Sydney proves a doodle's dandy

By John Dymond

Sydney Opera House. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sydney Opera House. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Let us not imagine that great architecture is easy.

The Sydney Opera House, while being labelled the eighth wonder of the modern world, was 16 years in the building, ran many years behind schedule and seven times over budget. It helped bring down a government.

The principle sponsor had his association and reputation irreparably tarnished and it sullied the career of architect Jrn Utzon who was sacked mid-project, never to see the completed building. But what a building!

"The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building," remarked the legendary architect Louis Kahn, while the eminent Australian modernist Harry Seidler, himself an entrant in the competition commented: "Our proposed Opera House is just such poetry, spoken with economy of words."

The Sydney Opera House has become the most universally recognised building of the 20th century. Something that evokes passion and pride in all Australians, it has played a significant role in the evolution of the nation's cultural identity.

"It is one of the defining symbols of Sydney and Australia", claims the Federal Arts Minister and former frontman for Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett.

And yet not only did it have a difficult birth, it was far from universally recognised.

Prominent Australian architect Walter Bunning labelled it "an insect with a shell on its back which has crawled out from under a log" while the doyenne of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, was equally dismissive: "This circus tent is not architecture!"

How wrong they were.

So how did a fledgling nation, then a parochial backwater, become the beneficiary of this architectural wonder? Legend has it that judging member and Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, designer of the TWA Flight Centre, rescued the design from the discards to where it had been rejected for breaking the rules [breaching the boundary and providing insufficient seating], and further personally drew two of the required perspective views that Utzon had failed to enter.

His assessment: "Gentlemen, here is the winner!" has proven one of the great architectural utterances of the 20th century.

If one clear picture has emerged from the "Opening the Red Gates Competition", it is that Aucklanders, and indeed New Zealanders from all reaches of the globe, feel passionately about this opportunity.

Something about this finger wharf that connects Auckland to the sea evokes a heightened emotion in all Kiwis.

Perhaps it is that the very life of Auckland sprang from this platform. Perhaps it is because the wharf has been barred from the public domain for so long. Regardless, the message is unequivocal: on this site - GIVE US SOMETHING MAGNIFICENT!

The rush to enter, the sheer volume of endeavour and intensity to meet the competition deadlines indicate the fervour with which the architectural, landscape, engineering and design communities view this opportunity.

The effort has far exceeded the prize. And yet something has gone wrong. With a design community now so divided and acrimonious "it is little wonder that New Zealand does not build projects that are big and bold", as one critic commented.

Surely this is a time to put aside all professional jealousies and rivalries. This is an opportunity so big, that nothing is more important than getting it right. As one member of the public implored of the project sponsors and jury at the Stage 1 debriefing at the Auckland Town Hall: "Please don't let us down, again. Please!"

Surely in this impassioned plea must be the resounding theme.

So how do we get it right? It is said that Japanese architect Toyo Ito demands of his employees and associates that any architectural concept must be described to him in a pencil sketch on one sheet of A4 paper: the one-minute doodle.

Renzo Piano's magnificent Aurora Place in Sydney echoes this approach, when, after three months of work, he produced such a sketch saying: "I have designed a building that speaks to the Opera House."

Indeed the original design of Utzon was derided as "nothing more than a magnificent doodle". This begs the question, "where is our magnificent doodle?"

Has this competition somehow become too clouded to allow for such clarity?

Another message from the Sydney Opera House case study resounds. What if Saarinen had not been so resolute and so persuasive? What would have been the case, if for example if the second-placed entrant Marsella and Associates had somehow had their project built, or that of Boissevain and Osmond or any of the other commended entrants sat today upon Bennelong Point?

Despite these being fine examples of international mid-century modernism, we would not be gazing across the ditch in wonder.

While they might have satisfied all requisites for contemporary urban design and indeed have been eminently functional for their prescribed role, they would not have placed themselves in the pantheon of contemporary architecture. Certainly Australians would have had to look, as we New Zealanders do, to a raft of other quarters for an architecture which resonates of us.

So how do we get our magnificent doodle? Where is our Eero Saarinen? And how do we, on one night in early September 2011, develop a place from which to beam the image of New Zealand to the world? Does this competition indeed require too much too soon?

The case is emerging for a two-pronged approach. First, a platform to stage the Rugby World Cup celebrations and opening and closing ceremonies: party central.

Second, to hold off the more permanent development for another day, giving more time, thought and resources to achieve the great national building that this site cries for.

The Rugby World Cup of 2011 will be the largest global event that will be staged here within our lifetimes. Developing a platform for this should be our immediate consideration. A building that could be our "defining national symbol" could be for another day.

Perhaps for this site it is worth bringing in an outside pair of eyes. Someone with the requisite experience to advise the Government agencies, convene the judges and mentor selected designers.

Names that spring to mind are Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhass or Daniel Libeskind; architects who have built buildings of international significance and are practitioners whose judgment could act as a guiding light and a unifying force for the New Zealand design community.

While such involvement would come at a high price, when viewed against the importance of this project, might it not be money well spent?

Let's make no mistake. We can do this. We are a nation of builders. A construction company is one of our largest publicly listed companies. There is no doubt that if we come together as a community we can realise something grand for the World Cup and perhaps even something magnificent a little further on. But we must also make no mistake: it is the getting it right that counts.

* A former Sydney-based photographer, John Dymond is an architectural graduate for Copeland Associates Architects in Newmarket.

- NZ Herald

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