Mar 132010

From Just Inside the Queen's Gate

Seen from the Rocks Foreshore

In 1956 Premier Joe Cahill’s New South Wales government called for entries in a design competition for a new performing arts center.  The competition brief specified only that there be two performance halls, one for opera and one for symphony concerts.  Jørn Utzon’s winning entry generated tremendous world-wide excitement, but the government’s decision to commission Utzon as the sole architect was nevertheless gutsy and unexpected.

To actually get built, Utzon’s visionary design for the building required an intense collaborative effort.  Engineer Ove Arup worked with the architect – before the age of readily available computing power – to devise a structural scheme that, with the tools of the day, could be reliably calculated and drawn.  Only regular geometries could be mathematically delineated, but the character of the design was anything but.  Eventually a single sphere was imagined, cut up into wedges that could then be reassembled to form the vaults of the halls.  Each wedge is composed of pre-cast reinforced-concrete rib segments radiating from a poured foundation, then rising to a huge curved ridge pole.  The shells are clad with glazed off-white tiles.

Looking toward Circular Quay

The Forecourt Stairs

Reactionary populism brought a change of government in 1966.  The new political bosses fired Utzon to placate their narrow-minded constituency, who cared nothing for the arts or Australia’s stature in the world order.  Government architect Ted Farmer, along with politically astute Peter Hall, completed the glass walls and interiors.  Their client, the government, had no apparent appreciation of the original design nor respect for its integrity.  Their work shows it.

The project was further confused by changes to its intended uses, announced only after construction had begun.  The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) decided that the larger opera hall should be changed into a concert hall because symphony concerts – managed by the ABC – drew larger audiences than did opera.  The smaller hall, a proscenium arch lyric theatre with an orchestra pit, became the Opera Theatre.  The larger hall was reconfigured to seat more people, its stage now surrounded by the audience – unsuitable for opera – and became the Concert Hall.  Three previously unplanned venues were shoehorned in underneath the Concert Hall.

The Concert Hall Interior

Politicians and bureaucrats don’t have a very good track record as designers.  They didn’t improve their score here.  With interiors that don’t fit the shells that contain them, poor circulation, and inferior acoustics, the Opera House finally opened in 1973, 17 years after Utzon won the competition.  The Sydney Opera House remains perhaps the world’s most widely known building – an immeasurably valuable asset for Australia – in spite of the best efforts of a mediocre bunch of second-guessers.

In 1999, Jørn Utzon was re-engaged as Sydney Opera House architect.  He wrote down principles which could guide all future changes to the building.  The principles reflect his original vision and might, if the building’s owners follow them, help restore the building’s brilliant and unique architectural integrity.

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