Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The house of dreams
Review of the week Architecture
Review by Elizabeth Farrelly
What went wrong – and who was to blame – in Sydney’s great opera drama? A rigorous critique provides uncomfortable answers.
It’s a riddle. The era-defining opera house that doesn’t do full-scale opera; the haute-icon of 20th-century architecture that flouts modernism’s core principle; the masterpiece that sanctified its architect although only its exterior was his and he did nothing remotely similar again. These are the perplexities from which Ken Woolley’s new book, Reviewing the Performance: the Design of the Sydney Opera House, sets sail.
And yet, you might think, the world cannot possibly need another book on the Sydney Opera House. The building is already its own literary genre. Sydney University library lists nearly 40 monographs, not counting recordings, events or anthologies. So enough already. Enough, certainly, to deter most authors.
But Woolley had something new to say and it was clearly burning a hole in his brain. He did not set out, as do most Opera House tomes, to chronicle the politics, document the angles, examine the minutiae or push a personal barrow. He set out to test, understand and explain the building as a piece of architecture. This, and his own remarkable architect’s intelligence, makes the book unique. From page one you know it is that rare thing – a book that had to be written.
And, yes, it is one for architectural initiates; not in the usual sense of fatuous gloss but in pursuing questions that have perturbed the design community for decades. Why can’t the concert hall do opera? Why are the glass walls so distended? What was the fuss over the plywood and over seating numbers? Why wasn’t the thing built as both Utzon and the jury intended? Why did he (really) leave? And is it, actually, any good?
The book reads like a really good architectural crit session. Woolley is ruthless in his interrogation of the design process and in his determination to cut through the technicalities, the politics and the egos to what truly happened.
It’s not an easy read, partly because the story – like design itself – is so entwined in the delicate interplay of structure, material, aesthetics, function (crucially, in this case, acoustics), circulation and shelter. And partly because Woolley, being not a writer but an architect, could have used a decent edit.
But the upshot, were one forced to summarise, is this. It couldn’t be done.
Utzon was young, relatively untried and naive. The jury was equally (and less forgivably) naive, setting a problem that was essentially insoluble and failing to detect this. The government, as client, was also naive, allowing itself to be over-hasty (constructing the podium, for example, before the shells were even designed), politically driven and badly advised.
It’s that old Nixon question: what did he know and when did he know it? Each party should have recognised the impossibility of satisfying the brief. If they didn’t know, they should have, and if they did, they certainly should have said, instead of letting the problem explode in the showdown of March 1966.
Why was the problem insoluble? Woolley takes 200 pages to answer this, and it is to his immense credit that he does it with scholarly thoroughness, using footnotes, drawings, diagrams, models and appendices to make himself clear.
A 3000-seat concert hall requires roughly twice the volume that is tolerable for opera but the competition brief, despite calling itself National Opera House Competition (for prestige reasons, Woolley suggests) specified a 3500-seat concert hall that was readily convertible for opera. It is often said that the site was too narrow for the brief but this dual-use idea, Woolley conclusively proves, cannot be achieved under any circumstances.
This primary difficulty was compounded by Utzon’s insistence on form over function. Utzon had made a living winning competitions from Denmark before entering Sydney’s, so it is no surprise that – knowing TWA architect Eero Saarinen was a judge – he chose a “shell” solution. Even when it was clear, however, that the shells were too big to be built as shells (that is, as their own structure) he insisted on the shell look. Breaching, thus, the entire modern “authenticity” ethos, he opted for a fan-vault structure that had to be many times thicker – averaging some 1500mm – which further restricts both seating and side-stage.
Utzon’s selection of the legendary “sections of an orange” solution (which Woolley describes as “wonderful public relations … with no set-out benefit”) narrowed the concert hall further still, so that an operatic proscenium-fly tower arrangement could never be accommodated.
For years, further, although he must have known it wasn’t the case, Utzon repeatedly assured his client that the seating requirements could be met, telling no one of the 1000-seat shortfall. Of course, it wasn’t all down to Utzon. Governments, as Woolley also notes, were expedient-to-inept and “the jury doesn’t seem to have measured the plan”.
The truth is, says Woolley, that “not all problems have solutions”. Utzon, despite his inexperience, should have seen this and fessed up. Perhaps, indeed, it is what Utzon meant in saying, even as he left the country, “it is not I but the Sydney Opera House which creates the enormous difficulties”. But it was too little and, by then, way too late.
In the end it was Utzon’s successor, Peter Hall, who pinpointed the conundrum and suggested the compromise, moving opera to the smaller hall so that at least the building could be built. This was his great contribution and we should thank him for it.
So it is despite Hall, not because of him, that – as I’ve often said – the Opera House is a great piece of sculpture but a seriously flawed piece of architecture. This, too, is Woolley’s conclusion, which will no doubt create as much controversy as it resolves. Before you leap in, though, have a read. It’s a ripper.
PHOTO: Work in progress … the Opera House takes shape; (below) sketch by Ken Woolley. Photo: Max Dupain