The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1583] Learning from The Northcott Government Housing Estate, Surry Hills, Sydney.


The Northcott Government Housing Estate, Surry Hills Sydney Australia

Atop a slight hill in the gentrified suburb of Surry Hills sits the largest Government Housing Estate in the Southern hemisphere. Opened by the Queen in 1963, the John Northcott Government Housing Estate has a story that is intricately linked with that of the city of Sydney. It might not cover tourist brochures like the sails of the Sydney Opera House, but Northcott has become an irreplaceable social mirror and home to 1000s of Sydney’s poorest and most in need. Over the years, it has experienced lows that few would ever experience, it now also has the chance to, as it was intended, become a shining light for the suburb of Surry Hills and the City of Sydney.

Understanding Surry Hills is integral in understanding Northcott Estate. It is one of several inner city suburbs to have recently been gentrified. It is an interesting suburb not only because stereotypical tensions co exist here, they thrive here and have come to be associated with the identity of Surry Hills. The atmosphere here is tied to its working class heritage and the modern growth of Sydney. Adaptable reuse has been employed in many of the quaint terraces, converting colonial remnants into chic offices and boutique cafes and shops. These buildings are not old or new, but combine both elements in a crafty, sensitive fashion. Surry Hills shows how permanence and transformation can work together to achieve something much more beautiful, much more meaningful than if it were to be a narrow minded one or the other. Holding onto buildings, preserving them for their history, their character and contribution does not mean a lost opportunity for “progress”. It is in fact, an opportunity for “progress” to have a clear sense of context and consequence. It is this surrounding environment which the degree of fit is judged against.

Northcott Estate therefore plays an incredible social role and has an invaluable history. First and foremost it is a sign that housing will be provided by the state if circumstances are that dire. It also upholds the idea that government housing can be located close to the CBD, that this type of housing has a place in the city and does not need to be sent to the under serviced outer suburbs. It puts government housing into the discourse of the modern city and reminds people that this typology exists and that it should to exist.

Northcott was built as part of the State Housing Commission(now the Department of Housing) slum clearances of the 1950s. It consolidated lanes, disrupted the urban fabric and produced the super block which remains until this day. The vision was the replace the slums that Surry Hills had become with monumental, Post World War II European towers, a common model which was spread across the world. Famous examples are Pruitt Igoe in St Louis Missouri and The Red Road flats, Glasgow. Both of these projects share similarities with the Northcott Estate but where they failed, Northcott has prevailed. Pruitt Igoe was designed and built earlier than Northcott and was inspired from modern ideas of high rise, vertical cities. Years of decay, both physically and socially, saw the demolition of 33 buildings starting in 1972. Red Road Flats, 8 blocks of government housing in Scotland, built around the same time as Northcott, followed Pruitt Igoes path of decline and are to be demolished [bbc]. Their legacies have been captured in films, writings and images. Northcott is still here battling on with a tenacious ‘never say die’ spirit.

The estate itself is made up of 3 14-storey towers, a four storey slab block and a series of walkups that are perculiar in form especially when seen from above. The deep red brick that unified all these separate blocks was abundant and speaks about the time of construction. Age and time is an interesting theme as Northcott now has a majority of seniors living in its dwellings. A low budget green metal fence surrounds most of the site, and where it stops, natural, poorly maintained shrubs do the same job, that is, to keep people out, or rather, to uphold segregation. Beyond the fence and wild bushes along the northern street, Devonshire Street, stand the walkups, themselves housing, but which act as guards ensuring the secrecy of the towers is maintained. In the summertime, the old trees that dig into the footpaths provide shade, enough to cover the buildings, erasing them from sight. This place is now designed to be forgotten.

Changes in government policy saw the closure of mental hospitals in the 80s which consequently diverted those with genuine need into inadequate isolated tenancies at Northcott Estate. The locals called it “The spaceship”, in reference to both its form and also its alien nature to the site. Sydney knew it as the “Suicide Towers” if at all, after murders and suicides placed it in the newspaper headlines. Those who committed suicide were not always tenants of Northcott, however poor locks meant unauthorized access was easy and dramatic headlines overlooked this fact. Tenants were afraid to come out of their houses, many had been subjected to violence and according to one tenant, random objects would be thrown off the balconies. Social isolation further increased by peoples fears of the estate. Worse still was the discovery of a deceased elderly tenant, six months after he had died. This happened despite being high density residence and highlighted the flaws of modern living and the effects of severe neglect. Many called for its demolition and this would seem highly acceptable. It was on prime real estate, it housed people from the lowest socio economic bracket, many who do not speak English and it was a social failing that many wanted to forget, a social minority that people wanted to remove.

However, instead of demolishing the towers and removing the estate, state government invested resources into Northcott. Money, for physical improvements and maintenance work, employment of staff to co ordinate activities. This building brought many individuals and groups together. They co wrote the next chapter of the Northcott story ensuring it had a happy twist.

BighART is an arts and social change organization who attempt to bring about sustainable change to disadvantaged communities. They conducted the Northcott Narratives with a simple idea in mind: “It’s much harder to hurt someone if you know their story”. Tenant by Tenant was the photographic exhibition that allowed tenants to photograph one another, bringing them closer and increasing their knowledge of one another in the process. This simple activity also helped alleviate the feelings of social isolation that they had experienced for so long. Stickybricks was a stage performance set in the Northcott carpark presenting the towers as a dramatic and beautiful backdrop, a rare change in perspective.A social worker was employed and together with the community group, real sustainable positive outcomes were achieved. This place showed that people individually and collectively could bring about change. It wasn’t just rhetoric. The World Health Organisation recognized this achievement in 2006 awarding Northcott Estate “Safe Community” status, the first public housing estate in the world to achieve this. This was an international award however domestically, it is still only known as the fortress that still sits quietly on that hill.

In 2009, as a student attempting to learn more about government housing in Sydney, I ventured into Northcott meeting with the development officer. Her enthusiasm was infectious and made me realize this was not the dark and hopeless place I was led to believe, it was, on the contrary, a place of life and hope. I was fortunate enough to meet with the community group. On the walls of the room were images of people, embracing each other and smiling, smiling at each others company, enjoying the moment. There were no barriers between these tenants who were now friends. They welcomed me despite knowing little of me. It was a learning opportunity that most of my peers will never experience.

I was amazed when I saw an elderly Caucasian man pick up an even older, 98 year old lady of Chinese descent twirling her as a father would to a child. I learnt that, although they were friends, they had actually never had a conventional conversation as one spoke only Chinese and the other only English. Their warmth and genuine care for one another needed no words. They both smiled and laughed as I translated some basic phrases they had long wished to exchange. This is not a place where multiculturalism exists through a means of tolerance, a finite level of patience that is exercised as a justification of inequality. This is multiculturalism that shares universal themes of family, despair and happiness whilst learning and appreciating the differences in values, myths and customs.

So where did the stereotypes come from? The stereotypes fueled by ignorance and arrogance. People who believe they know the solutions without understanding the true problems and those who believed what they were told never knowing what the true scenario was first hand. Despite achieving safe community status, the stigmas remain. There may be still be some minor problems, however this is nothing compared to the exaggeration and a bold gesture is required to wake Sydneysiders from their indifferent slumber.

The possibilities here really do inspire me. This building can change Sydney culture. the taught, learnt and shared patterns of behaviour. Attitudes, misconceptions could be challenged. I see a future Northcott that retains government housing with a better mix of tenancies and also becomes a new civic precinct for social issues. Surry Hills is already a well frequented suburb and it is marked out to be an activity hub. This new precinct could add another notable place in Sydney, for tourists but especially for Sydneysiders.

If the site is to remain completely or partially government housing, it needs to have a mixed tenure arrangement. Concentrating the poorest people together is neither good for individual or collective self esteem and continues the institutionalized segregation. Young professionals looking for housing could be intermixed here especially since these high rise apartments have stunning views of Sydney.

If new uses are to be added and a precinct focused on social and cultural activities is to be introduced, they should continue the council’s approach of adaptive re use and rehabilitation. The walkups that run along Devonshire Street could be opened up to become a symbolic gateway. Rather than being solid barriers to the Towers they could act as a welcoming gateway with recycled bricks becoming the footpaths into this much needed precinct. A walkup could be converted to a gallery that could look specifically at issues of Sydney culture. Issues such as: Ageing, mental health, migration, refugees and asylum seekers, national identity, poverty, drugs and alcohol. Some underlying issues that shape the way Sydneysiders feel and think yet might not know enough about. The 2005 Cronulla race riots, the recent bashing of Indian students, and the increasing fear of asylum seekers demonstrate how important knowledge and discussion regarding these issues can be. Further there is an opportunity to display the work of children and youth along these walls as pedestrian traffic past here is high.

Further in, the ground floor of the Northcott Towers could act as a public forum and performing arts space, continuing Belvoir Street theatres work and the Stickybricks legacy. Northcott could build upon existing relationships with the surrounding arts community becoming an integral part of an emerging scene. The exterior of upper levels of the tower, which soar above the suburb could become a visible symbol of change. Artistic, colourful sculptures and/or signs could mark the change in the estate below. The green spaces which were most likely envisaged as retreat spots and public gathering areas could be used as sculpture gardens providing much needed natural space in the highly dense urban environment. Community gardens could be introduced to build upon local government’s policy towards a green city ensuring environmental sustainability as well as social and cultural sustainability.

The new precinct will therefore be an amazing mix of colour sculptures, vegetation new materials. The sounds of children in their areas, the silence in the tranquil gardens, the smells of local bakeries and cafes uplifting this estate into a world of its own. Visitors welcomed as friends, friends in discussion fearless of their surroundings.

Asides from these physical changes, social programs could be organized to include tenants. Rather than treating these people as a burden, we may look to see what they have to offer in terms of mentoring, story telling, cooking recipes, etc. This is one of the rare suburbs where wealthy children can mix with seniors who come from a different background. Rather than fearing and expecting the worst, the residents here have an open mind and these intergenerational activities, supervised to a degree, could succeed in bridging perceived gaps i.e. class and age. A new social and cultural quarter at Northcott could easily cater local schools, as well as school groups commuting by public transport with central station and bus stops in walking distance. They could learn, discuss and develop their opinions whilst participating in intergenerational activities, potential changing our views on ageing and the aged.

There is no public place in Sydney that looks at the social issues as the primary concern. It has been said that we “fear what we do not understand”, however there is nowhere that actively engages with us and educates us about those who are different from us. Rather we learn from the media, our friends, our parents, popular truth is not always right. Having a place that publicly presents and discusses these issues, also enters this discourse into our minds, we are now aware of this way of seeing the world. There are galleries and museums and sometimes the themes are on contentious issues. However, they are infrequent and are targeted at specific groups, not the general public.

Here is a great opportunity for Sydney to build upon the achievements of Northcott, demolition would be a tragic lost opportunity. The human spirit helped to overcome a list of what seemed to be insurmountable problems. People from different backgrounds worked together to actually address the issues, and began taking responsibility and working together. The outcomes are astounding. Northcott now represents the voice that says “We will never go back to the ways things were before. We have seen what we can do”. It stands as a permanent reminder, of the risks and consequences we face when we ignore and neglect the issues and each other. A new social and cultural studies precinct will ensure that we can learn from the past to bring a bout a harmonious and better informed future. It is soon approaching a turning point, one can only hope that we as individuals make the right decision.

References and other Useful Links

900 Neighbours, 2006. Directed by Brendan Fletcher.

Big hART

The Pottery, Surry Hills, Department of Housing

Sydney Morning Herald

If you would like to contact this author, please send a request to

« Back to The Reserve

Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.