It’s just plain bru­tal

The City of Syd­ney must not be al­lowed to use her­itage laws to pro­tect dis­used con­crete mon­strosi­ties in­stead of al­low­ing them to be de­vel­oped in new ways

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Opinion - CHRIS JOHN­SON Chris John­son is CEO of Ur­ban Task­force Aus­tralia

What in­ner city lo­ca­tions like Glebe need, es­pe­cially next to shops and pub­lic trans­port, is more hous­ing that cre­ates vi­brant com­mu­ni­ties

Anew strat­egy to stop devel­op­ment in Syd­ney has emerged in the form of a love af­fair with raw con­crete bru­tal­ist build­ings. Hav­ing lost the cam­paign to have the bru­tal­ist Sir­ius build­ing in the Rocks her­itage-listed, anti-growth cam­paign­ers ar­rived in force at the re­cent Cen­tral Syd­ney Plan­ning Com­mit­tee meet­ing to try to stop the de­mo­li­tion of the Bidura Chil­dren’s Re­mand Cen­tre in Glebe. Bidura is a con­crete bru­tal­ist build­ing that was built in the 1980s as a chil­dren’s court and re­mand cen­tre. It turned out that it was about as ef­fec­tive in func­tion as it was in form: with 30 es­capes oc­cur­ring within three weeks of its open­ing in 1983, of­fi­cials shut down the re­mand cen­tre side of it a lit­tle more than two years af­ter it was opened. The NSW gov­ern­ment was so unim­pressed with the un­friendly con­crete bunker of a build­ing that they sold it to the pri­vate sec­tor in 2014, stat­ing clearly at the time that it was not a listed her­itage item and that 100 apart­ments could be built on the site. But now Clover Moore’s coun­cil wants to stop the much-needed hous­ing and pro­tect the con­crete build­ing with a her­itage order. In­stead of 100 apart­ments the new owner would only be able to con­vert the build­ing into some sort of “com­pat­i­ble use” — if that is even pos­si­ble. In­deed bru­tal­ism, a stark and rough form of ar­chi­tec­ture that was born in Europe af­ter World War II of a need to throw up cheap and func­tional build­ings to re­place what was lost in the con­flict, is such an unloved style that Prince Charles, speak­ing about bru­tal­ism at a Lon­don Plan­ning Com­mit­tee din­ner in 1987, ap­par­ently said: “You have to give this much to the Luft­waffe. When it knocked down our build­ings, it didn’t re­place them with any­thing more of­fen­sive than rub­ble.” But bru­tal­ism does have its fans. At the coun­cil meet­ing, these new de­fend­ers of bru­tal­ism were there wax­ing lyri­cally with com­par­isons of Bidura to the beau­ti­ful sand­stone Queen Vic­to­ria Build­ing, the Syd­ney Opera House and, amaz­ingly, the pyra­mids of Egypt.

These were at­tempts to demon­strate that new uses could oc­cur in her­itage build­ings like Bidura.

But be­sides the stark ug­li­ness of the struc­ture, the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem for the lo­cal com­mu­nity mem­bers who sup­ported her­itage list­ing of Bidura is that the most com­pat­i­ble use for a re­mand cen­tre is as a prison.

Well, with NSW des­per­ately need­ing more prison cells one ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion would be as a spe­cial pur­pose prison. At least this might pro­vide jobs for lo­cal Glebe res­i­dents as prison war­dens or as sup­port staff, though whether it would fit in with the rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing sub­urb is an­other ques­tion. But the real dan­ger of the ef­forts of the City of Syd­ney to frus­trate the new owner of the Bidura site are not just that a de­vel­oper could be de­layed build­ing new, and much­needed, hous­ing.

For the com­mu­nity, which might oth­er­wise ben­e­fit from the devel­op­ment, there is a se­ri­ous risk that this process could lead to the build­ing re­main­ing empty for many years.

One need only look at what has hap­pened with the Tigers foot­ball club in Bal­main, which has been caught up in a sim­i­lar fight and has been an eye­sore for years now.

What in­ner-city lo­ca­tions such as Glebe need, es­pe­cially next to shops and pub­lic trans­port, is more hous­ing.

To de­velop the site for apart­ments, as sup­ported by the City of Syd­ney Coun­cil’s own plan­ning rules, is a much more pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the com­mu­nity than a con­crete bunker strug­gling to find ten­ants.

The beau­ti­ful 1860 Bidura house next door, de­signed by colo­nial ar­chi­tect Ed­mund Blacket, can have com­mu­nity-re­lated uses with a pub­lic park right on Glebe Point Road where it is ac­ces­si­ble to the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

If the pri­vate sec­tor owner can­not achieve the site’s po­ten­tial as out­lined by the NSW gov­ern­ment’s state prop­erty group, Bidura will sim­ply be­come an­other vic­tim of the bat­tles be­tween the state gov­ern­ment and the City of Syd­ney coun­cil. There is an­other im­por­tant les­son to come out of the Bidura bat­tle and that is how state gov­ern­ment ten­der pro­cesses can be un­der­mined by lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

When Gov­ern­ment Prop­erty NSW put the site up for sale there were clear plan­ning con­trols out­lined in Syd­ney LEP 2012, which any pur­chaser would as­sume that this gives some cer­tainty.

The fact that Clover Moore’s coun­cil can now change their own plan­ning rules af­ter the site has been pur­chased opens up a se­ri­ous sov­er­eign risk is­sue: who would buy such build­ings in the fu­ture with an eye to im­prov­ing and de­vel­op­ing the as­set with the threat of a lo­cal gov­ern­ment stand­ing on the side­lines, ready to mon­key-wrench the whole project?

Bidura Chil­dren’s Court Re­mand Cen­tre in Glebe is a par­tic­u­larly unlovely ex­am­ple of bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture.

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