Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Our chance to make a real entrance
For the Carr Government to have inveigled Joern Utzon back into the Opera House project is a coup. But the most dramatic result will be a sad little colonnade, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Well, it’s official. You can’t be too cynical about politics. And architecture is once again the willing pawn. Sure, the Sydney Opera House has become our Eiffel Tower, the symbol without which Sydney wouldn’t be Paris, as it were. Sure, it’s the 20th century’s most famous building although fame isn’t everything. And sure, its enviable budget increase is long-since offset by the gazillions it has brought home in tourist bacon.
But this kind of fame, especially as heightened by regulation penal-colony guilt, has a downside. For years now, scenting mortality, every politician in the state has been bleating a path to Joern Utzon’s remote Mallorcan door. What could be finer, what could confer more genius by association, more gold-dust of authenticity, than to be photo-opped arm-in-arm with the great Dane? Or, better still, mutually hunched over a drawing board.
So for the Carr Government to have inveigled Utzon back into the Opera House project, if not the country, is something of a coup. That it took nearly three years to produce a prolix guidelines document, and a comparably billowing spend-plan whose most dramatic result will be a sad little colonnade along the western flank, isn’t a problem either. Great building, great man, fabulous aura, big budget, negligible change, election year. All goes together, see? Whazzat? Still no front door? Don’t cavil, lady, we’re spinning here.
So reverential, are we, so weak-kneed with gratitude at Utzon’s metaphorical return and so bent on overcompensating for past sins, that no-one seems to mind our devoting X times the building’s original cost to fix almost everything except its one blindingly obvious flaw: the anticlimactic whimper of entry.
A similarly abject, if less affected, archi-worship mars the otherwise spectacular new book by Cardiff architect/academic Richard Weston, entitled simply Utzon.The book weighs in at four kilograms and declares itself a “holy grail of architectural publishing”; the “definitive account” of Utzon, man and work.
But it’s not a complete works, still less an analysis, despite Weston’s academic background. From the start, Weston seems to write more as fellow practitioner, eschewing any attempt at critical distance and confessing up-front that he writes “unashamedly out of love for the work”.
As suggested by the name of his own practice, Radiant World, Weston aligns himself strongly with Utzon’s organic, eclectic and broadly anti-intellectual approach, making up in fervour any lack in sceptical acuity. Begun without the great man’s blessing but having acquired it in bucketloads along the way, Utzon is very much the authorised version.
In fact, Weston’s primary motive in writing the book seems to be a rankling sense of injustice that, despite having designed “the most famous building of the 20th century”, Utzon is “not even mentioned in some histories of modern architecture” including Weston’s own Modernism (1996).
Sigfried Giedion, however, who wrote the modernist gospel Space, Time and Architecture in 1941, added to its fifth edition in 1967 a description of Utzon as “leader of the third generation of modern architects”. Thankfully, though, Weston’s rambling style is much looser than Giedion’s polemical stodge, as he draws a menagerie of supposed influences into the net. These range from Gunnar Asplund to Le Corbusier to Alvar Aalto, from Japanese teahouse to Mayan temple to Chinese pagoda, from ship design to cherry blossom, and from surf to tree fungi to Islamic wind scoop.
That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with eclecticism, as far as it goes. Except that just about every architect under the sun, including Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, Phillip Cox and Glenn Murcutt, will proffer much the same range of influence. The standard-issue client-presentation kit for the Great Modern Architect includes colour glossies of Isfahan bazaar and Chinese courtyard houses. Everyone is influenced thus. That’s how it’s taught; it’s what you do.
The critic’s role, then, demands a little gentle dissection to show which influence is real and which merely putative; which is reasonable, and which daffy. That’s where critical distance comes in.
Utzon is, nonethelesss, a welcome addition to Opera House literature, with some useful points and memorable tales.
Intriguingly, for instance, Weston argues that Scandinavian modern, as we know it, evolved from the English functionalist tradition, via the Anglo-Danish critic Steen Eiler Rasmussen. And that Utzon’s trademark use of the platform base, which reached its apotheosis in Sydney, developed from the Mayan.
Creditably too, Weston strives to record facts as they stand. So we have the full text of Utzon’s 1948 credo, “The Innermost Being of Architecture”, to which staff were required to pledge allegiance. And in the chapter on the Opera House the old plucked-from-the-bin myth gets straightened out at last. Weston recounts also a couple of remarkable anecdotes, with Frank Lloyd Wright reviling the Opera House as an “inorganic fantasy” and Mies van der Rohe, for whom it was the devil’s work, refusing even to speak to Utzon when he visited Chicago.
These snippets stand out, though, because the book is overwhelmingly an appreciation of genius. Why, then, is Utzon so habitually omitted by history? For Weston, this lacuna reflects Utzon’s failure to fit the narrative. He didn’t proselytise and has no school to speak of, had no real predecessors, spawned no followers. He’s a one-off.
Equally, however, it bespeaks the unusual trajectory of Utzon’s career. Almost a quarter of this huge book is devoted, rightly, to the Sydney Opera House. And although Weston’s coverage of the remaining work is comprehensive, most of it simply demonstrates that without Sydney, Utzon would have been, simply, unremarkable. As Weston himself notes, “Utzon’s star burned brightly for a decade, only to retreat to the outer reaches of the universe, from where it seemed to have materialised in the first place.”
This extraordinary comet path may signify, as some suggest, a curse on Utzon’s subsequent career. Or perhaps just that some architects have only one really great work in them.
And it is a great work. Without question, popularity notwithstanding, the Sydney Opera House is a truly remarkable building whose sheer, overwhelming, animal presence impels even the most prosaic observer into metaphor of one kind or another. But even great buildings are not perfect.
As Weston notes, Utzon’s organic view of architecture was linked inextricably with a range of social values, which tended to reject the formality, symmetry and frontality of classical architecture for equality, openness and dynamic asymmetry.
This alone made the front door so lionised by classicism politically incorrect. And it was compounded, in Sydney’s case, by form. It is one thing to eureka-up the now-famous skin-of-an-orange analogy, quite another to pierce that skin without fatal weakening.
For Utzon, the answer lay in putting the entry-hole underground in the base. This was functionally neat, allowing servicing, vehicles and pedestrians to be dealt with at a blow.
Experientially, though, it’s a disaster: gloomy-fumy underground, bewildering and disappointing above.
It’s a great building, but each arrival points anew to the undeniable: gorgeous young opera house seeks front door that is apparent, welcoming. And it could be achieved, with a nip here, tuck there, and some assertive traffic management. As George Molnar said at the time of Utzon’s sacking: it’s a design problem. Meaning, it’s soluble. After all, the cathedrals weren’t built in one hit.
Utzon professes himself content with the entry sequence, but perhaps, in the flesh, he would change his mind. We have the money, and the talent. All we lack is will. To be so overawed that we fail even to ask the question would, at this juncture, be folly indeed.
Utzon is published by Edition Blondal, 2002.
ILLUS: It’s truly remarkable but not even great buildings are perfect …
Joern Utzon with a model of the Opera House.