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 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