Alternately celebrated as visionary architecture finally bringing Australia into line with enlightened overseas thinking, or as an initially expensive, but ultimately very successful, national branding exercise, commentators have failed to appreciate the true significance of the Sydney Opera House.
Perhaps its meaning and role was more mysterious than first appears, since the origins of the concept can be traced to the anxieties of Europe early last century. Perhaps it was a subtle attempt to re-engineer the city based on a utopian view of the world, a concept of a building and its role in society formulated by German expressionists during the turmoil around the Great War.
On this reading, the Opera House would be more than just a building but an attempt to bring existence to a higher spiritual level. It would be a centrepiece of an alternative society, not simply the addition of more bricks and mortar (or in this case concrete and glass) to a complacent materialist city.
For the ideal of the German Expressionists was to return to the purity of simple direct rural life and, in a post-religious age, to create new beacons of light - new cathedrals - at the centre of these new, more cohesive, communities. In that peculiar German way, the ideal combined both the perceived organic unity of the distant medieval past, with a yearning for a transcendent utopian future. Both the future and the past were a rejection of the sordid inadequate present. Mixed in with this is the notion of the ‘volk’ or the people naturally united into a singular mass, the very opposite of the conflicted materialist, perpetually anxious, citizens of the countries of Western Europe.
In the absence of a transcendent Christian God as the inspiration, these early Twentieth Century idealists fixed their schemes on awe-inspiring geological certainties. The notion of towering cathedrals of light merged with images of lofty mountains and conglomerations of primeval crystalline forms. What could be more uplifting than great height, openness, and all enveloping light? In contrast to the previously stable, balanced, harmonious forms, the new ideal was dynamic, rhythmic, unified and directional.
Of course, it is hard to argue that it was a conscious scheme by the Utzon or anyone else, but the lineage is apparent from a quick skip through a sequence of images perhaps beginning as far back as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a mountainous collection of crystalline ice shards (The Sea of Ice, 1824) to the dreamy drawings of Bruno Taut, Bruno’s own mini-crystal cathedral (Glass Pavilion, 1914) and various (mostly unrealised) schemes for public theatres, churches , exhibition buildings by other designers during the 1910’s and 20's.
The key ingredients of Expressionism are there in mid-century Sydney: roof shells as sequenced contracting gothic arches, a mountain-like striving for height as the roofs build to a pinnacle, the lofty elements themselves raised on a platform of foothills and the clear sense of flow provided by the peninsular location. Like a medieval cathedral, light was the driving force, but unlike the past, technology would allow more than simply vertical surfaces of glass, instead permitting complex cascading transparent slivers.
Possibly the final design was the result of the fortuitous accident of the site (providing directionality, isolation and prominence), functional requirements (the onetime need for a stage lift in the main theatre pushing up the initial heights), and of course, a collection of perhaps deeply imbedded ideas about cities, space and form brought by the architect, if only his own acknowledged fascination with the Gothic: the importance of roofs for creating dynamic interior spaces.
If the hidden agenda was to create a harmonious society with the humble peasantry scattered around the shores of the harbour finding enlightenment and contentment in this house of light, moving beyond squalid squabbles over material things to an appreciation of the deep spiritual forces of the earth, this has not obviously happened.
It seems that neither of the warring tribes that inhabit the shores of the harbour is content. The conservatives who initially supported the idea of a new cultural anchor (or entertainment alternative) that was long overdue for the city, may have ultimately come to see the building for what it was: a threat to the previously secure notions of culture and society. Perhaps pushed along by this new cathedral, culture was to become less the safe repetition of lofty ideals, than an exercise in collective psychoanalysis: a constant questioning and re-examination of social ills and personal confusions. Ultimately conservatives were able to partially disembowel the building by engineering the dismissal of the architect and excluding opera from the main space, ostensibly the main purpose of the building. On the other hand, progressives were unsatisfied with the half-realised dream and, in more honest moments, the distant elitist reality of the location and the sails themselves that help limit internal spaces, restricting numbers and functions – not the people’s hall that many may have had in mind.
Perhaps the confusion and contests about the meaning and realisation of the building can be traced back to the inadequate ideas of a collection of anxious Germans one hundred years ago, conjuring up their soothing dreams in a time of great conflict and uncertainty. The wild imaginings of a generation traumatised by war, and the preparations for war, were too elusive to be easily turned into a solid form, or at least a form that would provide the all-enveloping calming space and light that they dreamed of.
Possibly in the end, the only unifying element throughout this interminable conflict over the role of the building, its financing and appropriate completion, as well as reconciliation with its creator, is the commercial success of the building as a marketing icon.