Last week, while driving back to Brisbane Airport, I picked up an hour or so of a fascinating radio broadcast from the Sydney Opera House. An impressive cast of speakers (Peter Garrett, various government and state ministers, John Bell of The Bell Shakespeare Company reading a piece by David Malouf) and performers (Cate Blanchett reading a passage from Cymbeline, Neil Finn singing Don’t Dream It’s Over) and others were paying tribute to the late Joern Utzon, the architect who designed the Opera House.
I guess it was the 50th anniversary of work starting on Utzon’s innovative design and while speakers didn’t shy away from the subsequent controversy and Utzon’s alienation from the project (he died last November, never having seen his completed building), there were eloquent and articulate speeches about just what his marvellous building had done for Sydney, but more particularly the country as a whole.
It was a physical, dynamic and public emblem of a country that was boldly stepping into the future, putting aside its rambunctious past and saying that here was a nation which was aesthetically aware, mature, sophisticated and courageous.
Yes, some had been sceptical of the design -- I remember someone describing it to me in the late Sixties as “nuns huddling against the wind” -- but most embraced its bold gestures. It is one of the great pieces of 20th century architecture, and many speakers -- fairly I think -- drew comparisons with the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge and so on.
It is, in the truest sense of that now threadbare word, “iconic”.
What impressed me as I drove through diverse Australia -- dusty and winding mountain back roads, down through small towns, past glorious beaches and then along smooth modern motorways -- was how eloquently people spoke about this building and its brave architect (whose wife and children were in the audience).
Everyone thanked Utzon for the gift he had given all Australians, a rare piece of architectural sculpture which enabled everyone to have a sense of pride in it -- even if they had never set foot inside its doors.
Some people spoke of how ordinary Australians and tourists alike could simply enjoy being in its company, sitting on the steps taking in that magnificent harbour, looking at those poetic shells shining in the sun . . .
David Malouf noted that cities are random collisions of expediency and utilitarianism, and yet sometimes a building comes along which is -- he offered, quoting Wallace Stevens on poetry -- a “necessary angel” which speaks directly to the spirit.
“Set such a building down in the middle of a great city and the whole field composes itself anew,” he wrote. “The city is drawn in around it, as if it had been waiting for this miraculous object to appear and claim its place”.
Someone quoted the architect Frank Gehry who said, "Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that an epic piece of architecture has gained such universal presence."
This was inspirational and provocative talk -- and because I was coming home after various travels which had taken me away for a month -- my thoughts turned to my own city; a mess of expediency, utilitarianism, facades, crass Modernism and empty lots.
Auckland's waterfront is -- it goes without saying, surely? -- an international disgrace: containers, sheds, fences to keep people out, very few public spaces, endless debates and committees about why we can‘t blah-blah . . .
What is lacking in Auckland is a courageous vision: a design for a building (my wish is for a gallery of contemporary art with a marae, restaurants, theatre space and so on) which has the effect the Sydney Opera House had on Australia, an architectural magnet which pulls people toward it and the space it inhabits.
I came back to read of the plans for a “super city” called Auckland and, depressingly, the people who want to be its mayor.
These were tired and obvious names, familiar men (all of them men if I recall) who belong to the past even though they inhabit the present. They were not of the future.
As always, we stand on the threshold of the future and while the “super city” seems fraught with problems there are none that cannot be overcome. If the good folk of Matakana think we are all Jafas and won’t have a bar of us, that’s fine. Cut them loose and chop up Rodney.
If the rest of the country hates us for being too big for our boots, so what? You won’t be able to change the opinion of provincials who characterise us as shallow latte sippers. To hell with them I say.
Let’s just get on and do what needs to be done for our city -- and by extension, the country.
But it takes vision and courage. Someone -- and it may well be just one person -- who says, “We can and will do this”. Someone who sees the waterfront as a space where a necessary angel will take residence; someone who calls for an international design competition in which the likes of Gehry, Sir Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid and others throw their hats into the ring because they can see the potential and beauty of our harbour with fresh eyes, architects unblinkered by time-wasting committees with bewildering acronyms and generational in-fighting.
Money you say?
Well, the Sydney Opera House -- recognisable across the planet, acclaimed in song, poetry and painting, the pride of a nation -- cost a truckload of money.
Do you think anyone today can tell you exactly how much? Would say it wasn’t worth it? Would prefer to see a container wharf on the site?
Sometimes -- and maybe this especially true when times are tight -- we need to look beyond our pettiness and step towards a shining future.
The Sydney Opera House allowed Australia that opportunity, a gift from Joern Utzon that has never ceased giving pleasure and a sense of place to its diverse people.
We could dream, think and act in that larger spirit also.
Auckland has a population of 1.4 million. I have great faith that somewhere out there is a man or woman -- and not one of the names I've read so far -- who will make themselves known to us. And by the generosity of their vision they will, without resorting cliches such as “a world class city” and so on, talk past the drones of local government and nay-sayers with ledgers.
They will be someone who will inspire enough confidence in us all that we may be bold, resolute and excited by a project that draws our city around it, catches the attention of the world, and offers all New Zealanders a similar sense of national pride to that which Utzon gave Australians.
They too will be “a necessary angel“.
Apropos of nothing: My return sees much new (and reissued) music at Elsewhere, another Essential Elsewhere album (the Undertones 30 years on are reconsidered!), an interview with a musician who is a national treasure in Korea and much more. Some photos of Buenos Aires stencil, graffiti and mural art are also starting to appear. Many more when I get time. Enjoy.