Monday 29 August 2016

Sydney Opera House - Expressionism at its best

Sydney Opera House from the Ferry
Foto: Axel Kaehne

Modernist architecture can be as much a revelation as it is sometimes a disappointment. Most modernist building tend to be something of the latter because they fail to relate meaningfully to their surroundings. Norman Foster's IB tower in Malaysia is little more than exactly that, a very tall building without much thought about its environmental context. Zaha Hadid built impressive buildings but they never managed to link in, or indeed cared much about their neighbourhoods. And then there is the external versus the internal. Hans Scharoun's Philharmic Hall, Concert Hall and Library in Berlin are all of a kind externally, but the real wonders start once you enter the buildings.

Hans Scharoun's Philharmonic Hall - Foto: Manfred Brueckels

Perhaps this lack of connectivity to the physical context is the nature of the beast, something that modernist architecture is preternaturally disposed to. This may particularly be the case with expressionism. Expressionism has mainly remained a dream confined to the drawing boards of architectural firms, presumably because the issue of fitting expressionist buildings into their environment is tricky. Where expressionism has made it into reality, the buildings tend to be in areas that have no residential or urban context in the first place, such as Berlin's Congress Hall.

Berlin Kongresshalle - Foto: Bertholt Werner

Sydney's opera house is an exception. It was built adjacent to the central business district, an area that glorifies in mainly non-descript and forgettable glass and steel buildings. However, the Sydney Opera House is at the same time slightly removed from the district by virtue of being located on the tip of a promontary. This affords it a distance to the city that was put to some extraordinary use by the architect. The individual 'shells' of the House open up towards the city which gives those standing inside the house or those sitting on its front steps a breathtaking view of the Sydney skyline.

The view from Sydney Opera House towards the Central Business District
Foto: Axel Kaehne
In the night, people leaving a performance at the opera or concert hall get the impression that the venue somehow floats on the water, like something moored in Sydney Harbour. The sense is of something holistic that works well with its surroundings to impress. Hence a rare example of expressionist architecture done well.

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