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Conserving a masterpiece

How architect Alan Croker is keeping Utzon's vision alive with the new Conservation Management Plan

Sharon Verghis

In May 1962, Alan Croker, a country boy from a NSW sheep farm visiting Sydney, snapped a photo of the embryonic Opera House on his Box Brownie.

The famous shells were yet to materialise on Bennelong Point. All that the Wagga Wagga schoolboy, 12, could see from the railing of the Manly ferry, were the nondescript foundations of stage one of the build.  

But even then, he says, it was a magical sight. “I really couldn’t imagine what it was going to look like as I was only young. But I just thought we are doing something extraordinary here… As a young kid interested in building things, I was inspired by it.”

In 1969, Croker moved to Sydney to study architecture at the University of NSW. By then, that pile of concrete on the point had morphed into what we now recognise as one of the most seminal buildings of the 21st century, its sails now unfurled, a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

"Utzon's masterpiece is our great cathedral."

Over the next four years, he watched it grow, taking photos from various vantage points.

He followed the political drama of Utzon’s acrimonious departure in 1966 and heard the vitriol levelled, unfairly, he later felt, at Utzon’s replacement, architect Peter Hall. In 1973, he stood with friends at Dawes Point to watch the opening ceremony across the Harbour, buffeted by winds that snatched away the Queen’s speech. “It was a huge event,” he recalls. “There were cannons, guns on ships, tugboats pulling the pink streamers off the top of the sails.”

In the 40-odd years since, the Opera House has evolved into an UNESCO World Heritage-listed cultural icon, attracting more than eight million visitors a year and hosting over 2000 performances attended by more than 1.5 million people.

For Croker, a passionate concert-goer and regular visitor to the building, it has remained as inspiring to him now as it was that day on the Manly ferry. A lover of sacred architecture – he has designed a temple in Fiji among other things – he says that in secular Australia, Utzon’s masterpiece is our great cathedral.

Professionally, it remains his benchmark in public architecture. “I found it an extraordinary build,” he says from his crowded Chippendale studio filled with blueprints and design books. “Here are core principles about architecture and form and geometry and how to express something in three dimensions. In this place, all those means of expression come together – and it’s a total picture, it’s perfection.”

 

Little did he realise, however, that he would end up being appointed custodian and steward of its evolution into the 21st century when, in 2003, he joined the Opera House to replace the late James Semple Kerr as heritage consultant.

Among other things, Kerr had written the first, second and third editions of the Opera House's Conservation Management Plan, a comprehensive document designed to safeguard the work of Jørn Utzon and Peter Hall and the Opera House’s already widely acknowledged heritage values. The State, National and UNESCO World Heritage listings occurred after this third edition.

Together with the Utzon Design Principles, it guides the conservation and management of the Opera House, including how to care for the place and manage future change so that Utzon’s vision is retained and respected.

“It's a total picture, it's perfection.”

In 2008, Croker began work on the fourth edition of the CMP, Respecting the Vision: Sydney Opera House – A Conservation Management Plan, released in October this year.

It builds on Kerr’s benchmark-setting conservation work, and responds to the new challenges faced by the Opera House.

These include the challenges posed to the Opera House by sea-level rises and extreme weather events fuelled by climate change, Croker says, and the impact of increased visitation. Each component of the building and site – from drainage and the cleaning of the tiles on the shells to the carpets and acoustic features in the Concert Hall – were forensically assessed.

The development of the CMP involved extensive consultation with the public, staff and leading conservation experts. A peer review panel was established, and the insights of members like architect Richard Johnson AO MBE, former chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust Joe Skrzynski AO, and Utzon’s son Jan proved vital in terms of background knowledge and learning from past experiences, he says.

But the best sources of information came when he started tapping into the rich institutional memory of the House. Everyone from “tradesmen to cleaners to the CEO” had something useful to add. “Everyone who worked there was passionate about it.”

“One lifted the other — and that was Utzon’s vision. The Opera House is a performance in itself.” 

He is optimistic about the Opera House’s future. “The exterior is reasonably robust. This building is made of very, very hard materials, and if we look after it and maintain it in a way that doesn’t degrade it, then it should survive for a reasonably long time. Although the exterior is strong, the setting and intangible values, including use, are very vulnerable and require careful management and attention to detail if they are to remain strong and intact into the future.  Everything we do there requires the utmost care and attention to detail, keeping Utzon’s vision and design intent as the primary focus."

The CMP provides detailed guidance on how this can be achieved. It’s not meant to be proscriptive; rather, he wants it to “empower and inspire” all those who work at the House and allow the building to evolve and embrace change by identifying its vulnerabilities and providing solutions.

“We didn’t want a document that was inflexible…it would be a travesty if the House became nothing more than an architectural monument without a function.”  After all, he says, you only really understand the Opera House and its living, organic nature, its drama and theatricality, when you are sitting inside its shell as a member of the audience.

He grows emotional as he cites a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at the Concert Hall a few years ago, conducted by the late Stuart Challender. It was as if the building and the performance came together in perfect harmony that night, he says. “One lifted the other — and that was Utzon’s vision. The Opera House is a performance in itself.”

On the eve of the new CMP’s release, he says he is still pinching himself about his role in its evolution. Little did he dream that the country boy from Wagga Wagga would one day be here, caretaker of one of the 21st century’s most revered icons. “I never would have imagined I would be involved in something like this. It really is extraordinary.”

Download the full, interactive CMP at sydneyoperahouse.com/CMP.

Sharon Verghis is a writer whose work has appeared in The Australian, The Guardian, SBS and TIME Magazine. Twitter @SVerghis

Conserving Sydney Opera House

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