Fixture in Australia’s Identity: Sydney Opera House

If the Opera House were to be erased, and dismantled during the night, Sydney would awake to a different city. One unrecognisable to the country, and further, the world. Every newly erected glass skyscraper orientates itself toward it, like a sunflower longing for light. Tourists, upon landing in Sydney airport, can not suppress their excitement as they stare at images of the Sydney Opera House which coat the airport walls. The Sydney Opera House is an embodiment of the power of architectural design, and the extent to which built form can express and represent the cultural, economic and social core of a nation. The collection of glass, concrete and metal melded together on top of Sydney Harbour, transcends its function or even its identity as a piece of public space. It stands as a physical embodiment of Australian culture, the recipient of all-encompassing and blind love. The kind of love only provided by a proud parent, one that is so enthralled by what their child can do that they can not see all their mistakes and shortcomings. As a nation, we are completely captured by the sculptural beauty of the building, so infatuated that we overlook its significant functional issues. We use the facade as a tool, a powerful symbol projecting our dream-like desire for our city. One that champions the arts, one that is innovative and forward-thinking and one that is inclusive of all members of our community. However, are these projections true? Perhaps we need to cut the cord. Begin to look at our surrogate child detached from patriotic emotion, and prepare ourselves to see the potential flaws which may lie beneath its beautiful exterior.

Curved white mountains pierce proudly out of the blue water of Sydney Harbour. Their spines twist as they stretch upward, softly curving back toward the ocean, another set of air-filled sails gliding through the harbour. These snow-dusted peaks sit so purposefully on top of Bennelong Point as if they were carved out of the very rocks which once littered this land. The Sydney Opera House stands as the final reward after a long pilgrimage from Circular Quay, the procession ensuring all visitors are aware of the near sacredness of the building. Individuals are dwarfed by the huge structure towering above them as they arrive at the base of the monumental staircase. 80 steps separate them from the main performance space which lies before them, enclosed behind glass cladding. As one begins to climb the solid, concrete steps, occupants feel as though they are leaving the sounds of the ocean and scattered voices around them behind, becoming immersed within the strange, skeletal shell before them. Once inside, the dramatic play with scale continues, occupants become ants, feeling the weight of the folded concrete ceiling above them. It is as though the performance breaks free of the confines of the interior stage, spilling out into the streets surrounding its facade. The encounter is theatrical, a continuing thread which begins at the ferry terminal, carrying occupants all the way to their final destination, the theatre. This experience demands attention, as if the building is aware of its undeniable pull, forcing everyone who passes it to admire its ceramic skin. Its aesthetic beauty is unquestionable, capturing the heart of each and every Australian. We tie the building strongly to its position as a cultural landmark, elevating it to a position of sacredness, sitting next to the Vegemite jar, and the harbour bridge as undeniable symbols of Australian culture.

Before the outstretching fins of the Sydney Opera were even conceived, the blank plot of land, which at that point merely housed tall strands of overgrown grass, had already been labelled as the future site of a miraculous building. Before any Australian could imagine what such a building could look like, there was already an underlying understanding that this architectural intervention would be much more than a functional piece of public space. Somehow through the connection of materials and a melding of ideas, an occupiable piece of art would be erected on top of Sydney Harbour. The goal was never to create a building, instead, the intention was to erect a shining representation of Australia’s bright and promising future. A tangible object balancing on top of this land that possessed the power to elevate the cultural, social and political ambitions of the nation. Therefore the building was designed as a sculptural shell, a face forming the backdrop for the city. As a public, we largely ingest the building in the same way it was designed, as a hollow face. Gliding past its form on a ferry ride into the city, or posing in front of its facade over cocktails at the Opera Bar. For most Australian the events which play out within its interiors don't bleed into their everyday lives, instead, purely its presence, looking over it on their train trip home from work is a strong enough reminder of the beauty and freedom gifted to them by their nation. The narrowness of our lens when consuming the building prompts questions surrounding the role of architectural design, particularly in public spaces. Buildings which, due to their national and international identity, transcend the typical emotional connection generally provoked beyond the architectural community. This emotional response has caused the general public to consume the building as if it were a piece of art, its aesthetic beauty clouding the functional requirements of its performance spaces. Ultimately the building's success does rely on achieving technical requirements, a delicate science required to generate appropriate acoustic and lighting conditions necessary to showcase the music which graces its interior walls. Therefore, as a nation, we are required to look at this building not as an abstract art piece, but as a building with extremely specific technical outcomes which are required to be met.

The Architect, Utzon designed the building as if it were the sculptural shell we, as a nation generally experience it as, beautiful on the outside and hollow on the inside. He focused on creating monumental beauty on its facade, demonstrating a lack of care or interest in how the performance spaces logistically functioned. Matt Ockenden, an Australian bassoonist, describes the listening experience within the concert hall as likened to that of the sound emerging from a “1980s-era television”, Edo de Waart, the former chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, once aggressively threatened to avoid the “ugly” venue, describing the sound as “barren”, “cold” and “not alive”, likening the atmosphere to that of a “barn”. The Opera Theatre was voted the worst of Australia’s “20 major classical music venues in a limelight magazine industry poll, the concert hall itself just squeezing into 18th place”. Brian Thomson, a scenic designer for Opera Australia, outlines his desire for the whole building to be gutted, his recommendations echoed by Dame Joan who likened the interior of the building to an airport terminal. The building is riddled with acoustic issues, the sources of which most can be traced back to the extensive social, political and economic issues experienced during drafting and construction. From this conflict, an Opera Theatre emerged which was not sufficient in size to produce adequate acoustics, whilst a concert hall was created which is too big, sound getting lost in the twenty-five-metre high ceiling. The architect was largely inspired by the dramatic scale of the Castle Kronberg in Elsinore, an idea which becomes an obvious thread weaving itself throughout the design of the building. Although creating an intriguing and impressive user experience, placing aesthetic goals above the technical requirements of the space is what ultimately resulted in significant functional flaws. Brian Thompson called it a “mad opera… as a building it’s the greatest in the world. But as a theatre, it’s almost the worst”.

The contrast between the monumental beauty of its exterior face when compared with the underwhelming acoustic performance generated within, creates a confusing and disjointed experience, the allure of its beautiful facade not quite enough to overshadow the functional flaws hiding within.

The Opera House stands as one piece in a web of buildings which together represent the cultural heartbeat of Sydney, and further, Australia. There is an automatic response which floats to the tip of each month when the building is mentioned, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful’. But these initial exclamations are shortly followed with assertions of its symbolic message, its representation of the inclusive and forward-thinking Australia, which we as a nation strive for. The building has inevitably had to become a shapeshifter, morphing to suit the changing needs to those which surround its white shell. A backdrop for an Instagram post, a box to be ticked on a travelling bucket list, a point to welcome another new year and a comfortable blanket that assures us of the moral integrity and free will which is strongly embedded within our country's mantra. We carefully place the building on a golden pedestal, raising it high above other ‘conventional buildings’. However, these dream-like wrappings begin to falter when government action begins to highlight the commercial hunger existing within our political landscape. Layers of deep emotional attachment and years of quiet appreciation were abruptly discarded with the projection of the NSW Racing promotion onto the Opera House’s facade. Once again, the building was reduced to a shell, this time, one to be used for capital gain. In that moment, Its pure white sails could no longer represent a free and open Australia, as, despite a ‘poll finding that 80% of NSW residents opposed the decision’, it was transformed into a giant advertising sign, an entity which previously only existed beside an empty highway. The loudness of a few, strong voices whose power weaves through influential pockets of government, begins to poke holes in the blanket of comfort we cover ourselves with. Our country’s largest adopted child has now been placed in an uncomfortable position, adsorbing the diverse collection of words being hurdled against its exterior, “not a fucking billboard”, “Who cares?”, “Who do you think you are?”. Hundreds of Australians stood together in the Opera House forecourt shining handheld torches onto the building. A sense of solidarity and togetherness illuminates just how important this building has become, and how intrinsically embedded it is within our cultural identity. Our willingness to actively fight for its protection solidifies the power of architectural design, as, despite its many flaws, we as a nation overlook its faults in favour for the love which has been concocted by its facade.

In a contemporary landscape where individuals can curate their identity through a posted image, and apps are created to transform one's own dull surroundings to appear as if they were anywhere in the world, the significance and role of buildings can be questioned. Our interpretation of culture and identity is ever-shifting, reimagining itself daily as our world continues to change. However, in front of this forever moving backdrop, a few landmarks appear to never shift in their significance. The Sydney Opera House remains one of the most important sources of affection for Australians, standing as a gleaming representation of the country in which they wish to live. Its outline is forever embedded into the Sydney skyline, its sculptural form a projection of Australian culture. Architecture has and always will remain an avenue in which we can project a constructed image, the built environment possessing the power to generate deep emotional responses from the general public. This solidifies the importance of architecture in defining generations, in particular, the Sydney Opera House which has now become a permanent fixture in Australia’s identity. 

07 July 2022
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