What I hope readers take away from my book that captures the Sydney Opera House as a living thing is a David Attenbourghian sense of discovery. Of encountering an ecosystem, being thrilled and amazed by the behaviour of the creatures you find there, the complexity of their reliance upon one another, and surprised by the ingenuity and resourcefulness they display in making use of their habitat. I consider his documentaries a form of architecture criticism. Switch out a tree for a building. A tree is just a tree but inhabitants of the forest it grows within will feast on its leaves, rest in its upper branches, burrow around its roots, camouflage themselves against its bark. Bring that perspective into the city and go beyond describing what a building looks like, what the architect (s) intended, and look for crazy adaptive behaviours in response to the building, that the architect (s) could never have imagined. That’s what my book about the Sydney Opera House aims to do.
I write about the Opera House at the exact moment it switches into a new era. Architecture being slower than organic life, that moment is seven years long: 2011 through 2017. 2011 is when everything began to change. The construction of the Arup engineered loading dock, deep beneath the Opera House became the foundation that the re-imagining of the infrastructure currently taking place rests upon, replacing the mechanisms for staging shows, upgrading acoustics, improving access for people who can’t climb all those stairs. It’s not reaching for a static ideal of perfection. Or a static ideal of an artform. The changes to the Concert Hall that tailor it to the specifications of its resident orchestras also take into account that it’s a rock’n’roll venue, and that the orchestras often collaborate with rock’n’roll musicians.
In 2011 the video of the all of the resident Australian arts companies performing fragments of Nick Cave’s “Ship Song” alongside several, mostly Australian, rock musicians (though not Nick himself) uploaded to YouTube in 2011 introduced those who bring the building to life, showing them performing in backstage and service areas, the venues, the foyers, then the monumental steps. The upended, nestled, glowing white roof shells that have made the Opera House one of the most famous buildings on the planet are the last thing we see. The video gave us a model of the Opera House’s ecosystem.
In 2011 Arup was also creating a Building Information Management System to manage the building’s operations. This would be taken further by AECOM, expanding to integrate staging elements, and is being gradually fleshed out to create a digital doppelgänger of the Opera House in the cloud, with databases of pure information are tied to a 3D model. Electricians may move through a building and test elements as if they were there, rather than looking at a co-ordinate on a plan. Artists can simulate their performance on a stage while their technicians figure out the sound and light requirements. But where it gets strange, and what makes the Opera House currently so exciting, is where those things overlap. The tools for making and maintaining architecture are same tools used for making art. In 2013 film-makers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard created a project for Vivid LIVE, using Arup’s software for modelling sound within built environments to ‘sculpt’ the sound of Scott Walker’s Bisch Bosch album. Audiences were led along the passageway of the Playhouse and onto its stage and into a completely dark dome, seated on benches that lifted their feet off the ground and the sound swirled around them from many, multi-directional speakers. A brilliant way to experience the contemporary version of an Heironymous Bosch Heaven-and-Hellscape suggested by Scott Walker’s album.
It was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s performance, created in consultation with Scott Walker. So it was a live performance. They were there operating the sound and minimal lights. Similarly when the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Virtual ACO was installed on the same stage, audience members stood in the centre of filmed sequences of the ACO playing, but they could choose sequences and isolate instruments. The audiences were creating performances for themselves.
Sense-warping experiences that relate to the digital Opera House but confound the physical Opera House are becoming commonplaces: A concert by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra projected onto the roof shells. Opera Australia’s audience seated on chairs on the forecourt with headphones clamped on their ears watching the principal singers perform on the monumental steps while listening to the orchestra and chorus performing inside the building. Audiences on cots fanned out around Max Richter’s chamber orchestra, in the northern foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, perhaps sleeping through the overnight performance of Sleep, exactly 8 hours long. A hologram of Stephen Hawking being interviewed on the Concert Hall stage by fellow physicist Paul Davies.
The David Attenborough documentary my book most resembles is Alive, where he goes into the Natural History Museum in London and while looking at skeletons of ancient, extinct megafauna they’re brought to simulated life via CGI. He first established scale … a tooth of a Gigantopithacus, a great ape, is six times the size of our own. “This was a true monster.” Then extrapolated behaviour from his observations of its likely form and density, suggesting that with its phenomenal weight it was likely too heavy to climb trees, so it was surely bipedal. How this sort of ‘documentary’ thinking might meaningfully enter the culture was suggested when someone on YouTube mashed up a Pokemon Go! monster capture in Dublin with a David Attenborough commentary. Hilarious, of course, but also meaningful. The figures of myth are kept alive within Irish culture with the same kind of detail that David Attenborough could use to reconstruct Gigantopithacus.
If all this sounds absurdly sci-fi tinged, well, that reflects my interests and reference points. Any city I live in is at least partially terraformed from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, updated to include the Brutalist Blade Runner 2049 released in 2018. An extra dimension to my belief that the Sirius building should continue to exist is that it’s the future, brought to the screen in Blade Runner 2049 with footage of brutalist buildings in Mexico City. But I’m not off base with an Opera House reference. Blade Runner 2049’s deserted Las Vegas, blanketed in red dust was inspired by photographs cinematographer Roger Deakins saw of the Opera House’s roof shells turned red during a massive dust storm that blanketed Sydney in 2009.
And we’re in the process of outsourcing our experience of our homes and cities to digital assistants (Alexa, Siri) and driverless cars. Consider this, from a New York Times Magazine story by Geoff Manaugh in 2015 titled “The Dreamlife of Driverless Cars”: “As [Matthew Shaw and William Trossell, architectural designers] already knew, laser-scanning equipment could easily be fooled by applying it in inappropriate conditions or simply misusing the gear. Solid objects, whether architectural ruins, geological forms or commercial buildings in the heart of London, are particularly amenable to scanning. Fog banks, mist and afternoon drizzle, not so much. Yet Trossell and Shaw’s early work was devoted precisely to this: pushing the technology into unexpected realms where things, by definition, could not go as planned. Setting up their laser scanner deep in the woods, they captured low rolling clouds of mist as digital blurs haunting the landscape; moving ice floes scanned from a ship north of the Arctic Circle took shape in their hard drives as overlapping labyrinths on the verge of illegibility, as if the horizon of the world itself had begun to buckle. These first projects, commissioned by organizations like the BBC and Greenpeace, have since blossomed into a new approach: mapping London through the robot eyes of a self-driving car.”
My book is in the orbit of more formal architecture criticism and cultural studies. I imagine it sitting on top of a pile of crucial works that give it ballast. Richard Weston’s collection of studies of Jorn Utzon’s lifetime of architectural works. “Utzon has read the text, corrected errors of fact, and commented on aspects of interpretation, but he has not interfered with the expression of my views.” Donald Horne’s Time of Hope, cataloguing the social and cultural upheaval of the years that Peter Hall was bringing the Opera House to life after Utzon’s departure, 1966 through 1972. And two books published in 2017. Anne Watson had access to Peter Hall’s diaries and papers and in Poisoned Chalice presents a more nuanced appreciation of his struggles and accomplishments, moving beyond the acrimony that dogged him, perhaps helped destroy him, after he accepted the commission to complete the building. It’s necessarily scholarly but has bright, lively moments that capture Hall’s times and put his inspiration in context. A photograph of a model in gauzy dreamy, 1970s fashion with a magenta and white birch plywood chair from the Concert Hall. She quotes Hall. “I’ve chosen clear, strong colours like the ones Matisse used … people today are capable of much stronger assaults on the senses than they used to be. You’ve only got to hear the new pop music … Nobody’s going to walk through muted grey interiors here.”
And the book by John Dunn, Ben Peake and Amiera Piscopo documenting the campaign to save the Brutalist Sirius public housing building. The Opera House is at the edge of everything in this book. In photographs from and around the building, looking across Circular Quay, and at the heart of the argument to sell the building. The extreme beauty and glittering fame of the Opera House has made it attractive to developers who want to dangle it as a beautiful bauble in front of the windows of penthouses of expensive apartment buildings. Architecturally significant as the Sirius might be, it’s indivisible from an ideal of public housing, an example of a strong community that was enabled by its architecture.
The Sirius book is also a physical wonder. Brutally lovely in form, with a cover that has an extreme closeup shot with a Blade Runner 2049 kind of red dust glow in its windows, wrapped onto thick unbleached cardboard spine and cover pieces. It’s small, lightweight, and readable, designed more like a magazine than a turgidly dense monograph. This is an important point.
“I have forgotten how to read” author Michael Harris lamented in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail on February 9, 2018. He can no longer sit with a traditional novel, blocks of dense text unrelieved by illustrations, for more than a few moments, now “… intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli.” Neither can I, but in my case it’s more a sense of design and typography than losing the ability to read. Truly absorbing books can make me forget the sense of melancholy that’s stirred up by clunky rectangles of text but not often. I read differently now. Not having read comic books since MAD Magazine and Top Cat when I was a kid, in the past few years, through the Opera House’s Graphic Festival, I’ve found a way in to graphic novels. It was an apple falling on the noggin moment when I was reading the Archangel series of comic books science fiction novelist William Gibson co-wrote and realised that I was reading the images in the same way I read his text, looking for the same detailed descriptions of buildings and interiors, the same snappy dialogue. My perception of what it is to read has been upgraded.
Which is why Reg Mombassa’s illustrations are a crucial part of my book, gathered together in a 20 page comic book with an essay that considers how his music and art are intertwined. He’s Australia’s unofficial mythmaker in chief — He’s drawn coins and postage stamps — and the Opera House is a totem in his ongoing study of the evolution of Australian culture.
I don’t necessarily need illustrations in non-fiction books. Especially when they’re sad little things printed on the glossy paper used for inserts for CDs. But I need typography to be illustrative. I swoon for Fabien Baron’s graceful and elegant extreme magnification of individual letters in Harpers Bazaar in the 1980s … pull-quotes as punchlines in Esquire of the 1970s … David Carson’s perverse assemblages of type for Ray Gun. Everything Emigre did, inventing fonts digital fonts and then printing them out, with a messy elegance of form, as contradictory as that sounds. What I mean to convey is that the rigour in their process.
So I’ve designed a limited edition of 200 copies of my book using the online design tool Canva and bound with a method I’ve invented (with a ‘floating’ spine inspired by the deck steps of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House). In a chapter referencing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao I’ve tried to make the type curve and billow like the building’s titanium roof sails. In the most peculiar way it’s how I see the words as I’m writing them. Just 200 copies. Then it will go into a different limited edition completely redesigned by Melbourne artist, designer and musician Adele Daniele, and it will be sold as music merchandising, reflecting the Opera House’s current role as an iconic rock venue.