Platforms and Plateaus: on the Chinese & Mayan influences on Sydney’s famous opera house

The famous opera house. Image: Getty.

The Sydney Opera House was and still is a novelty, almost universally admired for its beauty. But there is more: the Danish architect Jørn Utzon conceived it, perhaps not fully consciously, as an architectural instrument – that is, a shrine for a nation.

The opera house is raised on a terraced platform, away from the shore like an island amphitheatre, which is bridged over from the continent and gazes back at it. Ever since it was erected, the rest of the country has become its backyard, as New York-based architectural theorist Mark Wigley declared some years ago to a crowd of Sydney architects (including the author).

The amphitheatre happens to be covered by the ingeniously engineered sail-like roof. Max Dupain’s photo below shows that construction should have stopped as soon as the roof was erected. Any citizen could then have walked up to the terraced amphitheatre, sat down, looked back at the country, and contemplated for a moment the life and vicissitudes of this ancient continent. That would have been the effect of this architectural instrument.

Max Dupain’s photograph captures the opera house construction immediately after the famous ‘sails’ went up. Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy Max Dupain and Associates.

Now it is a little overcooked, incidentally, as an opera house. So we complain about its acoustics and argue about its renovation.

The divine power of the Sydney Opera House and its site has nothing to do with the fact that it is an opera house and a concert hall, and much less to do with the sail-like roof that defines its image. The architect imagined it as a “plateau”, with its origins stemming from the ancient Mayan temple and the traditional Chinese hall raised on a platform.

Utzon was in his lifetime much drawn to China’s past – its architecture and the way of life. He even named his daughter Lin after his favourite Chinese author, Dr Lin Yutang. It does seem far-fetched, however, to relate the “vaulted sails” of the opera house to Chinese architecture.

A solution for the ‘sails’

More than half a century ago, Joseph Rykwert, the sharp-tongued architectural historian, wrote an essay against the lavish praises of the design made in the competition jury report. He offered this blunt assessment:

It seems as if it were conceived entirely in a spirit of fancy, and had little to do with imagination let alone method. Beyond the one blowsy overdramatisation it has few pleasures to offer.

This was chiefly true when it comes to the “sails”. Utzon’s competition-winning entry was a rather sketchy stroke of a series of free-form, interlocking thin concrete shells.

The saving grace, as it turned out, was the structural solution. The organic form of the “sails” could not be built with concrete shells; perhaps responding to the calling of God’s wisdom – that is, geometry and symmetry conforming to nature’s rules – Utzon rather ingeniously resorted to the geometrical fragments of a sphere to define the shapes of the “sails”.

In this way he, with the help of Arup engineers, managed to assemble the “sails” with prefabricated concrete ribs that are strung together. This, according to Utzon, was inspired by the early 12th-century Chinese building manual, Yingzao fashi (营造法式). Its principal ideas of prefabrication and standardisation appealed strongly to the architect.

The place of the plateau

In the conceptualisation of the opera house design, though not as visible as the curvature of the “sails”, there was also this primordial idea of platform from Chinese architecture and the Mayan temple. Utzon attributed a feeling of “firmness and security” – an architectural quality he held dear – to the Chinese platform on which a house, or a temple, stands. “Platform”, or “plateau”, became his lifelong architectural fixation.

In his famous parti diagram illustrating the idea of the Sydney Opera House design, the prominent Chinese roof above a raised platform is compared to a cloud floating over the ocean horizon. This widely referenced sketch first appeared in Jørn Utzon’s 1962 essay, Platforms and Plateaus.

In Utzon’s sketch illustrating the opera house concept, the prominent Chinese roof above a raised platform is likened to a cloud floating over the ocean horizon. Image: Utzon, Platforms and plateaus, Zodiac no. 10 (1962).

There is, however, a peculiar omission in Utzon’s interpretation of Chinese architecture. The walls are deemed insignificant, hence diminished by the modern master. We therefore assume that Chinese architecture too facilitates a command of panoramic horizon as promised by modern architecture. Architects and scholars have repeatedly used this now-iconic parti to understand the defining character of not only the Sydney Opera House, but also other works in Utzon’s oeuvre.

But what has been neglected altogether is that any such pre-modern Chinese building, be it a house or a temple, is confined in a walled compound, like a piece of precious jade sitting unlidded in its wrapping box. There is no privileged horizon here, only the sky framed by the courtyard.

Utzon’s sketch modified by the author to conform more closely to its classical Chinese architectural inspiration. Image: author provided.

Re-ordering the horizon and heaven

In Platforms and Plateaus, Utzon offered his interpretation of the Mayan temple. While the dense jungle limited the vision of the Mayans, the flat-top pyramid plateau, in his mind’s eye, would enable them to expand their horizon.

As with many pre-modern people, the Mayan cosmos consists of three major planes: the earth, the underworld and the heaven above. The building of a watch tower or a raised platform was a necessary component of a stratified cosmic model. The act of climbing high to inspect the horizon would have been an occasional affair, for the tower or elevated platform was a sacred place.


Differently put, pre-modern people reserved the summit for the celestial connection with their gods – that is, the dialogue with heaven – and for the rulers, so the representation of their power could be seen and felt from vast distances.

Utzon’s reading of this ancient architecture is a modern imagining: he saw no difference between the horizon, privileged in modern times by the dominance of vision, and the heaven above.

Although the modern master forthrightly and creatively misinterpreted these pre-modern structures, this building and its site was to be made a lofty site, in the form of an elevated, terraced plateau. As it stands, the only remnants of this idea are the monumental outdoor stairs and the forecourt.

Utzon did not intend the Sydney Opera House, despite its iconic curvature form, to be a piece of sculpture. He nonetheless offered more enchantment: the amphitheatre, in the end, is covered by the sumptuous sail-like roofs; the shimmering “fish scale” tiles glued to this structure only add to its potency.

If the construction had stopped at this point, the site – though covered by a splendid roof but with the “concert hall” and the “opera theatre” not yet concealed – would have retained its integrity as an island amphitheatre, a shrine for the nation.The Conversation

Xing Ruan is professor of architecture and Associate Dean International at UNSW.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can we stop city breaks killing our cities?

This couple may look happy, but they’re destroying Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer – but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

‘Meet the friendly locals’, they said. Image: Sterling Ely/Flickrcreative commons.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1bn international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8bn by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70 per cent of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Image: Josep Tomàs/Flickr/creative commons.

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore pollute more per night, and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.


Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

The ConversationWhether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.

Xavier Font is professor of marketing at the University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.