SYDNEY, Australia — The location of cities is determined by the natural landscape — proximity to a harbour or river, or some other favourable geography that makes commerce and trade feasible.
The visual image of cities is determined by what citizens build there. That is true in Sydney more than anywhere else.
With the possible exception of Cape Town and Table Mountain, the iconography of cities is defined by creative construction. Given that cities grow up around waterways, it is often bridges, like the Golden Gate in San Francisco or London Bridge in London, that become the visual autograph of a place. Sometimes it is a grand edifice of cult, like St. Peter’s in Rome, or culture, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
The same concept doesn’t have the same effect in every city; Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (designed before but built after the Guggenheim) is more or less the Bilbao idea for Los Angeles, but it made far less impact there. The Disney Hall did provide some much needed spiritual uplift to the neighourhood though, otherwise dominated by the ghastly, gargantuan and godawful Catholic cathedral.
Then there are the capital cities, which can use the seat of government as a short cut, as Ottawa and Washington do. It doesn’t always work; what most people envision about Moscow’s Kremlin is neither the palace nor the congress hall, but the domes of the Orthodox churches.
The same concept doesn’t have the same effect in every city
The French, as one would expect, have mastered the art of, well, art as a defining feature. The Eiffel Tower, which is a magnificent bauble, defines Paris, and they sent Lady Liberty to New York to adorn the gateway to the new world.
Amidst all the distinctive designs that define a cityscape, the Sydney Opera House stands out as singular. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it instantly became the signature of Sydney, even though Sydney was not then, nor is now, a world centre of opera.
Grand events here are often held outside the Opera House, not inside, as the great shells provide a stunning setting. If somehow the concert halls became unusable, or even if it became impossible to enter the building, it would be a great shame, but the Opera House would still be the symbol of Sydney. That could not be said of the Met in New York or La Scala in Milan.
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The history of the opera house, not unlike other bold architectural projects, was convoluted. The design of Jørn Utzon was selected in 1957, and construction began in 1959. It was supposed to be completed in 1963, but the complexity of the innovative plans produced delays and cost overruns, leading to the resignation of the Danish architect in 1966. It wasn’t until 1973, 10 years overdue and three subsequent architects later, that it was finally finished.
It made up for lost time and immediately become Sydney’s most recognizable landmark. Paris was an old city when the Eiffel Tower went up, but the image quickly became shorthand for Paris. Sydney was a much younger city, and the impact of the opera house was instantaneous and influential.
Consider that within a decade of the opera house’s completion, the plans for Expo 86 in Vancouver included, literally, a flagship building. The giant white sails of Canada Place in the Vancouver harbour are clearly intended to be in conversation with the giant white shells of Sydney across the Pacific Ocean. If one were inclined to take a transoceanic cruise from one to the other, there would be a certain intended symmetry, the opera house and convention centre as bookends to the voyage.
It made a difference that the Sydney Opera House is not a convention centre nor a museum. The fact that the city’s most famous landmark is an opera house confers a certain cultural sophistication in the eyes of all, including those who wouldn’t know a countertenor from a kangaroo.
If the same silhouette had housed an aquarium instead of an opera house, it would still be Sydney’s signature, but it would not have granted Sydney a certain world-class feel. Consider how long Toronto has desperately desired world-class city status; that cause would be further advanced if its landmark image was an opera house rather than the CN Tower, a revolving restaurant perched upon a very long stick.
It is de rigeur in writing about civic architecture to quote Churchill who, while addressing how the House of Commons should be rebuilt after the Nazi bombing, declared: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Indeed they do, and not only us, but our cities.