Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A [Soap] Opera in the Land of Oz

Sydney Opera House
Trying to make the best of a cloudy afternoon. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Sydney Opera House is one of the most well known, magnificent structures in the world. It's up there with other man-made structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal as a singular achievement for civilization. And like most other great achievements, it was almost never built. In fact, it was quite a soap opera...
As seen from the ferry, coming into Circular Quay from Manly. Photo ©Darren Bradley
I may be heading back to Australia in a week or two, so I thought I'd do a few posts to show some photos from my last time down there, last year. Probably too much to talk about so I'll do it in parts. Let's start with the Sydney Opera House... 
The three shells are visible here. The smallest one on the left is supposed to be a very nice restaurant. But I've never eaten there because the prices are insane - even with my expense account. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Of course, everyone knows about the Opera House and it's one of those places like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben (or the Salk Institute!) that everyone has already photographed in ever possible variation. But that didn't stop me, of course. 
Sydney Opera House
Moon Base Alpha. Photo ©Darren Bradley
In fact, I was a bit obsessed with this building when we were there. After seeing so many pictures of it over the years, I couldn't quite grasp that I was actually there, seeing it in person. I never got tired of staring at it. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Opera House has a colorful history. As you probably know, the design of the Opera House was awarded to Danish architect Jørn Utzon by an international jury in 1957. The design was originally passed over but was pulled out of the reject pile by Eero Saarinen (who had arrived late to the selection meeting, and wasn't happy with the more conventional finalists selected by the other jury members). 

So Utzon got the award. And it nearly ruined him. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
The project was supposed to cost the equivalent of US$7M, and be completed by January of 1963.  Seems a tad optimistic, considering that when they broke ground, they hadn't even completed the construction drawings yet, and worse - nobody had any idea how to build those giant shells. 

The sun does come out occasionally... Photo ©Darren Bradley
In fact, the Opera House is one of the first projects to employ computer-aided design (CAD), which made the complex geometry of the roof possible. (So essentially, we have Utzon to blame for Gehry, I guess). But when they started, they had no idea how they were going to do it. It was really Danish engineer, Ove Arup, who saved the day by coming up with the solution that made those complicated concrete shells possible (and who has since built an empire in engineering and design, so it worked out pretty well for him). 

I had to throw at least one B&W shot in here! Photo ©Darren Bradley
So it was a mess of cost overruns and redesigns, and Utzon took a lot of the blame for it. Of course, the client bears much (most) of the responsibility in the case - the government. They insisted on micro-managing the project, and their long-drawn out procurement methods and multiple design changes resulted in ballooning costs. For example, they insisted on switching the opera house and concert hall in mid-construction (the decided the concert hall should occupy the larger auditorium, so technically it should be called the "Sydney Concert Hall" since the Opera is the smaller venue). It eventually turned into a political white elephant so when the government changed hands, getting rid of Utzon was high on the agenda of the opposition. 

Utzon was eventually sacked in 1966 (he technically resigned when the government refused to pay him more than $100,000 in fees he was owed, or to authorize him to proceed with design of the interior spaces). He was replaced by a design committee, led by the architect Peter Hall. 
Utzon didn't design any of what you see here. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Hall and the others completed the project and designed the interiors, as well as the glass and steel details on the ends of each shell. 
Every time I took a photo, a boat just happened to be framed in the window ;-) ! Photo ©Darren Bradley

Utzon was not invited to the opening ceremony in 1973. His name was not even mentioned. He died in 2008, never having seen the completed project, although the Australian government had begun to reconcile with him and had asked him to design a room in the building prior to his death. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
So in the end, the project was completed ten years late, and the final budget was over US$100M. It was quite a bargain, in my opinion. 

It's a good lesson in the triumph of genius over mediocrity, and one that the leaders of San Diego would do well to heed. 

A parting shot... See you again soon! Photo ©Darren Bradley