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The Sydney Opera House upgrade deserves a single guiding vision

Design for upgrades to the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Courtesy Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House upgrade deserves a single guiding vision

Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon in 2000. Ole Haupt/Wikimedia

In the recently revealed plans for a major upgrade of the Sydney Opera House we reach a key moment in the history of the House. Just as the incredible achievement of the Opera House said so much about our ambitions and capabilities in 1956, these renovations will form a measure by which we will be judged for many years to come.

In my view, this refurbishment is the fourth major event in the history of the House. The first was the selection of Jørn Utzon’s scheme in an international competition and his appointment as architect for the project. The second was his dismissal, a culmination of months of political interference and procedural sabotages after the project lost its way due to a number of client changes.

This period included a change in brief: inserting a concert hall in the space allocated for the opera theatre during construction – a switch that forever blighted the masterwork with functional deficiencies in both spaces.

For a full 30 years after opening, Utzon was incorrectly labelled as an impractical genius. His silence provided a void for others to make him the scapegoat for everything from budget overruns (even though the first incorrect costplan was produced without his involvement) to the inevitable performance problems caused by building a theatre in a space designed for a concert hall (and vice versa).

Jørn Utzon, on the construction site of the Sydney Opera House in 1964. National Archives of Australia/AAP

The third key event was a rapprochement with Utzon in the late 1990s, led by then CEO of the Opera House Trust Joe Skrzynski, and with architect Richard Johnson who proceeded to work with Utzon until his death in 2008. Johnson documented a series of principles that could guide and measure future decisions regarding alterations to the building.

While some major works have been undertaken in recent years – the Western Foyer, the Utzon Room (used for small functions) and subterranean works to the loading dock – this refurbishment to the concert hall, theatre and public spaces is profoundly significant.

It is genuinely one of those moments where the building is exposed to its greatest risk but also an opportunity. It’s where the lessons of Johnson’s remarkable engagement with Utzon could be capitalised upon.

Based on material in the public realm, it’s too early to assess the proposed changes. The architects selected for the various pieces have all done exceptional work and can be rightly understood as leaders in their field. But then, so was Utzon. Even he couldn’t evade the calamitous outcomes of the way the original works were briefed and managed.

Video fly-through of the proposed changes.

Video fly-throughs of the upgrade show measured approaches to internal lounges and changes to the concert hall, but also how the extraordinary public area between the performance spaces and external façade is at risk. While Utzon anticipated a split in the stairways that rise to access seating areas, the exact configuration and related detailed resolution as shown in this proposal is not convincing, with the apparent introduction of new materials and finishes.

The success of these changes will be measured in how they balance justifiable alterations (acoustic deficiencies, new functional requirements and, in the case of the cuts in the stairs, critical accessibility issues) and the gamble of compromising a masterwork.

The original Sydney Opera House was designed and built during the age of space exploration. It was a time when advances in technology were propelled by a greater acceptance of risk than we have today. A relatively unknown Danish architect was given the opportunity with his team of a dozen or so architects to create a masterpiece and took it with both hands.

Northern foyer passageway. Courtesy Sydney Opera House

In 21st-century Australia, our supposed age of innovation often gives way to prohibitive managerialism and its companion misunderstanding of risk. Rather than select a single architect for the refurbishment we settle instead on four practices, between whom various aspects of the work are distributed.

The Opera House is the work of a single vision, as unpopular as it is to say in this age of collaboration, sampling and shared ownership. In my view, the only way to meet the monumental achievement of this building would have been to appoint a single architect, for life, to get to know and work with the original, developing a relationship between two voices over time.

Such a step has been taken with monuments elsewhere, such as English gothic cathedrals which make long-term appointments of the “keeper of the fabric”. In Denmark, only very few architects can work on royal properties, and only after being bestowed the lifetime title of Royal Building Inspector.

Somewhat paradoxically, given the massive project management bureaucracy that will be involved in the changes, involving four architectural practices actually increases risk. There’s a risk that the work won’t meet the power of the original, given the constellation of different design languages that will vary both between the firms themselves and the original building.

By slicing the project into four, we have stolen from each author the opportunity for extended time thinking and working across this building. We have replaced an intense, delectable tango with a “pride of erin” waltz.

Google was started by just two people. The Sydney Opera House was designed through one vision. Yet committees of selectors have appointed a committee of architects whose work will be judged by a committee of experts. While such oversight may not result in a poor outcome, it is unlikely to elicit a great one.