Inside the Collection

The Opera House industry

Photograph of Opera House construction
Photo by Max Dupain 1966, Powerhouse Museum collection. Courtesy Max Dupain & Associates.

We’ve just installed a small exhibition to mark the fortieth anniversary of Sydney Opera House on 20 October. The anniversary, by the way, is of the official 1973 opening by the Queen, not the first public performance there on the 28 September 1973, an interesting choice of dates.

The exhibition also promotes the Powerhouse book Building a Masterpiece: the Sydney Opera House, just republished in an expanded second edition. The book includes a new chapter by its editor, former Powerhouse curator Anne Watson, about Peter Hall and his work redesigning the Opera House interior after the departure/dismissal of Jorn Utzon in 1966.

As its republishing suggests Building a Masterpiece is one of the most popular titles produced by Powerhouse Publishing. This is no surprise: The National Library catalogue lists 114 books about Sydney Opera House. Many of these are promotional and souvenir publications and documents from the building’s sixteen years of design and construction, including Utzon’s ‘Yellow Book’ and ‘Red Book’.

The list also includes about 30 books which like Building a Masterpiece describe and debate the design and construction process. As well as books the Opera House has provided the material for several exhibitions, Lego models, documentary films and, appropriately, an opera – Alan John’s The Eighth Wonder.

Model, Sydney Opera House
Model, Sydney Opera House, 1958-1959. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Dawn Swane, 2013.

As a publishing industry the Opera House is impressive, inspiring more design books than the combined literary production devoted to the two most famous Modern houses – the Villa Savoye and the Farnsworth House. The difference here is that the architects of these houses – Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe – are favourite subjects for biographers, historians, designers and other writers. During the past decade an average of about four books per year has been published about Le Corbusier in English, plus a similar number in other languages. Not a bad cultural cottage industry.

In contrast Jorn Utzon’s architectural biography is inextricably linked to the Opera House, the project which made him famous but also pretty much ruined his career, so the Opera House books far outnumber the Utzon bios. The combination of brilliant but flawed architecture and the human drama of its creation makes an appealing, endlessly debatable story and Building a Masterpiece is an excellent contribution to it. In addition the Opera House has become metaphor and myth for much of Sydney’s urban history, if the latter is perceived – as it often is – as an uneven contest between idealism and self-interest.

An eminent architectural historian (Melbourne-based) once complained to me that the Opera House had become a parochial ‘cargo cult’, and that Sydney’s obsession with it was denying writing and publishing on other less-explored, more important subjects. This is no doubt true but you don’t have to spend much time by the non-fiction shelves of any bookshop to realise that in most fields a relatively small number of subjects attract writers and readers regardless of the number of books already devoted to them; the Le Corbusier industry is a good example. This creates challenges for writers on more arcane topics but I guess if you want to write about fibro houses and the like it’s a predictable problem.

It’s interesting that design-focused Opera House books are being published more often despite the inroads that the Internet has made on book publishing; there’s no evidence of Opera House fatigue. All of which is further evidence that the Opera House is one of the most successful place-making buildings of the twentieth century; if Sydney is recognised internationally as more than suburbs by the beach, the Opera House is mainly responsible.  In terms of creating a city’s image it’s up there with Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and New York’s Empire State. It shares with Gaudi’s cathedral the fascination of being permanently unfinished, and having controversially deviated from its founding architectural vision.  So we didn’t need much excuse to show some of our Opera House models and photos.

Charles Pickett, curator

Photograph of Concert Hall under construction, 1971
Concert Hall under construction, 1971. Photo by Max Dupain, Powerhouse Museum collection. Courtesy Max Dupain & Associates.





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