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.

 
 
 
 

This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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