Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
If they find the money, it’s curtains for the Opera House
Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture for the Herald.
SYDNEY’S relationship with the Opera House is endlessly compelling. Imagine if Bilbao had sacked Frank Gehry after the titanium skin, then got the nearest hard-hat to partition the inside. It wouldn’t be Bilbao, right? Now, we’ve done it again, spending huge sums undermining what integrity we did allow the Opera House to keep that first time around.
Still, you can’t say Sydney hasn’t done its bit for Joern Utzon. We’ve said thank you ever so nicely, after only 40 years, and given him a tragic stature in world architecture that Gehry cannot hope for. Gehry is the fat-and-happy architect, wreathed in success, trailing a glory that merely emphasises the singularity of Utzon’s shadow on the landscape. If Utzon is High Noon’s Will Kane, ours is the cowardly, cowboy culture that undid him. Ours the tin star he threw in the dust.
For almost four decades Utzon refused all blandishments from the city that sacked him. Then, seven years ago, in a flurry of pre-Olympic mea culpa forelock-tugging – not to mention the kudos of Bringing Home the Utzon – Sydney politicians began to beat a path to his Majorcan door.
Eventually, as a goodwill gesture, Utzon yielded. He smiled graciously, said a few words, agreed to be involved. Not himself, of course. He was in his 80s. So he made videos, drafted “design principle” documents and seconded his architect son, Jan, to boldly go.
The scope of the new design work was, and is, unclear. There was no brief. It was like, well, he’s the genius. Let him tell us. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “30 years of performances and tourism had taken their toll”. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t wear and tear. All the big ideas involved fixing flaws inherent not just in the original building, but also in its central, shell-on-podium idea; the too-small orchestra pit, the absence of wings and fly-tower, the underwhelming acoustics.
These are not cheap fixes. Enlarging the orchestra pit means lowering the tie-beam that underpins the shells and stops them collapsing like a used parachute. That’s serious. Creating a fly tower involves dropping the auditorium into the podium. And fixing the acoustics, since the ideal music space is not a shell but a shoebox, weighs in at about $300 million.
But no official costing has been released. In 2001 the NSW Government allocated $69.3 million, but this told more about the size of its pocket than the scope of the project.
So far less than a quarter of that has been spent, starting with the big issues; the toilets. Very nice too, Utzon’s lovely, languid concrete beams presiding as you pee.
Next, in 2004, came the $6 million Reception Hall refurb; refurnishing this glorified classroom with Utzon’s gorgeous 14-metre tapestry, billing it our “only authentic Utzon interior” and badging it the Utzon Room. I’m impressed.
Now, at last, the bandages are off the third, and possibly final, product of this so over-trumpeted project: a small, square colonnade that stumps along the western face of the podium.
Yesterday, Stumpy (I’m trying hard not to use the word carbuncle) was opened by the Queen.
This might seem sad, getting Her Majesty to cut the string on so trifling a parcel. A single-storey concrete and “precast granite” (uh, isn’t all granite precast, by God or similar?) rain-shelter for smokers.
Actually, though, it’s apt, since the colonnade is as banal and reduced a version of the whole vision as this visit by the Queen is of her 1973 one, opening Sydney’s then-new Opera House with Utzon in absentia.
But it wasn’t just absentia, it was virtual exile. And it was our fault. With more than $100,000 in fees unpaid by the NSW Government, Utzon was floored by the enormous tax bill awaiting him in Denmark.
Then, when his Danish colleagues promised he’d never find work there again (retaliation for bringing “disrepute” upon them), Utzon’s only recourse was to gallop off into the Majorcan sunset.
Now, in theory, there’s reconciliation. But how much of this is substance and how much simply spin? Years back, for instance, Utzon renounced copyright in his masterwork to its new owners for a song. Now, when his architect-grandson Jeppe wants to publish a snap of himself with the Opera House, permission is coolly denied. When Joern’s son Jan agreed to act for the maestro in the Opera House refurb, he had politely to decline Sydney’s strong invitation to foot the full insurance premiums, worth more than his entire fee. If this is reconciliation, you might (in Joern’s place) think, who needs it?
Still, we do have Stumpy, the colonnade. It is, of course, view-driven. But then, so is tree-poisoning. And how is it that, even as we fantasise about a World Heritage listing for the Opera House, we build Stumpy, whose every gesture – from its domestic scale to its casual piercing of the solid base to its stiff-legged concrete (compared with Utzon’s signature sinuosity) – so ill-suits the building. Visually, indeed, its square-griddedness owes more to Richard Johnson’s early work than Utzon’s.
The only breathtaking aspect of the work is its expediency. Need a view? Sure, knock a few holes, whatever. It’s a she’ll-be-right-mate pragmatism to make Davis Hughes proud.
But be thankful. At least Stumpy is small. The next stages, should they eventuate, will take the same thinking further, spending enough for a whole new opera-capable Opera House, simply in order to weaken Utzon’s central idea still further. Be thankful, therefore, they’re not good for the other $300-odd million or you might find Hills hoists on the dais. Nappies, even.
PHOTO: Regal touch … yesterday’s opening by the Queen. Photo: Peter Rae