[Peter Murray. Spon Press, 2003. $49.95.
Peter Murray. Spon Press, 2003. $49.95.
Peter Murray’s book is the latest addition to the long bibliography on the Sydney Opera House. Uncannily timed with the award of the Pritzker Prize to Jørn Utzon, his long-awaited reconciliation with Sydney and the much trumpeted renovation of the performing arts complex, The Saga of the Sydney Opera House occupies an interesting position in the library of Australia’s most famous building icon.
In contrast with other recent publications – Francoise Fromonot’s Jørn Utzon Architect of the Sydney Opera House (1998), Philip Drew’s The Masterpiece (1999) and Richard Weston’s Utzon (2002) – Murray’s analysis focuses more on the development process of the building than its absolute association with Utzon. While recognizing the close (though problematic) relationship between master and piece, Murray keeps the genie of the place distinct from the genius of the architect. The tale of Bennelong Point unfolds before Utzon’s involvement and continues after Utzon’s dismissal. The Danish architect is but one – albeit important – character of the many featured in Murray’s account (which does in fact start with a long list of dramatis personae).
Agile, engrossing and often enlightening, the book embarks on a modest storytelling journey that still spans over forty years and across architecture, building and politics.
By relying significantly on oral testimonies, either archived through the life of the project or personally recorded, Murray makes an ambitious attempt to play construction historian, social commentator and devil’s advocate at the same time. The controversial issues surrounding the development of the design and the construction of the building are touched upon, in Rashomonesque fashion, from multiple perspectives: the architect’s, the engineer’s, the client’s, the profession’s.
Murray’s balanced narration suggests that the truth sits somewhere in the middle, and can only be approached by contextualizing the various positions. In the book, this is achieved by placing Utzon’s vision and methodology before the realities of the project and his office, Utzon’s other work, and the industrial and professional conventions of the time.
Keeping information manageable for the non-specialist reader, Murray – a former editor of Building Design and The Architect’s Journal, and founder of Blueprint – reviews the reception of Utzon’s ideas across architecture and its allied professions, describes the environment in which they were produced, explains the construction alternatives considered during and after his tenure, and distinguishes individuals’ personalities from professional positions.
Without taking sides, Murray compares words and deeds, lofty ambitions and actual documents, allowing contrasting views to coexist.
Such documentary stance is partly hampered by the concise format of the book, which would have benefited greatly from a more generous body of illustrations, footnotes and proper referencing of cited sources as well as quotes. With the discursive narrative taking over the details of the project, the full appreciation of some of the subtleties of the arguments developed or suggested by Murray requires either adequate prior knowledge of the building or access to additional literature.
Despite its journalistic bent, or perhaps in light of it, Murray’s effort is comprehensive in scope. At last, and a quarter of a century after Alex Kouzmin’s famous paper on the management of the whole process (“Building the New Parliament House: An Opera House revisited?”), the reader is presented with some thoughtful description of the post-Utzon part of the saga – which took, after all, seven additional years and a forty per cent increase in budget to complete but never seemed to warrant much ink. Publishing constraints must have worked against a more thorough account of the post-1966 events, as Murray concentrates his attention on a limited number of issues (essentially the theatres and the glass walls) while skipping over other important dimensions of the interiors project.
Although this leaves the conclusive biography of the building still unaccounted for, the information laid out in the last two chapters has the merit of drawing the experience and the controversies of the project out of their mythical dimension, eventually connecting them to contemporary practice.
Respectful of Utzon but never blindly reverential, Murray elucidates both the contingent and the objective hurdles of the development process. He reviews the validity of thirty-year-old arguments about the building’s cost and the actors’ performance or motives, assessing their relevance vis-avis the eventual impact of the product and the professional trajectories of those involved in its delivery.
This strategy keeps things in perspective while building perspective. At the end of the book, we can appreciate the professional conundrums of the project without denying the incommensurable value of Utzon’s ideas.
Murray shows that programmatic needs and constructability requirements, scope drawings and shop drawings, trade specialties and procurement methods can support a discussion on architecture rather than deterring it.
HOUSES FOR THE TWENTYFIRST CENTURY