Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
How Utzon got it back to front
EVEN the most Windsor-phile of critics would concede that modern architecture had some sublime moments. The Sydney Opera House is one of them. But one thing modernism could not get right (although, to be fair, it didn’t pop a hernia trying) was the front door.
The modern house simply jettisoned front-ness, in doors as in all else. Typically, you got a choice of round the back or through the carport (Rose Seidler House, to wit). Big buildings ditto. Entry to Robin Gibson’s otherwise breathtaking Queensland Art Gallery is round the back and through the carport.
The Opera House has always suffered a sub-clinical dose of the same malaise, exacerbated by changing usage patterns over the years. The new Opera House project, for which the trust currently stands supplicant to State coffers, and the State to Messrs Howard ‘n’ Costello, will, however, address the problem. It’s no small ask.
Modernism’s abject failure to move convincingly from hole-in-wall to palpably front door wasn’t simple incompetence. It was a conscious, reasoned (if unreasonable) stance, embedded in the movement’s basic convictions – aesthetic, spatial and political. Indeed, what makes modernism so entrancing as a phenomenon – and so dismal as a real-life working philosophy – is that these three were by and large inseparable.
In aesthetic terms, having rejected not only decoration but also formalism, classicism, symmetry and all that sailed in them, modernism had no visual labels left to signify front-ness in a door, except perhaps size, a device limited in usefulness by
the strength of the average human bicep.
Spatially too, modernism’s commitment was to homogeneity. A sort of spatial Esperanto had space uniformly extended in all directions: a limitless, featureless 3-D Cartesian grid. Operating within this higher frame, modern buildings had no interest in such mundanities as streets or fronts or facades. Buildings were seen sculpturally, as objects in the round, and the freestanding objet, be it pavilion (house) or tower, became the only norm worth aping. Thus conceived, a building might be as well be approached from any point as any other. Australia Square, circled by identical doors, is the classic instance.
Even had the visual and conceptual means been acceptable, however, modernism would have been obliged to spurn front-ness for political reasons. To differentiate front from other doors implied a level of elitism which was morally and ideologically repugnant.
Sydney’s feted Opera House was less crippled than some by this complex conceptual burden. After all, the site itself, three sides water, imposed a “front” for the world’s approach – and the Opera House offered, in response, that fabulous 100- metre wide stair.
The elan of the escalier notwithstanding, however, entry itself was always unsatisfactory. Joern Utzon conceptualised the plan as a big bipartite egg, with service access via the north-south tunnel that runs axially beneath the Great Cleavage, and public access, sperm-like, around the outside.
That’s fine, but from the public point of view, the ambiguity inherent in this model was always going to prove problematic. If there are multiple doors on offer, and they don’t all lead to some shared central place, how can you know which to choose? Not to mention the security nightmare.
And then there’s the old pedestrian/vehicle conflict, occasioned here by the Drama Theatre truck dock, which, directly contradicting Utzon’s concept, sits smack in the middle of prime pedestrian territory; and by the trail of pantechnicons which, too
tall for southern service tunnel entry, chug around the seafront to enter from the north.
Even having scaled the great stair, one confronts no fewer than three possible entrances: one to the curiously Jonahesque main foyer and, on the next level up again – aptly known as Level 42 – one to each of the Big Shells. But none of these announces itself as the front door, all three being decidedly diminutive in scale and manner, and there is a persistent nagging sense of not having quite arrived.
For patrons of the other two (soon to be three) Opera House venues, making the Great Ascent puts you at the wrong end of the turtle entirely. For these hapless hordes, the only recourse is to unmake the climb and start again. Further, for the increasing numbers who arrive at the Opera House by taxi, by foot along the Quay, or via the car park, the real arrival point is distinctly oblique to the grand stair. From this rather squat south-west corner of the podium a fumy tunnel beneath the forecourt leads the lameAd crowds sideways past champing coaches, service road, parked cars and boomerang shop to start the long, dark climb into the belly of the beast. It’s not exactly Paris.
Recognising all this as a worthy case for treatment, the $63 million Opera House master plan proposes a new, human-friendly access point – front door, even – at just this squat little corner. From there, a new vertical connection (lift/stair/escalator) will link to all main foyer spaces, including the new combined western foyer, which will serve the Playhouse and Drama Theatre, as well as the proposed Broadwalk Studio.
Muscled in between the two existing theatres, the Broadwalk will be unnoticeable from the outside, and the new western foyer, running the length of the building’s western flank at ground level, will also sit entirely within the existing podium – with
perhaps one or two new holes in its side wall. But the new corner entrance is bound by its brief of welcome to be externally visible. Conspicuous, even.
How can this be done, to what must be Australia’s holiest building? It won’t affect the sails, but it’ll be there in the tourist shots, all right. Say you were an architect, would you want the job? What, in the name of all that is politically sacred, could you do there?
The master plan is expected to work in two stages – pre- and post-2000. It will include provisions for better disabled access, for converting the northern ground-level office space to hirable waterside function rooms, for bringing daylight into the main foyers and for better lighting and signage all round. It’s all about accessibility – oh, and turning a quid.
Hand in hand with all this runs a cultural master plan, similarly designed to winkle Opera House programming from its comfortable, slightly blue-rinse cubby and make it more interesting to more people, more of the time. We’ve had the Olympic colours for the Bid, and the YK Blue sails for the Festival. Next along this fine line between populism and high culture advances a Mardi Gras proposal for light-painting the shells. There’ll be more outdoor events, more freebies (such as Titanic! ), more wonderful Chihulys, one hopes, more public involvement. All thoroughly laudable.
But that unassuming south-west corner of the podium is the one to watch. It may be small, as jobs go, but in terms of degree of difficulty, it’s right up there with the nose cone of East Circular Quay. Whoever gets it, wish them luck.
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Illus: About face . . . the site of the proposed new entrance to the Opera House foyer, where some brave soul has the chance to tinker with “Australia’s holiest building”.
Source: Photograph by ROBERT PEARCE