Thursday, 9 June 2011

Preview: Sydney Opera House

Let's be honest, when you think of Australia, culture isn't usually the first thing that comes to mind. Beaches, the outback, putting shrimps on the barbie, dangerous and improbable animals, Harold from Neighbours, sporting prowess, and running over aborigines all spring to mind, but a refined centre of the cultural arts does not.

Most modern-day residents of Sydney, I have no doubt, would not be greatly concerned at this observation, simply shrugging as they poured yet more Foster's down their throats and another aborigine disappeared over their bonnet. But this was a different picture in 1950s Sydney, where the residents - or the upper echelons at least - began expressing discontent at the lack of suitable venues for the performing arts. The then premier of New South Wales, John Joseph "J. J." Cahill, got on board and on 8th November, 1954, he announced "Crack open the tinnies, cobbers, we're going to build a bloody big opera house." (Or words to that effect.)

What then happened was one of those convergences of improbable fortune that when blended with just enough vigour results in something unlikely and marvellous. Something wonderful. Because by all rights, instead of the iconic sail-like structure that now adorns Sydney harbour, we should really have had this:

That was the runner up design for the Sydney Opera House, by Joseph Marzella and his team, evidently putting the whole "nuclear factory" aesthetic on how a modern opera house should look.

Alternatively, should the prospect of a nuclear factory in the heart of Sydney not have appealed, there was this option:

This was the third placed entry, by the husband and wife architecture team of Paul Boissevain and Barbara Osmond, who were possibly recognising that should an opera house prove too cultured for the citizens of Sydney, it could easily be converted into a school for their children. Don't worry, despite their disappointment at losing the bid to build the Opera House, they made up for it with future successes, just to show Sydney what it could have had. Here's their 1973 Finnart Campus teaching block in Greenock, Scotland.

Timeless. And their 1965 Hannibal House in London.

So beloved that it's scheduled for demolition in 2012.

If you want a look at some of the other runners-up, I would take a look at this website. And bear in mind that these are the pickings of 233 entries in J. J. Cahill's 1957 open competition for designs for a new opera house in Sydney.

To be fair, none of these designs are bad as such, and had they been used we would now have a perfectly functional and pleasant opera house in the heart of Sydney. But neither are they inspired, daring, original or with any aspirations of becoming iconic. And for that, and for the stroke of luck that saw a series of unlikely sketches win the competition, we have two Scandinavians to thank.

The first is the architect himself, Jorn Utzon, who in 1957 was a 38-year-old who had never designed outside of his native Denmark. His designs were wildly unconventional, he only submitted rough sketches and he'd not even seen the site, but he had a quite unique and particular vision for an opera house both pioneering aesthetically and structurally.

The second was an influential Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen, who was on the competition panel and who had the vision to recognise that Utzon's design really was something special and not just the scrawlings of a madman. He had the balls to choose something that, at the time, they didn't know how to build, or even if could actually stand. He was strongly backed by J. J. Cahill, who was also a big supporter of the design. The Sydney Opera House is not the only place on my list we'll see Saarinen's name - he had a hand in Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, as well as being the architect behind the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and is considered one of the masters of American 20th Century architecture.

That's not to say that things were plain-sailing from there. Coming in at 1400% over-budget and many years late, with Utzon quitting/being forced out mid-way through and never returning to Australia, and with a wide range of opposition from tramwaymen to actors to government ministers, it seemed for some time it would never be built, and in the end some large compromises had to be made. But once it opened in 1973 and the dust had settled, it became quite apparent that something quite special and quite unique had been built. It may be have been insanely over-budget, but instead of something functional that looked like a factory or a school, Sydney had been given a world-famous and instantly recognisable building.

And so, after my snide suggestions that Australia may lack in the culture department, it turns out that with its Opera House, Sydney now has one of the most celebrated cultural centres in the world. "Screw you, pommie," they can drawl as they turn to watch Puccini's La fanciulla del West, throwing an empty Castlemaine XXXX tinny at my head.

I'll be visiting Sydney Opera House at around September 10th, for the second time following a 2009 trip, and will give a fuller account of its chequered history then, as well as my own impressions.

Reviewed on 18th September 2011.


  1. I don't think it matters how nice the building is going to look like. The point is that it's a nuclear facility. It's about as bad as suggesting a self storage facility with mobile pods be built in the middle of a park.

  2. Sadly Utzon's house was (almost) built, so now Sydney has an inferior Concert Hall and one of the least satisfactory opera theatres in the world.


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