Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
Icon sets the tone for everything but music
FEELING THE SQUEEZE
There is nothing wrong with the building, we just misnamed it, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
JOERN UTZON’s epistle of forgiveness to Davis Hughes’s widow, almost 40 years on, shifts the whole Opera House story, replacing hurt genius with something between strategist and saint. Utzon’s stubborn occupation of the moral high ground always was remarkable, matched only by the symbolic presence of the building itself.
And it is this, no doubt, that impelled Cardinal George Pell to use the building, drawn in outback ochres, as the World Youth Day logo. The flaming graphic may evoke more Ku Klux Klan than ecumenical harmony, but its selection does at least underline the Opera House’s symbolic power.
Ochre’s wrong anyway. Much too earthy. If the SUV-sized model of the Opera House in Sydney University’s architecture faculty is any indicator, they should have built the Opera House in glass. In glass the shells would have been that much more legendary, their bounce and bump of light at sunset and in the morning that much more glorious.
The Perspex model, of course, was built not for glory but to help solve the great beast’s breathing problems. So the gorgeousness of the see-through shells, with miniaturised ducts winding through like the gut-work of some diaphanous crustacean, was an accident.
But the model does unwittingly highlight that old tug-of-war between form and function. How far should formal symbolism be allowed to impede a building’s operational prowess, and vice versa? The Opera House makes a classic case, not only because its symbolism is so intense and its functionality so flawed, but because the two are directly, causally linked. The beauty was only achievable via serious compromise.
And symbolism is the building’s great, overarching strength. “Sydney Opera House,” gushes the official website, “must be one of the most recognisable images of the modern world – up there with the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building – and one of the most photographed … as representative of Australia as the pyramids are of Egypt and the Colosseum of Rome.”
Sure, you could argue that resistance to opera is itself strongly Australian. For most of us, though, an opera house that cannot accommodate opera is, frankly, a bit daft.
The state government made much of re-engaging Utzon to complete his vision, to build his fabled interiors, sort the opera question, finesse the acoustics, finish the job. A few million have been spent, and a few morsels built: the refurbished Utzon Room (with tapestry), the western colonnade-cum-smoker-shelter and, of course, the dunnies. Much kudos has been reaped, including a Queen’s visit and video-blessings from Saint Joern himself. Since then, though, it has all gone oddly quiet.
Acoustic twiddlers have been commissioned but the fundamental problems of establishing working side-stages, fly-tower and orchestra-pit are no longer discussed. The Government says it “has given in principle support … and [is] looking at funding options which do not rely on taxpayers”. Instruction to taxpayer: do not hold breath.
SHELLS. We call them shells because that’s how they look. Properly speaking, though, the Opera House is not a shell structure at all.
The shell idea thrilled architects of the mid-20th century because it looked effortless and was immensely difficult to achieve. The idea, though, is simple: in a structure shaped around natural stress patterns, the forces generated by self-weight will remain within the material, removing any need for external ribs, beams or buttresses.
Utzon’s shells were never actually shells, even before they werere-formed into spherical sections to make the maths do-able. And, either way, the same fundamental problem would have arisen.
The problem is that they are three-dimensional gothic arches which generate huge outward thrust. The Opera House is really a gothic cathedral, sans buttresses. This necessitates the enormous tie-beam that holds the “shells” together underground and, in so doing, makes a proper orchestra pit impossible. Along with the narrow peninsula site and the sketch-decision to locate the two halls side-by-side, the shell idea meant the opera hall could never have orchestra pit, fly-tower or side-stages.
Which does not mean there is anything wrong with the building, just that we misnamed it. We could fix its faults by admitting it is not an opera house at all, never will be. It is not, really, architecture. It is a fabulous, transcendent piece of sculpture. Iconography, even. No one expects the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids to do clever things with sound waves. Just bouncing the photons keeps the cameras happy. Ask Frank Gehry. Ask George Pell: isn’t that what icons do?