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    ‘Do as much as necessary, as little as possible’: Sydney Opera House unveils first Conservation Management Plan in 14 years

    Kirsty Sier

    It’s been 14 years since the Sydney Opera House last published a Conservation Management Plan (CMP). The third edition was created in 2003, and a lot has changed since then – not least of which has been the building’s inclusion on the state, national and world heritage lists.

    Unveiled last night, this fourth edition – called Respecting the Vision: Sydney Opera House – A Conservation Management Plan – has been created under the guidance of a new heritage consultant. Alan Croker, the founder and director of Design 5 – Architects and respected heritage expert, was appointed by the Opera House Trust in 2008 for the project. Originally intended as a “tweak” to the third edition, the fourth CMP snowballed into a document of significantly more heft and detail than its predecessor.

    “From the 2003 one, there’s a lot more detail,” says Croker. “When we first looked at revising the previous edition – it’s quite a lot smaller, and it has a lot of robust, high-level principles about how to approach any change, and the management of the place – but when we started looking at this, it became evident that what a lot of the managers here now needed was more detailed guidance.

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    “I was constantly being asked, ‘Okay, could you tell us how this particular policy relates to what we’re doing? We know it must relate somehow, but we can’t understand exactly.’ What we did was introduce more detail. But it’s an extremely complex building; it’s massive. How to get that detail in without it turning into a 12-volume encyclopedia meant incorporating into this document a conservation management tool that was developed by GML Heritage. They allowed us to use it for this document, and it enables you to very concisely list all of the things in a space or area and assess those in terms of their form, their function, their location and their fabric, and how each of those aspects supports the significance of the place. From there, you can figure out where the opportunities are to make the changes.”

    While the new document delves into details as small-scale and specific as handrails, the Sydney Opera House’s Head of Government Relations, Kya Blondin, says that it is intended to guide a bigger picture vision for the house.

    “It will definitely be publicly available, on the website from [today]. But in terms of its use, it really is a critical document in the day-to-day management and conservation of the house,” says Blondin.

    “Our building teams, our production teams, even our marketing teams – which are constantly promoting events around the house – will all look to this document to guide their day-to-day. Then in the long-term, it will be critical to our renewal teams and our designers. This document will really shape their designs, and help them to interpret [Opera House architect, Jorn] Utzon’s vision. It’s really about the day-to-day, and the long-term.”

    As a document intended for the guidance of future works on the site, the CMP is more a philosophical treatise on how works should be approached, rather than a plan detailing specific projects. At the philosophical heart of this document are the conservational principles and methodology of James ‘Jim’ Semple Kerr, the previous heritage consultant for the Sydney Opera House, who Croker says is one of the exemplars of conservation management worldwide.

    “The conservation plan that is being launched is the fourth edition of the Conservation Management Plan, and it’s got a lineage from the first edition,” says Croker.

    “The first, second and third were prepared by the previous heritage consultant for the Sydney Opera House, which was James Semple Kerr, and he was very, very highly regarded in conservation circles. His conservation plan, particularly the third edition, was considered an exemplar internationally for how you prepare a conservation document for a site. They were pretty big shoes to fill, and when I was asked to review that for the fourth edition, I then looked at the work that Jim had done.

    “We’ve continued the work of the third edition into the fourth, and Jim gave permission to use all of his work in any way we wished for this edition. So the whole philosophical approach, the conservation principles, everything is continued seamlessly.

    “What changes with the fourth edition is that, since the third edition, there have been the state, national and world heritage listings. The other thing is that Utzon passed away in 2008, which signified kind of an end to that direct connection. (But we still have that to a degree through Jorn’s son, Jan.)

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    “The other thing was that there were a number of projects, which Utzon had designed since his re-engagement, some of which had been completed: the Utzon Room, the colonnade, the western foyers, the loading dock and the accessibility upgrade. Those things had been completed, so there was a need to review the whole thing again.

    “When we started to look into the work that was available before what had happened with the third edition, we realised there were some gaps in our understanding of various things – particularly in Peter Hall’s contribution to the Opera House. There was quite a bit known, but there were quite a few unknowns. We did research on those specific things, to try to understand them better, and that gave us a lot more knowledge and background in how we could address any proposal for change, or which things were the most important to look after.

    “In terms of changes to the Conservation Management Plan, there is this additional research. There’s also the incorporation of the state, national and world heritage listings’ values – not that they’re any different, but it’s helped us to more clearly articulate what are really the core values of the Opera House. We’ve also added an illustrated chronology to the document, so there’s a clearly set out list of dates with events throughout the evolution of the site, pre-European occupation right through to the time when we closed this [project] off, which I think was December 2016. We put an end to it, because things keep happening down here [laughs].

    “The timeline actually incorporates significant performances as well, so then it becomes a resource for people who are trying to understand what’s happened here, and who are trying to understand the evolution of this. That information is there in a concise format.”

    This idea of ‘performance’ is at the heart of the Opera House’s fourth CMP. At its core, The Sydney Opera House is a performing arts centre – a function that is defined and protected under its World Heritage Listing. This international recognition has to some degree helped diffuse the tension between the building’s heritage and its ongoing, dynamic identity.

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    “This building is a place that is about performance,” says Croker. “The building was designed to house different performance types. That was in the 1956 brief: to house these opera concerts, drama, live performances of different types in different places on this site, on Bennelong Point.

    “The building itself, in its architectural expression at the end of the Bennelong Peninsula, actually becomes a performance in itself. A lot of people just see the building as an architectural piece – and for a long time people have just talked about it as being a building – but it is completely about the performance. The performance is completely integral to its meaning, design, its construction, its everything. That’s its DNA. So performance must happen here, otherwise the building is doing its own performance, but there’s nothing inside it.

    “It’s a healthy tension [between conservation and change], but I think in the past we’ve often seen the use as being something which fights the building, you know? It’s two things that are at opposites. But Richard Johnson [who was involved with the Sydney Opera House masterplan] and others – and Utzon himself – say that [they’re] completely integrated. You can’t separate these things. So it’s not a case of balance, it’s a case of understanding what the needs of the building are, what the structure is, its fabric, and how to care for that. But also, what are the needs of performance? We make sure we care for both in this document. Because if we don’t look after both, we end up with a monument which is lifeless. A beautiful thing to photograph, but not a beautiful thing to experience.”

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    It’s really interesting, because in heritage terms, there’s a lot of focus on authenticity and integrity,” adds Blondin.

    “But the [Opera House] World Heritage listing actually talks about the authenticity of use and function as related to the Sydney Opera House. It actually must continue to be a performing arts centre.

    “Utzon has this great quote, which is in the Utzon Design Principles. He said that as time passes, and as technology advances, and as the needs of the day change, we too must change, and the building must change to accommodate that. So he envisaged that evolution of the Sydney Opera House.

    “That’s really what our renewal plans are about,” Blondin concludes. “It’s about looking at the building as it evolves and making sure it’s balanced, and that everything is proportionate to the need to change. So, you know, there’s a Burra Charter principle that’s like, ‘Do as much as necessary, as little as possible’. And that’s always the approach we take to the building.”

    Respecting the Vision: Sydney Opera House – A Conservation Management Plan is now currently available on the Sydney Opera House website.

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