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Sydney: Road to the Opera House

It was a blanket of thick cloud that set the scene for our early morning arrival into Australia’s largest city. Heralding the end of a seven-hour overnight flight from Jakarta, this gloominess suggested that much of the day would be spent indoors, though it barely dampened our excitement as the waters of Port Jackson came into view. “Look!” Bama gestured from his window seat toward the span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the nearby Opera House: two landmarks I had longed to see ever since I was a child. We descended past the skyscrapers of the Central Business District, gliding lower and lower above the rooftops until the inner suburbs gave way to warehouses and the wheels hit the runway. We were in a new country, a remote outpost of the Western world – and a far cry from the place we had left just the night before.

In a 2008 piece for the Financial Times, Pico Iyer (one of my favorite travel writers) described Sydney as “A Los Angeles without fuss or urgency, a San Francisco alive with the alfresco pleasures of the moment.” To me though, Sydney was deeply reminiscent of both London and Vancouver. It wasn’t just the dreary, gunmetal-grey skies that made me think of the British capital and rainy winters in Canada’s gateway to the Pacific. The signage, bolted steel columns, and early 20th-century tiling in some of the railway stations paralleled those on the Tube, and certain place names (Kings Cross, Haymarket, Hyde Park) evoked locales in central London. But Sydney was also akin to outdoorsy Vancouver with its scenic coastal setting, waterfront parks, and large Asian population (that proportion tops 20 percent in the city and inner south suburbs). And yet there is a certain brashness to the place – a trait reflected in almost all my Sydneysider friends – an irreverence that is endearing and infuriating at the same time. While on the double-decker train to Kings Cross station, we stood next to two college students, one in them in a jacket and a pair of neon-green shorts. He loudly announced, as though inviting everyone else in the carriage, his plans for a “barbie on the beach”.

Sydney is justifiably famous for its beaches, but we did not go to a single one. Instead, when the clouds dissipated as we tucked into a late Asian fusion lunch at Ms. G’s, Bama and I made a beeline to the historic structures around Hyde Park and then the Royal Botanic Garden, a well-tended swath of parkland sloping down toward Sydney Harbour.

Inside the Royal Botanic Garden; the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

The Calyx, home to a changing roster of floral displays and exhibitions

An Australian white ibis foraging for food

Sydney’s downtown oasis

Looking toward the harbor and offshore Fort Denison

Soaking up the sun outside the Gothic Revival Government House, built between 1837 and 1843

Echoes of faraway England

Observant travelers in the Asia-Pacific region can make a solid guess at which Europeans had once played colonizer by the landmarks and public spaces they left behind. The Spanish and Portuguese commissioned great Baroque churches – as seen in Goa, Macau, and towns across the Philippines. The French penchant for high culture meant that flamboyant opera houses sprouted up in Hanoi and Saigon. And the British? From Calcutta to Singapore, Hong Kong to Sydney, the colonial authorities earmarked parcels of land on the outskirts of their growing cities to be used as botanical gardens. (The Dutch in Indonesia were far less romantic; they dug canals and built warehouses to store spices for the long voyage back to Amsterdam.)

Sydney’s own Royal Botanic Garden came about because of Scottish-born governor Lachlan Macquarie, the fifth such administrator in the fledgling penal colony of New South Wales. He is remembered today as the most progressive of the early governors, and a visionary who saw Australia as far more than a dumping ground for unwanted British subjects. His tenure from 1810 to 1821 witnessed a building boom as the colony’s population tripled in size: hundreds of kilometers of new roads were laid in New South Wales, townships were founded inland, and Macquarie’s administration embarked on an ambitious program of public works. Sydney blossomed into something of a proper city, with a brand-new hospital, a church, barracks to house convict men and boys working for the government, and the first bank in Australia (rum was previously an accepted form of currency). In line with the Georgian ideals of the time, Macquarie set aside a trio of interconnected green spaces – Hyde Park, the Domain, and the Royal Botanic Garden – creating a green lung in the heart of Sydney that stretched right to the water’s edge.

Strolling here now, in the mellow light of the late afternoon sun, Bama and I marveled at the idyllic scenes around us. We’d entered the gardens from an entrance beside the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – housed in the former Government House Stables that Macquarie commissioned in 1815. A lone Australian white ibis pecked around the spring flowers as young Sydneysiders lounged on the grass, sheltered from the frenzied pace of the CBD by a wall of luxuriant greenery. Our next destination was another visionary creation that occupied the site of a tram depot on nearby Bennelong Point: none other than the Sydney Opera House.

One of the Sydney Opera House’s three ensembles of concrete shells

A closer view of the roofs’ glazed ceramic tiles

Despite the resemblance, these roofs were not actually inspired by sails

Solitude below the soaring concrete shells

At the base of the monumental podium

Apartments in Sydney’s North Shore, undoubtedly with million-dollar views

Admiralty House, the residence of Australia’s Governor-General (representing Queen Elizabeth II)

Sydney’s most beloved building is the brainchild of Danish architect Jørn Utzon, whose winning design was plucked from 233 entries submitted to an international competition launched in 1955 by New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill. Captivating as it was, the proposal was so far ahead of its time that no one initially knew how to build the sail-like roofs. The geometry of Utzon’s original competition entry had been undefined, more freely sculptural than mathematically precise, and four years after construction began, an eventual solution was found in shapes derived from the surface of a sphere. This result, an engineering feat using precast concrete ribs curved in two directions, lends the Opera House a certain timelessness that makes it appear no less advanced now than it did when first proposed in the 1950s.

It was also a trailblazer on the technological front, marking one of the first times computers were used for both structural analysis and creating complex shapes. The level of collaboration and understanding between the architect and Ove Arup’s engineering firm was extraordinary, but his relationship with the client – in this case the New South Wales government – proved a rocky one. Things took a turn for the worse in 1965, when Robert Askin of the Liberal Party became State Premier on the back of a nasty campaign targeting the controversial Opera House. He was a vocal critic of the project, as was his new Minister of Public Works, Davis Hughes, who responded to Utzon’s ingenuity and problem-solving skills by withholding more than $100,000 Australian dollars (roughly US$77,000) in fees. Without the means to pay his own staff, Utzon threatened to quit and his contract was simply ended in February 1966. He was swiftly replaced with local architect Peter Hall, ironically one of many in the field who signed a petition calling for Utzon’s reinstatement, and from then on the interiors would carry a modified design more palatable to the state government (both major performance halls within were redesigned with flawed acoustics). Utzon left Australia with his family virtually penniless, never to return.

In 1992, the Sydney Morning Herald – Australia’s most widely-read newspaper – interviewed the retired architect at his home on the Spanish island of Majorca. They found that the good-humored Utzon was not bitter about those nine tumultuous years in Sydney, nor did he harbor any ill will toward Hughes, who had no appreciation whatsoever for the arts and architecture. “This was something unique, but he didn’t understand one thing about it,” Utzon told journalist Eric Ellis. “He didn’t approve; he tore the whole thing down.” On his last meeting with Hughes, Utzon remembered questioning why the minister would alter everything against his advice. The dismissive reply? “Here in Australia you do what your client says.”

Upon Utzon’s death in 2008, architectural critic Elizabeth Farrelly wrote a poignant obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald. She explained that “Sydney’s craving for glamour shot Utzon to stardom, and our addiction to mediocrity brought him crashing down. The 1966 sacking of Utzon will always sit heavily on Sydney’s conscience, and rightly.”

There is no doubt that the project was beset with delays – largely because of its pioneering, never-before-done nature – and the final cost of the building ended up running more than 1,300 percent over budget. But when it finally opened in 1973, 16 years after Utzon’s design had been chosen, the Opera House became a true icon, a showstopper that would forever place Sydney on the global architectural map. It was an instantly recognizable symbol of both the city and Australia itself, paving the way for future landmarks like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Utzon was eventually awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, in 2003. And in June the following year, just 17 months before his passing, the Sydney Opera House was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Alfresco dining in view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Utzon’s masterpiece as seen from the Royal Botanic Garden’s Bennelong Lawn

Skyscrapers towering above the harborside gardens

A closer look at Fort Denison

Sydney’s CBD as seen from the far end of Farm Cove

The fading afternoon light over Sydney Harbour

A triumph of 20th-century architecture; waiting for sunset

Light and shadow on the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The CBD comes ablaze with light

Sydney’s two most beloved landmarks at dusk

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hey. You’re in Sydney?

    March 28, 2018
    • I wish! Actually I went a couple of months ago for a few short days – these photos are from that trip.

      March 28, 2018
  2. I’m glad the clouds cleared for you — as they ultimately did for Utzon.
    You brought an interesting perspective to a city that is so wonderful as to almost be taken for granted that it is wonderful.

    March 28, 2018
    • Thanks for the kind words! I’ve always been intrigued by the backstory behind major landmarks and the way cities were laid out. What I didn’t mention (since it was already a fairly long piece) was that the government agency in charge of the Sydney Opera House reconciled with Utzon in the late 1990s and had him appointed as a design consultant for future renovations. So far at least two interior spaces have been rebuilt to his designs.

      March 29, 2018
  3. To be honest, prior to arriving in Sydney I kept reminding myself not to set my expectations toward the Opera House too high for I’d read that some people actually found it rather underwhelming. But when we were there, standing in front of it on a clear and sunny afternoon, I couldn’t help but think whether those people actually went to the right opera house. Visiting the Museum of Sydney (and reading this post) would help anyone to truly appreciate this engineering marvel better!

    March 28, 2018
    • Seeing the Opera House firsthand was definitely a highlight of our time in Sydney. What surprised me the most was how it still remains personable despite its monumental scale – I loved the fact that ordinary people like us could walk all around it and go up and down the enormous podium.

      March 29, 2018
  4. What a stunning city! It seems no matter how many times I see pictures of the Sydney Opera House it just stops me in my tracks. Thanks for the interesting background. Hopefully I’ll get to see it for real sometime. As a Vancouver resident, it was interesting for me to read how aspects of Sydney remind you of my fair city. I definitely see the resemblances in the cityscape, harbour and bridges…but I’ll take some of that Sydney sunshine right about now! Lovely photos.

    March 28, 2018
    • Much appreciated, Caroline! I guess you could say the Royal Botanic Garden is sort of like the Stanley Park of Sydney, even if the latter has a wilder, more natural appearance. And although it is much smaller, the Burrard Bridge does bear a slight resemblance to the Harbour Bridge; apparently they were built around the same time! I’d love to read your take on Sydney when you do eventually make the trip… I suspect it will all feel strangely familiar.

      March 29, 2018
  5. I do so enjoy your writing James. Sydney is a fabulous city and you managed to capture some of its best features. The botanical gardens are the perfect place to unwind, and the Opera House is I think one of the world’s great buildings. Utzon was poorly treated by an idiot. In the end a nationwide lottery, which still exists I think, was created to pay for it.

    March 29, 2018
    • Ah yes, I do recall you mentioning the lottery in response to one of Bama’s previous posts! Thanks so much Alison – coming straight from Jakarta, we gained an instant appreciation for the parks, the walkability of the place, and the reliable public transit. I was not expecting to see so many gorgeous historical buildings in and around the CBD; the photos I took on our walks around Sydney could easily fill another blog entry or two.

      March 30, 2018
  6. Great combination of your impressions and some solid history here, James. I visited Sydney so long ago and would love to go back now without three little kids (and therefore with the time and energy to actually learn and not just observe!). We loved the city and Australia in general. Love your photos, too!

    March 31, 2018
    • Thanks Lex! I too would love to go back to Sydney as I felt that we’d barely scratched the surface – there was so much more to see and explore beyond the downtown area. Tonight Bama and I are off to Seoul for the first time so I’ll be rereading your post on the city before heading to the airport!

      April 3, 2018
      • Fun!! Hope you guys have a great time – it was such an awesome city, full of new and old, and I’d love to go back with my husband for a longer visit someday. Look forward to reading what you see and do.

        April 3, 2018

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