by Philip Drew
As the eyes of the world turn towards Sydney and the 2000 Olympics, the struggle and excitement of creating the twentieth century’s greatest monument, the magnetic Sydney Opera House, is told in a new dual biography of its private and complex architect, Joern Utzon.
Sydney mythology has it that the inspiration for the design was a palate of sliced orange segments, but whatever its origins, the Danish architect was desperate to escape the fame that followed him after his designs came to fruition and his dismissal in 1966, seven years before the building opened and when it was running at seven times the cost of its original estimate.
The architectural historian Philip Drew has taken thirty years of persistent research to gain an understanding of Utzon’s enigmatic character. “He is such an iceberg; most of him is hidden, the parts which we might believe we know, rest on another sizeable chunk below the water’s surface. My task has been to chart the unseen mass of Utzon’s life, and, wherever possible, to understand how it impinges on the more visible parts his public behaviour and architecture”, says Drew. The book relates Utzon’s architecture and the sources for the Opera House to his life, family, world travels and experiences.
The debacle grew out of the politics of the 1960s and caused the most heated controversy (design or function) in the history of theatre construction. Drew details what he regards as the conspiracy to rein Utzon in by “chequebook control” – by cutting off funds for the project and demoting the architect to “design consultant”. The story is a battle of giants, beginning when four assessors chose Utzon’s design from 223 entries, charting the progress of the building and the rising tensions of the protagonists.
This is not a story of goodies and baddies; it is a story of bad decisions made for good reasons, of good intentions that went wrong, of a goody who did bad; of an artist who, for many reasons (including a great deal that were not his fault), made a mess of things. To a large extent this book is about Utzon and his relations with the other major participants: the structural engineers, the Opera House executive committee and the government Department of Public Works.
The book is an admirable perspective for those British readers involved in theatre construction and the politics of our Lottery. And, for more drama associated with the clashes of theatre, architecture, politics and personalities, it will even encourage a trip to Sydney Opera House to see the 2000 revival of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’ opera on the subject: The Eighth Wonder.
The Masterpiece: Joern Utzon, A Generous Life, (ISBN 1 86498 047 8) is published by Hardie Grant Books, (1999), hardback, and is available (price $A59.55) from the publisher,
Broadway Theatres: History and Architecture
by William Morrison
William Morrison, a songwriter and playwright, tells the story behind seventy-six of Broadway’s theatres – both vanished and extant. These theatres were part of the phenomenal early twentieth-century New York building boom, when showmen and speculators flocked to the stage. Around 1900 there were twenty-three theatres; in 1918 fifty theatres and by the late 1920s seventy-six theatres. Although the rival, would-be monopolists - the Theatrical Syndicate and the Shubert Brothers - were concerned about there being too many theatres, neither wanted to relinquish the race to the top. But then Wall Street crashed, and the Shuberts and others were forced to file for bankruptcy. Business slowly improved, then leapt forward during World War Two and its boom aftermath. Since then, there have been many more ups and downs.
Today, the Broadway theatres number around 33, selling – in the current boom - about 11.3 million seats in 1998. They include magnificent restorations at the re-opened New Amsterdam and New Victory theatres.
This book provides each theatre’s location, opening date, and number of seats, memorable productions and other historical data including the architect. The most prolific theatre specialist was Thomas White Lamb (1871-1942), who designed over three hundred theatres and cinemas. British readers, including those architects involved in the restoration of the few theatres built here in the 1920s, will find the black and white photographs of the ostentatious interiors invaluable, as well as their extensive critical captions on design features, which owe more to European traditions such as the Beaux Arts than to American models. The book is not an academically oriented survey, but is a very informative tour through the New York theatre district.
Broadway Theatres: History and Architecture (ISBN 0 486 40244 4 ), paperback, is published by Dover Publications Inc, 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, New York, NY 11501, USA, (1999) price $US 16.95.