Cultural Cringe Vanquished – the Sydney Opera House

Australians have long had an inferiority complex, often called the “cultural cringe”. This was particularly directed at Britain and everything British, the progenitors of modern Australia. The British did not care of course.

This sense of being inferior to the rest of the world is closely tied into the cultural conceit of “tall poppy syndrome”, the tendency to cut down people who are seen to be acting as though they were superior. This went doubly so if the person in question had a cultural or artistic bent – sports excellence and agricultural pursuits were always valued but cultural creators departed for overseas tout suite.

My reading of these cultural trends is that they are diminishing, and that the peak was some time in the 1960s. I can’t say for sure, but there is a very real possibility that Peak Inferiority was ended by the construction of the Sydney Opera House.

Everyone has seen what it looks like. It’s a national and international icon. A big white fluffy thing sitting on a rock outcrop in the middle of the best natural harbour that any major city has ever been blessed with. No-one can quite agree what the shape is meant to represent – is it the sails of the ships on the harbour? Is it the plumage of a swan (although they’re black in Australia, not white)? Is it all a geometric architectural fantasy? It doesn’t really matter –  it looks great.

The story of how it came to be is complicated and overwrought. In true antipodean inferiority style, the powers that be decided that what a major city of a hot desert continent needed was… a building to perform opera. Just to be clear I have no argument with opera as an art form, but I do find it strange that this was identified as a major need in Australia in 1958. A  competition for a suitable design was launched and the winner was Jørn Utzon, a modernist Danish architect who almost wound up in the pile of rejects.

The original design was science fictional, all swooping curves and arches, and would have fit in very nicely with a few of the airline stewardesses from 2001 A Space Odyssey. The reality of construction was no less futuristic – the complexity of the design required heavy use of early computers to make something that would stand up to the wind and also had enough structural stability to not collapse during the loud bits of Don Giovanni. This was challenging from an engineering point of view and there were a lot of “back-to-the-drawing-board” moments to make it possible. Utzon took up residence in Sydney for the duration of the build.

Construction took a long time. I mean, all construction takes a long time, but in the sixties they were relatively unencumbered with laws around safe work practices and exploiting the developing world for materials. As it dragged on the costs increased, especially due to the modifications that were continually required to make the bloody thing stand up. By the mid sixties the government of the day was under increasing pressure to get it finished, and began forensically examining the bills that floated over to Parliament house. Tensions between Utzon and the government rose until finally one invoice too many was refused. Utzon resigned, closed his Sydney office and returned to Denmark, swearing never to return to Australia.

How should we read that response? An artist, justifiably annoyed that the government wanted champagne architecture on a beer budget? Or as a government acting prudently with the people’s money and scrutinising the flamboyant excesses of a prima donna? In a way it didn’t matter – the New South Wales government was left with a half completed Opera House on the waterfront and no real alternative other than to finish it. This was finally achieved in 1973, fifteen years after ground was first broken, at a cost of more than 100 million (1973) dollars.

I don’t live in Sydney but I’ve been near the Opera House a number of times – I just haven’t gotten really close. On my most recent visit I was able to have as close a look as family obligations would allow.

I arrived on a ferry to get the full effect. You can’t miss it. The profile is absolutely unmistakable and the whole thing is blinding white when the sun hits it. The ferry lets you off nearby at the dank and off-putting circular quay, where you have the opportunity to fight your way past skateboarding youths and be deafened by the nearby elevated train line. Rounding the corner you can catch a glimpse of the famous shells, but they’re somewhat occluded by the bulk of a heinous luxury apartment building which occupies one side of the quay. 

A broad pinkish plaza frames the Opera House, which was under reconstruction when I was there. Approaching head on to the opening of the sails, you quickly realise that it isn’t nearly as big as you had imagined. I don’t know about you but the shape suggested to me that multiple full-size operas could be conducted in each of the segments, kind of like a small city dedicated to the performing arts. But it isn’t true. 

Apparently it’s not just me that’s noticed the small size. The Opera House is known among performers for being rather smaller than its external proportions would suggest. Many of the backstage passages are a bit squeezy for large casts. I’m sure this is fine for solo or small group performers, but I imagine it’s much worse for large productions such as, I dunno, an opera?

There’s a real sixties brutalist glamour to the place. The whole thing is made of concrete, and that is obvious from even the briefest inspection. On the outside it’s all slabs of grey horror and frankly awful structural details on display.  But the interior is all brass and rich carpet, and feels like a cross between a period Bond movie and a super-restrained early-period trump tower. That’s what I could see at least – the main spaces were closed when I visited. And from what I’m told the interior is about to be refitted anyway, which will hopefully take the edge off the mid-century modernism and freshen it up without reinterpreting it too much.

My favourite element though is the tiles on the roof of the sails. From a distance the Opera House looks kind of like a big tent, but when you get close you can see that it is tiled with a combination of grey-white squares and chevrons, rather like the Space Shuttle. Apparently a huge amount of work went into designing these tiles so that they reflected the exact right amount of light to make the building look striking without blinding nearby sailors in the bright Sydney sunshine. There are more than a million of them all together, and although the pattern isn’t as intricate as say, a Byzantine mosaic, the sheer scale is remarkable.

In the end, Jørn Utzon stuck to his word and never did return to Sydney, and died in Denmark in 2008, more than 30 years after his masterpiece was opened. I don’t know whether this was due to stubbornness, or a refusal to break his word, or a lack of interest, but it does seem strange to me that he didn’t ever come back to see it in the flesh. Perhaps Australia’s cultural cringe was mirrored in a Scandinavian pride, each bringing out the worst in each other. 

Regardless, we still have this spectacular and flawed building to admire. Nothing perfect is ever truly lovable, and the Sydney Opera House is no exception.

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