While architectural icons are often so named due to their function as a cultural asset, their aesthetic plays a big part in the public’s acceptance and admiration of them.
Most can quickly name and recognise architecture that represents national pride, and more often not recognise foreign icons. The Empire State Building, the Shard and, perhaps most relevantly to an Australian community, the Sydney Opera House stand as buildings of this calibre.
However, according to Sydney architect Ken Woolley, a professor at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, the architectural integrity of Australia’s most iconic built space may be challenged in order to allow for a functional upgrade.
In the Australian, Woolley spoke of an acoustics upgrade currently being undertaken at the Sydney Opera House. This includes, as he explains, replacing ‘serrated timber batten paneling at the front of (concert hall) boxes’ with a ‘bland white sheet.’
Woolley explains that these upgrades are being undertaken as a result of a mistake made by original acoustics consultant Vilhelm Jordan which has resulted in diffraction grating, or ‘a blurring of high frequency sounds at the rear of the auditorium.’
The Sydney architect believes that not only are the works unnecessary but they will ‘destroy the architecture quality of the room and are foreign to its layout.’
“Architecture involves putting together all the things that make a building in a way that creates a work of art,” says Woolley. “All those things have to be selected and arranged for harmony with each other in a consistent whole. It follows that changing one of them can affect the balance.”
He argues that the acoustics’ aesthetic has become a part of the interior architecture and that changing them could destroy the integrity of the space.
“When (Opera House architect Peter) Hall and his colleagues adopted those acoustic ideas and made them architectural details they became the architecture of the building,” says Woolley. “They can’t be just unwound on an acoustic idea, no matter how beneficial that may claim to be.”
As a solution to this issue, it is suggested that designers seek design that brings both form and function together, allowing interior architecture integrity to stay intact, while fixing the functional sound issue.
However, the entire dilemma really raises the question: what is more important, the look or the function of architectural icons? Or can we have our cake and eat it too, as Woolley suggests, by seeking out alternative ideas?
The Coliseum no longer functions as it once did, but still stands as one of Italy’s most famous icons. Does that suggest that it is best to overlook functionality for aesthetics, or is this kind of mentality reserved for truly magnificent and ancient structures?
There are clear cut solutions, but those solutions can be more divisive than not. When it comes to icons, everyone involved has a vested interest, so it makes decisions regarding both form and function highly problematic. Either way, the decision will be in the hands of a group of designers and consultants whose weighty design choices could leave a marked impact.