The 50th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House was recently celebrated. The steel arch bridge that crosses the harbour is also part of the famous design that is connected to the Australian city globally. Though widely regarded as an architectural accomplishment of the 20th century. It is almost never came to be constructed during the global design competition. Initially slated for rejection, this vision of modern beauty. With its renowned curves covered in over a million gleaming white ceramic tiles, was set aside. Its path to realisation, however, reveals a lot about modern Australia.
Its enormous shells on the waterfront appear like billowing spinnakers from sea level. I can see them from directly across the sea like nuns’ bonnets. From the nearby botanical gardens, they resemble the unhatched eggs of some huge prehistoric beast, yet in profile, they’ve been compared to oyster shells. Even so, I can tell you exactly when my eyes landed on it.
Rounded a bend on a road that leads back into the city as I drove away from Bondi Beach, another iconic location in Sydney. I could make out the steel beams of the Harbour Bridge. Locally referred to as “The Coathanger,” and its accomplice in one of the largest structural double performances in history. I was fascinated even as a child. Architects were my dream job. I began my university studies with this course. Before I even set foot in Australia, I fell in love with Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece through many hours spent poring over architecture literature. It had long seemed to me one of the greatest structures of the 20th century.
A Global Representation
This internationalism was also demonstrated by the global competition. Which drew more than 200 entries from all over the world. By the significant role that its most prominent judge, the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, played in selecting the Danish design’s ground-breaking idea from the pile of rejected entries and believing he had found the true winner.
However, there’s also a heartbreaking tale about how Utzon was replaced by a local architect. And how the captivating interior that was envisioned was never realised because of delays and cost overruns that threatened the project as a whole. Peter Hall, the leader of the government team that succeeded the Dane, was more concerned with function than form. The inside is therefore unimpressive. Utzon’s forced departure demonstrated how difficult it remained to overcome a gloomy provincialism. The Dane, believing his masterpiece to be defaced, never went back to Australia.
The Opera House
Given the importance of gambling in Australian culture, it’s likely that the opera house would never have been constructed if lottery funds hadn’t been used to finance its construction. Thanks to developments in projection technology, its shells now function as a massive national billboard. On Anzac Day, when Australia remembers its war dead, poppies are projected upon it. It was the weary expressions of the firefighters who had fought the flames following the 2020 “Black Summer” bushfires. It is now the centre of both protest and national celebration. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered around the building just last month, with some of them yelling antisemitic slogans in response to its shells being floodlit in the Israeli flag’s colours as a show of support for the October 7 assault victims.
It is precisely because it is unfinished and incomplete that the Opera House has become such a suitable landmark for Australia. It’s doubly symbolic since the majority of Australians believe it’s already excellent and doesn’t require improving. It seems appropriate that the celebration of its golden jubilee should take place at the same time. As the recent vote in which Australians rejected the idea of establishing an Indigenous voice in parliament. Do you perceive an Australia that is already magnificent and whole, or a bewildering country that has not yet reached its full potential, much like the Opera House did?”
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