Operatic saga of the people’s House
By Helen Pitt
Allen & Unwin, 411pp, $32.99
Review by ROSS FITZGERALD
It’s one of the great untold Australian stories and it just happens to be about a Dane. A month after the death of Jorn Utzon in 2008, journalist Helen Pitt emailed publisher Richard Walsh, who was once her boss at ‘The Bulletin’. She thought he might be interested in a book about Utzon, the architect who designed the Sydney Opera House.
Pitt reckoned, rightly as it turns out, that it might be time for a narrative nonfiction book about the Utzon drama, written for a new generation. Walsh agreed.
The result is a dramatic, fascinating account of the construction of the Opera House and the people who helped make it happen. As Pitt makes clear, this much-loved and hugely imaginative building, which turned Sydney into an international city, nearly didn’t get off the drawing board.
As the intimate backstory to ‘The House’ reveals, when it did, the lives of most of those men and women involved in its construction were changed forever, some for the better but many for the worse.
Pitt has produced a poignant and deeply personal story interwoven with the tale of the construction of the building itself. Pitt’s parents became engaged in 1957, the year Utzon won the competition to design the Opera House. In fact, her father, an engineer, and her mother, a pianist with perfect pitch, were both committed modernists, as Pitt wryly puts it, “down to the Arne Jacobsen egg chairs!”
On October 20, 1973, the day Queen Elizabeth II officially opened what is arguably Australia’s most famous building, eight-year-old Pitt was with her family on a chartered ferry in Sydney Harbour, perched in a prime position to catch a glimpse of the newly completed structure.
Now, after more than 30 years as a journalist covering stories about the Opera House, Pitt often wonders if the media should be blamed for the downfall and poor treatment of a number of key participants.
This includes not just the dyslexic Utzon, who predominantly thought in pictures rather than in words, but also the Anglo-Danish engineer Ove Arup, the flamboyant conductor Eugene Goossens, who first championed the Opera House, and the replacement Australian architect Peter Hall, who completed it when Utzon resigned after falling out with the NSW government.
Before writing this fine book, Pitt had no idea how pivotal Hall was to completing the building. This was despite the fact Hall worked on the project for eight years, just one year short of the nine years Utzon toiled at it.
Pitt endeavours to imagine the Sydney Opera House without Hall’s touches, such as “the brilliant purple carpets of the northern foyer, the unmistakable Australianness of John Olsen’s ‘Five Bells’, the Australian boxbrush woods, the magenta wool seats, even the donuts”.
As a result of writing this book, Pitt has achieved her own reconciliation with the combined work of Utzon and Hall and the majestic building that was eventually completed. She also came to realise how deeply she loved the Opera House, inside and out.
“I used to think the story of the Sydney Opera House was a love story gone wrong. Now I see it as equal parts tragedy, equal parts triumph, with a cast of characters to rival any opera.”
As well as her research overseas, which involved interviews with the son of the until now undervalued Hall, Pitt’s Sydney sleuthing involved tracking down a number of participants who were able to provide first-hand accounts of the building at Bennelong Point. Two of those who told their fascinating stories — John O’Hara and Walter Gibian — died the week this book went to the printers.
The result of Pitt’s labour of love is a multilayered tale of turmoil, deception, misunderstandings, creativity and intrigue.
In the writer’s capable hands this adds up to a very Scandinavian, yet antipodean, story of Shakespearean dimensions. Indeed, as architect Philip Cox rightly concludes of the major players, “All were losers — except the people of Australia who gained the Sydney Opera House.”
The book contains 40 photographs. My favourite is one of a group of workers at the building site, taken shortly before the breathtaking performance of African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson in November 1960. There’s also a wonderful full-page portrait of two workers living onsite in a caravan doing their washing in June 1960.
Pitt asks readers to respond to a simple but key question about the Sydney Opera House, one that was often asked of her while completing her research: “Of all the personalities, who is the one that remains most firmly in your mind?” Readers will have their own ideas about that. This is a story that we all should know because the Sydney Opera House belongs to all of us.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 40 books.
The Weekend Australian, October 6-7, 2018, review, Books p 18,
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