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How can we solve the problems of the future?

Sydney Opera House BUILD is a new three-part program enabled with support from the Ove Arup Foundation with the aim of creating a better world through the built environment.

In April, the pilot Tertiary Built Environment Creative Lab saw students from Western Sydney University tackle a future-facing design challenge by collaborating in interdisciplinary teams. Student Emma Moore writes about what she learnt about herself and the Opera House.

Emma Moore

The Opera House with its evocative and striking design has always captured my imagination. I’ve been fascinated by the extreme sweeping forms arching effortlessly out of its foundations creating an iconic structure recognised globally. As a second-year architecture student from Western Sydney who has never been inside this building, I jumped at the opportunity to delve into its history, design process and significance firsthand as part of the inaugural Sydney Opera House BUILD Tertiary Built Environment Creative Lab. 

The program gave 60 students studying various disciplines from my university a holistic understanding of the creation of the Opera House we recognise today. Explaining the forces of chance, politics and pure ingenious creativity that made Jørn Utzon’s vision a reality. I learned of the intertwined relationship between architect and engineer at the heart of the design of the Opera House, that created a successful alignment of the arts and architecture in this structure that was designed to meet the needs of the community when it first opened, and now.

At the heart of the Tertiary Lab was a future-facing design challenge to solve in groups that asked us to imagine how climate change may affect the Opera House and surroundings in 2030. We had to come up with interventions that would improve society’s quality of life. 

This challenge reflects the key theme of BUILD - how design and creativity can solve the world’s worst problems - as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, that the Opera House started supporting in 2019. The “Global Goals” are like a to-do list for the world and they address some of the most pressing issues of our time including inequality and climate change. Throughout the program we heard from experts to understand inclusive and accessible design, First Nations perspectives, human movement, our own ethics and values, as well as the Utzon and Hall Design Principles and how they shaped the Opera House.

We learnt about the cultural significance of the site from Alison Page. She explained the cultural processes and practices of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation people, who are the traditional custodians of the land where the Sydney Opera House is built. The way “culture is so in touch with nature that sometimes it is hard to see”, “all artifacts are living entities” and how “the act of making becomes ceremonial” really stood out to me. It showed me the importance of how architectural and design solutions need to encompass learnings about the land’s significance and how I can support connection to Country so that intergenerational traditions continue. 

Acoustics were demonstrated through a live instrumental ensemble from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They performed in various spaces within the Opera House to highlight how space can be designed to express the richness of tone colour within the melodies being played, thus enabling an emotive response by us, the audience.

We learned of the importance of accessibility in any building from the Opera House’s Accessibility Manager, Janelle Ryan. Looking through a lens of someone with a visual impairment, we were asked to describe the room we had all become familiarised with. This was challenging. We suddenly realised we could not merely state we were in a room situated within the Opera House, we had to convey the emotion, texture, colour and atmosphere of the space, through embellished yet concise language.

We learned how buildings and the Opera House will never be complete. People’s needs will always shift. Modifications and advancements will always occur to allow for universal accessibility, but in doing so we should be sympathetic to the original design of the building, making this a difficult yet vital task.

Learning about the psychology behind designing spaces also left an impact on how I position myself with current and future-facing design challenges. “We have to understand ourselves and a dwelling in order to create a space” is one of the many thoughts shared by Dr Tim Dean that continues to resonate with me. It stood out as it reflected my passion for unlocking traits of an individual and creating something that truly reflects them.

All the things I have learnt throughout this experience, allow me to see and appreciate not only the Sydney Opera House in a whole new way, but every space I step foot in. The smallest details and considerations within a design process now stand out to me, showing how something so seemingly beautiful in its simplicity is, in reality, a feat of architecture and engineering.

This program has shown me the importance of looking back at history, seeing how structures taken for granted today are a wealth of learning and education for anyone with a passion for design or creating. Now I have a greater understanding of all the methods and considerations that go into the development and continued advancement of a building and gained a deeper understanding of what a socially engaged and interdisciplinary built environment practice looks like by including the flora, fauna, history, my own values, and the way people use space into sustainable design.

Through the lens of the Opera House, I’ve been able to rethink and draw from architectural, engineering and design practices to further shape and transform future projects. Incorporating these ideas to think bigger and challenge the constraints seen as the limits of reality. I have learnt so much throughout this experience which I can not only apply to my architectural designs and studies, but extend to all other perspectives and creative endeavours. I am excited to help spread these creative philosophies and see how the streetscapes of Western and Greater Sydney will continue to change over time, benefiting the community and becoming a place of desire and aspiration for all who visit it.

The 10 days I spent learning about the Sydney Opera House have forever changed and influenced my outlook on my surroundings and my own design practice. I hope many more students get this opportunity like I did so they too can fully appreciate the words of Jørn Utzon, “when you pass around it or see it against the sky… something new goes on all the time… together with the sun, the light and the clouds, it makes a living thing”.

Sydney Opera House BUILD includes a public talks series inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The first talk in the series, BUILD: Life On Land is an intimate conversation between two visionary thought leaders: Wailwan/Kamilaroi man Jefa Greenaway, a champion of Indigenous-led design thinking and Country centred design, and Liane Rossler, of Dinosaur Designs, who balances perspectives of nature, sustainability, creativity and community.