From The House (2018)

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design won the 1957 competition for the Sydney Opera House. In July, he set foot in Australia for the first time, accompanied by his business partner, Swedish architect Erik Andersson. When they first saw the Bennelong Point site they were accompanied by Gavin Souter, features writer for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Model of Opera House shell, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

Perched high above the site on the Tarpeian Way, the path above the sheer rock face cut along the north-west side of Macquarie Street in the Botanic Garden, they took in the splendid view of both the harbour and the promontory.

Utzon was blown away by the location and almost literally by the nor’-wester coming in off the harbour. ‘It’s right,’ said the Dane as his hair and gabardine coat blew wildly in the wind. Like a good sailor he scanned the horizon, from the Sydney Heads to the Circular Quay ferry terminal. He took in the vista of the harbour, the clouds, the Harbour Bridge – everything he could from this high vantage point. ‘It’s okay. This is the way they placed temples in the old days. It’s absolutely breathtaking. There’s no opera house site in the world to compare with it….This site is even more beautiful than in the photographs from which I worked.’

…Utzon explained he wanted a house that seemed to grow organically out of the landscape. To find such a shape, he had looked at flowers and insects.  He spoke about Mayan platforms and Kronborg Castle, which stood on a point only a few miles from his home.

‘It was not really the same. At Kronborg, part of the horizon is open; here the site is more intimate because the other side of the harbour is so close. Kronborg Castle is a big heavy structure with high towers and, as the ferry runs around it, the towers seem to move,’ he explained to Souter, as he watched a Manly ferry rounding the point on its way to Circular Quay. ‘The House will have several shells behind each other so that when you move past, they seem to move too…’

 

Model of Opera House interior, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

‘What do you think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s criticism?’ Souter asked.

‘He would not bother attacking it if he were not interested in it,’ Utzon replied, noting the praise from architects such as Richard Neutra, whom he’d visited in Los Angeles on his way to Sydney.

‘Don’t let me be a self-praiser,’ Utzon cautioned. ‘Self-praise stinks in Denmark.’ In Denmark, Jante’s law, a concept similar to Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, downplayed individual success.

To those who dismissed his design as ‘modern foolishness’, he said their criticism didn’t interest him, echoing his own father’s openness to the spirit of the new. ‘We ride in automobiles and we fire rockets. Why should we build in the Victorian style today?…’

‘This is how it will be at Bennelong Point. You must belong to your surroundings. When we design for Copenhagen, we are Danes; when we made this scheme for the Opera House, we camped on Bennelong Point. We were Bennelong Pointers.’

 -Helen Pitt, Australian

From The Mirror of the Sea (1906)

Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in a Polish-speaking part of the Russian Empire, Joseph Conrad went to sea in 1874, and drew on his experiences as a merchant seaman for his fiction. In his memoir The Mirror of the Sea, he looks back on the Sydney of the 1870s:

 

Watermen and their boats at Circular Quay, c.1890. (City of Sydney Archives)

These towns of the Antipodes, not so great then as they are now, took an interest in the shipping, the running links with “home,” whose numbers confirmed the sense of their growing importance.  They made it part and parcel of their daily interests.  This was especially the case in Sydney, where, from the heart of the fair city, down the vista of important streets, could be seen the wool-clippers lying at the Circular Quay—no walled prison-house of a dock that, but the integral part of one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun ever shone upon.  Now great steam-liners lie at these berths, always reserved for the sea aristocracy—grand and imposing enough ships, but here to-day and gone next week; whereas the general cargo, emigrant, and passenger clippers of my time, rigged with heavy spars, and built on fine lines, used to remain for months together waiting for their load of wool.  Their names attained the dignity of household words.  On Sundays and holidays the citizens trooped down, on visiting bent, and the lonely officer on duty solaced himself by playing the cicerone—especially to the citizenesses with engaging manners and a well-developed sense of the fun that may be got out of the inspection of a ship’s cabins and state-rooms.  The tinkle of more or less untuned cottage pianos floated out of open stern-ports till the gas-lamps began to twinkle in the streets, and the ship’s night-watchman, coming sleepily on duty after his unsatisfactory day slumbers, hauled down the flags and fastened a lighted lantern at the break of the gangway…

Circular Quay, c. 1888. View from the water looking south to Mort Co. (Woolbrokers) with banners “Many Happy Returns of the Day” (possibly on the occasion of the Centenary in January) and showing people gathered on the quay and a number of launches or ferries and tall ships. [Photo by Henry King 1880-1890] (City of Sydney Archives)

A stupid job, and fit only for an old man, my comrades used to tell me, to be the night-watchman of a captive (though honoured) ship.  And generally the oldest of the able seamen in a ship’s crew does get it.  But sometimes neither the oldest nor any other fairly steady seaman is forthcoming.  Ships’ crews had the trick of melting away swiftly in those days.  So, probably on account of my youth, innocence, and pensive habits (which made me sometimes dilatory in my work about the rigging), I was suddenly nominated, in our chief mate Mr. B—’s most sardonic tones, to that enviable situation.  I do not regret the experience.  The night humours of the town descended from the street to the waterside in the still watches of the night: larrikins rushing down in bands to settle some quarrel by a stand-up fight, away from the police, in an indistinct ring half hidden by piles of cargo, with the sounds of blows, a groan now and then, the stamping of feet, and the cry of “Time!” rising suddenly above the sinister and excited murmurs; night-prowlers, pursued or pursuing, with a stifled shriek followed by a profound silence, or slinking stealthily alongside like ghosts, and addressing me from the quay below in mysterious tones with incomprehensible propositions. The cabmen, too, who twice a week, on the night when the A.S.N. Company’s passenger-boat was due to arrive, used to range a battalion of blazing lamps opposite the ship, were very amusing in their way.  They got down from their perches and told each other impolite stories in racy language, every word of which reached me distinctly over the bulwarks as I sat smoking on the main-hatch.  On one occasion I had an hour or so of a most intellectual conversation with a person whom I could not see distinctly, a gentleman from England, he said, with a cultivated voice, I on deck and he on the quay sitting on the case of a piano (landed out of our hold that very afternoon), and smoking a cigar which smelt very good.  We touched, in our discourse, upon science, politics, natural history, and operatic singers.  Then, after remarking abruptly, “You seem to be rather intelligent, my man,” he informed me pointedly that his name was Mr. Senior, and walked off—to his hotel, I suppose.  Shadows!  Shadows!  I think I saw a white whisker as he turned under the lamp-post.  It is a shock to think that in the natural course of nature he must be dead by now.  There was nothing to object to in his intelligence but a little dogmatism maybe.  And his name was Senior!  Mr. Senior!

Circular Quay , with ruins of Dawes Battery in the foreground with a small steamer berthed in (now) Campbells Cove. The spire and lookout of the AUSN building is at far right. Campbell’s bond stores below the AUSN tower. (City of Sydney Archives)

The position had its drawbacks, however. One wintry, blustering, dark night in July, as I stood sleepily out of the rain under the break of the poop something resembling an ostrich dashed up the gangway. I say ostrich because the creature, though it ran on two legs, appeared to help its progress by working a pair of short wings; it was a man, however, only his coat, ripped up the back and flapping in two halves above his shoulders, gave him that weird and fowl-like appearance. At least, I suppose it was his coat, for it was impossible to make him out distinctly. How he managed to come so straight upon me, at speed and without a stumble over a strange deck, I cannot imagine. He must have been able to see in the dark better than any cat. He overwhelmed me with panting entreaties to let him take shelter till morning in our forecastle. Following my strict orders, I refused his request, mildly at first, in a sterner tone as he insisted with growing impudence.

 

Circular Quay, c. 1890. (City of Sydney Archives)

“For God’s sake let me, matey!  Some of ’em are after me—and I’ve got hold of a ticker here.”

“You clear out of this!” I said.

“Don’t be hard on a chap, old man!” he whined pitifully.

“Now then, get ashore at once.  Do you hear?”

Silence.  He appeared to cringe, mute, as if words had failed him through grief; then—bang! came a concussion and a great flash of light in which he vanished, leaving me prone on my back with the most abominable black eye that anybody ever got in the faithful discharge of duty.  Shadows!  Shadows!  I hope he escaped the enemies he was fleeing from to live and flourish to this day.  But his fist was uncommonly hard and his aim miraculously true in the dark.

 -Joseph Conrad, Polish-British, 1857-1924

If We Can’t Get It Together (1996)

You Am I’s 1996 album Hourly, Daily debuted at No. 1 on the ARIA Albums Charts. Tim Rogers looks at what’s involved in ‘settling down’:  

To get up the bond for an Inner West flat
He’d work for anybody if he wasn’t working for her dad
She’s practising saying ‘I do’ and ‘I will’
Cause she don’t know how to tell him that she’s going off the pill

Her curtains are for certain that he’ll talk about her ass
But she clings to his photo like a piece of broken glass
If we can’t get it together today
She’s looking for his heart while he stares the other way

His dad is a nut, his ex-girl is a slut
But he’ll be yours forever
If you just get it together
If we can’t get it together if we can’t get it together
Is it ever gonna be just you and me?

So they met on Tuesday at the Town Hall steps
To get an 8 by 10 photo and a wedding date set
‘we might as well do it next week,
cause we’ve met everybody that we’re ever gonna meet’

His dad is a nut, his ex-girl is a slut
But he’ll be yours forever
If you just get it together
If we can’t get it together if we can’t get it together
Is it ever gonna be just you and me?

470 to Circular Quay
With a present in your pocket from the TAB

If we can’t get it together if we can’t get it together
Is it ever gonna be just you and me?

Would you settle for a mobile home
Near a good record store and a public phone?

If we can’t get it together if we can’t get it together

-Tim Rogers, Australian, 1969-

Live Tim Rogers 2015 (starts at 4:00):

Reckless (1983)

Melbourne band Australian Crawl feel lost in Sydney:

Meet me down by the jetty landing
Where the pontoons bump and spray
I see the others reading, standing
As the Manly Ferry cuts its way to Circular Quay

Hear the captain blow his whistle
So long she’s been away
I miss our early morning wrestle
Not a very happy way to start the day

She don’t like that kind of behavior
She don’t like that kind of behavior

So, throw down your guns
Don’t be so reckless
Throw down your guns
Don’t be so

Feel like Scott of the Antarctic
Base camp too far away
A Russian sub beneath the Arctic
Burke and Wills and camels, initials in the tree

She don’t like that kind of behavior
She don’t like that kind of behavior

So, throw down your guns
Don’t be so reckless
Throw down your guns
Don’t be so

 James Reyne, Australian, 1957-

from The Songlines (1987)

1951 caption: 'Dad's peaceful sun-bake on the sand of this Sydney Harbour swimming pool ends to the amusement of the rest of the family. In the background is the Manly Ferry jetty. Hundreds of thousands of workers and business and professional men and woman each week-day travel to and from the city by ferry.' (National Archives of Australia)

1951 caption: ‘Dad’s peaceful sun-bake on the sand of this Sydney Harbour swimming pool ends to the amusement of the rest of the family. In the background is the Manly Ferry jetty. Hundreds of thousands of workers and business and professional men and woman each week-day travel to and from the city by ferry.’ (National Archives of Australia)

In his ‘novel of ideas’, Bruce Chatwin draws on his studies of nomads: ‘Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room…Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?’ At one point he settles down in the Outback to go through his real-life notebooks on the subject, in which this is an entry:

Sydney Harbour

On the ferry back from Manly a little old lady heard me talking.

‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ she said, in an English North Country accent. ‘I can tell you’re English.’

‘I am.’

‘So am I!’

She was wearing thick, steel-framed spectacles and a nice felt hat with a wisp of blue net above the brim.

‘Are you visiting Sydney?’ I asked her.

‘Lord, love no!’ she said, ‘I’ve lived here since 1946. I came out to live with my son, but a very strange thing happened. By the time the ship got here, he’d died. Imagine! I’d given up my home in Doncaster, so I thought I might as well stay! So I asked my second son to come out and live with me. So he came out…emigrated…and do you know what?’

‘No.’

‘He died. He had a heart attack, and died’.

‘That’s terrible,’ I said.

‘I had a third son,’ she went on. ‘He was my favourite, but he died in the war. Dunkirk, you know! He was very brave. I had a letter from his officer. Very brave he was! He was on the deck…covered in blazing oil…and he threw himself into the sea. Oooh! He was a sheet of living flame!’

‘But that is terrible!’

‘But it’s a lovely day,’ she smiled. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day?’

It was a bright sunny day with high white clouds and a breeze coming in off the ocean. Some yachts were beating out towards The Heads, and other yachts were running under spinnaker. The old ferry ran before the whitecaps, towards the Opera House and the Bridge.

‘And it’s so lovely out at Manly!’ she said. ‘I loved to go out to Manly with my son…before he died! But I haven’t been for twenty years!’

‘But it’s so near,’ I said.

‘But I haven’t been out of the house for sixteen. I was blind, love! My eyes was covered with cataracts, and I couldn’t see a thing. The eye surgeon said it was hopeless, so I sat there. Think of it! Sixteen years in the dark! Then along comes this nice social worker the other week and says, “We’d better get those cataracts looked at.” And look at me now!’

I looked through the spectacles at a pair of twinkling – that is the word for them – twinkling blue eyes.

‘They took me to hospital,’ she said. ‘And they cut out the cataracts. And isn’t it lovely! I can see!’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s wonderful!’

‘It’s my first time out alone,’ she confided. ‘I didn’t tell a soul. I said to myself at breakfast, “It’s a lovely day. I’ll take the bus to Circular Quay, and go over on the ferry to Manly…just like we did in the old days.” I had a fish lunch. Oh, it was lovely!’

She hunched her shoulders mischievously, and giggled.

‘How old would you say I was?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Let me look at you. I’d say you were eighty.’

‘No. No. No,’ she laughed. ‘I’m ninety-three…and I can see!’

–Bruce Chatwin, English, 1940-1989