Sydney Opera House: Celebrating and protecting an Australian icon

Clare Cousins and Andrew Nimmo, respectively the national and NSW chapter presidents of the Australian Institute of Architects, jointly argue that the use of the Sydney Opera House as an advertising platform demonstrates a “complete disregard for the universal values of respect and dignity.”

In a royal tour that is capturing countless hearts, it’s little surprise that the first major public engagement with adoring fans for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex took place on the steps of the Sydney Opera House.

This was not by chance. A visit to the Opera House is par for the course for Royals and regulars alike.

It is a place for selfies, for gathering, for celebrating. A public place of immeasurable value – the wondrous, sentimental kind - that appeals to people from all over the world.

As we mark the 45th birthday of this tremendous structure that has come to define in part our national image, we recognise its value as a symbol of what and who we are.

Protecting this icon is not just our business as Australians, it’s a matter of international significance.

After all, it was added to the World Heritage list in 2007, after joining Australia’s National Heritage list in 2005.

This status confers on us a duty to protect and comply with our international obligations for the management of World Heritage listed sites.

When the decision was made to project the draw for a horserace on to the Opera House sails, in a way expressly prohibited by the Conservation Management Plan put in place to protect it, there was little regard for the ramifications for brand Australia or the dangerous precedent being set.

It was a short-sighted decision more about big business and value narrowly defined in dollar terms but little sense.

When the lights went up and the draw was announced, it felt like a little bit of our nation’s integrity galloped away with those horses.

This is why there needs to be a solid commitment to ensuring the cultural value and integrity of the Sydney Opera House is protected and that this public building is never again exploited. To this end, the Australian Institute of Architects will continue to advocate in the public interest.

As architects, our opposition isn’t just about the built structure, though this is undoubtedly an essential element of protection and preservation.

Our opposition is consistent with that voiced by communities both here in Sydney, around the country and indeed internationally. We object to private-sector commercial interests overriding the public benefit with complete disregard for the universal values of respect and dignity.

Governments seem to have forgotten that they do not own our cultural institutions. They are merely the custodians. Places like the Sydney Opera House are not their playthings to profit from.

This is what we expect our governments to protect – no less – and in this case, the failure has been dismal.

Under Australia’s national environmental legislation, the Environment Minister has an obligation to protect the heritage values of World Heritage sites. Such protection was sorely lacking.

Then there’s the “billboard” issue.

The Conservation Management Plan, endorsed by the Government’s own Heritage Council, explicitly states: “The Sydney Opera House exterior, particularly the shells (and even the Tarpeian Wall face), should not be regarded as a giant billboard or commercial/advertising opportunity.”

This, of course, is entirely at odds with the Prime Minister’s declaration that the Opera House is, “the biggest billboard Sydney has.”

It also begs the question, what next?

Will we see a proposal to illuminate the sails to celebrate the opening of the Barangaroo Casino, on the basis that it will bring many millions of dollars to Sydney’s economy? In the current climate, that is not such an absurd proposition to imagine.

Would our governments allow advertising to be projected onto Parliament House? The High Court? The Australian War Memorial? While seemingly unthinkable in any court of public opinion, it highlights the complete lack of respect accorded to one of our country’s greatest public buildings.

The Sydney Opera House is not just an astounding work of architecture – it is a source of national pride and global acclaim.

It’s the type of place that causes butterflies in stomachs and that people wait their whole lives to see, travelling thousands of kilometres to stand under those stunning white sails.

If one positive thing has come from this, it is the overwhelming expression of public sentiment locally and globally calling for the protection of this national monument.

This lapse must never again be allowed to occur or to tarnish the proud legacy of this Australian icon.

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