From The Spectator (1988)

Visiting Australia for the Bicentenary, Auberon Waugh casts his idiosyncratic eye over the Sydney Opera House and ponders what it says about Australia:

My bedroom in the Regent Hotel, Sydney, looks down from a great height on the harbour and on the Sydney Opera House nestling in a corner of it. This strange and costly building, designed by the Danish architect Jøern Utzon in 1955, was opened on its magnificent site, surrounded by water on three sides, in 1973 to cries of wonderment and disbelief from the rest of the world. Briefly, it seemed to have fanned the dying embers of the Modern Movement; it became one of Mr Bernard Levin’s Enthusiasms, along with Bayreuth, the Maharishi Yogi and some even odder ones, now forgotten; it remains the focus of a certain bemused pride in Sydney and throughout the whole of Australia.

On my last visit I was taken behind stage and into its bowels, marvelling at the lack of functional justification for the design. Even judged as decoration, it ignores the first principles of artistic integrity, since in order for the huge, concrete sails to be filled with air (they contain nothing else) in the manner of real sails, the wind would have to be blowing simultaneously from opposite directions.

View from Four Seasons Hotel (formerly Regent Hotel), Sydney (Four Season Hotel website)

View from Four Seasons Hotel (formerly Regent Hotel), Sydney (Four Season Hotel website)

This time I have not ventured inside. Instead, I brood over it twinkling underneath me in the morning sunlight, as I eat my breakfast, glimmering in the evening light as I return to change for dinner (the Australians are very formal about dress) and glowing once again by floodlight when I eventually return to bed. From this great height it looks very small and strangely vulnerable, enshrining, as it does, a last, residual hope for the future, that Modern Art was a good idea, Epstein’s contortions and Moore’s polished lumps expressed a vision, an alternative aesthetic, a justification for modern culture. All the nicest and most intelligent people I know have convinced themselves that this is the case, just as all the nicest and most intelligent Australians have convinced themselves their Opera House is beautiful.

It is not beautiful, of course. Nor is it ugly. It is merely absurd. It is a Mickey Mouse construction, straight out of Disney World. It is a harmless little joke about modern architecture rather than an example of the real thing — which would inevitably have been brutal in its desire to shock, offensive in its ugliness and sinister in its contempt for mere humanity. The Opera House is none of these things. It is purely absurd, and utterly endearing in its absurdity.

What makes it so endearing is the mystery of how a sceptical, satirically-minded nation allowed it to be built — at such prodigious cost, and with such flamboyant disregard for any canon of good taste or common sense. It is a monument to a particular Australian quality which is seldom remarked in discussions about the country, still dominated by the stock Australian expatriate joke-figures of Clive James, Barry Mackenzie, John Pilger, Charles Osborne and Germaine Greer, but one which impresses me more with every visit. At its least interesting, it takes the form of an astounding level of tolerance. Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras, when all the homosexuals of Kings Cross cavort in the streets, is an example of this. The friendliness with which they are received would be unthinkable in Britain, even before Aids. In Sydney, it is welcomed as another opportunity to show good humour and friendliness.

 –Auberon Waugh, English, 1939-2001

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