Tuesday, May 28

Diving into the 50 years history of the Sydney Opera House

As the Sydney Opera House in Australia marks its 50th anniversary, the iconic architectural masterpiece is not only celebrated for its striking design but also its unique connection with the public, earning it the title of “The People’s House.”

In 2003, the Opera House’s distinctive white sails became a canvas for a powerful message when activists David Burgess and Will Saunders painted “NO WAR” on its exterior. This act of protest underscored the strong bond that many Sydney residents have with the building.

The theme of “The People’s House” was chosen for the official celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Opera House’s completion. This theme reflects the enduring connection between the landmark and the people it serves.

Over the years, the Sydney Opera House has earned various endearing nicknames, such as “hats,” “cupcakes,” and “flower petals,” further illustrating its special place in the hearts of the public. Cristina Garduño Freeman, a senior lecturer in Architectural History at the University of New South Wales, notes that these affectionate nicknames have contributed to the building’s iconic status.

Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, the Opera House has always been more than just a visually stunning structure. In 1960, 13 years before its completion, the construction workers hosted a memorable performance, inviting African-American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson to sing on-site. Robeson’s performance was a significant event in the context of his first world tour after the United States had previously revoked his passport due to his political beliefs.

Nelson Mandela at Sydney Opera House. Credit: BBC

Decades later, another civil rights icon, Nelson Mandela, delivered a historic speech on the steps of the fully constructed Opera House. Mandela chose Sydney as one of his initial international destinations following his release from prison, in recognition of the support he received from the Australian anti-apartheid movement.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House collectively create one of the world’s most recognizable skylines along Sydney’s harbor. However, in recent years, the controversial Barangaroo casino has risen to dominate the city’s skyline, dwarfing even these iconic landmarks.

Tone Wheeler, an architect and president of the Australian Architecture Association, highlights that Barangaroo is just one example of commercial interests prevailing over ambitious architectural designs in Sydney. He observes a trend in Australia, as well as internationally, where public projects are increasingly carried out as public-private partnerships, with a strong emphasis on cost-effectiveness.

Wheeler notes that architecture has become more commodified and conservative over time, and he believes that the ambitious and groundbreaking design of the Sydney Opera House might not find approval in today’s Australia.

While the Opera House is affectionately known as “the people’s house,” it exists in a Sydney that has become one of the world’s most expensive places to live, reflecting the complex interplay between iconic architecture and the evolving social and economic landscape.

Commercialisation’s Influence on the Sydney Opera House

Even the iconic Sydney Opera House has not been immune to the encroachment of commercial interests. In 2018, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia embraced a proposal to use the opera house as a billboard to promote a horse race, dubbing it the city’s “biggest billboard.”

Recent instances of projecting images onto the Opera House have included a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, a ribbon commemorating victims of the devastating Turkey and Syria earthquakes, and the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The rapidity with which images can now be projected onto the building raises questions about what should or should not adorn its white surface.

Earlier this month, as the Opera House was illuminated in the blue and white hues of the Israeli flag, hundreds of people wearing the colors of the Palestinian flag gathered in the forecourt below. The decision, reportedly made by the New South Wales state government, drew scrutiny from Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, who emphasized the city’s multicultural makeup and the need to support all communities.

The act of projecting images onto the Opera House serves as a more convenient means of conveying a message compared to scaling its heights with a tin of red paint, but artists and activists have also used this medium to display their works on its sails.

The Vivid Sydney festival of lights, initiated in 2009, showcased the versatility of the Opera House as a canvas for art installations. The festival transformed the sails into captivating art displays and hosted various events within its premises.

Furthermore, not all images projected onto the Opera House have received official endorsements. In 2001, a group of artists, led by Deborah Kelly and called boatpeople.org, projected an image of a tall ship, reminiscent of the vessel that brought British settlers to Australia, along with the words “boat people” on the Opera House. This protest responded to then-Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to accept asylum seekers rescued after their boat sank off the Australian coast, ultimately leading to the establishment of Australia’s offshore detention system.

Reflecting on their “NO WAR” message emblazoned on the Opera House, David Burgess acknowledges its continued relevance as an act of bearing witness, even though the Iraq invasion proceeded with Australia’s participation. Their protest, now documented in an exhibit at the Australian War Memorial, incurred convictions of “malicious damage” and led to weekend prison sentences spanning about nine months. Additionally, they were ordered to pay over $150,000 Australian dollars ($94,828) to cover the costs of workers who abseiled down the Opera House to remove their message, which they raised through benefit concerts and traditional fundraising methods before the era of online crowdfunding.

While visiting the Opera House, Burgess notes that the security fence erected after their protest remains in place, becoming their unintended contribution to the Opera House’s design.

As it approaches its 50th anniversary, the Sydney Opera House remains a symbol of architectural and cultural significance, a canvas for expressions, and a witness to the evolving dynamics between art, commerce, and public sentiment.

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