BUILDING A MASTERPIECE: THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
Edited by Anne Watson, foreword by Jørn Utzon. Powerhouse Publishing, 2006. $55 pb and $70 hc.
Very few architectural books manage to thread stories and historiographies together successfully. Anne Watson’s new edited publication, Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House, is the exception that confirms the rule.
Consisting of an introduction and ten essays written by different authors on specific facets of the Sydney Opera House endeavour, the book identifies a series of original narratives in the life of the building’s development process and delves into them with gusto and flair.
There are two illuminating chapters on the design competition itself, two on the relationship between Utzon and the Sydney Opera House, four on specific socio-technical aspects of its realization (computers, industrial relations, innovation and plywood technology) and, finally, two on the cultural reaction to Utzon’s dismissal as well as the elevation of the Sydney Opera House to universal monument.
For the most part, the text is accessible, insightful and engaging, providing (amazingly) fresh information that is scholarly, poised but sharp and casts intelligent light on the building’s biography and ancestry. The heterogeneity of the selected discursive strands makes the collection interesting for the general public and possibly appropriate as a compendium to the exhibition held at the Powerhouse Museum in 2005 (as well as to existing bibliography). Yet one may argue that it also dilutes the absolute documentary value of the book, suggesting what the terms of outstanding specific analyses could be rather than completing them.
In this respect, I detected some forced contiguity between the sections celebrating Utzon the “master” (either by stealth or by design) and the sections exploring the technical legacy of the Sydney Opera House as a “piece”. Besides, the material that could have gone into this second component is much broader than what was chosen, yet equally fascinating.
Unfortunately much of it is not brandable as Utzon’s.
The problem, as I see it, lies with the difficulty in treating the building subject objectively while keeping cultural allegiance to the architectural hero. For instance, in spite of the title, the timeline contained in the opening section of the book curiously focuses on Utzon rather than the SOH. In fact, there are no entries on the construction process between 1967 and 1973, which is, after all, when most of the budget was spent and when most of the stories told in the book took place. But these are minor remarks. Building a Masterpiece lucidly demonstrates that architectural history and criticism can productively mix with social, technical and cultural life. It is a masterful piece and must become a precedent.
CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE DESIGN
Text by Elizabeth Mossop. BT Latitude, 2006. $85
BT Latitude, 2006. $85 This book compiles over fifty contemporary landscape design projects built in Australia. The selection is based on project types like institutional, infrastructure and parks, to name a few. Most of the projects originate from urban centres of Sydney and Melbourne, with a few from Canberra and a sprinkling of highlights from across the continent, including the Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre (Uluru) and the Tree Top Walk in southern Western Australia.
The designers range from large multidisciplinary firms like Hassell through to individual designers (not always landscape architects) working in conjunction with public organizations. Breadth is provided by an array of medium-sized firms like Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Spackman + Mossop, of which Mossop is a director. In light of this fact, the reflections on contemporary landscape design that Mossop presents in this book are based both on her own professional practice and the academic role she occupies at the Harvard Design School.
This is an outwardly impressive book – the photography is often lavish and captures the important aspects of each project. One aspect that I found frustrating was the fact that the illustrative material is entirely pictorial, without a single design drawing to be found (although there are many oblique aerial views). This absence of design drawings is unfortunate for students, scholars and practitioners, or indeed anyone wanting to gain a more complete understanding of what defines each project in terms of scale, context and design intent. Still, Mossop’s interpretations are brief and to the point, picking out the most immediate characteristics that warrant acknowledgement and offering thoughts on what works and what does not. Most of the book is taken up by projects and the accompanying descriptions that, at times, read more like commendation notes for award-winning designs. The analysis is not explicitly linked to history or theory, even though Mossop does offer her own interpretation of the origins of contemporary practice.
In the opening section, “Transforming the Bush”, the author introduces elements she believes define contemporary landscape design in Australia.
The definition touches on the importance of design lineage and the maturation of the profession in the last ten years; but Mossop goes on to suggest that landscape architects’ deep-seated fascination with the Australian bush is of equal importance to these other aspects. The historical minefield underlying this claim runs deep into our colonial history and is potentially confounded by the loose array of characters that have had a hand in nearly two centuries of landscape design in Australia.
Mossop rightly proffers that landscape architectural history in Australia is an under-researched field, but this is not a book that clarifies the field’s historiography. What it does offer is a survey of some of the more noted historical figures as a preview to a collection of impressive achievements in landscape design.