Sydney is finally going to restore Jørn Utzon’s awesome opera house to his original design – but there is a big price to pay

Ihave just came back from a trip to Melbourne and Sydney, cities I last visited in 1992. Obviously much had changed since then but the same difference between the two was evident – Melbourne is more urbane, more European; Sydney more laid back, more of a beach culture. These differences were exemplified by the question everyone would ask in Melbourne: “What do you think of our new buildings?” and in Sydney: “Have you swum in the ocean yet?”

I suspect that because of their geography, Australians are more conscious of their national identity than we are. And yet as a general rule (and I exclude the out-of-town house and the beach house, which as a genre have been perfected by Australian architects) the architecture of their cities exploits neither local nor international talent. This is puzzling given that architecture is such a powerful force when it comes to creating and expressing national identity.

In Melbourne there have been opportunities, with the regeneration of Federation Square and the Docklands, to create architecture of world-class significance but they were missed. There is now another opportunity.

Why don’t politicians help us and themselves by being courageous and open about the real issues? We are not stupid; we can follow an argument

A large area of Melbourne is up for review but the Victoria government has decided, after a long process of selection, that the prudent way forward is to road-test two rival schemes and gauge public reaction before deciding on which architect to appoint. Hard to believe that they will make the right decision with this process but it goes to the heart of what I perceived as a lack of national confidence.

In Sydney there was a huge debate going on about the proposed refurbishment of the opera house. This is one of the truly great buildings in the world. Its sail-like roof glistens in the sunlight atop a raw and brutal brick plinth. It sits proudly on the headland, a magical backdrop for passing liners, but the best views are up close: the finesse of detailing beneath the concrete shells, the awesome 20m cantilever, the delicacy of the two-tone ceramic tiles and the rich timber interiors. Like many great buildings, its construction was mired in controversy and intrigue. Its creator, the recently deceased Jørn Utzon, was not just brilliant but difficult and romantic, and his character is part of the mythology of the building.

The Opera House is Sydney. And like the handful of buildings around the world that shift the architectural debate (the Pompidou Centre being another example), it generates an income that is almost incalculable. But the public are outraged that in these times of financial crisis, the government could contemplate spending a billion Australian dollars on such frippery. Yet 35 years after its completion, the air-conditioning system and scene-moving machinery have come to the end of their natural life.

The best views of the opera house are up close: the awesome 20m cantilever, the delicacy of the ceramic tiles and the rich timber interiors

Now is clearly the moment not just to bring the mechanics up to date but to review the whole building and assess the areas where mistakes were made. To do this all you need do is look at Utzon’s original design. He had envisaged a higher, more cathedral-like space that would have created better sightlines and a more spectacular interior. And this is now the brave new plan. But to realise it requires excavating 18m below ground and closing the opera house for two years. It’s one huge challenge but it is thinking on this scale that a building like this demands. Expensive? Very. Worth it? Without question. Instructive? It shows that there is a big price to pay for not being true to the original.

As with many politically sensitive projects, presentation is everything. Did the politicians confront the issue head on? Did they say that although the expenditure would be huge, it was not money that would otherwise be spent on hospitals or schools; that it was about preserving what is essential to Australia’s culture? No. The project was presented out of context, with the inevitable public backlash, and I just hope the politicians now hold their nerve.

When will they learn? And this is as pertinent here as it is in Sydney – why don’t they help themselves by being courageous and upfront about the real issues? We are not stupid; we can understand an argument and we can also understand the difference between money and value. In these uncertain times, that difference has never been more acute.

I loved Australia. I loved the friendliness, enthusiasm and generosity of the people. I loved the vast expanses of land, the freshness of the produce, the great wine and fabulous restaurants. I didn’t think much of Melbourne’s buildings but I did have a swim in the Pacific...