So far in this mini-series, we’ve visited India, Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, London, and Sissinghurst in Kent. And today I’m taking you back again to Australia; to Sydney Opera House.
From the air Sydney Opera House looks like a waterlily at the harbour’s edge. Its location on Bennelong Point integrates it perfectly with the water. Close up, it reminds me of four things: seashells, the sails of a ship, the wings of a bird, or a waterlily. This building is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
I find the opera house stunning from every aspect, and even more so the closer you draw to it; and the interior of the building fulfills every expectation that may be raised by the breathtaking glory of the exterior.
The story surrounding the creation of the opera house is as engrossing as the design of the building itself. The idea was first suggested by English composer and conductor Leonard Goossens in 1946. The Australian government showed vision by committing to a project that would take generations to fulfill and would win no particular administration any electoral advantage. Then they decided to run an international competition for the design.
The competition was won by a 38 year old Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, with a simple, almost diagrammatic sketch.
Work began on the opera house in 1959 and it took 14 years to build, opening to the public on 20 October 1973. Utzon’s vision of wing-like structures nearly defeated the civil engineers Ove Arup until the architect himself suggested the solution: to construct a sphere, then cut shells from it, each of which was a triangular shape. Then there was a dispute over the design of the interior; in 1966 Utzon “left the job” and a new architect, Peter Hall, was put in charge of that. Utzon never returned to Australia again, though he later met Arup again on friendly terms. The opera house has progressively increased in stature ever since. And Utzon, although he never returned to Australia to see his beautiful building in reality, knew before he died that it had won UNESCO World Heritage status as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.
The story is not without its tragedies, blunders, scandals, detractors and failures of communication; yet ultimately imagination, dedication and creative genius triumphed.
This building represents for me a synthesis of human ingenuity, artistry and skill. The poet John Keats said: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: /Its loveliness increases; it will never/ pass into nothingness. I could never have believed these words might apply to a man-made structure – and I don’t expect the Sydney Opera House to last for ever; but it is a building which uplifts by the sheer power of its beauty.
Another admirer, Louis Kahn, said: The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.
The last time I visited it I also went with my family to see a performance of Verdi’s Aida there in the opera theatre: an unforgettable and moving experience.
Have you ever visited Sydney Opera House? What are your experiences and feelings about this building? Or perhaps you prefer another of the world’s great buildings – there are many candidates. I’d love to know your own choices!