A DAY ON THE TILES

Greg Bearup gets the inside story on the Syd­ney Opera House

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Dawn is loom­ing as I make way down Syd­ney’s Mac­quarie Street to­wards the har­bour. On my left is the build­ing known as the Toaster; in the hotly con­tested field for Syd­ney’s Most Loathed Build­ing, it’s a fron­trun­ner. Be­fore its con­struc­tion, Syd­ney spruiker Alan Jones was a fer­vent critic. “It’s a mon­stros­ity,” he thun­dered. The devel­op­ers, of course, got their way and Jonesy then bought a $10 mil­lion flat, high up and with fab­u­lous views in No 1 Mon­stros­ity.

On the other side of that is Cir­cu­lar Quay, the birth ward of white set­tle­ment. It should be one of the city’s most loved spa­ces. It’s not. The Cahill Ex­press­way di­vides the city from the har­bour, like a Trumpian wall. Be­low that, on the water­front, is where for­mer NSW min­is­ter, now in­mate, Ed­die Obeid se­cretly and cor­ruptly held the leases on a clutch of gov­ern­ment-owned cafes. Ed­die’s Eats were turgid but still hugely prof­itable be­cause of the im­mense foot traf­fic. Con­vert­ing pub­lic as­sets into pri­vate wealth is a Syd­ney spe­cialty.

Then those sails come fully into view and all other thoughts are aban­doned. A jog­ger sweeps past me, slows to a walk, then halts, hands on his hips in won­der. “It is one of the in­dis­putable mas­ter­pieces of hu­man cre­ativ­ity,” UNESCO says. “Not only in the 20th cen­tury but in the his­tory of hu­mankind.” It is truly breath­tak­ing. No mat­ter how many times you may jog past it or view it from the bridge, the won­der never ceases. To­day, it’s 45 years since it opened and it’s for­ever stun­ningly mod­ern.

Pos­si­bly the most won­drous as­pect was that it was built at all, on this spot, in this city. As au­thor He­len Pitt re­counts in her re­cently pub­lished book The House, the ar­chi­tect who fin­ished the project, Peter Hall, reck­oned Syd­ney had a far greater chance of get­ting some­thing “re­sem­bling a Leagues Club than a piece of mon­u­men­tal sculp­ture on Ben­ne­long Point”.

To­day I am be­ing af­forded a rare priv­i­lege, the chance to crawl around the in­nards of this mon­u­men­tal sculp­ture and up on to the top of those fa­mous sails. My guide for the day is Dean Jakubowski, a for­mer car­pen­ter who is now the house’s build­ing op­er­a­tions man­ager. He’s like a jockey handed the reins of Winx; he still can’t quite be­lieve he got this ride. It’s his 10th year in the sad­dle.

The men who built the Opera House walked around it in gum­boots and Dun­lop Vol­leys and with dur­ries hang­ing from their bot­tom lips. I had to com­plete an hour-long phys­io­ther­apy as­sess­ment a cou­ple of days be­fore I’m strapped into a safety har­ness, and with ap­pro­pri­ate footwear, for the jour­ney.

As we wan­der around the build­ing, Jakubowski tells me he is con­stantly amazed by its beauty, the qual­ity of the work­man­ship and the at­ten­tion to de­tail. Re­cently he em­ployed a team of trades­men to ab­seil the en­tire build­ing, tap­ping the 1,556,006 tiles, look­ing for ones that were loose. They found 12.

He takes us into the con­cert hall to get our bear­ings. “We are about to head up to the sails,” he says. “Essen­tially we are go­ing to walk along the main cat­walk that goes across the ceil­ing of the con­cert hall, which will take us to the crown area, which is the cir­cu­lar area you see there, which is above the Grand Or­gan, and then we are go­ing to make it all the way across to the top.” We walk up a se­ries of stairs and into the shell of the build­ing.

It’s a labyrinth of tun­nels and tubes, winches and elec­tric ca­bles. You can see up close how the shells were con­structed with gi­ant con­crete Lego pieces, held in place by wire ca­bles. The in­tri­cate en­gi­neered ge­om­e­try is beau­ti­ful. And here, hid­den from pub­lic view on the in­nards of this ar­chi­tec­tural won­der, are the bo­gan slo­gans of those who toiled here. We learn that “Pom­mies are big ar­se­holes”, that Porky was “Fired from Wormalds — 2007”, that Wendy from Strath­field al­legedly pos­sesses amaz­ing sex­ual tal­ents. Dozens of new Aus­tralians worked on the tools and the mul­ti­cul­tural con­tri­bu­tion has not been for­got­ten: “Napoli is al­ways wank­ing his prick.” “Bob 17/7/71” has left us with a per­ma­nent chalk ren­di­tion of his junk on chip­board, Bob’s Knob. There are some fine ab­stract ren­di­tions of the fe­male form.

We head higher up the con­crete tun­nels, squeez­ing through holes, and over bolts, and up lad­ders through this mod­ern-day pyra­mid — it’s like some­thing from In­di­ana Jones. Fi­nally we come to a hatch. Jakubowski opens it and the morn­ing sun comes stream­ing in and a big smile breaks out across his face — he’s been up on the roof for main­te­nance checks a cou­ple of times a week for the past decade and still he’s ex­cited. I haul my­self up through that hatch and it’s like a rush of amyl.

I hook on to the safety line and come out look­ing di­rectly down the spine of the shell to­wards the Do­main and Gov­ern­ment House. To the right are the sky­scrapers of the city above Cir­cu­lar Quay. As I turn clock­wise I face the Ob­ser­va­tory and The Rocks, and then the full splen­dour of the bridge. I look up the spine of the north­west shell. The gap be­tween the two sails is called “the cleav­age” and I perve through the fem­i­nine forms across the wa­ter to the houses of power, Ad­mi­ralty and Kir­ri­billi.

Past the north­east­ern shell you look up over Fort Deni­son, with the sun sparkling on the har­bour, to Syd­ney Heads. The view then sweeps around from the tip of Mrs Mac­quarie’s Chair to the Royal Botanic Gar­dens. Syd­ney may have done its best to ob­scure views of the Opera House, but the house couldn’t give a toss. This is the Ever­est of vis­tas. The city will grow and change and evolve but the Opera House and its har­bour will re­main; it will out­last all it sur­veys. Those men, and a few women, who built the house are all so very old now. Jo­ern Ut­zon, was just 38 when he dreamed up the con­cept — he’d have turned 100 this year. It was a glo­ri­ous and tu­mul­tuous pe­riod for those who toiled on it, and, a bit like men who fought in wars, it would send some mad. Oth­ers sought peace in the drink. Many would for­ever carry their scars, but life would never be quite as ex­hil­a­rat­ing again. They’d never feel as fully alive as when they worked on the house. Few will be around to see its 50th birth­day in five years.

High up in the grandeur of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, John Rourke, 79, a re­tired Syd­ney ar­chi­tect, eases him­self into a seat; his bum sits snugly like a foot in an old boot. As a young ar­chi­tect Rourke worked with Hall on the dif­fi­cult task of pick­ing up the pieces when Ut­zon re­signed in 1966. “I got asked to do some­thing which, on re­flec­tion, was close to im­pos­si­ble,” Hall said of this poi­soned chal­ice. “And I’m cer­tainly not sure that if I were of­fered it again now, I would take it on.” Rourke says the pres­sure his friend en­dured, com­ing in af­ter Ut­zon, did him in. “It killed Peter Hall, all that laud­ing of Ut­zon,” he says.

Part of Rourke’s brief was seat­ing. “We’d whit­tled it down to five dif­fer­ent pro­to­types of these seats,” Rourke re­calls, loung­ing back and look­ing down on the stage. He’d been dis­patched to Europe for a cou­ple of weeks “on a fact-find­ing tour with a chap from the pub­lic ser­vice … to see how continental seat­ing worked”. They shuf­fled in and out of Europe’s grand opera halls, putting their bums on seats.

On his re­turn nu­mer­ous pro­to­types were built. The favoured de­signs were then tested for acous­tics in a 1-10 scale model of the theatre; the seats had to ab­sorb sound, oc­cu­pied or empty. Many thou­sands of hours of thought and sweat had gone into de­sign­ing the pro­to­types, and on this day it came down to just five and they had to make a choice. Rourke’s col­leagues ar­gued, around and around, about which one to choose. Fi­nally he said to them: “I am go­ing to re­solve this.” He sat for a time in each of the five chairs and chose one. “The one that was most com­fort­able for my bot­tom was the one that was se-

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