The Sydney Opera House is Sydney’s most recognisable asset and a cornerstone of Sydney architecture. Every time we return to Sydney and we see it, we’re home. The story behind the commissioning and construction of the Sydney Opera House is a narrative that leaves few participants with any honour in the creation of one of the world’s most recognisable structures.
The participant who comes out with the most dignity is the Opera House’s Danish architect, Jørn Oberg Utzon. We knew about Utzon and his heartbreaking story, but it wasn’t until we recently did a tour with Sydney architect Eoghan Lewis, director of Supple Design, who runs Sydney Architecture Walks, that Utzon’s story was vividly and somewhat tragically brought to life.
We’ll be bringing you a review of that walk very soon, but in the meantime, meet passionate Sydney architect and Utzon authority, Eoghan Lewis to talk about Sydney architecture.
For more interviews with locals from Sydney and beyond see our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world.
A Local Guide to Sydney Architecture by Local Architect Eoghan Lewis
Q. Sydney architecture in a nutshell.
A. A little schitzophrenic; derivative, conservative, nostalgic and 30 years out of date on the one hand (95%); hearty, unexpected and sometimes even inspiring on the other. But somehow all is forgiven by this landscape! The most interesting projects tend to be private houses.
Q. Describe the lay of the land in terms of architectural scope and styles.
A. Traditionally we pinched our ideas from cold climate cities like London (Georgian, Victorian) and New York (Deco) but with a 30-odd year lag and little adaptation or modification to this climate. From the mid-50s we grabbed a few poor ideas from Los Angeles (replacing public transport with freeways, the shopping mall, project homes rubber stamped on the ever-growing periphery, even poker machines found there way here from LA).
Q. Pivotal moments in Sydney’s architectural history?
A. * Jørn Utzon – the arrival of the shy, fair-haired, dyslexic, 6”4’ Dane with a penchant for British suits: Jørn Utzon in July 1957. Sydney would never be quite the same again.
* The Sydney School – a group of practitioners in the 60s and 70s who began to value the Sydney landscape and respond to its characteristics and materials in an intelligent and hearty, not an uncritical and nostalgic, way.
* Green Bans – a direct response to the Askin Liberal government‘s urban policies of the late 60s and early 70s that led to the BLF (Builders Labourers Federation) and local residents banning demolition on whole swathes of Sydney’s worker-housing suburbs like The Rocks and Paddington.
* Clover Moore – and her attempts to pedestrianise the city, shift our Victorian alcohol laws, and spend money on public spaces and art.
Q. Sydney’s most notable must-see buildings?
A. * Aurora Place by Renzo Piano, Corner Bent and Macquarie Streets, Sydney – Piano doesn’t do bad buildings and this is one of his better ones. The eastern façade of the Macquarie Apartments is a thing to behold from a conceptual, poetic and environmental point of view.
* Barcelona Building by Durbach Block on Roslyn Street, Potts Point – this is a really cute new building by a firm that many outside Sydney would not recognise.
* Walsh Bay Finger Wharves at Hickson Road, Millers Point – a set of early 20th century finger wharves that comprised, when built, the largest timber structure in the world and a gritty reminder of Sydney’s maritime industry past. They were upgraded at the beginning of the 21st century by PTW and Transfield.
Q. Notable architects within the current architectural scene?
A. The scene is healthy. There is work. There is money. There is an incredible climate and often incredible opportunities afforded by site and client. And there are loads of good architects here. Key practitioners are small firms like Durbach Block Jaggers, Peter Stutchbury, Neeson Murcutt and Chenchow Little. LAVA, the Laboratory of Visionary Architecture, is also very interesting. Larger practices like JPW and FJMT also produce very good work.
Q. Of Sydney’s current and new architecture, what’s worth seeking out?
A. Gehry’s UTS business school will be interesting. Fraser’s Broadway is well under construction on Broadway with buildings by Foster, Nouvel and others. Neeson Murcutt’s Prince Alfred Park public pool looks beautiful. South of Central Station. Durbach Block Jaggers’ UTS Thomas Street Building also looks like it will be quite lovely.
Q. The terrace house is ubiquitous in Sydney and gives the inner-city its charm, yet you’re critical of that early architecture, adopted from the Northern hemisphere and how unsuitable it was for the climate.
A. I am critical when style is borrowed but ideas are not. That is, when one only takes the physical thing free of the understanding of causal relationships that led to that thing in the first place then something is lost in translation. When ideas are understood and adapted that is an entirely different thing altogether. What’s great about the terraces is the density they afford and the quality they give to the street. Many were also built with material integrity so over time they age gracefully. What’s not so great is how dark they are internally and how seldom they were adapted to respond to this climate and not the cold European climate they came from. But I also think we would have been better off had we pinched our architecture from temperate, Mediterranean climates. Perhaps the Spanish or the Portugeuse should have got here sooner.
Q. You said Sydney was 30 years too late and modelled on New York and London. Why did this happen? How would you reimagine Sydney? What might it have looked like instead?
A. We are a nostalgic culture, made up, originally at least, of more convicts and mariners then settlers. The architecture of this city reflects a longing for a history they never had. Timothy Flannery and Robert Hughes write about how we have lived in this place like renters, not owners. We imported European pests, ripped out native plants to make space for rose gardens, said our kids were ‘going native’ when they ran around in baggy hats and no clothes (in fact they were adapting to the climate), and built our cities in the image of European cities. We are aspirational, so in the 20th century that image shifted to New York. But in pinching our architectural ideas from cold-climate styles there was generally a 30-year lag. Tried and tested. No risk taking here, please! Some buildings buck this trend like Alan Bond’s Chifley Place, which is 60 years out of date (New York Deco built in the late 80’s).
Q. Why is Sydney Opera House one of the greatest architectural works of the 20th century? Best way to experience it?
A. It is a miracle of imagination, engineering and bloody-mindedness in the face of fat round men whose pockets were stuffed full of money. It took the architectural world 20 years to discover what Utzon had achieved here. In fact, he only built half the building he intended. The six years he spent designing the glass walls, major and minor halls, furniture, light fittings and so on were never realised (see above and the Askin Liberal government) The best way to experience this marvel of the imagination is to come on a SAW tour; twelve years of research and a no holds barred Utzon tour-de-force. The second best way is to buy a ticket to see something there but avoid the minor hall if you can.
Q. The philosophies/influences of Utzon have been an influence on your work as an architect. What have you learned most from Utzon? What could Sydney learn from Utzon now?
A. Utzon would begin every project with a set of questions or certain lines of enquiry. He would research, agitate the context, then respond directly to what he found, developing a simple and robust conceptual framework for each project that would guide the design. By definition, if you ask the same questions and the parameters change then the solutions come out unique. Every time. As I practice and teach, as well as talk about architecture, Utzon is a profound influence for me as his method is incredibly simple to use and to communicate to students.
Q. Sydney’s planning has lacked focus/vision in the past with bad public transport, the failed monorail, etc. What will it take to make Sydney a better city for visitors?
A. Cities are made, not found. They are the places where the sharpest oppositions play out; commercially, politically, culturally and socially. Government’s role is to control the money to a degree and to encourage outcomes that have the best public interest. It’s also to have a vision for the future. This takes guts as well as inspiration and on both counts we have been let down by state and city. The current Lord Mayor, however, has both these qualities, so let’s see how she goes.
Q. Best neighbourhoods or streets to explore for architecture?
A. * Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay – the densest part of Sydney, a wonderful bohemian, pedestrian network of windy streets lines with predominantly Art Deco apartment buildings. Still affordable so a rich mix of characters.
* Bondi Beach; Hall, Gould, Curlewis Streets – it’s got to be the world’s best urban beach. The architecture is dreadful. Sigh.
* Surry Hills; Crown and Bourke Streets – deep in a process of gentrification and a wonderful place to wander with still enough rough edges to keep things interesting.
Q. Your top tips for a fan of architecture visiting Sydney?
A. * Buy tickets to a performance in the Major Hall of Sydney Opera House (interior by Peter Hall) – then have a cocktail in the baby shell (Guillaume at Bennelong) and take in the city.
* Cocktails at The Summit – the top floor of Seidler’s Australia Square; it rotates once every 90 minutes!
* Walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee and finish at Wylie’s Baths South Coogee – the coast is extraordinary, every beach has its own distinct culture, orientation and scale, there are a bunch of curious houses to peer into as you go, the water is clear, and your head will be too.
* North Sydney Pool – an open-air Olympic sized swimming pool. If you do back stroke you look up under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Q. Ultimate Sydney viewpoint?
A. Sydney Opera House from every angle.
Q. Best souvenir to buy for an architecture buff friend back home?
A. One of those kangaroo scrotum cigarette lighter holders or a nice book on Utzon!
Sydney Architecture Walks
Do you seek out great architecture when you travel? What do you think of Sydney’s architecture? Is the Opera House one of the world’s greatest 20th century building? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Sydney Architecture Walks and the super-knowledgable Eoghan Lewis hosted us on this superb tour.