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Paper no 27 book summary









List of papers








By Sylvia Lawson


The Outside Story is a dance through the fraught and contested history of the Sydney Opera House, that prestige icon sometimes called the building of the century.  Two women – one a naïve middle-aged student, one a questing unconfident academic – share in the detective work. Around them is a group of weather-beaten, battling romantic realists, their lives deeply marked by the old crisis on the building site.

They remember the architect Jørn Utzon’s thwarted desire for an ‘honest building, a truthful building’ made for a long future in a hopeful country.  They remember how ambition was betrayed when the architect and his team sere forced from the site. There was a protest march, the media outcry, the huge meetings.  Arguments were long and bitter; friends became enemies, and among architects, it was 'brother against brother...".

The story keeps its grip; old men remember as though it all happened yesterday. Some go on fighting their rearguard actions to the death. History knocks and demands to be answered; the rupture in the national icon goes deep.  But this is a comedy; truth, however smothered and abused, in time comes limping out. For the scholars the puzzles are tangled with everyday chaos of living family, work and love lives, the limits of control.  We follow them at close quarters as they deal with the memory and forgetting, secrets and lies, the confusions of the archive – and always, with themselves.

In The Outside Story, Sylvia Lawson brilliantly recreates a moment when wider conflicts found a focus in one symbolic place. This is a powerful and witty intellectual mystery that tracks the ambitions, politics and passions of a city. It is also a consummate meditation of a city’s and a country’s becoming.


1. Sea Snake

Architects and others celebrate the building’s 20th anniversary in 1993. The occasion is disrupted by unseemly reminders of the building-that- should-have- been.


2. The Witness Is Part of the Evidence

in 1987, the student begins research on the building’s history for an undergraduate thesis.  The memories of living witnesses, who include here father and aunt, are unruly, all too much alive.


3. An Expensive Seventies Project

She attends to the exhibition in the building, part of the 1988 national bicentenary program. Items in the exhibition excite her own memories of the 1960s. She finishes her first thesis.


4. The Trouble With Heroes

The narrator steps into the foreground, and gets involved in more ways than one. Work begins on the student’s second thesis; further discoveries are made about architecture, politics and media. The tow women share teaching on the subject, and gather their students’ responses.


5 The Cordelia Factor

Two important witnesses leave the scene.  The PhD proceeds, and a Cambodian student lights up the Opera House.


6. The Edge of the Possible

Another important witness leaves the scene; others continue to ensure that nothing will be easily forgotten.

About the Author

Sylvia Lawson has published widely on film, media and cultural politics. She has also written short stories and a film script and has worked in print and broadcast journalism, in universities and in the film industry. Her work includes the award-winning The Archibald Paradox and the recent group of stories and essays How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia.  She is currently an honorary research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The Archibald Paradox won a NSW Premier's award for non-fiction, The FAW Wilkie awards and the ASAL Walter McCrae Russel award and was described by Edmund Campion in the Bulletin as a "complex, elegant, passionate work...a distinguished history, a fine biography and a notable piece of literature."

How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia won the 2003 Gleebooks Award for Literary and Cultural Criticism, as part of the NSW government's annual suite of literary awards. Mark Davis in The Age's Best Books of 2002 said: "Sylvia Lawson isn't our Sontag, as someone once said, so much as Sontag is their Sylvia Lawson". And Professor Ross Chambers, University of Michigan, has written "As witty as they are wise, as engaging as they are engaged, these stories and essays are a tough-minded delight. They strategically assemble the resources of memoir, scholarship and fiction, into a practice of witness that amounts to an informal cultural history of Australia over the past half century."  

Publication details


Sylvia Lawson


The Outside Story


Hardie Grant Books

12 Claremont Street

South Yarra, Victoria 3141, Australia






1 74066 071 4




See also 

Sydney Opera House: an annotated list of sources 




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