An Opera House, Judged: Ken Woolley’s Reviewing the Performance

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Ken Woolley, Reviewing the Performance, Watermark Press, 2010

Stage I. A Detour

Sydney Opera House as apparition for bored commuters

“What’s that thing?”

-A boy points out the Sydney Opera House to his grandmother, overheard on a train crossing the Harbour Bridge, 21 July 2010.

During a recent screening of Rear Window at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I became preoccupied by the audience’s reaction. For me, Rear Window was a “gateway” film, an open door into the beautifully fraudulent world of cinema. I had not seen it for a long time, and watching a good 35mm print with an intelligent audience was a good chance to assess its true impact. In the cinematic canon, if such a thing exists, Rear Window seems to have come to rest partway along the spectrum between familiar, comforting films, say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Gone With the Wind, and perpetually unnerving experiences like, to name two of the blackest noirs I’ve ever seen, Scarlet Street or Detour. Films in the former category tend to generate formulaic responses which paper over any disturbing themes, and allow the work to be arranged as part of the cultural furniture. Films from the bad part of town, by contrast, refuse enclosure in a tidy package. Beyond whatever unsavory aspects of human nature they might reveal, these disturbing films demand to be viewed at 1:1 scale, as though for the first time, every time (this is not a simple distinction between blanc et noir, when Swing Time screened at the Gallery the week after Rear Window, any stirrings of featherbed nostalgia among the audience were quickly overcome in the presence of 103 minutes of sublime cinematic bliss). Rear Window retains characteristics of each extreme. Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism now seems relatively innocent, at least compared to what people are into these days. The audience reacted to his obsessive nosiness with the same sighing, nostalgic little titters emitted by a gaggle of thirty five year olds watching The Breakfast Club. At the same time, certain moments of Rear Window remained shocking, particularly Stewart’s almost brutal coldness to Grace Kelly. Perhaps every classic film might be found somewhere along this imaginary line between Scarlett’s Tara and Ann Savage’s consumptive cough in Detour.

Great architectural masterpieces must contend with the passage of time in the same way, only the onset of familiarity happens even faster when people are encouraged to walk all over the artwork every day. Even the Guggenheim Bilbao (1997) or Melbourne’s Federation Square (2002) have come to play the role of exemplary citizens only a few years after the shock of their emergence. Given the way architectural familiarity tends to breed contempt or love, it is all the more remarkable that the Sydney Opera House, thirty seven years after it was opened by the Queen, still retains such power to disturb. Enough, at least, to provoke Ken Woolley to write his new book, Reviewing the Performance.

Like Rear Window, the Sydney Opera House retains a split personality. It is the familiar icon of the maritime city, its image committed to God knows how many thousand memory cards every day, politely refusing to be diminished or summarized by reductive visual analogies (clouds, nun’s hats, sea shells, sails…), featured in enough logos, books, films and advertising campaigns that a fascinating economics thesis could be written calculating the total direct and indirect wealth it alone has created. It is ever-present and mysterious, familiar and miraculous. We talk about it all the time and say not nearly enough. Leaving aside the history of its making, even in its diminished realization the Opera House has a great deal to teach us about architecture. The continued relevance of its ideas — about geometry, detail, materials, urban design, industrialization, form and function — is evidence that we still swim in a modernist ocean, even if many passing tides and waves have understandably been mistaken for whatever unimaginable fathoms might come after.

Stage II. The Magnificence of all Ambersons

Opera House foyer. Concrete vaults by Jørn Utzon, interiors by Peter Hall after Utzon’s departure.

“I like to be absolutely modern and work at the edge of the possible.”

-Jørn Utzon

Notoriously, the Sydney Opera House is also the Magnificent Ambersons of modern architecture, the great incomplete, and some would say butchered, masterpiece. Woolley’s argument involves re-prosecuting the past, so let’s begin with a skeletal chronology of the Sydney Opera House Saga. Unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, the happy ending is authentic, and is all the more muted for it:


Thirty eight year old Dane Jørn Utzon wins an international competition for an “opera house” to be built on Bennelong Point, Sydney Harbour. The reason for the quotation marks is the indecisive brief, which called for two halls, a 3,000-3,500 seat major hall to be used for concerts, operas and ballet, and a 1,200 seat minor hall for theatre, chamber music and small opera productions. Hilariously, the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald for 30 January 1957 hails the winning design as the “CHEAPEST TO BUILD”. Sydney falls hard for Utzon; a women’s magazine describes him as “the Danish Gary Cooper, only better looking.” Completion is expected in 1962, estimated cost: $7 million, to be paid for by proceeds from a lottery.

The Sydney Morning Herald the day after Utzon's big win

The Sydney Morning Herald the day after Utzon’s big win. A small item mentions an increase in the height limit of city buildings; the Sydney skyline would change remarkably in the nine years Utzon worked on the Opera House.


Utzon prepares the Red Book, an initial summary of his design. The client reduces the seating requirements to 2,800 seats for concerts, 1,800 for opera in the Major Hall and 1,000 in the Minor Hall. Work begins on the massive podium, stage I of the project, while the roof geometry, at this point based on a parabola, remains unresolved.

Utzon presents an early model. Note the low slung parabolic geometry of the roofs.


Utzon resolves the roof geometry (while, legend having become fact, slicing an orange) — all of the segments are to be made up of sections of the same theoretical 75 meter radius sphere. Instead of the shell structure anticipated in his original scheme, the roofs are to be built from ribbed concrete vaults made of precast segments. The spherical geometry is more structurally efficient and can be built using a limited number of precast, post-tensioned concrete segments.

Model demonstrating the spherical geometry of the roof.


The Yellow Book documents the revised design. Work begins on stage II, the vaulted roof.


Utzon emigrates to Australia with his family.


Utzon, with engineers Ove Arup & Partners, continues to oversee construction of stages I and II, and designs for stage III, which includes the external glass walls and interiors for the two halls.


The NSW Labor Government, which initiated the Opera House project, is defeated by a conservative coalition in the state election. The increasing cost of the Opera House becomes an election issue. A member of the Country Party, Davis Hughes, is named Minister for Public Works. Toward the end of the year, the Government stops paying Utzon’s monthly retainer. Utzon falls out with Arup over the internal design of the halls, particularly the extensive use of structural plywood.


Utzon meets with Hughes to discuss the unpaid fees. Unable to pay his staff, Utzon resigns. Public protests follow, but to no compromise is reached. A team of architects, led by the Australian Peter Hall, replaces Utzon. On 28 April Utzon leaves Sydney, never to return.


Queen Elizabeth II opens the Sydney Opera House. Utzon is not mentioned in her speech. None of Utzon’s designs for stage III are built. After a major change in the brief, the Major Hall is designed for orchestral music only, the Minor for opera and ballet. Final cost: $102 million.


Jørn Utzon, in collaboration with his son Jan and Sydney architects Johnson Pilton Walker (where, full disclosure, I used to work, though not on the Opera House project), is reengaged to guide future improvements to the Opera House. A Design Principles document is produced.


Jørn Utzon is appointed principal architect for future works. The Utzon Room, the first Utzon-designed interior in the building, opens. Other works completed to date include the western foyers (2010) and colonnade (2005). Utzon’s design for the renovation of the Opera Theatre (formerly the Minor Hall) remains unfunded.


Jørn Utzon dies in Copenhagen at age 90.

Stage III. The Crit(ic)

Utzon’s final model (1966), showing a section through the Major Hall. His design for the external glass walls and hall interiors was never built.

“It is not I, but the Sydney Opera House which creates the enormous difficulties.”

-Jørn Utzon

Ken Woolley’s new book manages to find a niche within the voluminous literature of the Sydney Opera House. Whether it fills that niche is another question. Woolley is an eminent Sydney architect of what he calls the “opera house generation,” who began their careers during the 1960s and for whom the controversies mentioned above were a formative influence. Reviewing the Performance seeks to do just what its title promises; it is a detailed critique of the Sydney Opera House as architecture, with particular focus on the pertinent question of whether it is a good place to hear music. His central contention is that the original brief’s requirement for a large multi-use hall was impossible to achieve, was further undermined by the spherically-derived form Utzon chose, and resulted in the squandering of nine years and millions of dollars in the pursuit of a fundamental contradiction.

This is an interesting argument which begs for a clear but not over-simplified discussion of concert hall acoustics, a topic of endless interest to music lovers and architects alike. The best sections of Reviewing the Performance come close to this. Though his discussion of acoustic principles could be more concisely made, and belongs right at the beginning of the book, not in chapter 7, Woolley demonstrates that the particular seating requirements, internal volume and functional requirements of orchestral concerts and opera are almost impossible to combine in a single space, at least for the number of seats required in the original brief. It could be argued that the 1960s, from Miesian open plan office buildings to attempts to play baseball in football stadia, were an era of boundless faith in the flexibility of architecture, and that the original brief for the Opera House grew out of this tendency. Woolley uses his own diagrams, which are more expressive than his prose, to closely analyze the successive iterations of Utzon’s unbuilt interior design, a beautiful and ingenious evolution of ideas, even if they pursued the impossible.

Peter Hall, the architect of the completed Concert Hall and Opera Theatre interiors, was granted a major concession when the brief was changed and the two functions were finally separated after Utzon’s departure. This change was not just conceptual. It entailed demolishing the stage machinery already installed in the larger hall, and undermined the relationship Utzon had created between the higher vaults and the need for a fly tower for opera. Whatever the reasons, the altered brief meant that the degree of difficulty was suddenly reduced for Hall, and I think it is reasonable to imagine from the work he left behind that Utzon would have knocked such a hanging curveball of a brief right out of the park. That he never got the chance is, and Woolley acknowledges this, the tragedy of the Opera House story.

There are at least three Opera Houses in Woolley’s book — proposed, present and future — and all hinge on a question out of the past; whether or not Utzon’s last 1966 design for the interior was, to use the contemporary phrase, ‘shovel ready.’ This is not an idle question. The models and drawings Utzon left behind are equivalent to eyewitness recollections of that disastrous 1942 test screening of The Magnificent Ambersons in Pasadena. They are the object of elegy; all we have left of what could have been. Woolley is very tough on Utzon’s last dual-purpose Major Hall design, finding it not only unfinished but unworkable, with compromised acoustics and seating as cramped as Bayreuth.

Woolley’s second agenda is to critique the “mythology” of the Opera House and the “humbug perpetuated after Utzon’s departure by his supporters.” Peter Hall, who died in 1995, was Woolley’s friend and his praise for Hall’s contribution, which was executed under such difficult and controversial circumstances, is admirable, but somewhat outdated. Discussion of the Sydney Opera House today generally acknowledges the building’s complexities and contradictions. Peter Hall’s contribution was explicitly praised in the 25 year award which the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (now, drearily, just the plain old AIA), awarded the Opera House in 2003. Hall’s Concert Hall interior is generally considered functional and attractive, visually distinct from Utzon’s style and a good example of its period. It is evident from Jørn Utzon’s own contribution from 1999-2008 that he too came to share the view that the Opera House had become something different from what he intended in 1966, and that the best future for the building would be to make it the best version of what it had come, to paraphrase Louis Kahn, to want to be. Utzon’s proposals confine major renovations to the smaller hall, which has major shortcomings, not least of which is the fact that, due to a notorious orchestra pit, members of the orchestra risk deafness by playing there.

Though objective appraisals of familiar buildings are far too rare among architecture books, I read Reviewing the Performance with an increasing sense of frustration. Just what is a reader meant to make of this paragraph?:

A philosophical position that the function of a building does not matter, being a means to a beautiful end, is to be condemned. Certainly that was not the intention at the Sydney Opera House but it was not realised where it was stumbling. Objects which have no function other than to be given due regard and contemplation, such as painting and sculpture, are required to be seriously admirable even when tragic or confrontational. A civic monument is in this category. A community could conceivably set out to create a great civic monument which would symbolise their country and be admired by all. They could get the finest designers, architects and sculptors to respond and provide unlimited funds. They could have the highest motives although there is no assurance of that. Their motives could be very low in the regard of others. Hitler was one who did that, so was Ceausescu. Usually, however, such resources are applied to opera houses, parliaments and art galleries or the like, but with the expectation that they serve the purpose for which they were intended.

Jørn Utzon is no longer with us, but if he were, just how would he defend himself against this passage? Is he even being accused? If so, then who was aggrieved and who culpable? Sydney gained an icon of overpowering beauty and renown (though in losing Utzon the city lost a man who would likely have been the city’s architectural conscience and elder statesman). Music lovers gained one of the busiest performing arts centers on earth, a place which has given pleasure to millions. Architects gained a conversation piece, a object of faith and a fountain of ideas. In the end it was Utzon who suffered the most. His post-Sydney career was severely compromised and the psychological blow of his sudden separation from nine years of such intense and rewarding creative work is nearly unthinkable. Woolley does not dwell on the familiar circumstances of Utzon’s departure, but the story is relevant because it illuminates his working methods, which were as singular as his architecture. Utzon took on the Opera House with the kind of total and optimistic devotion not seen since Gaudi. Woolley holds Utzon’s practice up against some conventional ideal of professional architectural conduct and finds him wanting, without seeming to understand that a building can be so revolutionary that conventional processes cannot produce it. And why should they? Which should bend, the object or the possibly arbitrary way other objects might have been built in the past? Utzon’s challenge to prevailing modes of practice put a lot of noses out of joint in 1960s Sydney, but his direct collaboration with builders and manufacturers, and his faith in full scale prototypes seems far saner than a world in which architects spend years producing obligatory reams of working drawings on the cubicle-ward side of an impenetrable wall between themselves and the people who actually build their work. Utzon’s methods presage changes in contemporary architectural practice, an analog version of the computer aided rapid prototyping and manufacturing which allow today’s avant garde to deliver complex projects like the Guggenheim Bilbao on time and on budget, if often without the Opera House’s exquisiteness of detail.

God is in the detail. Utzon’s attention to the pattern of the tiles gives the Opera House its subtle presence in varied light.

As can be deduced from the quotation above, Woolley flies the flag of functionalism. He wants to use the Opera House to open a debate about the ethics of architecture, but the painting refuses to fit its frame, especially with Woolley sliding it all over the wall:

The contradiction is profound. Does it mean that with this level of plaudits it doesn’t matter what a building costs, whether it works and how long it takes if it has joined ranks with the Mona Lisa? It is excused from criticism because it might not have been achieved had it been necessary to comply with principles that form the very definition of architecture. It has, one way or another, bypassed, surmounted or transcended the limitations below which pure art — art that is useless, cannot exist.

The paradox is that, despite the pain, the Sydney Opera House emerges triumphant from these contradictions. It doesn’t matter that its concept could not be built and that only the image of the concept was achieved after vast time and expense or that it inhibited the proper development of the purpose it was to contain.

Unless you agree that ethics and aesthetics are one, and that one’s opinion of what ought to be applies to both art and duty.

Again, Woolley never specifies precisely who is unethical in the story, but the cat jumps out of the bag when he writes “the Opera House is a prominent example of the trend towards architects assuming the privileges and ignoring the consequent responsibility”. Is he accusing Utzon of doing this? Aside from sounding a bit like an election speech on teen pregnancy, this sentence begs questions which cannot be fobbed off. It is not enough to repeat the truism that buildings need to function. No doubt there are architects out there who never let function get in the way of a pleasing form, but it is unfair to parade Utzon anywhere near this gang. Any argument that the Opera House does not function, which Woolley several times seems to approach and pull back from, has to contend with the inconvenient fact that it has been functioning quite happily without major renovations for thirty seven years. Lincoln Centre, of roughly the same vintage, and somewhat unlovlier, is now in the middle of a $1 billion program of works. Aside from the idea that we owe the building whatever it needs, the estimated $AU800 million required to realize Utzon’s design for the Opera Theatre begins to seem, if not a bargain, at least an expected cost of maintaining the friendship.

The question of form and function burns eternally in the world of architecture, another indication that we remain modernists. Is it possible for a building to function perfectly? The inhabitation of any building is unnatural to some extent. We pass though doors, adjust our bodies to hard surroundings and beauty, when it exists, becomes a more than sufficient compensation for this quotidian ordeal. Leaving aside capital-A Architecture, every city has buildings which function terribly and are ugly as sin. Both they and the world’s nonfunctional icons are sub-optimal, but which is less ethical, a gorgeous but awkward art museum or a concrete block shopping mall which deliberately disorients its users in the interests of commerce? The former still pleases, and yet some in the architecture world seem to reserve a particular, and extremely revealing contempt for such buildings and their architects. At a recent public debate in London, Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity scored the soundbite of the day by saying that asking Zaha Hadid to talk about ethics in architecture was “like asking Robert Mugabe if he’d like to speak about human rights” (Sinclair later apologized). Few would deny that Sinclair’s organization does a great deal of good in some of the poorest parts of the world, but why did he feel the need to run down Zaha? Again, just who is the aggrieved party? If a designer of inhabitable sculpture is a villain, then what should we call the designer of Guantanamo Bay? A good many years post-Opera House, but still within its wake, some wag invented a thing called “starchitecture,” celebrated its practitioners, and eventually got bored of the whole dumb idea. I’m not about to pass a hat for the Gehrys, Hadids and Koolhaases of the world, but an inability to take pleasure in a buildings like the Fisher Center (which manages to accommodate both opera and concerts), Rome’s new MAXXI or the Seattle Public Library is a dangerous anhedonia indeed, and contributes to a lack of rigor and surfeit of venom in architectural discourse. If Utzon had never entered the 1957 competition, and the second place design had been built, would it, our hypothetical architectural hair-shirt, have functioned better for being extremely ugly?

A near miss. Sydney Opera House competition runner-up by J. Marzella, et. al.

The Opera House is so perpetually thrilling because exists on a knife edge between free-form and rational geometry. This is not architectural theory; the power of the Opera House’s ideas is clear to a child glancing out a train window from the Harbour Bridge. It fascinates, perhaps the essential quality of great architecture. It is easy to fall into raptures, and we need arguments like Woolley’s to dump a necessary bucket of cold water on a relationship between city and icon which sometimes risks becoming a stifling group hug. The Opera House needs to remain a living building, just as Rear Window, Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane would all be richer if we could somehow resist the comfort of nostalgia, the vaguely self-congratulatory dream of gazing at ourselves gazing at the masterpiece. In the case of a national symbol, almost a logo, like the Opera House the danger of such hubris is even more acute. If we are ‘proud’ of ‘our’ Opera House (or our national soccer team, Tour de France rider or Constitution), then what have we done to deserve such a feeling? There existed real people, nearly all of them gone now, who deserved to feel proud or ashamed of their role in the Saga. We in 2010 did nothing to bring the Opera House about and we ought to reflect on whether, proposed anew, it would face the same “enormous difficulties” now as it did then. We should not feel proud so much as eternally grateful, and Woolley is right that the best way to express our gratitude is to regard the Opera House not as an icon or a symbol but as a place for music. That is the power of function in architecture; it forces space to live in the present tense, away from group hugs and flung tomatoes.

The problem is that the threads of legitimate critique lie buried in Woolley’s text. Too often he appears to be fighting the war of 1966 all over again. The more interesting question concerns what the Opera House has become and could become in the future. Utzon attempted an answer after his return to the job in 1999, and Woolley never gives him credit for it. Whatever understandable resentment Utzon might have felt in 1966 melted away into a constructive engagement with the living building, the exact position I suspect Woolley wishes to promote. A harshness repeatedly undermines the deeply architectural precision of his critique. I began to wonder if Woolley’s argument would be more convincingly presented as a lecture, where the necessity of public communication might eliminate some repetition and smooth out the jagged edges of his tone. The book deserves to be debated, but for those unfamiliar with the building and its story I would recommend beginning somewhere else — Françoise Fromonot’s Jørn Utzon The Sydney Opera House covers both the building’s history and design in a clear, concise prose with excellent illustrations. After that, read Woolley, come for a visit and make up your own mind.

The Opera House in extreme close up. It is a building which tends to look smaller or larger than you expect it to.

It’s often worth reading books which makes you want to circle the wagons, especially when the opinions you feel yourself instinctively defending are long-held. Woolley didn’t change my mind about the Opera House or Utzon and after reading it I feel the need to end with the raptures he seems so able to resist — the Opera House rocks, yeah? How exciting it is to imagine that a moment in history can be solidified. Utzon’s moment — after Mayan temples, after the Ying zao fa shi (Utzon’s “private modulor”), after Eero Saarinen’s concrete shells and before computers made almost any shape possible — was fleeting, and the fact that his dream became solid (or at least two thirds solid) is a miracle. Whether you look out the window and see sails, nun’s hats or turtle shells, that’s what the Sydney Opera House always is: some kind of miracle.

The charged space between the halls.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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