The Melbourne State Theatre is considered one of the finest places to stage an opera.
The acoustics are superb.
The stage is so lavish, the biggest productions can easily be accommodated there.
It’s always held up as an example of the finest Australia can do in the way of producing a near perfect venue for classical productions.
Now let me ask you a question: what does it look like?
Have a good think, is it square or round? Is it tall or short? Is it grey or brown?
Hold a picture of the Melbourne State Theatre in your head.
You can’t? Funny neither can anyone else.
Let me ask you another question: what does the Sydney Opera House look like?
I bet you’ve got an instant picture in your head: colour, size, shape, everything in detail.
Even if you’ve never been to Australia you know what it looks like.
Because it’s an icon.
It’s an icon like London’s Big Ben, or New York’s Chrysler Building, or Paris’s Eiffel Tower, or the onion roofs of Moscow’s St Basil, or Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ, or Delhi’s Taj Mahal.
Those buildings are so individual, so unusual, they are like logos for those cities – no other cities have anything like it.
They don’t have an icon, a piece of architecture instantly recognisable to anyone around the world.
That’s what makes the Sydney opera house special, that was the brief.
But people keep faulting it by comparing it to the Melbourne State Theatre when it comes to actually putting on an opera.
To quote Brian Thompson, designer for Opera Australia: “As a building, it’s the greatest in the world. But as a theatre, it’s the worst.”
John Malkovich performed there, he said: “It’s lovely to drive by in a motorboat, but the acoustics are hideous.”
Daniel Robertson, conductor with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, said: “It’s a huge space and the sound must be very beautiful up there, if you’re hanging from the roof by a rope.”
In a poll of Australia’s twenty major classical music venues, the Melbourne State Theatre came top and the Sydney Opera House came bottom.
Which is why they are frequently compared.
The Melbourne stage is a huge 46 metres. The Sydney stage is a tiny 19 metres.
The Melbourne wings are “as big as a couple of football fields”. The Sydney wings are “a couple of metres each side”.
The Melbourne orchestra pit is 88 square metres. The Sydney pit is 28 square metres.
And the sound in the Melbourne State Theatre is amongst the finest in the world.
So it looks like a win for Melbourne, well maybe, but that depends on the brief.
If the brief was to have wonderful acoustics in a building that no one outside Melbourne even notices, then they win handsomely.
But the actual brief was for an Australian architectural icon, a logo to stay top-of-mind with the most famous half-a-dozen cities in the world, and on that brief Sydney wins
Neither brief is right or wrong, but I’m a big believer in ‘form follows function’.
That’s why it’s critical to get the brief right before you start.
Define the function, and stick to it.
So that afterwards, when people start to change the brief (and they will change the brief) you can always refer back to the original purpose, and the reason you did what you did.
Then they can’t criticise it for what it was never meant to do.