Helen Pitt, The House

Allen & Unwin, 432pp., ISBN 9781760295462, p/bk, AUS$32.99

Helen Pitt launches head first in to over six decades of turmoil and tribulation on Bennelong Point in The House, available now from Allen & Unwin. She sets a cracking pace with vignettes that dart between Sydney and exotic overseas locales of America, Europe and Scandinavia in an effort to cover the major milestones in the life of the Sydney Opera House.

Since the 40th birthday of the Sydney Opera House in 2013 there has been renewed interest in this iconic piece of the built environment. Jørn Utzon, Peter Hall and Ove Arup have all received special attention and the building itself has continued to attract widespread interest. It could have been easy to fall into the trap of retelling the well-known stories of this building’s history, yet Helen Pitt has instead drawn out the intensely human side of the Sydney Opera House detailing the impact it has had on both the citizenry of Australia and the workforce that slogged away for over 13 years of construction works as the drama of the building unfolded.

As a history, the narrative is defined by time, something that was not on NSW Premier J.J. Cahill’s side when he announced that, not to be out done by southern rival Melbourne and its Olympic Games, and after years of passionate petitioning by Eugene Goossens (who was then holding the roles of Chief Conductor of what is now the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Director of the Conservatorium of Music), that Sydney would finally have its own opera house. Cahill showed remarkable conviction, for a man more interested in cricket than Carmen or Chopin, for an unfunded idea. A design competition was held , entry 218 was selected as winner and the NSW Government committed to build the entry by the, then relatively unknown, Dane, Jørn Utzon.

Pitt uses her journalistic background to weave a faithful retelling of the major events as the design went from a “magnificent doodle” to a modern wonder of the world. From the commencement of works on site through to the “spherical solution” which resolved the engineering puzzle of building the now-famous shells, Pitt explores the highs and lows of life on the construction site and lays these out for the reader to experience. The pages of The House cover high society events and antics of soirées and staff on Australia’s most controversial construction site. The often still raw and unresolved tensions between supporters of Hall who was called upon to complete the building in 1966 and Utzon who was unceremoniously dismissed after almost a decade on the project are acknowledged and delicately addressed, though Pitt’s sympathies do fall slightly on the side of Hall.

This work also looks at the more recent history of the Opera House with the same pace and investigative quality dedicated to the building’s beginnings. Just as Goossens had promoted and agitated for the Sydney Opera House half a century earlier, Elias Duek-Cohen who spearheaded the “bring back Utzon campaign” had been actively promoting and encouraging the Government to re-establish a relationship with Utzon, a goal that was achieved in the early 2000s.

If there were to be a criticism of the book it is the lack of referencing. The narrative is often so riveting that a reader desiring a deeper engagement with subject matter will be left disappointed. The book is thoroughly researched, yet so much of the factual evidence presented is referenced by a single line in the notes section rather than with a detailed citation. Similarly, the images are predominately drawn from the Fairfax and Bauer archives, yet without any further details to allow a reader to trace its original context. Reproductions of other works, for example some of Utzon’s original sketches held at the State Library of NSW, would also have been valuable.

The land now known as Bennelong Point – after the Wangal man, Bennelong – has always been a special place of celebration; since being selected as a site for what is now the world’s most recognised performing arts centre, it has been a place of controversy as well. The House takes up celebration and controversy through an engagement with the human toll of the Sydney Opera House. If this story were a work of literature it would surely be found alongside tragedies. Utzon and Arup were unable to mutter more than pleasantries to each other and never recaptured the heady collaboration that resulted in some of the most impressive concrete finishes and self-supporting beams of the era. Hall died a bitter and broken man consumed by a life of public service, hard living and intense scrutiny. Davis Hughes who had carefully manoeuvred Utzon off Bennelong Point, was defiant to the end and Utzon’s life ended without him ever seeing his creation.

If we were to seek a happy ending, it is perhaps a miracle that we have an opera house at all.

 

Reviewed by Simon Dwyer, September 2018

Visit the publisher’s website here: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/history/The-House-Helen-Pitt-9781760295462

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