If you had been in Sydney on Tuesday night wandering by the Harbour Bridge, you would have looked across Circular Quay and noticed something unusual about the Opera House: its white sails were… not white.
Instead, they were covered by a light projection of the barrier draw for the Everest Cup, one of Sydney’s biggest horse races and the world’s “richest turf horse race,” according to their website. Cloaked in checkered jockey’s colors that were interspersed with the logo of the Cup, the internationally-admired landmark looked like a court jester’s uniform.
— Nick Dole (@NicholasDole) October 9, 2018
While Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised Racing NSW, the company behind the exercise, for taking advantage of Sydney’s “biggest billboard,” protestors shone their flashlights and torches along the structure’s façade, objecting to the commodification of their beloved building. Online, #SailsNotSales began trending, and more than 300,000 people signed a Change.org petition against the landmark’s transformation into a commercial platform after Opera House CEO Louise Herron, who had originally turned down the request to broadcast the draw, was ordered by the New South Wales (NSW) State Government to go ahead with the projection. According to a government spokesperson, while the Opera House is an important national icon, the priority was to promote a major event that contributed to the state’s economy.
Was the visual pollution worth it? There is no data showing the Everest Cup’s direct economic contribution to the city of Sydney and state of NSW but even without advertising, the Opera House contributes $552 million to the Australian economy each year and has an estimated “cultural and iconic value” at $3.3 billion, according to figures calculated by Deloitte in 2014.
The push and pull between civic beauty and urban commerce is not unique to Sydney or the 21st century. In 1893, the City Beautiful movement emerged out of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that year, advocating for the city not just as a site of economic activity, but also of aesthetic inspiration, manifesting in the development of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of the McMillan Plan; the Cleveland Mall in Ohio; and the 1900-1915 redevelopment of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The movement’s emphasis on monumental architecture and pleasant landscaping influenced much of Australia’s own Federation-era planning in the early 20th century, paving the way for the beautification of inner city Perth as well as Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s urban plan for the new capital city of Canberra. It also influenced leading planners in Sydney to embrace the city’s natural harbor setting. Eventually, this would lay the groundwork for a striking Opera House to adorn the tip of Bennelong Point.
The Opera House is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of only three in Australia to qualify under the “Cultural” category as a “a great architectural work of the 20th century.” In an open letter, the Heritage Council of NSW pointed out that “commercial advertisement conflicts with the framework of heritage significance…, which may impact UNESCO expectations of management of this unique World Heritage site.” Australia’s Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, which manages World Heritage listings, declined to comment. In a statement to The Guardian, a spokesperson from UNESCO said: “The World Heritage Center is looking into this and will not comment before it finds out all the details.”
The Opera House has hosted immersive light projections on its facade in the past, so when Herron originally turned down Racing NSW’s request to broadcast the draw, she was only enforcing the Opera House’s guidelines that forbids slogans, corporate identities, or text on its sails “unless for a specific artistic purpose in relation to Sydney Opera House.” However, when she appeared on a radio show on Monday to express her rationale, she was told by conservative shock jock Alan Jones, “Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t own the Opera House, we own it . . . you manage it.” The highly influential presenter and host of Australia’s most popular morning talk radio show, has since apologized for his comments, which included a call for Herron to be fired from her role. However, his support for the Opera House’s independence is an interesting U-turn from a man who only two years ago complained to the NSW State Government, UNESCO, and the Heritage Council about noise from outdoor concerts at the Opera House.
Sydneysiders feel particularly possessive of the venue, which is far more than an intriguing blank canvas. Built over 14 years starting in 1959, it was one of the first pieces of architecture to signal a new era of modernity and culture for the antipodean city. Each year, the NSW Department of Education brings students from schools in the local area to perform there, making it a place many children in Sydney grow up not only performing in, but also playing in, as they scamper across its pebbly, granite-aggregate steps. On Tuesday night, the protestors staked their claim as they chanted, “Our house.”
Racing NSW say they were surprised by the backlash to the one-off promotion, and are unlikely to do it again. However, the Change.org petition turned the issue political, with the Opposition Leader in federal politics, Bill Shorten, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that if his party came into power, he would not allow the Opera House to be used as a billboard, and that he would revise any guidelines governing the use of World Heritage Sites in Australia.
Jørn Utzon, the Opera House’s architect, originally conceived of it as a vision of concrete, granite and ceramics, both echoing and standing out against the languorous, azure backdrop of Sydney Harbor. The winning entry in an international design competition of more than 200 entries, Utzon’s proposal was originally discarded, but Eero Saarinen, one of the judges, whisked it back from the reject pile—only for it to become one of the world’s most over-budget construction projects, with Utzon quitting halfway. When the Opera House finally opened in 1973, it was panned for its terrible acoustics. But when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2003, Frank Gehry, one of the judges said: “Utzon made a building well ahead of its time[…] that changed the image of an entire country.”
Revisiting his work as a consultant in 2001, Utzon, who died in 2008, compared the building the Opera House to “an oil painting by one of the Masters where every time you add a brush stroke, it should enhance the total painting.” He added, “As soon as you put something wrong in this painting, a wrong color, a wrong shape, then the total image is of a lesser value.”