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paul hyett

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Australia's operatic registration drama threatens harmony

To hear music within the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House is a special experience.

The top and sides are formed as if by a huge cotton pleated sheet, appearing quite weightless at its edges. The seating arrangement being in the round, the interior is uncompromisingly focused by this lining's 'pleats' which cascade from the apex of the space to the stage. In this hall architecture melts irresistibly into music.

Philip Drew, author of a newly published biography on Jorn Utzon, is less enthusiastic claiming that the auditorium is 'but a shadow of the architect's true intentions'. Drew says that Peter Hall, who assumed responsibility for completing this project following the brutal dismissal of Utzon, would have been ecstatic to hear my praise. Sadly Hall died prematurely having drunk of the poison chalice of Utzon's untimely departure.

But despite such criticism, the Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece. We should be grateful, indeed marvel, that it is there at all.

But before we become too smug, we should also acknowledge the awful truth that the outcome would be no better today. It would almost certainly be worse, for modern building procurement methods militate against the conditions which foster great architecture. Furthermore, projects of the scale and ambition of the opera house are vulnerable to the political processes that masquerade as democracy in modern market economies, and to the crude techniques through which the market increasingly emaciates architecture.

Nevertheless, Australia carries a legacy of guilt over its treatment of this project and of Utzon, who has never seen the completed building. This guilt arises out of the nation's acknowledged inability to provide the context within which such a work could be properly delivered.

But Australia should draw lessons from this bitter experience for, as a young country, it is uniquely placed to express its emerging culture through tomorrow's architecture. As Shelley Penn recently said when launching Chris Johnson and Davina Jackson's book, Australian Architecture Now, there is a new global imperative to reconcile architecture with the environment.

Architecture can alleviate human suffering, facilitate economic progress, lift the human spirit and, ultimately, avert ecological disaster. By placing sustainable design at the heart of its agenda, and creating a better architecture within a new ethical framework, Australia could lead the world in architectural reform, for no more critical challenge exists today than living in harmony with our host planet.

That is our mission, but while Australia offers much in exploring the way towards a new architecture its capability is yet again threatened, some 50 years after the struggle over Utzon's work, through an inquiry by the Productivity Commission to consider the deregulation of architects. In this respect the future looks bleak, for the commission already seems committed to recommending the removal of protection of title.

If it adopts that recommendation - pandering to the vulgar and short-term interests of competition rather than tempering the worst excesses of consumerism - the Australian government will open the way to cruder building processes, further eroding the essential conditions for ambitious and intelligent work.

This is at the very time when architectural endeavour needs, more than ever before, to be focused on the real challenge - the delivery of an ecologically sustainable urban fabric. It will be tragic if Australia again damages the process of architectural delivery - this time at a national scale.

We must therefore hope that in considering the Productivity Commission's report, Australian legislators will make decisions that enable the profession to fully meet architecture's great responsibility.

Architects need and deserve appropriate conditions to carry out their work and it is increasingly important that governments establish and maintain those conditions.

Australia, through its experience with Utzon, should know that only too well.

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