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
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.