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Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House Edited by Anne Watson.Lund Humphries, 2006. 192pp. £35

If you think of Australia as a big country, with cricketer Don Bradman and songwriter Nick Cave among its cultural ambassadors managing to put British efforts to shame, then pay a visit. If you do, you begin to understand why the Sydney Opera House is so important.

It symbolises Australia's economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s - and its struggle to retain its world-famous position today.

Jørn Utzon won the competition for the opera house in 1957 and it finally opened in 1973, after a new regional government, rather than negotiate, accepted Utzon's resignation in 1966.

He had already been forced to redesign the shell roof because his original proposal, though admired, proved unworkable; in 1961 he produced a new concept of interconnected precast ribs based on segments of a sphere.

The interior is largely designed by local architects led by Peter Hall, who maintained some communication with Utzon in the dispute over his resignation. Only in 1999 was Utzon re-engaged as design consultant, with the upgrading of the interior entrusted to his son, Jan, and the Sydney architect Richard Johnson.

So the Opera House is a awed masterpiece, and perhaps the more interesting for it, if one believes the surrounding hagiography of which this collection of essays is part. Australia may be a young nation, but it has turned the philosophy of conservation into a movement of its own.

These essays are part of a wider bid to have World Heritage status conferred on the opera house.

The definitive account of the building remains that by Richard Weston in his mammoth biography of Utzon (AJ 04.04.02). In comparison, much of this collection is puff, and there's considerable duplication. The good parts are the stories about how the building and, in particular, that roof, was made.

The early 1960s saw a sea change in the construction industry as it became able to take on larger and more complex commissions: 10,000 men of 32 nationalities worked on the opera house. John Nutt, the Australian member of Ove Arup's young and very international team, sets out the major engineering difficulties.

Most interesting of all is the essay on early computers: the complex design of the roof was supported by unprecedented computer testing, with vast machines at City and Southampton universities supporting Arup's own machine.

The photographs, many showing the opera house under construction, are also wonderful. That the building is a masterpiece is thanks to the way it sits perfectly on its dramatic promontory, the sails of its roof reecting those of the boats around it. It helps that it is also fantastically photogenic - the sun as dazzling on its white tiles as on the surrounding water. But the collection reads like a series of conference papers, offering individual insights rather than a coherent story.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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