Jorn Utzon was 38 and inexperienced in project management when he stumbled into the bearpit of politics in NSW Australia. He didn’t escape unscathed.
Utzon’s Early Years
Born in Denmark as the First World War came to an end in 1918, Jorn Utzon graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in the middle of the Second World War in 1942. His first move was to neutral Sweden where he worked until the war’s end.
A stint with Alvar Aalto in Finland followed.
Good experience but the young architect wanted his own practice. He opened his studio in Denmark in 1945 but work proved difficult to find.
Mayan Architecture: The Platform
Utzon travelled. To Morocco in 1947 to design factories for a relative, to the US and Mexico in 1949 and, later, to China, Japan and India. Islamic architecture, Mayan platforms, Japanese temples – all deeply influenced the young architect.
As an architectonic element, the platform is fascinating. I lost my heart to it in 1949 … in Mexico
All platforms radiate a huge force. You feel the firm ground beneath you, as when standing on a great cliff.
Work remained difficult to come by so he started entering competitions. With great success.
Each architectural composition incorporated things he’d learnt from his travels. Solid platforms, linked buildings, roof forms that were not flat. And a great sensitivity to the environment the building would inhabit.
Before his Sydney Opera House entry Jorn Utzon’s office had won seven other international design competitions. There was just one problem – nothing seemed to get built.
Indeed, the only projects that Utzon had seen through to completion were domestic ones, including his own house in Hellebaek which he’d designed and built in 1952.
The Sydney Opera House Design
His design for the Opera House in Sydney exhibited the influences that had come to be characteristic of his work.
The raised podium mimicked a common Australian coastal cliff experience when you glimpse the sea only after reaching the edge of the cliff, which slopes slightly upward from the land.
Approaching the Opera House from Circular Quay you climb the monumenetal stairs to see, over the rise, the harbour.
I was taken very much by the Sydney Heads and I thought if I could keep people up on top, where they took their performance and their intermission, it [the Sydney Opera House] could be another Head. In this I was influenced by the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza in Mexico.
The building had a sculptural quality which enabled it to be viewed from all sides and angles. It flawlessly mediated between the harbour and city. The separate theatres and halls were all linked under the sails whose varying pitches recalled the stepped roofs of Chinese temples.
Most importantly, the new Australian Opera House architecture was in perfect proportion to its near neighbour, the harbour bridge, at that time the reigning Sydney Australia icon.
Solidly grounded by its massive podium, the white sails of the Sydney Opera House soared lightly above, reflecting the changing colours of sea, sky and surrounding red brick and tile buildings.
… the idea has been to let the platform cut through like a knife and separate primary and secondary functions completely. On top of the platform the spectators receive the completed work of art and beneath the platform every preparation for it takes place.
… you can see the roofs, curved forms, hanging higher or lower over the plateau. The contrast of forms and the constantly changing heights between these two elements result in spaces of great architectural force …
There were, of course, one or two problems. Political, engineering and, finally, personal.
Politically, the NSW premier, Cahill, needed a quick start. Costings (not provided by Utzon) were fudged to make the project politically acceptable.
The judging panel didn’t include a single engineer. The design was ahead of the technical possibilities of the time and computer engineering hardly existed. In Utzon’s winning design each sail had a different curvature. The only hope for resolving the complex geometries of the roof structure was through an intensive collaboration with an engineer.
Construction of Sydney Opera House
Ove Arup, another Dane, approached Jorn Utzon soon after the announcement of his win. Ove Arup and Partners became consulting engineers to the project. They stayed until the end, even after Utzon’s forced resignation.
In many ways the unsung hero of the Opera House construction saga, Ove Arup brought with him both project management experience and an overwhelming desire to make the vision work. Up to a point he was able to provide the experience the Sydney Opera House architect lacked. But only so long as the intensely private Utzon allowed it.
Arup couldn’t prevent construction starting before the design was finalised. Premier Cahill insisted that the building be commenced before the March 1959 election, long before the design for the shells and their supports had been resolved. Immediate political imperatives trumped all other needs.
With construction running ahead of the design solutions, problems continued for the entire construction period. It started with the podium, which wasn’t strong enough to support the shells as finally designed. It needed extensive reworking as early as 1963.
The problem of the shells – elliptical, parabolic and finally spherical – took six years to resolve.
Utzon’s original drawings showed them as relatively squat, free form concrete shells.
The resolution of the roof structure was finally arrived at by adopting a ribbed shell system, with the shells having a uniform curvature based on a 75 metre radius sphere.
This enabled repeated precast units, built in standard segments on site, to be used in their construction.
The concrete ribs, whose centerlines coalesced into the podium, provided a common spring point for all the precast concrete sections on which the ceramic tile pattern was placed.
It’s unclear exactly who made the final breakthrough but the idea is usually attributed to Utzon. It is said that the 14 shells of the building combined form a perfect sphere. More facts on the Sydney Opera House.
People talk about how the pyramids were built and how marvellous they were but this was exactly the same thing, with industrial techniques, with fantastic constructions that were being invented and it was happening there in Australia … and nobody seemed to care, nobody knew.
As work went on political pressure mounted, fanned by an opposition that used the Sydney Opera House as a major tool in its campaign to destabilize the government.
Time was needed to solve the many technical issues. The Askin opposition grew increasingly vitriolic. Inflation, the artificially low starting budget and the fixes necessitated by the too-early start, pushed the numbers well over the estimates and were seized on to accuse Jorn Utzon of incompetence, poor management and even dishonesty.
Malice in Blunderland
When the Askin government gained power in 1965 Davis Hughes, the minister in charge of public works, simply withheld money from Utzon, either delaying or refusing payment time after time. Until Jorn Utzon could no longer pay his staff, pay for the testing of his ideas, or even pay his own taxes. In the absence of a tax treaty between Australia and Denmark, these were being levied on him by both countries. It became, or perhaps was always, an issue of control. Political control versus architectural. And politics won.
Years later Jorn Utzon recalled his last meeting with Davis Hughes.
I said to him
-How can you alter everything against my advice?
and he said
-Here in Australia you do what your client says.
Neither Hughes nor Askin had any interest in the Opera House as such. They didn’t understand it, they simply used it for their immediate personal political gain with no concept of any wider importance.
Askin lost interest completely once he was elected. Hughes used it as the means by which he came back from obscurity after being dumped as Country Party leader for misleading parliament some years earlier. Neither man had any scruples about using what was fast becoming one of the best known Australian landmarks for his own benefit.
Jorn Utzon was ill-equipped to fight them. He became increasingly withdrawn from his collaborators in the project and was reluctant to ask for help or accept advice. On top of that, he continued to take on other international design work even as things in Australia were slipping from his grasp.
By February 1966 Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees. He threatened to quit and when Hughes called his bluff, did so. He believed the government would back down. It didn’t. A few weeks later the Utzon family left Australia. Jorn Utzon never returned and he never really told his side of the story.
When he left Australia the exteriors of the building were completed in their essentials. They remained. Not so the interiors. The acoustics and interior design were reworked. Major changes to the internal spaces left little of Utzon’s vision for the interiors intact. These are the areas of greatest concern today, that will require over a billion dollars to rectify and upgrade.
Jorn Utzon Post-Sydney
Although he designed a few more public buildings in subsequent years, most notably the beautiful Bagsvaerd Church and the Kuwait National Assembly, Utzon essentially retired to Majorca where he lived out the rest of his life in virtual exile.
The real cost of the Sydney Opera House, according to Bent Flyvbjerg, was the effect it had on Jorn Utzon.
After his hounding out of Sydney:
… he was not able to build for decades. Instead of having a whole oeuvre to enjoy – like those of Frank Lloyd Wright and Gehry – we have just one main building.
Utzon was thirty-eight when he won the competition for the Opera House – how would the work of the mature master have enriched our lives? We’ll never know. That’s the high price Sydney has imposed by its incompetence in building the Opera House.
Jorn Utzon’s involvement with Australia and the Sydney Opera House did not completely end in 1966. After many years and different approaches from Australian architects and politicians he agreed in 2000 to help with the necessary re-design of the Opera House.
He was involved in the opening up of the western podium and the redesign of the reception room, subsequently renamed the Utzon room. Perhaps more importantly, in the ‘Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles’ (2002) he set down a series of principles which are intended to guide future conservation and management of the House and and redevelopment of its interiors.
In 2003 Jorn Utzon was awarded architecture’s highest honour, the Pritzker Prize. His masterpiece, the Opera House in Australia, received its own prize. Recognised as one of the world’s famous structures, it was listed as one of the UNESCO world heritage sites in 2007.
Jorn Utzon died in his sleep in 2008. He was 90.
I have made a sculpture … you will never be finished with it … when you pass around it or see it against the sky … something new goes on all the time … together with the sun, the light and the clouds, it makes a living thing.