Sydney Opera House book synopsis

Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House is one of the most famous buildings on the planet. A powerful magnet, luring visitors from around the world to its ridiculously beautiful harbourside setting to photograph themselves against the dramatically sculptural assembly of its upended, nestled white roof shells. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with its billowing titanium sails has a similar magnetic effect. Gehry has said that the city of Bilbao wanted a Sydney Opera House, and when on the panel that awarded Utzon the Pritzker Prize in 2003 he said, “He made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country. It’s the first time in our lifetime that an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence.”

(the book, with illustrations by Reg Mombassa, is now available at

There’s a glittery quality to its fame that can leave performers starstruck. “It feels like I get to be on your $10 bill for a day,” said Neko Case in concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2014. It’s the kind of fame that induces a pop culture sugar-rush. In 2010 Oprah Winfrey filmed the last of her broadcast television shows from the forecourt of the ‘Oprah House’. In 2012 a Sydney Opera House Barbie Doll was released, her hair sculpted into a spiky sideways shell-shape, wearing a gown that was a patchwork assemblage of roof shells, and Yoko Ono, in conversation there in 2103, declared that like the Sydney Opera House she was also once misunderstood but now appreciated.

Utzon was re-engaged in 1999 to define the building’s essential characteristics to develop an unassailable preservation strategy that culminated in a World Heritage listing in 2007. These design principles also guide the multi-venue performing arts centre as its infrastructure evolves along with the artforms it serves. He never visited the completed Opera House, which opened in 1973, but his design principles have recalibrated its troubled creation story shifting it from tragedy to triumph. He was magnanimous about the way his successors, Australian architects Peter Hall, David Littlemore and Lionel Todd had brought the building to life after his departure in 1966, with the glass walls enclosing the roof shells, and the interiors still to be fully resolved. And he considered his new projects (working from afar with his architect son Jan as his emissary onsite) not as reaching for a static ideal of design perfection, taking apart what had been done and making it over entirely inside and out to his design, but as adding to a hybrid work that would always change internally, over time, within the form he’d designed, in response to shifts in the culture.

Since his death Utzon has become a steadily intensifying conceptual presence, a form of background radiation permeating everything … in photographs, in videos played during the tours, in the chamber music room named for him, with a quote hanging on the plaque in the combined foyer space for the venues in the building’s podium. For a while there was even the talk of a major motion picture about his life. Peter Hall died in 1995 a broken man. He was never able to escape the acrimony directed towards him for accepting the commission to complete the Opera House. In recent years a more nuanced appreciation of his work on its own merits has been emerging. The newest version of the Conservation Management Plan, released in 2017, is titled Respecting the Vision. It’s a combined vision, Utzon’s and Hall’s. Anne Watson had access to Hall’s diaries and papers and presents a vivid description of the inspiration his richly coloured interiors drew from the Scandinavian homewares of the era, particularly those he’d seen in 1966 in the Design Research store in Cambridge while on a research tour. “I’ve chosen clear, strong colours like the ones Matisse used, “ he wrote in his diary, “ … 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!”


Utzon’s preferred vantage point was at “the edge of the possible”. In his design principles he wrote that constructing the Opera House was “… unlike making any other building. A parallel to the automobile industry would be, not to develop and produce another car-model, but rather to develop the first lunar landing module.” But as engineer Henry Petroski has observed, visionary engineering of this kind precedes both science and the culture. NASA’s engineers didn’t precisely know what forces would act upon Eagle as it both landed upon and took off from the Earth’s surface, and couldn’t predict that a casual snapshot looking back at the Earth from the Moon’s orbit would — as scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell would say — expand the horizon of mythology. Humankind now had a dual perspective, directly around our individual places on the planet with an internalised view outside ourselves, of the whole world.

At the time of his departure in 1966 Utzon’s relationship with the engineers of Ove Arup’s firm was strained, but in the design principles he wrote: “Luckily Ove Arup stayed on the job, otherwise the building would never have been completed.” He was thinking in practical terms, that Arup’s engineering firm knew where everything was. But Arup’s ongoing association with the Opera House also includes the visionary aspect of engineering with art projects that speculate upon the cultural impact of technological innovations.


In 2012 I visited Arup’s construction office hoisted up on stilts on the Opera House’s forecourt. A huge screen on one wall was showing a live feed of the excavation that was well underway for a massive crater deep beneath the building to cradle an underground loading dock. This construction project served two purposes, removing vehicles from the ground level of the precinct, making it safer for the hordes of pedestrians that visited each day to take tours or photograph themselves against the landmark. And it provides the infrastructure for the upgrades to the venues announced in 2013 to be staggered across a decade, and are now underway. The video footage had the quality of Max Dupain’s moody b&w photos of the early stages of construction of the Opera House in the 1960s that had made it seem either an impossibly old ruin or something futuristic and alien. To go down into that crater was to feel dwarfed by something that felt ten times, maybe a hundred times, human scale. On one of the desks a computer screen was displaying 3D models that were the first stage of a Building Information Management System that will eventually unite the Opera House’s maintenance and construction projects with the staging of shows.

The incredible contrast between the heavy physicality of the construction project and the diagrammatic scalelessness of the computer models made me think of the illustrated stratigraphic charts in children’s books that represented the civilisations of different epochs as though they inhabited different floors of an apartment building. The digital models were diagrammatic and so didn’t have the realism of the crater’s video feed, but even so, it seemed that even if the diagrams were to be skinned up with high-res CGI detailing they’d still feel weightless and scale-less.

The Scottish Ten had digitally mapped the whole Opera House resulting in a mirage-like outline that has a bronze halo, as if seen through sepia-tinted night-vision goggles. The emotional realities of engaging with synthetic entities are still a subject for science fiction … Theodore falling in love with a disembodied artificially intelligent operating system in Her … K “living” with a sentient hologram in Blade Runner 2049 … but a marketing concept during the Opera House’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2013 tested a digital manifestation of the love people might feel for a building. In 2012 I’d bought one of last of the paperweights with guitar-pick sized “authentic roof tile fragments” set in rectangles of clear resin being sold in the gift shop, the architectural equivalents of reliquaries. The Scottish Ten’s digital mapping made it possible to isolate individual tiles for “purchase” that buyers could personalise with messages marking birthdays, memorials, births, engagements, graduations, weddings able to be accessed for ten years (or earlier perhaps if the format becomes obsolete, making them inaccessible). Making the roof shells a digital bulletin board.


The timeline and early activation period of the underground loading dock was the exact moment of change. Architecture being slower than organic life this ‘moment’ was seven years long (2011 – 2017). For the first four of those years I was at the Opera House almost every day, for the last three (when the loading dock was finished, and in operation) at least once a week. I carried Field Notes notebooks around in my pocket and detailed peculiarities. I collected what amounts to three bankers document boxes of ephemera and scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings. What fascinated me was the resourcefulness and ingenuity shown by all of Australian arts companies resident at the Opera House and the rock’n’roll performers who were becoming a more prominent part of success of the programming, ahead of the upgrades of the infrastructure. They didn’t need to wait for perfect conditions and equipment to move their artforms forward.

Some of the changes were technological. Film-makers and artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard used Arup’s Ambisonic modelling software to create an extraordinarily strange listening experience for a few tracks from Scott Walker’s Bisch Bosch album with the audience in a darkened structure on the stage of the Playhouse. Some were conceptual. Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Gorky’s Children of the Sun for the Sydney Theatre Company used the double revolve of the Drama Theatre’s stage —19th century technology — to create the sensation of your brain being twisted in two different directions at once in response to the sense warping new discoveries and inventions of the turn of the 20th century. A video was uploaded to YouTube of Nick Cave’s “Ship Song” interpreted in tiny fragments by all of the arts companies resident at the Opera House, and several, mostly Australian, rock musicians that was filmed in the backstage and service areas of the Opera House as well as the more familiar venues, foyers and exterior that showed how the whole building operated as an ecosystem. The chefs on the precinct, Matt Moran (with Opera Bar, Aria Restaurant, and Aria Catering) and Peter Gilmore (Bennelong) connected food culture to the arts culture. Matt Moran, along with opera singer Teddy Tahu Rhodes personified the Opera House in the press for the 40th anniversary celebrations. The re-opening of the Bennelong Restaurant was featured in the New York Times. Talks programs interleaved everything with a social and cultural context. Talks are familiar but there was a modicum of new strangeness in their staging … a hologram of Stephen Hawking being interviewed on the Concert Hall stage by fellow physicist Paul Davies, that beamed itself out, Star Trek like, when the conversation was finished … or reach … David Simon’s discussion about his television series The Wire’s social inequalities of cities being used by Bill Moyers as the measure of President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2014.


I was no longer an architecture critic in a professional way, being paid to write about buildings. I’d returned to live in Sydney in 2007. I’d spent almost 18 years in New York and Los Angeles writing for a variety of international publications in the heady twilight days of freelance journalism when it was a well-paid activity. Then I’d had specific assignments but stories also just emerged from paying close attention to what interested me. I’d been a music critic before leaving Australia and most of my friends were from that world and the only writing I did, professionally, when I returned, were liner notes for projects by musician friends … the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away, for instance … I wrote some stories for the Huffington Post in its early days that gave me, as they’d promised, quite a degree of exposure, but no payment. As many frustrated writers have noted, you can die of exposure. I didn’t blog. Not because I didn’t have anything to write, but I didn’t have a readership in mind. I didn’t know who I was writing FOR.


Alexandra Lange’s Design Observer critique of then New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, published in 2010, struck a nerve with me, cataloguing the negative aspects I wanted to avoid as I pondered how I might return to writing architecture criticism. “Ouroussoff has an opinion about design, but his reviews offer not much more than that opinion. His approach — little history, less politics, occasional urbanism — shrinks the critic’s role to commenting only on the appearance of the architecture. He might have been the perfect critic for the boom years, when looks were the selling point, but this formal, global approach seems incongruous in a downturn. His evaluative criterion was never clear to me until I embarked on this essay; in re-reading him, I found frequent defenses of one quality: the new. If that’s what he’s selling, I’m not buying it. For three reasons: We don’t know where he lives. He’s slippery. And he doesn’t care (enough).”

Alexandra visited Australia in 2013. We met for lunch at Opera Bar at the Opera House and  spent the afternoon walking around Sydney’s CBD. Her book Writing About Architecture became a bible of sorts for me while I was writing my own book with little in the way of editorial guidance. Particularly useful was her description of Ada Louise Huxtable’s strengths.

‘One, description: She sets the scene, and her theme, through opening paragraphs that bring the city vividly to mind. Two, history …. Three, drama: Many people consider architecture boring. The first line of defence against this charge is making the connection for the reader between how architecture looks and how it makes one feel. It’s not just a building but a speaking artifact. Finally, the Point.”

And however cliched it might be, I read and re-read Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, trying to figure out how to be a better reporter. I borrowed the structure and premise of Gay Talese’s infamous story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for my book. Like Frank Sinatra the Opera House was world famous, but while the performances might be sense-warningly edgy, the very definition of cool, the building itself was no longer hip and edgy, those qualities were elsewhere. In Sinatra’s case with Elvis and the Beatles, in the Opera House’s case it was the MONA Museum in Hobart, which combined excellent subterranean architecture by Nona Katsilidis with a thrillingly perverse sensibility. Talese never spoke to Sinatra. Buildings, obviously, don’t speak. But just as Talese’s Italian American family background gave him an insight into Sinatra’s origins, as an architecture critic I’d absorbed many of the historical modernist references that underpinned Jorn Utzon and Peter Hall’s architecture, even visiting many of the buildings they’d both visited on trips to America. And I was just there, absorbing details and asking questions. Musician friends allowed me to hang around while setting up shows and sound-checking. I was working as a chef with Matt Moran’s catering company, with an executive chef, Simon Sandall, who’d worked in every area of the Opera House, and could relate food’s creative process to the architecture and infrastructure. And I went to as many shows as I could by the resident Australian arts companies.

In mid-2014, as the construction of the underground loading dock was drawing to a close I transferred to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, also in the process of renewing itself, with a new wing designed by SANAA , grappling with a changing perception of landscape design and public space, and took a wider view, of the Opera House within the city and its culture.

This enabled me to define my perspective … chronicling cultural buildings at the exact moment they’re shifting into a new era, from the point of view of those who bring the building to life, in advance of renovations and upgrades, while the architecture is, effectively, catching up to serve new uses and technical requirements.

Tom Wolfe’s stories about the beginning of the space program for Rolling Stone, that eventually became the book The Right Stuff (eleven years in the writing !!!!) helped me define my readership. Tom Wolfe was writing about aerospace engineering for an audience whose first thoughts about space probably sprung from David Bowie’s songs.


However rigorous I intend my architecture criticism to be I’m more of the music world. Music fans with an interest in architecture and urbanism are my readers. Musicians are my gang.

Through social media I follow Alexandra’s gang … Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, Dallas Morning News Critic Mark Lamster … and their conversations, agreements and disagreements, stories specifically about architecture, and just as usefully asides and thinking out loud, are what pass for editorial guidance for me these days.

While I was living in Los Angeles I channelled my inner Wile E Coyote and figured out how to re-engineer the form of books. I’ve hot-rodded a saddle stitch stapler that allows me to add a few extra staples stapled booklets that I then gather onto a ‘floating’ spine that’s inspired by the floating steps of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. My books are precisely constructed and handsome. My Opera House book has real bronze hinge pieces on the spine and heavy boxboard covers that I’ve treated to exactly match the concrete of the Opera House’s interiors. I’m making small editions … with illustrations by Australian artist and musician Reg Mombassa, who is practically Australia’s myth maker in chief.

If publishing markets are contracting everywhere consider how that affects the already small Australian market. I made only informal enquiries but learned that big glossy cookbooks by celebrity chefs that might once have had an initial print run of 15,000 might now have that cut to 3,000. A ‘best-selling’ architecture book might sell less than 2,000 copies. No wonder the business is stratifying.


When I moved to New York in the late 1980s I was mesmerised by Kyong Park’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. It had the frisson of wild kookiness and arty brilliance that made architecture seem to be the most exciting thing in the world. I devoured the Pamphlet Architecture series I found there, and small, ephemeral, casual publications. It’s that sense of urgency and wildness I most want to capture in my books.

I’m doing an edition of 200 of my Sydney Opera House book through Etsy and then all future editions will be sold through Melbourne online music merchant Artist First. I’ve been finding a readership through Instagram, using it as a micro-blogging site, and finding the kind of interest and readership that echoes the Opera House’s arts ecosystem. And my audience is international … opera singers from Brooklyn … architects from Barcelona … and a lot of really fascinating rock musicians I’ve gone on follow on Bandcamp who respond the way I unite architecture and music.

I have no idea where any of this is going, only that it can’t be done half-heartedly or in a vacuum or within the traditional publishing world.

My book finishes on a small speech Nick Cave makes before going onstage with the Bad Seeds at the Opera House, in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film that collapsed his whole life and creative process into one ersatz natural day in his life, his 20,000th on Earth (the film’s title). It seemed to echo the whole process of the creation and enduring value of the Opera House, too.

“To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of an idea never becomes apparent until you do it,” Nick said. “Sometimes this idea can be the smallest thing in the world, a little flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand and pray that it will not be extinguished by all the storms that howl about it. If you hold onto that flame, great things can be constructed around it that are massive and powerful and world changing. All held up by the tiniest of ideas.”


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