What's Better Than The Sydney Opera House?
By Nick BryantJune 14, 2012
Yes, Sydney has one very good building. But contemporary Australian architecture is out of the Opera House shadow, earning plaudits from Shangai to Stonehenge. (And, yes, there are some very bad buildings, too.)
As a student, James Stockwell, one of the rising stars of Australian architecture, had a radical plan to improve the quality of local buildings: demolish the Sydney Opera House. Now in his early 40s, with a clutch of major awards to his name, Stockwell has mellowed, but he still finds Jørn Utzon's incomplete masterpiece problematic. "I thought it was really hampering Sydney's ability to produce high-level architecture," he says. "In the presence of a great building, the rest of the city would settle for mediocrity. You don't have to look any further than 'The Toaster' to see that in action."
The commissioning and building of Australia's most recognisable and internationally acclaimed structure really scarred the Australian architectural profession. Perhaps we should call it the "Utzon complex". It was not just that Jørn Utzon was chosen ahead of local architects to design the country's most important post-war building, but also that the job of completion was handed to the Government Architect's Office in 1966 after the Dane's constructive dismissal — a phrase that seems especially inapt given how his vision for the building was thwarted.
Where Utzon was obsessed with form, Peter Hall, the head of the government team, was preoccupied with function and cost — he had authored a study on architectural costing techniques. Though the Sydneysider initially turned down the job of realising Utzon's vision, out of sympathy for the sacked Dane, eventually he came to regard Utzon as a prima donna, interested only in architecture as a means of self-expression. Hall's principal goal was more mundane: to design a building that worked. So the Opera House came to be the unhappy result of two architects with antagonistic philosophies: Utzon gave it stunning, iconic form, while the humdrum interior belonged to Hall. To this day, it stands as a landmark to Australia's architectural cringe.
Now, Sydney is about to become home to the work of two global "starchitects" who deserve to be spoken of in the same reverent breath as Utzon. They are the Canadian-born Frank Gehry, and the French architect Jean Nouvel. Both are recipients of the Pritzker prize, their profession's most coveted honour. On the southern fringes of Sydney's CBD, in the twilight shadow of the much-reviled brutalist UTS Tower, Nouvel is building a residential and retail complex, One Central Park, that looks like a garden hanging in the sky. Its dramatic, upper-level cantilevers will be covered with vines and foliage, designed with the help of French botanical artist, Patrick Blanc. By strange coincidence, Gehry's building, a 12-storey structure that looks as if it is collapsing in on itself, is a three-minute walk away, on the other side of the UTS Tower. Built to house the university's business school, on ground most recently occupied by a $15-a-day car park, it is the 83-year-old architect's first Australian commission.
And local response to these designs suggests the Utzon complex may have been put to rest. "The architectural community here isn't falling at their feet in awe," says Shelley Penn, the new president of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). "Lots of local architects would have done just as good a design." Her comments may sound protectionist, but in fact they reflect a sense of parity. "We don't feel the need to have big names here any more," adds Penn, who left for Europe at the age of 28, after graduating from Melbourne University, but prodigally returned a few months later because the Australian architectural scene seemed more exciting. "We have fantastic and diverse architectural resources. We've got our own big names."
Foremost among them is Peter Stutchbury, the winner of an unprecedented number of AIA awards and a future recipient, surely, of the Pritzker. "I don't mind the fact that the starchitects come in," he tells me. "It changes the bar — it doesn't lift it or drop it. It also gives us a cloak of understanding. It shows us, 'Okay, we can deal with that stuff.'"
This self-assured mood mirrors Australia's big-picture success story. The global financial crisis has not hit the domestic construction industry anywhere near as badly as in Europe or America. There has been no local equivalent of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and thus no toxic suburbs. Chinese cityscapes are the product both of Australian iron ore and, increasingly, Australian architectural vision. This country's growing reputation as a thrusting, creative hub means that, for talented young architects, pull factors outweigh the push. Designers no longer feel so beholden to Britain or America. So is architecture enjoying an Australian moment?
From the Games's very first modern iteration, which saw the long overdue restoration of the ancient Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, to the Beijing contest which centred on Herzog and de Meuron's stunning Bird's Nest, the Olympics has been almost as much a celebration of the architectural hand as the sporting physique. On the design front, however, the Sydney Games was a colossal disappointment. None of the buildings have received much global attention. Nor have two of its undoubted successes, the canopied railway station at Olympic Park designed by the Australian mega-practice HASSELL and the archery pavilion designed by Peter Stutchbury, created much excitement at home. Inexplicably, two of the country's leading architects, Glenn Murcutt and Harry Seidler, did not even receive commissions for the home-turf event in 2000.
Happily, Australian architects were given a second chance at the Beijing Games, where they designed seven of the major venues. Among these were the Olympic Tennis Centre, a monumental flower-shaped concrete structure designed by Bligh Voller Nield, and the famed Water Cube with its bubble-wrap exterior, by the Sydney-based practice PTW. By the time the last anthem had been sung at the 2008 games, the Australian Institute of Architects reckoned its members had received the "biggest international exposure of all time".
Beijing may come to be regarded more as a platform than a pinnacle, because since then Australian architects have gone on to enjoy still more global success. The 2009 World Architecture Festival in Barcelona really brought in the guernseys, with major awards for three local architects — an unprecedented number. Choi Ropiha's eye-catching new ticket booth in the heart of New York's Times Square scored one. But two less flashy home-soil projects were also awarded: a new sports and recreation centre in Berry in rural New South Wales by Allen Jack+Cottier, and a holiday home on the Mornington Peninsula by McBride Charles Ryan. The prizes came as recognition rather than validation; prior to Barcelona, all three buildings had received awards at home.
Consider, as well, the reception given the Now and When exhibition at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, for which Australian practices were asked to submit 3D images of Sydney, Melbourne and Surfers Paradise, envisioning how the cities might look in 2100. The results were breathtaking. Seemingly floating above the CBD, like some giant tethered airship, the vision for Melbourne was so bold and futuristic that it looked as if Zaha Hadid had joined forces with James Cameron in an animation jam session. The exhibit was viewed by a record-breaking 93,000 people and has since toured Jakarta and Beijing — next stop, Taiwan.
Commercially as well as critically, home-grown architects are enjoying an unprecedented degree of international success. As with the resources sector, it is a China-led boom. In the fast-growing cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, Australian mega-practices such as Cox, BVN and HASSELL have made major inroads. Denton Corker Marshall, the practice behind Sydney's Governor Phillip Tower, the Melbourne Museum and Brisbane Square, has alone built more than 50,000 Chinese apartments.
The Melbourne-based practice, CK Designworks, has followed a typical trajectory. Looking for more international commissions to augment its cash flow, it first targeted Dubai and the Gulf States, and even carried out concept work in Tehran. Then, in the wake of the global financial crisis, it focused primarily on China, where a third of the practice's work is now undertaken.
"There's a character balance between the Australian architect and the Chinese developer," explains the firm's managing director, Domenic Crisante. "The Europeans have a very rigid, logical approach. Australians are much more flexible and tend to think on their feet. You need to be adaptable." In other words, Australians are exporting an outlook rather than an aesthetic.
A host of factors, he says, give Australian practices a competitive advantage over European and American rivals in China. Among them are the relationships that have developed from Chinese investment in Australian construction projects; the exposure of Australian architects to Asian influences at home; and, above all, the closeness of the time zones which enables convenient communication. CK Designworks has even downgraded its website, by removing flashy animations, to make it more user-friendly for Chinese clients surfing a heavily censored internet.
Working in China, though, also carries a risk. Such is the commercial potential that volume could easily trump quality, violating that golden architectural law that less invariably is more. Australian designs might come to resemble Mexican food: palatable and reliable, but bland, predictable and overly reliant on refried ingredients. Already, large-scale commercial architecture is where the Australian profession is at its weakest. "Some of it is just awful," says Catherine de Lorenzo from the University of New South Wales. "Certainly, you're not seeing the level of innovation at the commercial end that you get in London," says Huw Turner, a British-trained architect who set up the Sydney-based husband-and-wife practice Collins and Turner. "It's simply not ground-breaking." There is no Australian equivalent, for example, of a Richard Rogers Partnership, a Foster + Partners, or a Renzo Piano Building Workshop; there's no blockbuster practice with a proven track record of bringing cutting-edge design to major global zeitgeist projects, like skyscrapers and airports.
Partly because of the continued dominance of these international big-name practices, it has been much harder for Australian firms to participate in older, traditional markets, including Britain. Over the past five years, however, they have enjoyed breakthrough successes. The Manchester Civil Justice Centre, which opened in 2007, can be seen as both landmark and milestone. For the job of designing Britain's first major court complex since the 19th Century Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, the Lord Chancellor's office invited three practices — the Richard Rogers Partnership, Pringle Richards Sharratt, one of Britain's most exciting newer practices, and Denton Corker Marshall — to participate in a limited competition. The Aussies, with their brilliant scheme featuring cantilevered boxes that referenced Mondrian, and Europe's largest suspended-glass wall, came away the winners. Design magazine Blueprint described the building as among the 10 best in Britain of the past decade. Stephen Bayley, a leading architectural critic, said the structure was so "remarkable" and "exhilarating" that it had made "divorce and probate sexy".
Even before Manchester, DCM had pulled off a cheeky coup by winning the international competition to design a visitor centre at one of Britain's most sacred and sensitive sites, Stonehenge. Although at one stage the project looked as if it might fall victim to the Cameron government's austerity measures, funding has now been secured.
The firm's most recent triumph was winning the competition to build the new Australian Pavilion at Venice's Giardini della Biennale. It is a hugely emblematic project, since the new gallery space replaces the temporary building designed by Philip Cox in the late-eighties, which has come to be hated by exhibitors, and likened to a dunny shed. In fairness to Cox, the project was a rush job, completed on the cheap, so that Australia could claim one of the garden's last vacant plots ("The complaints," he once told Melbourne's The Age newspaper, "give me the fucking shits.") In its place will sit a cube-shaped structure fashioned from South Australian black granite, which DCM prefers to think of as an object rather than a building. Finally, Australia will have a gallery space that can sit more happily alongside pavilions designed by greats such as Alvar Aalto and Josef Hoffmann. It's a fitting showcase for Australian art and of Australian architecture. What the modernist design will not do, however, is represent a uniquely Australian aesthetic. That is to be found at home.
THE EMERGENCE of a style of architecture immediately recognisable as Australian had been taken as a given when in 1908 Robert Haddon became the first local architect to write a book, Australian Architecture, solely devoted to local buildings. Naturally it would come, predicted Haddon, from the "points of peculiar difference that will always separate our Australian requirements and practice from that of the old world"; points of difference such as climate, the character of local building materials, and "requirements of life, business and habit differing in many degrees from the old civilisation". The new architecture would reflect the new world.
Alas, the architecture that emerged in the early 20th century was strongly, if not slavishly, derivative. Art Deco. The Californian bungalow. Re-workings of the German architect Erich Mendelsohn. Even when it came to designing the new federal capital in Canberra, an American architect, Walter Burley Griffin, was given the gig. There was little in the way of local design that caught the foreign eye. "Is this all men can do with a new country?" scoffed Harriet Somers in D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, "Look at those tin cans!" Sir John Betjeman, the poet and architectural historian, was kinder when he said that Melbourne and Sydney could boast some of the world's finest Victorian architecture. Yet it seemed a backhanded compliment. Adhering to a British template, the architecture was, after all, a celebration of colonialism.
After the Second World War, population growth and the accompanying building boom presented another opportunity to produce a more emphatically local aesthetic. But the country's most influential post-war architect, Harry Seidler, was Austrian-born and Walter Gropius-educated. His signature designs, such as the Corbusian Rose Seidler House and Sydney's Australia Square skyscraper, are rightly celebrated. Yet he was essentially implanting the principles of the German Bauhaus school on Australian soil. His lasting contribution, as others have observed, was to bring world architecture to Australia rather than Australian architecture to the world. In an afterword to Robin Boyd's The Australian Ugliness, Seidler even criticised local architecture schools for nurturing a "paranoid attitude towards anything 'imported'." This kind of parochialism had produced some terrible buildings, he argued, which were part of a failed quest for a "uniquely Australian mode of design".
Finally, in the 1970s, Australian architecture started to reflect the growing cultural self-confidence and nationalistic awakening of the broader arts community. The period around the 1975 dismissal crisis was particularly fruitful. Glenn Murcutt's breakthrough Kempsey Farmhouse was built and published. The Melbourne-based architect Peter Corrigan set out to give the suburbs more of a regional character. Another influential figure, Philip Cox, who had been heavily influenced by the romantic school of Australian landscape painting, received bigger commissions, such as the National Athletics Stadium in Canberra, and published a series of books on the country's richer-than-was-supposed architectural heritage.
When, in 1984, Cox received the gold medal from what was then known as the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, he categorically rejected the notion that his colleagues still suffered from an inferiority complex. He also identified a unique national aesthetic: "The architecture which demonstrates a unique Australian language and the best response yet to the Australian environment is the homestead."
Its finest exponent is Glenn Murcutt, who combines a corrugated-iron bush vernacular with the Aboriginal ethic of "touching the ground lightly". An Australian pastoral. "His is an architecture of place," read the jury citation when Murcutt was awarded the Pritzker prize in 2002; "Architecture that responds to the landscape and to the climate."
Murcutt's close friend Peter Stutchbury has a similar organic approach. If Murcutt believed a structure should touch the ground lightly, Stutchbury has developed a style of building that makes it hard to delineate between the two. Using sliding doors and collapsible corner windows, he achieved what the architectural writer Lindsay Johnston has called "the dissolution of inside and out". The philosopher Alain de Botton is also an admirer, observing that Stutchbury has produced "a distinctive, modern Australian beauty — an architecture that remembers where it is, what country it is in and what century it is in."
As with Glenn Murcutt, Stutchbury's main body of work is found outside the cities. Many of his houses are located on the Barrenjoey Peninsula, north of Sydney Harbour, while his most iconic building, the sublime Deepwater Woolshed, is in Wagga Wagga. "Our isolation means we are not so easily tempted by styles abroad," says Stutchbury. "It's been good for our self-discovery. Nor is Australian architecture relying on its past to create its future." Where local architecture is particularly strong, he says, is in its approach to sustainability. "Australia is on the front foot in that regard because we're a very low-tech culture. We have been putting ventilation in the right places for years, and we've had time to orientate our buildings. We're a little bit ahead of the group." It helps, he says, that so many architects grew up surfing, for it has given them a closer affinity for the landscape and made them more environmentally literate. He has a neat way of describing his fellow Australian architects: "Provocative but sensible."
Stutchbury has built in Japan, Vanuatu and Russia, and is in high demand on the international lecture circuit. In the past two years, he has spoken in North and South America, Africa, India, Scandinavia, as well as addressing the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. In comparison, and particularly in contrast with the likes of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, Glenn Murcutt seems positively hermetic. He is a sole practitioner, who made a conscious decision not to take foreign commissions because it would mean giving up the chance to work locally.
Thanks to Murcutt and Stutchbury, there is an Australian aesthetic, even if seeing it with one's own eyes takes some doing given the regional, and sometimes remote, settings for their work. But architects from around the world have been beating a path to take a look. Since being set up in 2000, the Murcutt International Master Class, at which Stutchbury also teaches, has been attended by 500 architects from over 80 nations. "Invariably, those lectures are packed," says Stutchbury.
"Australia is a world leader in residential architecture," says Huw Turner, whose own beach, bush and cliff-top houses have been exhibited in Berlin, Helsinki and the Venice Architecture Biennale, and published in a range of international books and journals. James Stockwell, the project architect for two of Stutchbury's Robin Boyd-Award-winning houses, is also creating waves. Since setting up his own practice, the Western Australian has won the coveted Wilkinson Award for Residential Building with his beautiful Leura House in the Blue Mountains. "The quest to be sophisticated and tricky in design misses the point," says Stockwell. "It's about distilling a vernacular and belonging to a place." His own projects achieve that. May they never be touched by a wrecking ball.
IN A FULL ACCOUNTING of the architectural state of the nation, there would be many more entries on the positive side of the ledger, not least the recent upgrading of Australia's cultural infrastructure. Arts architecture has become to the last decade what campus architecture was to the nineties. The Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, a pavilion-like structure with outdoor balconies and terraces that reference the open verandas of "Queenslander" homes, has helped turn the city's South Bank into one of the country's hottest stretches of cultural real estate. Next door, is the impressive Queensland State Library by Donovan Hill and Peddle Thorp, which has the feel almost of a literary cathedral.
The new Museum of Old and New Art on the edge of Hobart, designed by the Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis, is giving Tasmania a mini-Bilbao effect — visitors for the sake of art and architecture. The State Theatre Centre of Western Australia by Kerry Hill Architects, with its stunning interior centred upon a plywood drum and decorated with gold-coloured stalactites, shows the Sydney Opera House what it has been missing all these years. Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art Australia has a much-needed new wing, with a rooftop sculpture garden opening up a stunning vantage point from which to view the harbour and Circular Quay.
Canberra can boast a new National Portrait Gallery, with low-slung cantilevered concrete blades, and which art historian Catherine de Lorenzo believes "reveals a new architectural maturity in Canberra and, perhaps, the nation". Another capital success is the new Eastern Terrace of the Australian War Memorial, a stylish concrete lattice designed by Richard Johnson and Kiong Lee that manages to look at once airy and monumental.
Australia now also has a worldwide reputation for urban furniture, thanks in part to eye-catching schemes like DCM's abstract bright-red picket fence and yellow boom gate on the drive from the airport to the CBD. "There's a very strong sense of bringing design to big infrastructure projects," says Shelley Penn, president of the AIA. A case in point is the new desalination plant in Melbourne, the country's largest, where the structure is so successfully embedded into the landscape that it looks more like a rural visitor centre.
On the environmental front, Australia is also cutting edge. Sustainability has become such an elemental part of the design process that the AIA is considering ditching its annual sustainability award. The green standard is the glass-rotunda office building 1 Bligh Street in Sydney, by Architectus (the practice behind GoMA in Brisbane) in collaboration with a German firm. Its basement boasts a sewage plant that recycles 90 per cent of the building's waste water, an impressive achievement for an office block in the heart of the CBD.
The quality of architectural education on offer is also top-tier. Little wonder that Australians have also led architecture faculties at leading overseas institutions — Peter Rowe at Harvard now and, Professor William J. Mitchell who before his death in 2010 served as dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) architecture school and then as leader of its influential Media Lab. Both were graduates of the design powerhouse Melbourne University.
Yet, for all the rising mood of self-confidence and international plaudits, there are also strong negatives to consider. Capital cities are still being disfigured by cheap and nasty off-the-shelf commercial and residential developments. And Australian suburbs are dotted with ugly McMansions, which seem intent on monopolising all the land space available.
The Western Australian mining boom has not yet produced the architectural riches of the Victorian gold rush, while the country as a whole suffers from a lack of design philanthropy. There are notable exceptions such as MONA in Tasmania, which was built by the Tasmanian millionaire David Walsh, and the new wing at the MCA in Sydney, which received a large share of its funding from investment banker Simon Mordant and his wife, Catriona. But the Packer family's main architectural contribution has been its temple of pokies, the banal Crown Casino project in Melbourne. And mining magnate Clive Palmer is intent on building a replica of the Titanic.
In addition, the local building industry is often unbending, adhering rigidly to contracts that act as a bar to creativity and flexibility. The tendering process for major projects is still stultifyingly risk-averse, which tends to penalise talented small practices competing for major projects. "It's very much a tick-the-box mentality," says Huw Turner, "where if you don't have the right kind of experience and track record you don't get awarded the commissions." There are not enough commissioning bodies such as the City of Sydney, which has a policy of actively encouraging up-and-coming practices.
Photo by Michael Nicholson
Photo by Michael Nicholson
Still, there are too many architects and not enough projects, which is partly why so many firms are targeting China and, increasingly, Vietnam. Smaller firms have noticed clients are now frequently hesitating over, or even bringing a complete halt to, residential projects.
Barangaroo, the troubled harbourside development in Sydney, has become a byword for the primacy of commercialism over good design. The botched tendering process also revealed how international architects, in this case Richard Rogers, can still lord it over the locals. The original competition winner, Hill Thalis, had the project taken away from him. Now a Packer casino project could trump them all.
Further along the foreshore the Opera House has made peace with the Utzon family; Jørn's son, Jan, has refurbished its western foyers. But the masterpiece remains incomplete.
Even if the country's most glorious building is a veiled reminder of that old bugbear, the cultural cringe, the growing band of internationally acclaimed practices is evidence of something very different (and much more exciting): Australia's cultural creep.