Sunday, 18 September 2011

1. Wonder: The Sydney Opera House

(For the Sydney Opera House preview, please click here.)

Three years ago, in his native Denmark, the architect Jorn Utzon died, aged 90. Over on the other side of the world in Australia, the floodlights of the Sydney Opera House were dimmed as a sign or respect. The designer of the Sydney Opera House was dead, 43 years after leaving the country in a storm of controversy. He never returned. He never saw his finished creation.

The story of the construction of the Sydney Opera House is one full of drama, delays, tantrums and tragedies. Virtually none of the key men behind the construction ever saw the finished product in a construction project that ended up 1500% over-budget and years late. The architect, Utzon, was forced to resign. The New South Wales premier, J. J. Cahill, who was instrumental in getting the idea off the ground, fared worse. He set up the design competition and funding (which was done by lottery in the early days), championed Utzon's design and almost single-handedly pushed on against early opposition to the whole idea; without him, the Opera House would almost certainly not exist in any form. He died of an ulcer in October 1959, just seven months after construction had begun. On the panel that selected Utzon's designs was Eero Saarinen, an esteemed Finnish-American architect; as the story goes, he arrived late but insisted on going through the reject pile and found Jorn Utzon's sketches and insisted on going with them despite their being wildly unconventional and having a big question mark over their constructional feasibility. He died suddenly of a brain tumour in 1961. And then we have Sir Eugene Goossens, a British conductor, who was an early champion of building a magnificent new Opera House for Sydney as the city was booming and the existing Town Hall had notably poor acoustics. Plans had already been drawn for Bennelong Point - the peninsular sliver that now boasts the Opera House - to have an international shipping terminal: "Put it on the other side!" he told J. J. Cahill, recognising that Bennelong Point was the perfect place for a new cultural centre of Sydney. In 1956 he was caught by Australian customs with over a thousand pieces of pornographic books, films and photos, the exact nature of which was never revealed and the evidence burnt. Goossens was fined £100, sent back to the UK, his career ruined, and he died eight years later. Only Ove Arup, the project engineer who made Utzon's ambitious designs a structural reality fared better, seeing out the project and enjoying ongoing success. His firm has since been involved in a wide range of celebrated constructions, such as the Gherkin in London, Gateshead's Angel of the North, and one I'll be seeing very soon - Singapore's Marina Bay Sands.

So the construction of the Sydney Opera House was a troubled one - and the Sydneysiders have dined out on it ever since. All three tours I've done in Sydney - the bus tour, the free walking tour, and the tour of the Opera House itself - have mentioned the various delays and problems, and don't shy away from the fact that something that had a budget of AU$7 million ended up costing AU$102 million (although inflation over 15 years accounts for some of this, and the original estimate was never in the realms of realism anyway). And you know what? It doesn't matter. None of it matters, and Sydney knows it. Because like a Hollywood movie with conflicts, confusion and rising tension, at the end it was all resolved gloriously with the happiest of endings: Sydney has an Opera House and it is a truly awesome work of art.

The Sydney Opera House, as I reckon it, is probably one of the ten most recognised buildings in the world. During the actual tour, the guide claimed it to be the most recognised, although I would argue that the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and Big Ben, to name a few that trip off my tongue, are probably more famous (I didn't argue this with my guide as she had already given myself and Burness a tongue-lashing for standing on some curtains). It is an entirely unique creation, and looks like nothing else I've ever seen: it is as much a sculptural work as it is a building. Due to its position on Bennelong Point, jutting out almost adrift in Sydney Harbour, it is viewable from all different angles and was designed as such. Therefore whether you're standing on Sydney Harbour Bridge looking down on it, on the Rocks looking across at it, or standing at the edge of the Botanic Gardens looking straight on at it, it looks brilliant, improbable, evocative and sometimes utterly, utterly alien.

The difference it has made to Sydney is immense and can perhaps be measured by comparing it to its neighbour and rival, Melbourne. Melbourne is a terrific city - that's not my opinion, that's the view of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which analyses countries and cities, when it was judged as the most liveable city in the world, ahead of Vienna and ending a ten year dominance by Vancouver. But think of Australia and you think of Sydney and think of Sydney and you think of the Sydney Opera House: Sydney has the prestige, and a huge amount of that derives from it having a world-class and world-famous building.

It's very fair to say then that I have been impressed with Sydney Opera House, and I wasn't necessarily expecting to be so. When I visited Sydney two years ago, I liked it - a lot - but my admiration was more from a distance: close up I wasn't so impressed. To some degree, I would stand by that: Sydney Opera House is not so impressive inside and the very harsh critic might write off the tiles that cover the exterior as looking like bathroom tiles. They don't - but if your experience of tiles is limited to bathrooms only then you might naturally make the short-sighted association. Up close too, the Sydney Opera House might appear dated, but I also think this is short-sighted: the Opera House is from a certain period of time and reflects that when close up, but it also transcends the era it hails from.

And boy, does it. Architecturally, there is nothing else I've seen like it; although it is said to be influenced by the concrete aesthetic of New Brutalism style or a modern example of expressionist architecture, I would be more inclined to call it architecturally unique. Being almost surrounded by water, the bright white series of cascading arches that seem to fold in on each other evoke sails billowing in the wind. It would seem the obvious influence, although other seaside themes such as seashells or waves have also been suggested, and make sense. However, Jorn Utzon claims otherwise:

"Many people say my design was inspired by the sailing yachts in the harbour or by seashells. This is not the case. It is like an orange, you peel an orange and you get these segments, these similar shapes. It was like this in my models. It was not that I thought it should be like sails in the harbour. It just so happened that the white sails were similar."

Whatever the influence, there is no doubt that the Opera House is entirely suited to Sydney Harbour, as though another vessel floating. It is like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, that completes the deservedly world-renowned scene of Sydney Harbour, with the city skyline providing a backdrop against the ferry terminal of Circular Quay, which is lined by the cafes and restaurants of The Rocks and the muscular Harbour Bridge on one side, and the greenery of the Botanic Gardens on the other. The Sydney Opera House is the gem in the middle.

So yes, the Sydney Opera House is great. It is a building that has only grown in my affections each time I see it, from one of many vantage points. It fulfils all the criteria I believe a Wonder needs:

Size: It is big, perhaps not truly gargantuan, but at 67 metres high, 183 metres long and 120 metres wide, taking up the rough area of a modern stadium, and with over 900 rooms (even if, as I suspect, they are counting cupboards in this tally), it is big enough to make you pay attention.
Engineering: A genuinely pioneering feat of engineering. When started, in 1957, nobody then knew how to build it, or if it would even stand.
Artistry: Unique, beautiful, compelling from all angles.
Age/Durability: It's less than 40 years old, but in 2007 was placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, the youngest structure on their list of over 900 protected sites around the world. It was once given an estimate for lasting 200 years but it's not going anywhere.
Fame/Iconicity: One of the most famous buildings in the world, and a true icon of Sydney, if not Australia.
Context: Perfectly placed in Sydney Harbour, I don't think there is anywhere else in the world it would be better suited.
Originality: One of a kind.

If I'm to be honest, all you need to do to enjoy the Opera House is to look at it. But I would advise two approaches for first time viewing. The first is to approach from the Botanic Gardens side; enter the gardens after walking along the path that hugs the shore of Woolloomooloo Bay. You climb a short slope and suddenly there it is, side on, the Harbour Bridge looming over it, seen through the branches of a tree. Continue walking along the path as it grows closer, bobbing in and out of view, until eventually you reach the steps. Or better, approach by ferry. Catch a ferry from Manly, or Rose Bay, or wherever arrives in Circular Quay, and enjoy the sail around the Opera House before the ferry docks, leaving you with just a five minute walk to the steps. There is no wrong way to approach it, although I would advise against the easiest, which is arriving by train at Circular Quay. Upon alighting, the Opera House is in view through the station windows, and it's an easy walk there. It's still impressive, but doesn't have the same impact of other approaches.

However, it isn't just a visual icon, it is an active and functioning exhibition centre, with all numbers of performances going on daily. Opera is one, naturally, but in truth there are opera connoisseurs who claim the acoustics of the Opera House are not optimal to opera performances. This has, I don't doubt, some basis, but I suspect the average joe wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Vinyl records are said to sound superior to CDs or digital music, but I'll be damned if I can tell the difference (except when they go wrong: vinyl crackles, CDs skips, and digital files fail to play at all: technological progress is a strange beast). Although called the Opera House, it's somewhat of a misnomer as it is an exhibition centre for all kinds of performances, from plays to rock concerts to stand-up comedy and even flea circuses. Nonetheless, I intended to see an opera there - it seemed only right - but it turns out that opera is only shown in the second auditorium, aptly named The Opera Theatre, not the main Concert Hall, which was where my online searching was focussed. Thus although the somewhat unlikely sounding "Macbeth - The Opera" was playing while I was in Sydney, I only learnt about it too late, and so instead I selected a piano recital in the Concert Hall, by a Russian virtuoso classical pianist called Evgeny Kissin.

I won't pretend I'd heard of Evgeny Kissin before, although I don't exactly follow the contemporary piano maestro scene. And I won't pretend I was familiar with the music of Liszt, although I have at least heard of him. But none of this mattered terribly as my main objective was to see a performance in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Here's a pre-performance photo.

And I'm happy to say it was very impressive. The seats Burness and I had bought gave us quite a close view of Mr Kissin's face, although unfortunately not of his fingers, which by the sounds of it were moving supernaturally fast. His facial expressions were worth watching anyhow: professional musicians have a real art for pulling a face. Not being familiar with Liszt, a couple of the songs didn't do much for me, but the talent involved in playing them was still appreciated. The majority however was a pleasure to listen to, and some of it was quite breathtaking, not just technically but musically. And the crowd agreed, giving him two bouquets of flowers and making him do two encores, although I suspect this may have been somewhat stage-managed.

Impressions of the Opera House interior then. I had heard that it was disappointing compared to the famous exterior. After Utzon was forced out in 1966, a team of local architects was chosen to replace him and finish the job. By this time the exterior was complete, but Utzon hadn't left any detailed plans for the interior. A genius architect, he was also somewhat of a maverick and had everything in his head. He regarded that his job was to design something truly original and notable for Sydney, and this he succeeded in - but when there was a change of government in 1965 his maverick genius suddenly became less appreciated. As the new powers saw it, his genius creation was horrifyingly over-budget and behind schedule (in Utzon's defence, he had never set the budget or the schedule) and started demanding detailed plans for what was ahead. This did not suit Utzon's style at all, and a great deal of conflict with Davis Hughes, the Minister for Public Works began. No doubt Utzon could be difficult and of artistic temperament, but the whole affair leaves Hughes sounding like an aggressive boor. "Arts Centre? But this is Australia," you can almost hear him say throughout his dealings with Utzon. “I did him a favor. I put him out of his misery like you put down a dog," he did actually say, years later, about his forcing Utzon off the job. He cut Utzon's funding so Utzon was no longer able to pay his workers. Utzon's position was untenable: he quit and immediately left the country with his family, never to return. But without plans, the new team of architects had the unenviable task of trying to fill in the gaps and finish the job. Thus the interior, while pleasant, falls short of the expectations set by the exterior.

None of this I pondered too much as I enjoyed a beer (pricey, but not moreso than usual Sydney prices) before the show and during the interval, in the foyer or standing outside by the tiled sails, watching the Sydney Harbour Bridge at night. As well as being part of the magnificent view, the view from all around the Opera House is also terrific. Then inside the Concert Hall, watching Evgeny Kissin go mental on a piano, and at no point did I think "What ghastly surroundings." Of course not. But I suppose we'll never know what might have been, should Utzon have been allowed to complete his masterpiece.

And we'll never know what Utzon might have gone onto. Utzon has been compared to the fabled architects of St. Basil's Cathedral and the Taj Mahal, blinded so they could never replicate their genius elsewhere. The Sydney Opera House is his only significant building. He designed many other charming constructions at a smaller scale mostly in Denmark but also as far afield as Kuwait and Iran; however, dented by his experiences in Sydney, he never rose to the challenge of another world class building. He once claimed that if the Opera House had gone well, he might have gone on to build another ten or fifteen such buildings in Sydney and although surely hyperbole there is certainly truth that with the right backing - such as the original team that supported him - he would likely have designed on a large scale again. But it's also possible that the Opera House was Utzon's stroke of genius, his one magnificent moment that only happened due to a convergence of fortunes.

Because Sydney was lucky, very very lucky. From having a highly opportunistic competition submission from an unknown Danish architect who had never designed outside of his home country, to having a daring judge who insisted on taking a chance on the wild submission, and who had the absolute backing of a New South Wales premier who was determined to bring something of global recognition to Sydney. It was an unlikely gamble, and it paid off big-time: Sydney has an icon.

The story has a happy ending for Utzon too. It 1992, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects gave Utzon an honorary award and an apology. In 2003, he received the Pritzer Prize, the highest accolade for an architect. But the greatest accolade and reconciliatory gesture was in 1999 when Utzon was appointed as a design consultant for future work on the Opera House, with his first designed interior opened in 2004 called the "Utzon Room". Said Utzon, "It gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don't think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get and have got."

This last part elicited a happy "aah" from the crowd of tourists that were part of my tour group during the official tour of the Sydney Opera House. Costing AU$35 and lasting an hour, with a stern but technologically confused elderly women as guide to about thirty of us, I have to say it was a poor use of my money. Really, if you intend seeing a performance at the Opera House and have already read my own comments or simply checked out the Wikipedia page, the tour is pretty much redundant. You get to see the Concert Hall - "no photography!" - and walk up some steps, and get a quick history of the problems during construction, but there is nothing earth-shattering: it is a disappointing and expensive experience. For AU$155, there is a two hour backstage tour, which may reveal a lot more, but will probably just take you into some dressing rooms and let you stand on the stage: spend your money on a good performance and have plenty to drink would be my advice.

In summary, the Sydney Opera House is not just something Sydney should be proud of, it is something the world should be proud of. It has exceeded my expectations, and by doing that has suddenly become an unlikely contender for one of my Seven Wonders of the World. It is beautiful in design and in location, and although I have a long way to go before I can fully compare it to over ninety other buildings and landmarks around the world, I can definitely say - and I did not think I would be saying this - that it has set the bar very high already. If there are seven better locations around the world I have some terrific sights to look forward to.

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