting debate, as Blues Point Tower is often cited as being one of Sydney’s least loved buildings.

There are other concrete ‘brutalist’ buildings now finding their way through the heritage assessment process to be listed as state or local items to be preserved. One of these is the collection of concrete bunkers stacked on top of each other as social housing called the ‘Sirius’ building in Sydney’s Rocks. The heritage listing was proposed because opponents felt the building stands as an excellent example of the brutalist style.

Interestingly the National Trust, who are championing the listing, were previously quite scathing of the building when it was first built in 1979. The Trust said in its Bulletin in 1979 that Sirius was a “vast and out-of-character building.” As CEO of the Urban Taskforce, I thought the best way to deflect heritage listing was to modify the building in a way that changed the character. I asked architect Chris Bosse of LAVA to develop an image of the building with applied balconies that respected the pattern of the original building. To my mind, this is exactly what many unfriendly older buildings need to integrate them into the fabric of the contemporary city.

Current Sirius Building commonly referred to as "brutalist"

Current Sirius Building, commonly referred to as “brutalist”

LAVA's vision for the future of the Sirius Building

LAVA’s vision for the future of the Sirius Building

From a heritage perspective, this is a no-no as the very essence of listing, the brutal, raw, unfriendly appearance is what makes the building significant. What I believe is needed is an adaptive reuse approach that takes relatively ugly and unfriendly buildings that are 40 or so years old and gives them a makeover. This is happening to social housing high-rise buildings in Paris, where balconies are added and the buildings are refreshed aesthetically as well as improving amenity.

Australian cities need a more mature debate about heritage listing or we will find that unfriendly and brutal buildings will be kept to the detriment of broader precincts. On the other hand, it is not necessarily the best solution to simply demolish functionalist buildings and adaptive reuse could well be the best approach. But we all must understand that this will change the character that some heritage experts saw as the only reason to keep a building.