Critical regionalism – or critical localism? The Sydney Opera House and its context

Sydney's Opera House mediates between the city and the ocean

Sydney's Opera House mediates between the city and the ocean

Kenneth Frampton described Critical Regionalism as a means of creating an architecture which is neither a vacantly ‘international’ exercise in modern technology nor a ‘sentimental’ imitation of vernacular buildings. It is regionalist in the sense of not being internationalist and critical in the sense of not being a slavish imitation of older forms. Christine suggested that the Sydney Opera House exemplifies this approach but I wonder if Jorn Utzon’s great project is not more suited to the term Critical Localism. As the photograph shows, the cultural character of the locality is part-Victorian and part-American. Almost turning its back on the the city, the Opera House opens its sails to the harbour and wide world. So I would say that Utzon’s design responds to the region more than to the locality.
[Note: the folks who plonked the tent in front of the Opera House were plonkers].

(Image courtesy Dave Keeshan)

9 thoughts on “Critical regionalism – or critical localism? The Sydney Opera House and its context

  1. Christine

    Utzon did not explicitly respond to the style of the existing architecture of the city, either of the Georgian or Victorian era or the postwar Modernism. He did however, consider the formal relationship the Opera House had to other buildings in the city.

    Utzon’s first reference point for the site of the Opera House was the Kronborg castle:

    “It had a fantastic site, with a beautiful and demanding position on Bennelong Point.

    This caused me to start on the project immediately, as I happened to live near the castle of Kronborg, situated in a similar position with similar surroundings between the two coasts of Denmark and Sweden, with the town of Halsinger in one side and that of Halsingborg on the other.

    With Kronborg in mind I was convinced that a new building in such a position had to be seen from all sides, had to be a large sculptural building.”

    Utzon Design Principles 2004

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I have often wondered about castles. Obviously, their design and construction had to be guided by military considerations. But I think there must often have been ‘aesthetic’ and ‘landscape’ considerations as well – much as armour was made to be handsome and terrifying as well protective. I also think there was a carry-over from the siting of henges etc to the siting of churches. So the history of relating architecture to landscape is ancient.

  3. Christine

    Yes I would agree. Obviously functional considerations played a role in selecting sites suitable for locating buildings within the landscape:

    “In the early Imperial period under the Republic, two types of artillery were known: arrow firing euthytones (the ‘sporpiones’ and ‘catapultae’ of Vitruvius) and stone-hurling palintones of (the ballistae of Vitruvius), apparently allocated 50-60 per legion.”

    D Campbell, ‘Ballistaria’ in First to mid-Third Century Britain: A Reappraisal. Britiania, Vol 15 (1984) p77.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    It is odd that so many castles are such welcome additions to the scenery if functional considerations were the dominant factor in their design. Second World War military installations look much more ‘functional’.

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    But in a real fairytale, the hero would restore the health and happiness to the kingdom by inspiring other designers to an enthusiasm for the architecture:landscape relationship!

  6. Christine

    It seems most of Utzon’s professional admirers are the really good designers (who fully appreciate his virtuoso talents). The public appreciaton of his work, in aesthetic terms,was almost instantaneous and is widespread.

    Although because of the common perceptions of the project many people (and the public) still largely believe 1) he designed something fundamentally unbuildable 2) he was largely responsible for the cost overruns 3) he was totally impractical.

    None of which are supported by the evidence.


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