Brutalism is perhaps one of the most divisive architectural styles.
But love it or hate it, it’s left its distinctive mark on Sydney’s streets. While our area is more known for art deco than brutalism, there are still some prime examples of the brutalist style hiding in the streets of the Eastern Suburbs and inner city.
We take a look at examples of brutalism in the 2011 and 2010 postcodes.
What is Brutalism?
Regularly described as stark, brutalism is a form of the modernist, functionalist architecture that emerged in the post-war 1950s and stretched up until the 1980s.
Brutalism prioritises function over form and combines minimalist, streamlined design with few visible materials. It’s built around simple geometric shapes like cubes and characterised by the dominance of exposed and unpainted concrete.
Brutalism is, as the name suggests, often quite brutal looking. Interestingly, the Tate in the UK says the name was coined by the British architectural critic Reyner Banham as a pun to express “the general horror with which this concrete architecture was greeted in Britain” during the post-war rebuilding projects of the 1950s. It’s a play on the French phrase “béton brut”, which means “raw or unfinished concrete”, and was used by French architect and artist Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier is often credited with designing the first brutalist building, Unité d’Habitation – a 1952 social housing project in Marseilles, France.
Sometimes dubbed “socialist architecture”, brutalism was utilitarian, austere, low cost, and quick to build, according to Architecture and Design.
Perhaps the most famous example of brutalism’s “monolithic” designs in Sydney is Sirius, the public housing complex in The Rocks that’s visible from the Harbour Bridge. But you’ll also see examples of the unadorned concrete structures brutalism is known for in Town Hall House in the CBD, and on several university campuses, including UTS Tower on Broadway near Central Station, multiple buildings at UNSW, Macquarie University and the University of Sydney.
A Tour of Brutalist Sydney through the 2010 and 2011 postcodes
Looking for a brief walking tour of brutalism in our area? Here are our top picks of what to include:
1. Head down to Rushcutters Bay where you’ll find the Harry Seidler-designed Aquarius (originally the Florida Towers Home Units) at 50 Roslyn Gardens. Built in 1965, the bare concrete originally on the building’s facade proved too much for contemporary tastes and has been softened in recent years with a coat of paint.
2. Continue up the hill to 85 Elizabeth Bay Road to the Ercildoune Apartments. A Harry Seidler and Associates creation built in 1966, one architect described it as: “an interesting example of a five-to-eight-storey, late Twentieth Century Modernist style building with some Brutalist overtones to the massing at the rear.”
3. Nearby, at 100 Elizabeth Bay Road is another Harry Seidler building, International Lodge (and Ling Apartments). This was built four years later in 1970, and its distinctive board-marked in situ concrete marks it out as more typically brutalist. The building’s concrete frame structure is clearly visible, which provides the advantage of having no load-bearing internal walls.
4. Take Darlinghurst Road to Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, and we’ll start to enter the realm of “public spaces”, where brutalism really made its mark. The new building at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Victoria Street, Darlinghurst was constructed in the Brutalist style in 1970 by architects Jon Mitchell and Associates.
5. Around the corner at 320 Liverpool Street, you’ll find the former City East Telephone Exchange (now converted to apartments). Built around 1985, it was also originally made of smooth and textured precast concrete.
6. A few blocks away at 348a Bourke Street is the eight-storey concrete Wesley Edward Eagar Centre. Designed by Bryce Taylor and built in 1981, its grid-like facade looms behind the 1847 stone Wesleyan Chapel and contrasts starkly with it.
7. Further down the hill on Bourke Street, opposite Stanley Street, you can glimpse a multi-storey classroom block within SCEGGS Darlinghurst. Designed in 1968 by architects Rogers and Coward, it features a combination of textured brick and in situ concrete panels.
8. To end our tour, continue back down to William Street (you could even cut back via Forbes Street and take the Chard Stairs). Sitting side-by-side at 134 and 140 William Street, Woolloomooloo, are two prime examples of Sydney Brutalism. Olivetti House at 134 was designed by Summit Enterprises and built-in 1970. It’s known for its distinctive exposed aggregate concrete. The former Bank of NSW Offices at 140 were built in 1967 using precast concrete and designed by Stephenson and Turner.
While many people dismissed Brutalist buildings as cold and ugly, today they’re probably better understood. As a result, interest is rising in preserving these structures with heritage protection.
When the State government announced it would be redeveloping the Sirius building, it shone a spotlight on the destruction of many Brutalist buildings across Sydney. This recently included the old Sydney University Law School in Phillip Street, which was built in 1969 and demolished in 2018.
As The_Brutalist_Project_Sydney, a comprehensive study by architect Glann Harper argues, “Brutalist buildings in Sydney are much maligned and with limited interest are now under threat from insensitive refurbishment or demolition. As compelling images of our time, these buildings were publicly minded with an attention to detail.”
If you’re interested in buying or selling in Darlinghurst, Rushcutters Bay, Potts Point, Woolloomooloo and Elizabeth Bay contact my team today.