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.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.