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Archives for November 2008

Visionary architect

Nick Bryant | 08:11 UK time, Sunday, 30 November 2008

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Had Jorn Utzon been allowed to execute his extravagant architectural vision, the Sydney Opera House would surely be recognised universally as the finest building of the 20th Century. As it was, the long-running saga of its design, construction and unhappy completion offers a complicated tale both of towering and thwarted ambition. To this day, Utzon's masterpiece remains incomplete.

Jorn Utzon outside the Opera House in 1965

Even within Australia, I wonder how well the story is known of Utzon's resignation in 1966 following an acrimonious row with the state government of New South Wales over cost blow-outs and construction over-runs. Immediately after his resignation, the Danish architect flew out of Australia and never returned.

His departure meant that Utzon was responsible for the iconic whites shells, the most self-confident symbol of modern Australia, while the interiors were finished off by a team of local architects. In fashioning the inside of his shells, Utzon envisaged a burst of sub-aqua colour, with a pallet drawn from the underwater world. Instead, the Opera House made do with what was supposed to be a cut-price alternative. One of the many ironies is that when Utzon left the project the cost had escalated to A$22.9m. Ultimately, the price-tag soared to A$107m ($70m).

Eventually, the building was opened by the Queen in 1973, ten years after the original completion date and 30 times over budget. Since then, over four million people have visited the building each year and marvelled at its staggering beauty.

Iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House

Of course, Utzon's design, which edged out over 800 entries in an international competition in 1957, was extraordinarily bold and visionary. Even as construction began on the podium of the Opera House, Utzon and his team of engineers had not yet come up with a design solution for the gigantic shells which would one day rise above it. Sceptics feared it would be impossible to build. The bean-counters feared it would be too expensive. Eventually, Utzon solved the problem himself, his eureka moment coming when he peeled the skin from an orange.

In the late-1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust tried to make peace with Utzon, and he agreed to draw up a series of design principles for the building which would govern future changes to the structure. Since then, a small number of smallish rooms have been renovated in keeping with his original designs. But, for the most part, the interiors remain a colossal disappointment. No wonder many of Sydney's architects mounted a protest march - an architectural protest march! - when the incoming Liberal state government made Utzon's position untenable.

Many will still believe that the Opera House is inarguably the greatest building of the last century, even an eighth wonder of the world. Frank Gehry, the great and ground-breaking American architect, noted: "Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious criticism to a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that such an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence."

When I was a young architectural student, it was certainly one of my favourites.

The sadness is that Jorn Utzon went to the death this weekend knowing this most revolutionary of structures could have been even better.

Australia - how was it for you?

Nick Bryant | 11:02 UK time, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

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To those who have never lived in Australia, the names Margaret and David will not be instantly recognisable. Perhaps they might conjure up a folk band from the 1960s (but that was Peter, Paul and Mary) or a series of helpful how-to-read books that you might have perused as a child (although that was Janet and John).

For the uninitiated, Margaret and David are the Siskel and Ebert of Australia: the country's most famous and distinguished film reviewers, whose weekly programme, At the Movies, is appointment viewing for anyone in the industry, and for many outside it. I, for one, never miss it.

Margaret Pomeranz is a pixie-like bundle of energy, bubbly, infectious and kindly, who I reckon always gives Aussie movies an extra half a star. She's almost like a midwife to the home-grown movie industry, exhibiting maternal disapproval when films fall short and enormous motherly pride when they do well. David Stratton is more like the strict father, or a humourless headmaster perhaps, who, according to the title of his memoirs, once "peed" on Federico Fellini.

presser_b203_ap.jpgI mention all this because now that Baz Luhrmann's Australia is in general release, I want to give you the chance to play Margaret and David. Normally, we solicit your comments. Now we want your reviews.

I got a sneak preview of the movie the other night, and came out thinking that some of the Aussie reviews have been a bit mean-spirited and harsh. We'll save the discussion of the "cultural cringe" and the "tall poppy syndrome" for another blog, but the critical response to Australia might have provided glaring examples of both.

As one would expect from the director of Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann's Australia is staggeringly beautiful. The staging is lavish, the score has an epic sweep, the cinematography is gorgeous and the film has what most Australian films have never been able to afford: towering ambition.

This is the most expensive film ever shot on Australian soil - and it looks like the most expensive film ever shot on Australian soil. The creative force behind it, Mark Anthony Luhrmann, is surely a national treasure. So, too, is his wife, Catherine Martin, the production designer of his films.

Much of the pre-release publicity, of course, focussed on the on-screen romance between Nicole Kidman, who plays a straight-laced British aristocrat whose family owns land at the Top End of Australia, and Hugh Jackman, who plays a rough-hewn cattle drover.

But the more intriguing plotline involves Nullah, the young Aboriginal boy played by 10-year-old Brandon Walters, who steals the movie. Serving as the film's narrator, Nullah is the guide as Luhrmann explores the breach between black and white Australia, and the misplaced sense of racial superiority that lay behind the Stolen Generations. In the hands of a lesser director, this could all have been a bit heavy-handed. But far stronger than Luhrmann's critique of white racial mores is the celebration of Aboriginal culture as proud, rich and ancient. In dealing with indigenous themes, some films have focussed solely on the negative: the decades of mistreatment and the myriad injustices. Australia is more affirming, and accentuates a sense of Aboriginal pride.

There are other things that the world could usefully take from this movie. Many global viewers will not be aware, for instance, that Darwin in the Northern Territory was attacked by the Japanese during World War II, a historical chapter which provides the cinematic coda. Then there's the performance of the relatively little-known Aussie actor, David Wenham, who plays the land-hungry villain of the piece. The Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil is mesmerising as "King George", Nullah's maternal grandfather. Reassuringly, we even get a five-second glimpse of the great Bill Hunter, whose role this time involves squeezing Nicole Kidman's bottom, a duty he performs with aplomb.

Certainly, there are flaws. Certainly, there are a few too many cliches and a few too many crikeys. In their portrayals of an uptight Pom and a down and dirty Aussie, Nicole and Hugh ham and camp it up a bit too much at the beginning. Watching the opening scenes, some might think that the pantomime season has come a few weeks early. To be fair, their performances are very affecting by the end.

Still, there's a strong likelihood that you might have forgotten the opening scenes by the closing credits, which speaks of another problem: Baz could surely have lost at least 15 of his 165 minutes somewhere along the way. One American critic has suggested the film comes with its own sequel (it actually could have been longer - Baz Luhrmann shot 2.7 million feet of film). It is indeed episodic, with four films packed into one: a romance, a western, a war flick and a tale of racial woe.

Some film-goers doubtless would have preferred Cate Blanchett, who does not appear in Australia, to have played the female lead. Peevish British viewers, like me, might bemoan another small, but presumably budget-busting, detail: the scene set in the English countryside was clearly not filmed in the English countryside. But I digress.

Perhaps Australia does fall short of being a classic or a masterpiece, as David Stratton has suggested, but there's a romantic lurking deep inside of me who came out thinking it had come pretty close.

So four stars from me. Now, over to you...

A Christmas gift for the navy

Nick Bryant | 10:30 UK time, Thursday, 20 November 2008

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beach_getty226.jpgIf Australia were as laid back as is commonly supposed, you would think it entirely natural that much of its navy will be placed on two months paid leave at the height of the southern summer. Why head to sea when you can head to the beach? Why get shipshape when you can slip, slap, slop?

But the spirit-of-the-season decision of the Defence Department to institute a partial yuletide shut-down has launched the most unlaid back of rows. Responding to the headline, "Navy Closes for Christmas", the opposition defence spokesman, David Johnston, said he was "flabbergasted". Defence Secretary Joel Fitzgibbon said it was a family-friendly initiative - enemy-friendly, as well, the critics would say - that was "just a way of saying thank you and encouraging them to stay in the service".

It recalls the row earlier in the year when the man at the helm of the Australian economy, the Treasury's most powerful civil servant, Ken Henry, took nearly five weeks leave to care for endangered wombats. Given the controversy, you would have thought he had embarked on a hunting expedition rather than a mercy mission.

Why all this fuss about annual leave and holidays? Perhaps it has something to do with Australia being one of the hardest working countries in the world.

Admittedly, the figures are a little stale, but when the OECD conducted a comparative study of international working habits in 2002, it found that only five countries worked harder than Australia (Korea, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Greece and Mexico). New Zealand came next, by the way.

An Australian study of the same vintage showed that the country harboured the greatest proportion of its workforce working in excess of 50 hours a week in the OECD. As the unions noted at the time, 31% of the full-time Australian workforce worked in excess of 48 hours a week. Put another way, if Australia joined the European Union - and there's a thought - almost of third of its full-time workforce would be in violation of European working time directives.

Australia doesn't do any better on mandatory paid maternity or paternity leave either. It is one of only two OECD countries that does not have paid maternity leave (the other is the US).

Is that another product perhaps of the deeply engrained work ethic, which finds expression in the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. "We've golden soil and wealth for toil....Beneath our Radiant Southern Cross, we'll toil with hearts and hands". An awful lot of toil, no?

So the summer holidays are almost upon us. Time for a well-earned rest.

PS: Some particularly strong comments on the prospects for a black Australian prime minister or president. Among them, SydneyKate and mbrad102, who said the fair comparison should be with native-Americans rather than African-Americans, who make up a far bigger proportion of the population. True, the record in the US is not great. But America has had a vice-president with native American ancestry, Charles Curtis, who served under Herbert Hoover. More recently, Ben Nighthorse Campbell served in the US Senate, a far more powerful body that its Australian equivalent.

PPS: Loved your film lists. I'm still working through all the titles (saw Unfinished Sky the other night, which I thought was great). Did anyone see the comments of Anthony Ginnane, the new president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia? He said that Australian films are "in the main, dark depressing bleak pieces that are the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing". Bit strong, perhaps, but does he have a point? Comments please.

Australia's indigenous political hopes

Nick Bryant | 05:46 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

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Thanks for all your comments on what impact President Obama will likely have on Australia. But I fear that I may have shied away from asking the more interesting and provocative question: will Australia ever have a black prime minister, or even a black president?

If the history of indigenous representation in Australia offers any guide, it is a long way off - a long, long way off. Here's a startling fact to back that statement up. No seat in the Australian House of Representatives has ever been occupied by an indigenous politician. None.

The Senate has seen just two. The first was Neville Bonnor, who was appointed by the Queensland parliament in 1971 to serve in the upper house, and stood successfully as a candidate the following year. The other was Aden Ridgeway, an Australian Democrat (remember them?), who served as a senator for New South Wales from 1999-2005.

The state and territory parliaments have a marginally better record, but it is still terrible. It was not until 2003, for instance, that New South Wales saw an indigenous state member: Linda Burney.

This site offers a more complete list.

In 2006, Warren Mundine became the president of the Australian Labor Party, the first time an Aboriginal politician had served as the president of any Australian political party. Aden Ridgeway served as the deputy leader of the Australian Democrats. But Australia's political elite remains predominantly white.

Some will argue that Australia needs to look over the ditch to New Zealand. Passed in 1867, the Maori Representation Act created four Maori parliamentary seats. Now there are 7 out of the 69 seats.

Others might point out that Australia can already boast a charismatic 40-something black lawyer, with an elegant turn of phrase, a post-partisan approach to politics, a history of community activism and a compelling life story. His name is Noel Pearson and he is presently the director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. But though a frequent contributor to political debates, Mr Pearson has operated outside the realm of narrow party politics.

Though clearly less well-known, Noel Pearson is sometimes favourably compared with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In August 2000, for instance, he delivered his own landmark speech: The Light on the Hill.

It took over 45 years from King's "I Have a Dream Speech" to the election of a black American president. Are we looking at a similar timeline for an indigenous Australian national leader? Or is that way too optimistic?

What Obama win means for Oz

Nick Bryant | 09:04 UK time, Wednesday, 5 November 2008

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buttonssydney_b226_ap.jpgWhat does a Barack presidency mean for Australia?

The blog comes to you from Washington, where someone in the bureau has just shown me a green and gold "Australians for McCain/Palin" placard - a collector's piece if ever there was one. I've written elsewhere on the site about the racial meaning of Barack Obama's victory. What does it mean for Oz?

When I left Sydney at the weekend the opinion pages were dotted with thoughtful articles assessing the impact on American-Australian relations. No doubt the same question has been asked, with equal fascination, in every corner in the world.

But seeing as the US ambassador to Canberra admitted recently to having not read the ANZUS Treaty, the landmark security alliance that came into force in 1952 and has been the touchstone of Aussie-US relations ever since, it's hard to believe that Barack Obama has given the issue much thought. Nor, for that matter, his circle of top foreign policy advisers. (As an aside, in 2005 the US ambassador to New Zealand called it the "Anzoo treaty".)

During his short political career, there was perhaps one fleeting moment when Australia loomed in the forefront of Mr Obama's finely tuned mind, and oddly enough it came back in February 2007, on his first day as a fully fledged presidential candidate.

He was asked to respond to comments by Australia's then Prime Minister John Howard, who inserted himself into the presidential campaign by saying: "If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats."

It all proved very helpful for Mr Obama, not least because it showed he was being taken seriously by seasoned foreign leaders, and thus helped close the credibility gap with his chief rival at the time, Hillary Clinton. On the first day of his campaign, it also meant Iraq became the focus, his most vote-winning issue in the early stages of his audacious campaign.

Back then, during his days as opposition leader, Kevin Rudd was open and enthusiastic in his support for Mrs Clinton. But he'll no doubt be happy that Mr Obama has come out on top.

John McCain would have been a good friend of Australia. He spoke of the importance of Washington's tight relationship with Canberra in his first big foreign policy essay of the campaign (curiously, he did not single out London in the same, effusive way), and well remembers Australia's contribution in Vietnam.

Still, Mr Rudd will be looking to forge the kind of relationship with Mr Obama that Paul Keating cultivated with Bill Clinton (Mr Clinton helped Mr Keating elevate the diplomatic importance of Apec, for instance).

The two men already agree on Iraq - both thought it a terrible foreign policy blunder - and are of common accord about the importance of "more Afghanistan and less Iraq". Mr Rudd will be hoping for a mind-meld on other issues, too, from the need for a co-ordinated global response to climate change to the need for greater global financial regulation.

There's one area of potential conflict, and that centres on Afghanistan. As the former Labor leader Kim Beazley recently told The Australian, Mr Obama may look for a greater troop commitment from Australia (currently, there are just over a thousand diggers in Afghanistan). Over the next two years, the Dutch may pull out of Oruzgan province, where the Aussies are also based. Washington may ask Australia to plug the gap, something which Mr Rudd has indicated he is unwilling to do.

Since World War II, successive Australian governments have been willing to play a blood price to maintain a close relationship with whichever president is in the White House - in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan. How far will Mr Rudd be prepared to go to preserve Canberra's most special of relationships?

PS I loved your response to my At the Movies post. Like the inventory of music on an iPod, a list of favourite films is very revealing. I'll work my way through the ones I haven't seen over the next few months. On the flight over, I did catch the thriller The Square from the Edgerton brothers. This time appearing as a cranky property developer, Bill Hunter appeared in the first 30 seconds. Does anyone know of any movie where he pops up sooner?

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