This first of October is World Architecture Day and the 20th is the 45th birthday of the Sydney Opera House. To celebrate these events we are pleased to present an extract from Australian journalist Helen Pitt’s book The House, her love letter to Sydney’s iconic building.
Why we love the Sydney Opera House
by Helen Pitt
I was driving across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge listening to the BBC World Service on the car radio when I heard that Danish architect Jørn Utzon had died. It was 29 November 2008. I felt an instant stab in my heart. We Sydneysiders born in ‘Generation Jørn’ all knew the great gift he gave our city: the Sydney Opera House. ‘One of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind’, as UNESCO described it in 2007 when it joined the World Heritage list.
I glanced to the right as I drove across the Golden Gate that day, almost expecting to see the magnificent white sails of the Opera House. I’d lived in San Francisco for nearly a decade at that point but was overcome with a wave of nostalgia for the city of my birth. As I listened to Utzon’s obituary on the radio, instead of the San Francisco Bay, I saw a sparkling Sydney Harbour and was transported back to Bennelong Point on a windy spring day in 1973.
With my family on a chartered ferry, I was perched in a prime position to catch a glimpse of the newly completed Sydney Opera House.
Like most Sydneysiders, we were eager to see the opening of our city’s much-talked-about building. The harbour was packed with people on pleasure crafts bobbing up and down in the swell. Out on the harbour there were more bikinis than mink furs. The white tiles of the sails glistened, slinky and smooth like the skin of a reptile sunning itself beneath a brilliant blue sky.
‘Keep your eyes on the horizon,’ he told me, as he looked through his binoculars to view proceedings at the Opera House up close. Listening to his ‘tranny’ radio through an earpiece, he pointed skyward and uttered words I still remember to this day: ‘There’s a black fella on top of the big white shell.’ My uncle, who had watched the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from atop its arch, thought it might have been a prank, just as Francis De Groot had galloped on horseback and ‘opened’ the bridge before state premier Jack Lang could cut the ribbon.
Aboriginal actor Ben Blakeney, wearing skin-coloured briefs—‘a sort of black jock-strap’ as he called it—stood on the top of the biggest shell. ‘I am Bennelong—and my spirit and the spirit of my people lives: and their dance and their music and their drama and their laughter also remains,’ he pronounced in the prologue to the opening ceremonies.
Decades after the ribbons were cut and the balloons and pigeons were let loose, Ben Blakeley’s words have a resonance that I little understood as an eight year old. The spirit of the Aboriginal people who called this place Dubbagullee still inhabits the Opera House, as does the music and laughter of the many people from all over the world who built it.
My parents became engaged in 1957, the year Utzon won the competition to design the Sydney Opera House. My dad, an engineer, had taken my mum, a pianist with perfect pitch, on a date earlier that year to see the entries at the Art Gallery. When they married in 1958, they planned to build a house on my grandparents’ farm in Sydney’s sprawling suburbs, very much along the lines of Jørn Utzon’s Danish home—a simple rectangle with ceiling-to-floor glass letting in the sunlight. In March 1959, while having lunch in the Royal Botanic Gardens, my mother saw the 400 or so people gathered there for the sod turning that marked the official start of building. She followed the building from empty shell to final form in the way others followed the British royal family. After she died, I found a clipping from Woman’s Day in her dressing table. It was headlined ‘The Perfect Home’ and told the story of the Utzon’s Danish house ‘with all the mod cons’ and carried the simple sketch Utzon had drawn of his home. My parents were committed modernists— down to the Arne Jacobsen egg chairs.
Every Christmas and birthday in the 1960s and 70s we gave rice-paper thin Opera House Lottery tickets to family and friends. We had a jade plant by the door for luck, in the hope of winning an Opera House lottery, just like our neighbours who had splashed out on a swimming pool with their winnings.
We lined up like many eager Sydneysiders to take a tour inside ‘the House’ before the 1973 opening, and I can still see the colours of the Coburn curtains of the sun and moon hanging majestically in the Drama and Opera halls. I thought they were beautiful. I was transported to a magical place.
Sydney was a town, before the Opera House. After the Opera House, it became an international city. It remains the city’s greatest urban story.
And every time I’ve flown into Sydney, often after long absences, it’s the white tiles of the Opera House that tell me I’ve arrived. I don’t see the Sydney Opera House, I see my Sydney Opera House. And my heart soars. I am home. It’s such a part of the fabric of the city it’s hard to imagine a time without it.
I wasn’t the only one moved the day Utzon died, according to the then premier of NSW, Nathan Rees. At the 25 March 2009 state memorial for Utzon, held at the Opera House, he said: ‘Utzon had a unique place in the affections of the Australian people. For many, his passing was like a personal bereavement. It is difficult to think of another foreign national whose death has meant more to Australians.’
In my more than thirty years as a journalist, I’ve covered more stories about the Opera House than I care to count. I have often wondered if the media should be blamed for the downfall and poor treatment of not just Jørn Utzon but also the conductor Eugene Goossens, who first championed the Opera House, and Australian architect Peter Hall, who completed it.
So, a bit like an archaeologist, I went on a dig into the past to find out.
I was stunned to see the column inches devoted to Jørn Utzon. When he died, it was front page news and the Sydney Morning Herald devoted more than two broadsheet pages to his obituary. Yet Peter Hall barely got a mention. His obituary was barely four paragraphs long. I had no idea how pivotal Hall was to completing the building, despite him working on the Opera House project for eight years, just one year short of the nine years Utzon toiled at it.
In Sydney, when it comes to the Opera House there are two kinds of people: those who believe its interiors and acoustics are imperfect and would have been much better if Utzon had completed it; and those who celebrate the fact it was completed at all, against the odds, and wonder if Utzon could have finished it anyway.
But I am a Sydneysider, so naturally I have my own relationship with this building.
Like all great works, the Sydney Opera House arouses great passions, and the retelling of the story may open some unhealed wounds and unresolved arguments. The drama lingers still like the backwash from a Manly ferry as it ripples across Sydney Harbour.
This is an extract from The House by Helen Pitt, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP 32.99, available in book stores and online here.