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The Glory of Sydney

Sydney's Great site of pleasure is, of course, its harbor, which defines the city and creates its essential nature. The harbor has been the watery core, the blue and ever-changing liquid heart of Sydney, since the first moment of English settlement in January 1788. The first sight of it, as Captain Arthur Phillip's sea-battered fleet of convict transport ships stood in from the Heads, filled at least some of the men on board with rapture. "The finest terras's, lawns and grottos," wrote one officer, Arthur Bowes Smyth, "with distinct plantations of the tallest and most stately trees I ever saw in any nobleman's ground in England, cannot exceed in beauty those wh[ich] Nature now presented to our view . . . the stupendous rocks from the summits of the hills and down to the very water's edge hang'g over in a most awful way from above, and form'g the most commodious quays by the water, beggard all description."

For the next two hundred years, people arriving in Sydney would be predictably delighted by the harbor, no matter how many villas and home units got built on those "stupendous rocks" and along the "commodious quays." The harbor is to Sydney what Central Park is to New York--a communal playground, a zone of pleasure that offers relief from an increasingly congested city. It is a wonderful presence, its blue lobes pushing into every quarter of the city, glimpsed through trees or between buildings whose inhabitants pay outrageous prices for a full look or even a small, permanent peek at it: a vantage point from which the play of light on the water--gray as undulating steel in rain, shot with dragon's blood and vermilion at sunset, Whistler-blue at dusk and on a sunny morning the color of crushed amethyst--can be savored. The harbor has about 155 miles of foreshore, much of it public. It has small islands you can picnic on and plenty of undeveloped Bush running down to the water on the northern shore. It is framed in rococo convolutions of golden sandstone,striped and fretted. It has the integrity of a working port--swarming with vessels of every size--and sometimes of near-surreal contrasts: There's a distinct feeling of time warp when one of the enormous container ships, sliding eastward toward the early morning sun and the Pacific, encounters the working replica of Captain Bligh's Bounty sailing perkily in the opposite direction. To Sydneysiders the harbor is the greatest in the world, no competition from San Francisco Bay, and forget about polluted and dangerous Rio. The best way to experience it, short of having friends with their own boat, is to take a round-trip on the ferry from downtown Circular Quay to the beachside suburb of Manly, nestled under the lee of North Head. I prefer the older ships to the speedboats that scoot down-harbor. The old boats churn along in a dignified, Edwardian manner, and the trip to Manly takes the best part of forty minutes, down to the immense sea gate of the Heads. If you go on a fine, breezy Saturday, you see an unmated spectacle of nautical democracy. The water swarms with thousands of craft, from kayaks and cockleshell sailing-dinghies up to racing twelve-meters and gin palaces of local plutocrats--a dazzle of bunting and white triangles leaning under the wind, each hull loaded with sun-flushed Australians waving their tins of Four-X or Carlton lager or, on larger craft, their glasses of Chardonnay. They veer and tack, they miss one another by inches, but they rarely seem to collide. The most daring are the small racing boats, the eighteen-footers and the forty-niners, with their ultralight Kevlar hulls and their high-tech outriggers. Immense presses of sail propel them with their crewmen stretched out over the water horizontally, only their feet touching the gunwales. Eighteen-footer competition is probably the most macho and punishing form of fine-weather sailing ever devised. In foul weather it must be pure hell, but this has never deterred its enthusiasts.

The ferry from Manly disgorges you where you, and European Australia, began: Circular Quay. You dock between the two chief emblems of the city. To the west, the harbor bridge. To the east, the opera house. Both repay inspection.

Fondly Known as the "Coat Hanger" for its shape, the bridge is not quite the largest rigid single-span structure of its kind in the world. The Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey pips it by five feet, not that Sydney cares. The harbor bridge's overall length is 3,795 feet. It stretches nearly 1,650 feet from pylon to pylon, and the top of its arch is 440 feet above high-tide level. At the time of its opening in 1932, it was the biggest construction project ever done in Australia. Like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco--though the two structures are radically different, San Fran's a suspension bridge and ours a rigid truss--it is pure poetry in steel, and to drive across it is to enjoy one of the highest spatial experiences in twentieth-century engineering, with the latticed rainbows of the twin arches converging toward the crown, and the blue sky flickering through their girders. The four sandstone pylons, two at each end, look impressive but actually have no structural purpose at all. They anchor the arch visually. They are art deco versions of Mayan sacrificial step-pyramids, dedicated to the cult of the sun. And the curve of the arch can also be read as a solar emblem, optimistically rising. Its building went on through the depths of the Great Depression and gave work to thousands of people who might otherwise have starved. Inevitably, it took longer than expected. It was seen, not without reason, as a socialist project, pushed through by a Labor government; and at its opening, as State Premier Jack Lang was getting set to cut the ribbon with golden scissors, a right-wing Sydney war veteran named Francis de Groot appeared on his horse, spurred it past the assembled dignitaries and slashed the ribbon himself with his cavalry saber "in the name of the Australian people." The ribbon was reknotted and Lang cut it again, also in the name of the Australian people.

Forty Years Later the New South Wales government began giving Sydney its second huge emblem, the opera house. Australia had been proud of its operatic tradition since the 1890s, when our national nightingale Nellie Melba climbed to the peak of fame at La Scala and Covent Garden; by the 1960s, when construction of the opera house began, her mantle had been assumed by Joan Sutherland, known to her legion of Australian fans as "Wonderlungs." Opera meant prestige, which Sydney wanted. It also meant elitism, which Sydney (and Australians in general) disliked: Australians dote on elitism in sports but distrust it in other areas, often using the word as a stick for bashing cultural ambition. Hence the troubled waters into which the opera house sailed. The competition for its design was won by an unknown, thirty-eight-year-old Danish architect named Jørn Utzon. A quiet beanpole of a man, he had never been to Sydney and had no idea what was waiting for him. He soon found out. Utzon was mugged by Australian politics, landing in the middle of a hellish imbroglio among some politicians who wanted the building up right now, others who wanted to slash its budget and he himself, with his own ideas of design. His opera house was a brilliant, poetic conception, the kind of metaphoric leap toward Nature that hardly existed in world architecture, let alone in Australia's, in the early sixties. It rose from the end of a spit of land, three-quarters surrounded by water, named Bennelong Point. Utzon imagined a series of terraces forming a mighty plinth, linking land to water. From this would rise a sequence of compound shells of ceramic-clad concrete. They would resemble blown spinnakers, gulls' wings, seashells--all redolent of the marine imagery of the Pacific's greatest port. The building represented a degree of architectural daring undreamt of in the South Pacific, and it's amazing that Sydney, whose architectural tastes tended to be conservative when not vulgar, should have taken a flier on it. But Australians are gamblers. (In fact, they paid for the opera house with a series of lotteries.) Nobody knew for sure how to build it. Those complex-membrane shells would be difficult even with today's computer modeling; three decades ago, with engineering calculation hardly risen from the slide rule era, they were a nightmare.


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