Human scale of Sydney Opera House

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The first time I saw Sydney Opera House was in 2000 during my first visit to Sydney and the obligatory walk down to the rocks.  I still remember my first reaction at the time – ‘it’s not as a big as I imagined…’ but no less awe inspiring’.  Many times had I seen the images of the UNESCO World Heritage Site which to most people around the world is the icon of Sydney.  It was wildly modern – curvature of the shells floating on linear platform like large white sails contrast to deep blue waters it stood upon.  So many unusual details in its construction strangely coming together, so beautifully.  I didn’t know how to quite make of it other than to snap a lot of photos.  Remember, this is before panorama, and way before iPhone.  I was armed with an early version of Sony compact digital (RX something) and the only way to take in all the details was to snap a series of photos and stitch multiple prints side-to-side to pin them up on a cork-board.

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Since then I’ve been exposed to a lot more buildings and become a student of built structures. Revisiting it now, I actually feel it to be even more awesome.  What has changed?  I frequently encounter immensely grandiose and outrageously unworldly buildings in my travels.  So what is it about Sydney Opera House that is refreshingly awe-worthy?
For one, it is elegance of the curves.  Considering this was built in the time of mid-century modernism which was all straight lines, Sydney Opera House set itself apart by its undulating curves.  Curvatures constantly changing height contrasted to linear platform.
Second, the shells rise and fall, meaning the inflections have inherent end points which moderate its scale … to human scale.  You approach the site, walk up the steps with your gaze fixed upwards to the roofline and come face to face with the open mouth of the shells.  It all comfortably comes into perspective, without having to cock you neck for adoration.
Lastly, there’s technology.  The shells are supported by a system of precast concrete ribs – all possible due to the wonders of concrete construction.  Encasing those brute shells and ribs are the most fragile of materials, glazed ceramic tiles.  Apparently Frank Gehry who was on the jury when Jorn Utzon was awarded Pritzker Prize said the building was well ahead of its time and far ahead of available technology.
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Museo del Novecento Milano (& Ristorante Giacomo Arengario)

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How does one who is terrified of large crowd enjoy what is arguably the most touristy destination in the city of Milan?  Museo 900 (Novencento) was my answer to the unhindered, spitting distance view of Milano Duomo without the hassle that you normally endure. Novencento is a museum of 20th century Italian art right at the foot steps of Milano Duomo and each floor offers unobstructed, majestic viewing experience of Duomo. I would have been happy to use each floor of this compact museum as the viewing deck  at varying eye-levels but there was a whole world of modern Italian art to be discovered.

As Cinquecento refers to early Renaissance art of 16th century, Novencento refers to art of the last century. Novecento traces its roots to a group of artists who launched the movement at 1924 Venice Biennale but its origins go further back to the new generation of Italian futurists like Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carra who went to Paris at the turn of the century and came back with a manifesto of futurism. Influences which would later be categorized as Impressionism. Expressionism, Cubism, Abstraction all appear in their early works and they are amply displayed in this Museum. Their artistic statements are open diatribe against then contemporary bourgeoisie’s cultural traditionalism and classicism for the sake of modernity.

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Museo 900 (Novencento) is right at the footsteps of Duomo Milano

The first room you enter is a bit of turn-of-the-century art onslaught with various masters littered in one little, unassuming corner. Braque landscape, Picasso and Matisse nudes, Cezzane and Modigliani portraits and Kandinsky composition are all jostling for elbow room in this small space. It’s the only museum I know that gets you inches close to the masters’ paintings – gallery viewing experience of sorts, rather than a museum. No tape, no barriers nor floor markers to separate you from exhilaration. As you wind your way up the five floors of exhibition space, it all culminates to the open loft space with spectacular view, again, of Duomo. Floor to ceiling windows are the perfect canvas to frame the magnificence of Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and the spectacle of mass tourism in the Piazza.  Taking a peek behind the escalator, there are steps up to another mezzanine above the loft and surprise encore presentation of sorts: a room dedicated to Lucio Fontana and his slit canvases.


Another motivation to make it to this building is to enter Giacomo Arengario, the restaurant at the fourth level of Novencento with views of Duomo (it helps to break the museum walk with a long boozy lunch). You come here to soak in the uninterrupted view away and above the crowd so expect a large bill (most starters and primi starts from eur20 and secondi from 30). One word of caution… If you’re avoiding pasta, the rest of the menu is primarily seafood (my amberjack ceviche and seabass with fruit salad were both excellent) so forget paring with Barolo or Brunello and go for beer or bianco).


As I sit back and indulge in my second glass of Orvieto and binge on more renaissance and medieval architecture across the balcony (Duomo now turned sparkling ivory under the mid-day sun) I muse at the contrast of modern art that I just left behind.  Yes, there is modern art in Italy and not just by those who were directly influenced by turn-of-the-century French but rather by its own distinct futuristic tradition.

Best way to enter Novencento is by buying the 72hr Museum Pass for eur12 and get unlimited access to all Milano Civic Museums including Novencento (discounted to eur10, if you hold Milan Card, another necessity which gives you free 72hr pass to public transportation and other discounts around he city).

Museo Novecento Milano – Via Marconi 1, 20122, Milano, Italy

+39 2 8844 4061

Giacomo Arengario (entrance from inside Novecento on 4fl or through steps from ground level of Piazza Duomo)

+39 2 7209 3814