Like a Living Thing: The Evolution of the Sydney Opera House
By Jillian Burt. Illustrations by Reg Mombassa. The book fleshes out the Sydney Opera House’s role as a symbol, reporting on how the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the resident arts companies, rock musicians and chefs is influencing the building’s evolution ahead of the renewal projects due to be completed in 2024.
A special edition of 200 “artist’s proofs” contains a self-contained 20 page Reg Mombassa magazine within the book. It has illustrations by artist and musician Reg Mombassa, many of them rare and never previously published or exhibited. He’s practically Australia’s mythmaker-in-chief. His artworks and designs for surfwear company Mambo often include the Sydney Opera House in his analysis of Australian culture.
It has a unique binding based around a “floating” spine construction, invented at Editions Ballard. The spine pieces have ersatz concrete, bronze and ochre finishes, reflecting the materials of the Sydney Opera House. The book is entirely designed, printed, and bound in Australia.
Jillian Burt is an architecture and music critic who was based in the United States for 16 years, writing for many international architecture and design publications, including Blueprint, Metropolis and several, now extinct, Conde Nast shelter magazines. She wrote the liner notes for the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away.
More examples of design writing on my Instagram site.
The book is written along the timeline and early stages of construction of the underground loading dock, 2011 through 2016, and concludes at the end of 2017. It considers the Sydney Opera House from several deeply reported unique perspectives:
º The furthering of Ove Arup’s ambition for engineering to be considered an art as well as a practical discipline.
º The Sydney Opera House as an iconic rock venue, particularly advanced by Ben Marshall with his intersecting portfolios Contemporary Music, Vivid Live and Graphic.
º The importance of the restaurants and their influence on the architecture: chef Matt Moran’s Opera Bar, Aria Restaurant and Aria Catering. Chef Peter Gilmore’s Bennelong Restaurant.
º The influence of all of the resident arts companies: The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Sydney Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet.
º The renewal of the city’s other cultural institutions, including the Walsh Bay precinct and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
º Considering the Sydney Opera House within the its peer group of late modern performing arts centres
—The Adelaide Festival Centre, from the perspective of its architect, John Morphett, from discussions with him shortly before his death at Easter in 2016.
—Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Music Vault.
“Like a Living Thing” reverses the usual vantage points of architecture criticism. It looks out from within the Opera House rather than focusing on the dramatically expressive form of its exterior, the upended, nestled white roof shells that have made it one of the most famous buildings on the planet. It doesn’t talk about how the architects (first Jorn Utzon and Peter Hall, and now a variety of firms carrying out upgrades) bring the building to life but rather how the resident Australian arts companies — the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Theatre Company, Opera Australia, Australian Ballet, Bell Shakespeare, Bangarra Dance Theatre — and contemporary musicians are using the building ingeniously without requiring elaborate architectural changes to advance their artforms.
Instead of the dramatic, though now cliched photographs of the roof shells and an unpopulated precinct, there are 13 pages of illustrations by Reg Mombassa, practically Australia’s mythmaker-in-chief whose portraits of the Opera House are also cultural studies, and include his posters for concerts at the Opera House and for the Millers Point residents association.
The book is written at the exact moment of change, when the Opera House shifts into a new era: 2011 through 2016, and runs along the timeline of the construction and early activation period of the Arup engineered underground loading dock. It’s the moment when digital technologies of many kinds alter the way Utzon and Hall imagined the Opera House would be experienced, with layers of simulated, shifted, wholly invented and inverted realities altering how performers and audiences relate to performances and the building. And demonstrates the evolution of Ove Arup’s aim for engineering to be both an art and a practical discipline.
In 2011 a video of Nick Cave’s “Ship Song” interpreted by all of the resident arts companies and several, mainly Australian rock musicians was uploaded to YouTube. The book starts at this point to observe the Opera House becoming an iconic rock venue by having rock musicians create experimental works, sometimes in collaboration with the Opera House’s resident orchestras — the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Opera and Ballet Orchestra. And follows rock’n’roll’s entrance into concert halls from David Sefton’s Meltdown Festivals at the Royal Festival Halls in London, through to Fergus Linehan’s Sydney Festivals, then his programming for Vivid Live, and now Ben Marshall’s interlinked portfolios of Contemporary Music, Vivid Live and Graphic using the entire building inventively.
It studies how the traces of life, the ephemera of posters and programmes, connect the performances to the culture of the day and illustrated works as a part of the culture through the Graphic Festival.
It considers the Opera House within its peer group of late modern performing arts centres, the Adelaide Festival Centre, seen from the perspective of I ts architect John Morphett. And Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Music Vault which is an urban as much as a musical project, figuring out how to chronicle the bohemias that form at the edges of the formal culture.