Old Sydney—meaning Woolloomooloo, Woollahra, Paddington and the scattered surviving buildings of the convict architect, Francis Greenway—has left to posterity a legacy of modestly beautiful architecture. Middle-aged Sydney-meaning the speculative jerry-building of the early twentieth century—covered the gracious hills of the harbour suburbs with a rash of hideous red tile and brick. Modern Sydney—meaning the period of post-World War II development—has made architectural history with a single remarkable building, Joern Utzon’s famous Opera House. The full story is one of civic triumph and personal tragedy; but there is also a host of smaller stories concerning the attitudes of those who know and love the harbour front and to whom, at the same time, all aspects of the arts in Australia have something more than superficial meaning.
The Opera House holds special fascination for me because whenever I am in Sydney I overlook the site during my favourite walk across the bridge from the North Sydney end; but my real interest goes back much further, more than half a century in fact, to a time when as a child I used to be taken to visit my father’s ship. The recollections are still vivid: the surge of green water, the ferocious turbulence of propellers and the alarming groan of timbers followed by the clatter of the gangplanks as the ferry from Mosman berthed at Circular Quay. Travelling south-east from there we soon became involved with the world of ships, steamers, tugs and wheat ships, a colourful forest of funnels and masts eliminating from any possible consideration the ugly mess of the tram sheds at Bennelong Point. How were we to know that some fifty years later this small tongue of land would be the site of a world-famous, epoch making opera house? We were familiar with most of the operas because our house in the bush at Mosman was full of music, and I imagined that all other houses in Sydney were like that. Perhaps they were. How else can one explain the action of a government, whose antecedents had shown notorious indifference towards development in the arts, embarking on the munificent enterprise of replacing that unsightly sprawl of rusting iron with a world-class home for music?
For in spite of the tragedy of Utzon’s resignation and the consequent loss of his personal imprint on a masterpiece of detailed interior design, the Sydney Opera House is already one of the greater monuments to mid-twentieth century architecture, a building that will give the former culturally backward city international status as a centre of the performing arts. As a tourist attraction it will produce millions of dollars in revenue, but even if this were not so isn’t it enough that an architectural masterpiece of lasting beauty has evolved? Costs were never considered in building the Doge’s Palace, or the Louvre, or the Taj Mahal, and what does it matter in view of the end result that the Opera House might cost fifty or even one hundred million dollars instead of seven? The question is, how did the paradox of an enterprise of such magnitude ever evolve?
It began with a suggestion made by Sir Eugene Goosens, then conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; the musical world of Sydney took it up and the suggestion was implemented at official level by the Hon. J. J. Cahill, Premier in the Labor Government of New South Wales. An international competition for its architecture was launched in 1957. It was won by a Dane, Joern Utzon.
Utzon was born in 1918 and studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen. In 1945 he studied with the Finnish architect, Alvaar Aalto, and the Swede, Gunner Asplund, both of whom had made important contributions to the new International Style—Aalto with the city library at Viipuri, 1927-35, and Asplund with pavilions for the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930. Utzon met Le Corbusier in Paris in 1948, as well as Fernand Leger and the sculptor Henri Laurens, and in the same year visited Morocco where he was much impressed by the unity of buildings and landscape. A scholarship took him to the U.S.A. and Mexico in 1949, and during this period he met Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Buildings designed by Utzon, apart from the Opera House, include housing projects at Elsinore (1956) and Fredensborg (1962). When he won the Opera House competition there was a lot of public discussion about his unconventional design, but after this first flurry of excitement, apart from spasmodic newspaper references, the affairs of the Opera House became obscure and expressions of opinion misleading.
However, it soon became obvious that tension was mounting; four successive premiers of New South Wales—Cahill, Heffron, Renshaw and Askin—witnessed an escalation of costs from the original $7m in 1956 to $50m by the end of 1966. The first behind-the-scenes information of substance did not appear until 1967; they comprised three well-written articles by Mr Francis Evers and Dr Philip Parsons (The Australian, 11, 13, 14 February, 1967. Later many of their points were correlated and extended into book form by Elias Duek-Cohen (Utzon and the Sydney Opera House, 1967). These writings cleared Utzon of the many charges made against him, namely that he was to blame for all the costly changes made in the course of construction and that he had made a fortune out of the Opera House commission. It became apparent that the architect, who was no diplomat and had given little thought to public relations, had suffered considerable injustice.
A few months later, however, Michael Baume’s The Sydney Opera House Affair appeared which gave a much more comprehensive coverage of the entire complicated proceedings. Baume exonerated not only Utzon, but also the other contracting parties: the Minister for Public works (Mr Davis Hughes), the Opera House executive committee, and perhaps most important of all, the engineers, Ove Arup and Partners. Obviously mistakes had been made by all-in planning, construction and administration-hut most of them had been due to the unpredictable anomalies arising from the contingencies of a project for which there was no precedent to act as guide. This created a situation in which tempers became frayed and there arose, inevitably, a clash of personalities which ended with Utzon’s resignation. A brief listing of circumstances shows the ambiguity of the situation:
1. Utzon’s original entry did not comply with all the regulations and hence should have been disqualified. But it represented a plan so outstanding in its creative architectural potential that the judging panel (Proffessor Sir Leslie Martin, of Cambridge, Professor H. Ingham Ashworth, of Sydney, Mr Cobden Parks, New South Wales government architect, and Mr Eero Saarinen) felt fully justified in awarding Utzon the prize.
2. The original assessments of cost, hastily estimated by a harassed quantity surveyor at $1m, were inaccurate by millions of dollars even in 1957. But had they been more accurate it is unlikely that the government would have proceeded with the building.
3. When Utzon and Arup went to Sydney for discussions in March-April 1958, Arup recommended three years of preliminary planning before the foundations were begun; this advice was not acceptable to the client (the Sydney Opera House executive committee representing the Government of New South Wales) which insisted that the contractor had to be appointed and work begun on the site before February 1959, when the foundation stone was laid by the Premier. The client maintained that if a fait accompli was not established while Premier Cahill was still in office the job would probably not go forward at all.
4. Utzon gained the respect of the entire creative architectural world for his solution to the problem of the building of the roof alone. When the engineers concluded that the roof shells could not be built he solved the problem by cutting all the roof sections from a single sphere, an accomplishment in which lIe made masterly use of the combined arts of mathematics, geometry and architecture. However, like many men of genius he was an uncompromising and difficult man to work with and therefore subject to much misunderstanding. But the client never supplied him with a proper brief, made many major changes of requirements and in the end even changed his identity—from the Sydney Opera House executive committee to the Ministry for Public Works. Further, while the building was called an opera house, the permanent tenant of the main hall was to be the Sydney Symphony Orchestra controlled by the Australian Broadcasting Commission whose concert hall needs conflicted with the operatic requirement of another important tenant, the Elizabeth Theatre Trust. None of these changes encouraged the architect to take a reasonable view of the situation.
The two books mentioned give most of the details, from the beginning until the final unhappy episode of the playwood mock-ups and the withholding of Utzon’s payments; the books, particularly the larger one by Baume, which is complete with an index, should be required reading by all students of architecture, and there is no point in here repeating the information they contain. In the meantime, the Opera House, having been gutted of several million dollars of stage machinery and with costs otherwise proceeding unchecked in their upward spiral, is having its interior re-shaped, the man standing uneasily behind the helm being a young Sydney architect named Peter Hall.
There is no reason to believe that the full practical requirements of the Opera House will not be efficiently and even elegantly met. But what of the aesthetic aspects?
I would like to elaborate on these aesthetic aspects in an analogy drawn from the realms of personal experience. Most people who know and love that beautiful antipodean metropolis have their own special Sydney. Its untidy inhabitants, its smooth asymmetric trees and vast irregular outcroppings of sandstone glittering in the sunshine, green with light coloured patches of lichen or dripping with moss and maiden’s hair fern in the dark shelves, all have nostalgic fascination. In 1891 Gauguin, on his way to Tahiti, found Sydney ‘the most hideous spot on earth’ but to the many artists who live there today it is a dauntless city whose beauty cannot be spoiled by man despite his most determined efforts Earlier I mentioned that whenever I go there, my particular Sydney includes a walk across the harbour bridge, beginning at the northern end (in which environs I was brought up as a child well before the bridge existed); with stops included, the bridge takes about half an hour to cross. After that I move briskly through the city to the Domain Gardens where my pace slackens as I descend the winding paths into the flat-bottomed basin of Woolloomooloo, and thence up McElhone Steps to my hotel on the other side of Kings Cross. During this ramble I have enjoyed looking at the deep waters of the harbour, the colourful shipping and, depending on the time of day, the reflection of the lights in the water. In the park is a succession of small fountains complemented by the massive, naturally sculpted trunks of giant fig trees, and after that the lurid but enchanting architecture of the ‘Loo, fast vanishing, like an old pink dress attacked by moths, beneath an ever increasing concrete jungle of screaming freeways. But it is the crossing of the bridge which excites me most; the feeling of exhilaration which this experience inspires began to increase around 1959 in proportion to the slow but persistent developments at Bennelong Point. From the beginning the opera house project had never ceased to fascinate me at the various stages of its growth. Two years ago I stood peering down through the protective iron grill of the bridge footway at the little tongue of land now concealed beneath wood, steel and concrete. The concrete edifice was, in fact, almost complete and the shells looked liked some giant crustacean which had crawled laboriously landwards from the harbour depths.
Rumblings of the coming battle had already shaken the architectural world and it was clear that some kind of dramatic climax was imminent. The facts had been obscured by many charges and counter-charges but there was a growing feeling that Utzon and his work were being sabotaged and that much public misunderstanding had arisen as a result.
It was dusk; the hour when in the words of Balzac’s translator ‘feelings of ineffable sadness cause the soul to weep’. The image of the opera house and its problems was still with me as I gained the southern reaches of the bridge and descended a small flight of steps. The bridge approaches were deserted at that hour and the colours of the street lights had turned the broad cement pavement to a lurid grey-green. Suddenly I realized I was walking on an extensive graffiti of drawings; I stopped at once and mounting a flight of steps, looked downward. To my astonishment a whole galaxy of figures, quite beautifully drawn in white chalk, stretched for a hundred feet or more along the pavement. There were mermaids and tritons, Neptune with trident, Venus arising from the waves, all kinds of sea gods and goddesses, drawn in firm open line and composed with remarkable taste and sense of scale. As I gazed enraptured at this gratuitous mural a burst of wild laughter came from the windows of a pub glowing intimately from the opposite side of the deserted street. The sound was as unexpected as it was ironic and seemed to hover around the figures as though it came from them, helping to crystallize the analogy forming slowly in my mind. Were not the drawer of this unsolicited masterpiece of pavement art, and the Danish architect whose monumental work stood a few hundred yards distant, wrapped in corresponding mantles of public ignorance and misunderstanding? The heedless simplicity of the first was such that the daytime pedestrian traffic would soon trample it out of existence without so much as a look, while the complexities of the second were so far removed from popular comprehension as to permit monumental acts of desecration.
When I walked once more across the bridge, a year after Utzon’s resignation, the gleaming white roof sections had been placed in position. The Swedish tiles looked like the glistening scales of a fish and as the contours gradually unfolded they became in my eyes an argosy of nautilus shells which had sailed all the way from Scandinavia to berth at this strategic point in Sydney Cove.
There is a widely held but fallacious belief that creative artists are dreamers, whereas administrative men, such as politicians, are practical builders and makers. Artists are certainly dreamers but they are not impractical. On the contrary, the very nature of painting or sculpture requires them to develop their inborn knowledge of construction. A truly creative work of architecture, like painting or sculpture, must have style, unity, character, balance, tension and presence, and it is worth remembering that for centuries these three arts were often produced by a single artist. Michelangelo is a superb example, and the triple creative faculty has persisted in individual artists right up to our own time, as in the case of Le Corbusier. Utzon’s background and attitude show him as a highly gifted creative artist, an impulsive man perhaps, an uncompromising man certainly, and one possibly with plenty of eccentricities, but still a creative artist. He is an architect trained in the European fine art tradition, inheriting from his predecessors in Denmark the principles of Scandinavian functionalism, principles which have helped Denmark lead the world in many branches of industrial design. The Scandinavian countries are basically Viking countries, and their music, painting, industrial design and architecture have strong connections with the sea. One thinks of shell forms and of the white billowing sails of ships. The most weather-resistant form known to man is the sphere, and the whole concept of Utzon’s opera house is spherical, the concept of a building made to last for centuries in a position exposed to the onslaughts of many destructive elements. Erosion from salt water will have no effect against the gleaming Hoganas tiles from Sweden, the heaviest rains will beat in vain against the powerful arch of the roof-shells, and the most violent gales will have no effect against the concrete ramparts. Aesthetically, the concept of the white tile-clad shells is in perfect hramony with the surrounding harbour ships and small sailing craft. Already the exterior in its more or less untrammelled state has brought the entire city, as seen from the harbour, an elegance and beauty which only great architecture can give, and it is equally beautiful when seen from the land, from the air, or from the harbour bridge.
Looking downwards from the bridge now I thought of Professor Giedion’s words written at the time of Utzon’s resignation: ‘The eyes of the world are directed towards Sydney because the Opera House with all its experiences will help bring world architecture to a new level.’ The words are quoted out of context, but there is no doubt that they still apply.
Alan McCulloch (1907 – 1992) was one of Australia’s foremost art critics for more than 60 years, an art historian and gallery director, cartoonist, and painter.