It would be just as wondrous if it wasn't an arts centre. But that gives it a nice extra layer of meaning: the country that is supposed to be uncultured is now symbolised not just by a great piece of architecture, but by a temple of culture, a place that puts on plays and exhibitions as well as operas and concerts. Australia remains more famous for its sport than its art; and now it has won the greatest of all sporting prizes, the 2000 Olympics. But it has done so with a marketing campaign that takes as its logo the outline of the Sydney Opera House.
Next weekend, the Opera House celebrates its 20th birthday. It was opened by the Queen in October 1973. There will be commemorative concerts to Sir Eugene Goossens, the English composer and conductor. Goossens was one of the two visionaries who brought the great building about, the other being Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect. Goossens died in 1962 and Utzon now lives in Spain. Both fell victim to scandals and political storms. Neither has ever set foot inside the building.
Among those who watched these painful dramas unfold is David Moore, widely considered Australia's leading photographer. Moore began photographing the site on Sydney Harbour from the earliest days of construction in the late 1950s and continued doing so through the Sixties and Seventies for magazines such as National Geographic, Life, Time and Newsweek. His unique collection, showing the gradual evolution from spines of concrete to soaring white sails, forms part of an exhibition of Moore's photography of Sydney Harbour over the past 50 years. The exhibition is at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, which holds Utzon's original plans for the Opera House.
Moore grew up by Sydney Harbour and began photographing the life around its foreshores in 1938 when he was 11. At 24 he took a liner to London, and spent the next seven years working for newspapers and magazines in Britain and the United States. The Sydney he left behind was a post-colonial, provincial city with few performing-arts venues to speak of. Eugene Goossens had arrived from Britain in 1946, aged 53, as resident conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and he transformed the city's musical life over the next 10 years. It was Goossens who insisted that Sydney should have a venue capable of staging concerts and operas of world standard. He chose Bennelong Point, the incomparable site on the harbour where the opera house now stands, named after Benne long, the first Aborigine to learn English. 'This is where it must be,' said Goossens.
The state Labor government of the day launched an international competition. In 1957, the judges reduced the 222 entries to 10. One of the judges who arrived late, Eero Saarinen, the celebrated Finnish-American architect, curtly rejected the shortlist and rescued Utzon's revolutionary entry, which had been passed over. Utzon, then 39, was from Hellebaek, near Elsinore Castle in Denmark. He had never seen Sydney Harbour. His submission was a set of drawings based, he said years later, on the segments of an orange.
Amid hoots of derision from an incredulous public, the government proclaimed Utzon the winner and ordered a start to construction. By the time David Moore resettled in Sydney in 1958, Sir Eugene Goossens had been run out of the country. Customs officers at Sydney airport had apprehended him returning from a working trip abroad and found his luggage full of pornography. The scandal shocked Sydney, and the city which once lionised Goossens instantly dropped him. Goossens's name disappeared from Opera House records for 30 years. When the Queen opened the building in 1973, he wasn't mentioned.
Utzon was the next casualty. As the Opera House's costs soared, the Labor government fell. It was succeeded by a far more brutish administration which turned Utzon into a political scapegoat, handed over control to government architects and stopped paying him. In 1966, Utzon left Australia - 'like the worst possible criminal,' he later remembered. He has declined all invitations to return. Stage machinery which he had installed for opera and ballet in the larger of the two main halls was ripped out, and the auditorium turned into a concert hall. It was like tearing the heart out of the building. Opera and ballet are now confined to the smaller auditorium, which has been forever inadequate to stage many productions.
When the Opera House finally opened, it had taken 16 years to build and its cost had multiplied from pounds 3.5m to pounds 51m. Yet it is the most remarkable and popular building in Australia, and has been the inspiration for a renaissance in the country's cultural life. When Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth saw what Sydney could do, they built grand performing- arts centres of their own. None of them match the look of Utzon's masterpiece - how could they? - but all work better. As Maria Prerauer, one of Australia's leading critics, put it: 'Australia has the perfect opera house. The only problem is, the exterior is in Sydney and the interior is in Melbourne.' Australia's national opera, ballet and modern-dance companies have grown up around the Sydney Opera House. But most of the 36 million people who have visited it have been mesmerised as much by the poetry of the structure.
David Moore believes it is without equal. 'You can photograph it any time of day, in any conditions, fog, rain, hail or brilliant sunshine, and it works as a picture. This makes it a great piece of architecture. The only other places I know where this works are Stonehenge and the Parthenon of Athens.' Utzon, now 75, said in a rare interview last year: 'People talk about how the pyramids were built and how marvellous they were, but this was exactly the same thing, with industrial techniques, with fantastic constructions that were being invented and it was happening there in Australia . . . .'
Sydney's choice of Utzon's bold design, despite its shabby treatment of him later, was that of a city already in the throes of shaking off its past and gambling on the future. The second and third prizes in the 1957 competition, by American and British architects respectively, were designs of classic 1950s modernism. Utzon's building is timeless.
Whatever else happens to Sydney's skyline, the sails of the man from Elsinore will remain as the monument to a time when a city came of age.
'Sydney Harbour: 50 Years of Photography', State Library of New South Wales, Macquarie Street, Sydney (010 612 230 1414), to 27 Feb.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content