Dr Chris Butler
Griffith Law School
It is now common for legal and political campaigns concerning public housing to draw on arguments for the protection of the architectural heritage of the buildings themselves. A prominent recent example in Sydney has been the community opposition to the NSW Government’s program of forced evictions and the proposed sale of the Sirius building in The Rocks. Many of the criticisms of this building focus on the ‘ugliness’ of its brutalist style and conjure up a perceived brutishness of the living environment it imposed on its inhabitants. For critics of brutalist architecture, the term itself provides an easy target for the condemnation of an entire architectural style and the communities which inhabit these buildings, without a consideration of the complex factors which generate social disadvantage and inequality. In responding to these criticisms, the public campaign to save the Sirius building was forced to focus on restrictive definitions of heritage in its legal resistance to the government’s plans. Such debates over heritage significance pay insufficient attention to the fact that the construction of the Sirius building was an exercise in the collective reappropriation of The Rocks neighbourhood by its residents. This paper will discuss the transmission of the principles of architectural brutalism to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s and reflect on their connections to previous utopian ambitions for universal housing which have now been largely removed from the official discourse of neoliberal urbanism. Considering the relationships between architecture, utopia and the metropolis in the work of Massimo Cacciari (Architecture and Nihilism), Manfredo Tafuri (Architecture and Utopia) and Kristin Ross (Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune) I will explore how the campaign to save the Sirius building can be understood as a challenge to this orthodoxy and as a defence of a right to communal luxury.
Chris Butler is a Lecturer at the Griffith Law School. He is particularly interested in spatial and aesthetic forms of resistance to legal, administrative and political order, and his work has appeared in Social and Legal Studies, Law and Critique, Griffith Law Review and Law, Text, Culture. His book Henri Lefebvre: Spatial Politics, Everyday Life and the Right to the City (2012) and the co-edited collection Spaces of Justice: Peripheries, Passages, Appropriations (2017) are both published by Routledge.