Opera House gets the neighbour from hell

A concrete hulk is blocking out Australia's best-loved landmark. Robert Milliken on the battle to beat back the developers
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The Independent Online
Walk past the Sydney Opera House today and you had better duck for cover. There, among the throngs of tourists, will be a group of people hurling eggs and rotten tomatoes at that building. Their target is not the opera house itself, but a new structure next door upon which thousands of Sydneysiders have declared war, calling for its demolition and the heads of those who approved it.

The building in question is a block of apartments that has risen a stone's throw from the Opera House steps. It is the first of three such buildings planned for this, the site that many Australians regard as the most sacred in the country. East Circular Quay, facing Sydney harbour, is home to their greatest building and one of the wonders of the world, whose vision and beauty stands in marked contrast to Sydney's unlikely beginnings as a British convict settlement on the same site in 1788. Now, thanks to one of the greatest planning disasters in the city's history, the soaring sails of the opera-house roof are being obliterated by the series of concrete hulks lumbering into life next to them.

Sydney people are rallying against the development as they have against no other. This week will be the first anniversary of a campaign launched by a group called Save East Circular Quay. It is led by the unlikely duo of Kel Hutchence, a Sydney businessman and father of the INXS singer, Michael Hutchence, and Jack Mundey, a former communist union leader who has become a local hero over "green bans" that he imposed against developments in the 1970s, saving some of Sydney's greatest heritage sites.

Celebrities such as Barry Humphries and Judy Davis, the actress, have supported the cause, describing this development as a "philistine horror" and a "sellout". John Newland, a Sydney school teacher, has donated his life's savings to the campaign, organising demonstrations and petitions that have been signed by almost 70,000 people. Mr Newland's weekend forays of tomato-throwing have been joined by patrons emerging from Opera House concerts, many of them elderly people propelled into political activism for the first time.

How such a physical beast of a building could have been let loose next to Sydney's beauty boils down to one thing: money. The narrow wedge of disputed land leading to the opera house was taken over in the early Nineties by Colonial Mutual, one of Australia's biggest insurance companies, which then demolished the ugly 1960s buildings on the site. That left the opera house in glorious isolation, the harbour on one side and the Royal Botanic Gardens on the other.

The recession that followed cut the value of Colonial Mutual's investment. The company handed most of the site to Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, its partner, which planned a hotel there to rival its Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. The public, meanwhile, had got used to seeing nothing on the site, and liked it that way.

No such luck. When the first drawings of possible schemes were published, Sydneysiders could not believe their eyes. One involved a tower 50 storeys high, the other looked like a wingless jumbo jet. All were screamed down. The federal government joined the state government of New South Wales and the Sydney city council to find a solution. This only muddied things more.

The council's answer was to sell to the developer, for a peppercorn price, a road next to the harbour in the hope of reducing the new buildings' heights. All this has done is to increase their bulk. When the wraps came off the first structure a few weeks ago, the Opera House was not visible from central Sydney, as it always had been.

Critics have described the new building as a "toast rack", a "monstrosity" and a "big ugly tooth". Mr Mundey says that, unless the authorities intervene to demolish it, he is prepared to call out the building unions in another "green ban" to stop the next two stages from going up. To add insult to the whole thing, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels announced recently that the site was not big enough for a viable hotel, after all, and that it planned to turn the building into apartments.

As Sydney prepares to smarten itself up to host the 2000 Olympics, there are signs that the state government may be searching for ways to reverse the disaster at Sydney's gateway. There is just a glimmer of hope that, when the dust settles in the opera house war, the winner will be Sydney.