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Sydney battles hard for the vision thing

Not since the Japanese invaded its harbour in midget submarines during the Second World War has Sydney been so primed for battle. This time, though, the city is at war with itself. And the prize is the building that Australians have adopted as the modern symbol of their country - the Sydney Opera House.

The opera house is threatened with invasion not from the sea or the sky but from land. The foe is commercial, in the form of a high-rise hotel and apartment development taking shape a stone's throw from the opera house's roof sails. The new building will obliterate them from public view and swamp their visual impact.

With a passion that Sydneysiders usually reserve for horse races and cricket matches, thousands have taken to the streets to call for the new building's demolition, even before it is finished, their protests led by celebrities and buoyed by messages of support from around the world. "A philistine horror," declared the entertainer, Barry Humphries. "It's a sad day when a city sells its soul for the tourist buck," said Judy Davis, the actress. She drew cheers at a public rally when she added: "Our government has caved in and betrayed us with bad management and lack of vision."

The row highlights the hallowed place that the opera house holds in Sydney's psyche. The house sits on Sydney harbour at Bennelong Point, near the birthplace of European settlement in 1788.

After the opera house opened in 1973, many Sydney people hoped that the narrow approach to Bennelong Point along the harbour would be cleared of the ugly 1960s buildings that cluttered it. Hopes soared in the early Nineties after Colonial Mutual, one of Australia's biggest insurance companies, bought the land on the approach and demolished the Sixties' horrors. That left the opera house in glorious isolation, flanked only by the Royal Botanic Gardens on one side and the harbour on the other.

However, the recession of the early Nineties wiped about one-third from the value of Colonial Mutual's investment in the land. To recoup its loss, the company proposed a series of developments which would have towered over the opera house. All were howled down by public protest.

All three tiers of government, federal, state and local, entered the fray to find a "solution". The result has been a planning disaster. To lower the building's height, the state government sold the developer a public road for a peppercorn price. This has only made the building wider, blocking views of the opera house from central Sydney. And the developer made the cardinal error of starting work first on the section nearest the opera house, revealing to the public what an intrusion the final hulk will really be. One prominent Sydney architect has described the building as "a big ugly tooth".

The New South Wales state government has rejected the protesters' demands that it buy the site, compensate the developer and turn it into a park. Another proposed solution is to revive the public lottery that funded the building of the opera house 25 years ago, and buy the site that way.

Jack Mundey, a former militant trade union leader, now a local hero over the "green bans" that he introduced in the 1970s, saving swathes of Sydney's heritage sites from development, said: "It seems we're slow learners. We have to fight the same fight over and over again."