Why this Sydney Opera House Book should exist.

Why another Sydney Opera House book? Because there’s something new to say, that’s why. In 2012, while standing in the office of Arup’s onsite engineers in the westernmost construction hut up on stilts over the forecourt, I had an epiphany. On one wall was a massive screen with a live feed of the excavation in progress of a huge crater beneath the building. It had the quality of Max Dupain’s photographs of the first stage of the Opera House’s construction, that had made it seem either an inscrutable future ruin, something like Stonehenge, or futuristic and alien, like the monolith from 2001. It was phenomenally physically imposing and heavy. To go down into that crater was to feel as if it were 10 times, maybe 100 times human scale. On one of the desks was a computer with 3D models and animations, the beginning of the Building Information Management System. It was diagrammatically abstract but I had the sensation that even if it had been skinned up with super-real CGI, it would still seem insubstantial, weightless and scale-less. 

This contrast reminded me of the stratigraphic charts in children’s encyclopaedias which present different civilisations as though they inhabit different floors of an apartment building. Cave dwellers in the basement, ancient Egyptians on the ground floor, ancient Greeks on the first floor, ancient Romans on the second floor, and on upwards. The construction of this underground loading dock was the first phase of the scheme Utzon designed (working from afar with his architect son Jan as his emissary onsite) during the decade he was reconciled with the Opera House up until his death in 2008, a dramatic solution to the cramped conditions in the Joan Sutherland Theatre by dropping the whole venue down a level.

It was almost exactly a year later that I was able to quantity why this seemed like an epochal shift, a definitive end to the Utzon, and Hall, eras. Using the ambisonic software Arup uses to model and simulate the sonic properties of spaces, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard had configured a sonic sculpture of tracks from Scott Walker’s Bisch Bosch album. They constructed something like a geodesic dome on the stage of the Playhouse, set with high benches that lifted your feet off the ground, and in total darkness you inhabited, really, a contemporary rendering of the  Heironymous Bosch-like heaven and hellscape of Scott Walker’s songs. This ‘performance’ overturned every regular expectation of a performance. It was alive, but it was a recording. The audience was on the stage. And rather than suspend disbelief and enter the simulated world of the album, this experience required you to keep your wits about you and try to hold onto and relate it to the real world.

It invalidated how Utzon had sketched out and Peter Hall had completed, the way in which audiences would experience the performances. They’d envisaged a procession beginning at the edge of the precinct. You’d ascend upwards, on the monumental steps, out of daily life, and at the threshhold, the Southern foyers of the two largest venues walk around to the doors and then descend into the magical world of the performance, leaving the everyday world behind. There’s now no longer any ‘standard’ experience of the building and through our smartphones we’re all the time experiencing various layers of simulated or shifted realities. Along the construction timeline and first couple of years of activation of the underground loading dock, those who bring the building to life — the resident Australian arts companies, rock’n’roll musicians and chefs —are changing the way the building is used, in advance of, or in contradiction to, the upgrading of the venues currently taking place with the experimental programs Fergus Linehan and now Ben Marshall have been programming for Vivid Live, and the Opera House’s orchestras, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s ACO Virtual, also on the stage of the Playhouse, Opera Australia’s ‘silent’ opera with the audience on the forecourt, watching the main singers, while listening on headphones, to the chorus and orchestra performing inside the building, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s performance projected onto the roof shells. A performance of Max Richter’s Sleep during Vivid in 2016 has been the most extreme version of overturning every expectation of venue configuration and performance. He was exploring how music affects consciousness as people fall in and out of sleep and between the states of waking and dreaming. It had been performed before, in regular venues, with the band onstage and cots lined up in the auditorium, a sight now that immediately invokes temporary refuge rather than a performance, in this new Anthropocene epoch, when the consequence of the human effect on the natural world is wild weather events that cause whole cities to be evacuated. The cots fanned out on the steps of the Northern foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre pulled the performers closer, but also kept the audience in the real world seen through the wraparound glass walls, seeming as if they were floating above the city as they floated in and out of sleep.

Another year later, during a symposium in the chamber music venue named for Utzon, with the theme “What Would Utzon Do Now?” the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa noted that the ‘edge of the possible’ that was Utzon’s preferred vantage point hadn’t shifted so much as dematerialised. There were two main issues with the evolution of digital tools. Any form is now literally buildable (particularly with Frank Gehry’s expansion of the pioneering work Utzon and engineer Ove Arup had done in using the computer as a design tool) so what makes that form coherent? And if audiences can be anywhere, and experience the building from afar, how does that affect the experience of the site. Those who bring the building to life are answering the second question and the first was addressed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director and principal conductor David Robertson when he began his tenure in 2014. “Unusual music is suited to unusual buildings” he is quoted as saying in a monograph of wildly peculiar new concert halls, many of them in China, and many of them played in during a tour by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, relating the architecture to the repertoire and to the city.

By the end of 2016 this epochal shift was complete enough to begin shaping into a book of essays. In late 2017, as I was putting the finishing touches on the first complete draft two books were published that give my reporting ballast as architecture criticism: Anne Watson’s The Poisoned Chalice: Peter Hall and the Sydney Opera House which adds a dimension to the Opera House narrative that appreciates how Peter Hall brought the building to life, moving beyond the Good (Utzon) vs. Evil (Hall) attitude that dogged Hall for the rest of his life for accepting the commission. And Sirius, the book that emerged from the campaign to save the Sirius brutalist social housing complex in the Rocks, an invaluable study of the ethics as well as the aesthetics of preservation. If the Opera House is to be a fleshed out symbol, deeply engaged with its city, what use is it if that city is a wealthy wasteland and the Opera House is a beautiful bauble dangled in front of penthouse windows?

But my book occupies a weird micro-niche, sitting at the crossroads where architecture and music criticism meet. I spent 18 years in the United States, writing for international design publications, including Blueprint and Metropolis and haute nerd reports on technology for now-extinct Conde Nast shelter magazines. But while I was an architecture-critic-in-waiting I’d written about the music of the punk rock era in Australia, and when I returned to live in Sydney in 2007, it was music writing I was offered. A chapter for Karen Welberry and Tanya Dalziell’s academic appreciation of Nick Cave’s music, the liner notes for the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away, and the Rowland S Howard tribute collection, Six Strings That Drew Blood.

The original perspective I have on the Opera House as a living thing is how it’s become an iconic rock venue, bolstered by trips to Adelaide, talking to David Sefton, whose Meltdown Festival concept to introduce rock’n’roll into the Royal Festival Hall in London, is a precursor to Vivid Live, which in its first three years had figures from the rock and roll world curating programs. And it wasn’t merely a matter of being there. My presence didn’t invoke the Heisenberg Principle. In observing something I didn’t change it.

The seven year genesis of the book underscores the difficulty of doing immersive architecture criticism now. Back in New York and California I was part of a group of contributors who were continually reporting within their areas of interest and could periodically polish up chunks of their reporting when a coherent story emerged. It wasn’t so much driven by press-releases. And Blueprint and Metropolis, particularly, covered architecture within a broader design context, writing about fashion design, industrial design, graphics, engineering, urbanism.

I just happened to be at the Opera House from 2007 through 2014, working part-time for chef Matt Moran’s catering company. My executive chef, Simon Sandall, had worked at the Opera House for over ten years at that point, first in the restaurant that occupied the space where the convention centre is now being constructed, then at Bennelong Restaurant, and as Aria Restaurant’s first head chef. He also guided Opera Bar. As a chef I’m a gifted enough amateur to produce good quality food, but I was always standing a little outside the process, asking Simon technical questions about the restaurants and catering projects in relation to the architecture. At a certain point I felt as though I must have made an architecture critic’s version of Robert Johnson’s pact with the Devil at a crossroads at midnight. I had a direct connection to so many significant aspects of the evolving life of the Opera House. Nick Cave’s “Ship Song” became the Opera House’s theme song. The director of the “Ship Song” video, Paul Goldman, an old friend from punk rock days, was my neighbour in Potts Point, and he loaned me his copy of the definitive Utzon monograph by Richard Weston. The Push the Sky Away album had its official world premiere during three performances at the Opera House, and it was then that I met Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who were filming the second of the three concerts for their film 20,000 Days on Earth. And my special area of interest in architecture is engineering, particularly Ove Arup’s expansive definition of engineering as art as well as something practical was helpful in understanding the technical aspects of the construction of the underground loading dock and Arup’s art projects, for instance their collaboration with Iain and Jane.

These connections and having visited the American masterpieces of modern architecture that inspired both Utzon and Hall, gave me a solid foundation. My book followed the conceit of Gay Talese’s great piece of magazine reporting, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”, for Esquire in 1966. Denied an interview with Frank Sinatra in California he just “hung out” reporting upon Frank Sinatra’s effect upon his world, but informed by the fact that he had grown up in the same kind of Italian American family Sinatra had. He had some understanding of the world that had formed him. Since I was reporting from the building’s point of view I quoted from sources on the public record: annual reports, media stories, souvenir programmes and ephemera. My interviews have been calibration, making sure my interpretation of the public documents isn’t wildly off-base.

The Opera House has been supportive during the creation of my book. I wasn’t a journalist going undercover to surreptitiously compile an expose, so the issues around writing about the sometimes private aspect of a public building have been minor, and technical, and haven’t affected the story in any way. The various serendipities that made this book possible have also shown me how difficult it is to do deeply reported architecture stories today. Even in my time in America the financial support Esquire gave Gay Talese to just hang around and see if a story emerged after Frank Sinatra refused to talk to him was no longer available. But now it’s complicated by the fact that both architecture and engineering firms and cultural institutions are so huge and complexly populated that there’s no clear point of entry into a story any more.

I had several conversations with Kate Ceberano while she was appearing in South Pacific at the Opera House. I’d seen her perform and been acquainted with her since the early days of her career, performing the Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong songs I’d loved as a child. (I didn’t understand rock music back then, only jazz.) So I went to Adelaide while Kate was directing the second of three cabaret festivals at the Adelaide Festival Centre. It was then that I realised that a study of the Opera House as a living entity is stronger if I place it within its peer group of late modern performing arts complexes in Australia, also including the Adelaide Festival Centre and Roy Grounds’s Arts Centre Melbourne.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to both visit and call the Festival Centre’s architect John Morphett several times from 2013 until his death at Easter in 2016. He’d studied and worked with Walter Gropius in America in the middle of the 20th century and brought the Bauhaus ideals of cross-disciplinary collaboration into Hassell. He talked about how those collaborations are always expanding, mentioning how Ken Maher’s sense of landscape and public space being indivisible from the architecture widened the horizon of the practice. In 2017, Hassell added another dimension, purchasing Freestate, bringing the storyboarding of the experiencing of spaces into the design process.

It’s now no longer relevant to go to a city and try to identify the architects of particular buildings. A Norman Foster over there, Richard Rodgers there, Renzo Piano there, as you might do with the Sydney cityscape. The firms associated with the renewal projects at the Opera House … ARM … Tonkin Zuliakha Greer … might have well known people, but no figureheads in the 20th Century Rock Star architect sense … and no clearly discernible impact upon the city that Paul Goldman was able to chart in his documentary on Denton, Corker and Marshall and their projects in Melbourne. And Hassell and Arup contain so many different disciplines, in various collaborative configurations, in so many cities around the globe, that it’s impossible to map their overall impact upon a city. I’ve suffered multiple frustrations in checking my reporting and trying to expand upon it by trying to connect with architecture and engineering firms … being bounced around to phone extensions that dead-end in message banks … being asked to send emails to studio@ and reception@ that go unanswered.

And then who publishes this book now that it’s done? I have a perverse relationship with architecture and music criticism. As soon as both ceased to become viable professions I became intensely interested in doing them well, as a hobby. My day job is now manufacturing notebooks and special edition bookbinding projects in a studio in Sydney, based around a technique I’ve invented. Nick Cave, for instance, uses my notebooks to write his various projects into. My own projects are prototypes really. Many publishers were interested in my book but it fell between categories: too technical for general interest publishers and too specifically culturally Australian for international architecture presses.

So I’ve created a new niche, tightly focused on the music /architecture crossover. I’ll publish 1,000 copies, for sale online through the Melbourne music merchandiser Artist First. And the ultimate aim is to expand the reach of the Australian Music Vault at Arts Centre in Melbourne. I’ve donated items to its Performing Arts Collection since the mid 1980s and I feel quite protective of it, since many of my notebooks are in its Nick Cave archive. Naturally the Vault covers Melbourne very well so I’ll generate small publishing projects that connect architecture and music in other cities, collecting research materials in a scholarly way, guided by the Head of Collections, Janine Barrand (who appears in the movie 20,000 Days on Earth with materials from the Nick Cave archive).

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