Architecture

The success of the Sydney Opera House refurbishment adds another layer to a complex architectural story. By Naomi Stead.

Sydney Opera House 2.0

The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall refurbishment.
The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall refurbishment.
Credit: Daniel Boud

Not long after Jørn Utzon’s scheme was announced as the winner of the Sydney Opera House design competition in January 1957, a discussion appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly, a publication not widely associated with sophisticated architectural critique. But the article was both sharp – citing Utzon’s design as a clear winner among the “ornamental railway stations, streamlined cinemas and genteel biscuit factories” of the other 217 entries – and prescient – predicting that the design would produce “decades of violent argument”. And so it did. But even The Weekly could not have predicted how fraught the process would become, how it would descend into a raging bin-fire of political machination, ill-timed design and construction, hostile media pile-ons and intransigence on all sides.

There’s no question that the Opera House is a marvel, a wonder, a glorious thing. It’s the most revered and visited World Heritage building in the country and one of the busiest performing arts venues in the world. It’s also something of a miracle it materialised at all: Utzon is reported to have said, “it is not I but Sydney Opera House that creates all the enormous difficulties”. This is a curious sentiment, as if the building had a life and wilfulness of its own, and Utzon was merely its implacable servant. But in some ways he was right: it was the nature of the architectural idea that made it so hard to build, and to resolve functionally – including, famously, its acoustics.

The Opera House’s problems with sound – especially in the Concert Hall, its largest venue – are widely known. But the blame for this is rarely laid at Utzon’s feet. Instead it’s roundly turned on Peter Hall, the talented young design architect who – somewhat reluctantly and, in the end, at great personal cost – took over after Utzon left in 1966. But as one acoustician of my acquaintance mused, “it’s very likely Utzon would have screwed up the acoustics too … It’s the shape of the room – too tall and too deep. It just makes it very, very difficult.”

Still, architecture remains a practice curiously susceptible to myth, especially the allure of the tortured (male) genius. In some circles an orthodox narrative still prevails: that Utzon was driven out and replaced by treacherous hacks, and the resulting masterpiece was flawed – the inside unable to live up to the outside, a travesty of what the great man would have achieved. I think that story is a bit too easy: it’s both exaggerated and unjust. Hall’s work is formally recognised in the heritage listing and conservation plan, and the narrative of his contribution is slowly changing. But still it’s been generally undervalued – especially his design of the interior for the Concert Hall. You only need to look at this room to recognise that it is a virtuoso feat of spatial design.

And it’s this I’m pondering, as I sit within its recently reopened volume, waiting to hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play – appropriately – Beethoven’s Eroica. Just look at this room! It’s stupendous. See how the complex arching crown under the largest shell is resolved in a stepped array of flared and radial tiers, its complex three-dimensional geometry all the more amazing given it was all worked out with pen and paper.

With the reopening of the Concert Hall, the Opera House completes the comprehensive suite of refurbishment and improvement works in its “decade of renewal” preparations for the 50th anniversary of its opening, in 2023. Funded by the state government to the tune of $275 million, the work includes the new Centre for Creativity, a function centre and refurbishment of the other performance spaces, led by various teams of architects, each working with exceptional care in this quasi-sacred space.

When it was announced that the hall refurbishment would be completed by the Melbourne-based practice ARM Architecture, a collective gasp issued from the architects of the nation. ARM has contributed immeasurably to local architectural culture but has not traditionally been known for subtlety, sensitivity or recessiveness. Would they mess up Sydney’s most precious building? On other grounds, they were an obvious choice, having been the design architects for the Melbourne Recital Centre and later the refurbishment of Hamer Hall – both highly technical and acoustically complex, and both received with acclaim. With the Opera House refurbishment, ARM has demonstrated that even an enfant terrible can be polite and decorous when the occasion demands.

ARM was given three fundamental tasks. The first was to fix the problems emerging from the hall’s dual function as an acoustic and amplified venue. As a hard-working general-purpose hall, it needs to be able to change rapidly from a circus or cabaret venue to a concert hall for 2000 punters and their favourite band, and then reset for symphonic performance. The new stage and theatre machinery means this process is now mechanised, accomplished swiftly and automatically, but also mostly invisible – hidden above the ceiling and below the floor.

The architects’ second task was to redress the lack of accessibility. These improvements have been welcomed by all, even though they entailed a hair-raising level of intervention into the heritage fabric, including cutting a cleft right through Utzon’s monumental Eastern steps. Such dramatic measures were needed to make the new lift, which allows mobility-impaired folk to access, for the first time, the elevated northern foyer on the harbour side.

The third and most vexed challenge was to fix the acoustics, working with acousticians Müller-BBM – and this brings the most perceptible changes to the Concert Hall interior. Earlier problems with the sound are well documented: it tended to travel up and get lost in the void, meaning the orchestra could hardly hear itself – a fatal problem for symphonic performance. The auditorium had acoustical flat spots and shadows, and a generally uneven sound quality – described in various quarters as muddy, smeary and unintelligible.

The old clear acrylic “doughnut” sound reflectors – likened by some to smoke rings and others to haemorrhoid cushions – had themselves been an earlier, failed, acoustic fix. They are now replaced with much larger, solid, magenta-painted acoustic reflection panels or “petals” that bounce the sound down and forward and around the space. This is a big move, and there are detractors: some complain that the petals are too obtrusive, obscuring the view to the organ, that the whole thing is all a bit too glam, too shiny, too bright. Others are unbothered, as long as the sound is sorted out. I think the architects were right in their choice not to be too apologetic here: using the same startling hue as Hall’s original specification for the room’s upholstery, the reflectors give a bracing flash of colour against the cool flatness of the ceiling’s pale-blonde birch-veneer ply.

Another major shift is the surface treatment of the stage-facing “box fronts”. Seen from close up, the glossy, undulating material of these brush box timber panels is so sensual, so much like poured honey, it literally had my mouth watering – which was weird, dear reader. I can’t recall the last time I actually salivated over a building. But more than just being beautiful, the surfaces tell us something about the physics of sound: the most desirable acoustic effects are produced in a room that has a high degree of “modulation” on its surfaces. Smooth walls and ceilings reflect sound waves directionally, whereas a complex surface scatters them, leading to a more rich and encompassing effect. In historic concert halls this was achieved through ornately carved surfaces: scrolls, festoons and cartouches and the like. But this contemporary computer-generated ornament, derived from the field of cymatics, evidently also does the trick.

And lo, I can attest that the acoustics are good. Beethoven’s fourth movement flute solo carried all the way back to me in the upper circle, while the force and warmth of the whole ensemble, in full symphonic crescendo, filled the room. The woman next to me was applauding so fervently she reminded me of a hummingbird, liable to take off.

The magnificent edifice that is the Sydney Opera House did not spring from one hand alone. It has always been a great collaboration – between architects, engineers, acousticians, builders and many others. ARM’s most recent interventions are both respectful and bold, and take their rightful place within that grand lineage.

ARTS DIARY

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Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, until October 23

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MULTIMEDIA Sydney Contemporary 2022

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THEATRE Fires in the Mirror

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LAST CHANCE

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Arts House, Melbourne, until September 4

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "House of the rising sound".

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