In the Tart Shop
- The Masterpiece: Jørn Utzon, a Secret Life by Philip Drew
Hardie Grant, 574 pp, AUS $39.95, October 1999, ISBN 1 86498 047 8
- Jørn Utzon: The Sydney Opera House by Françoise Fromonot, translated by Christopher Thompson
Electa/Gingko, 236 pp, £37.45, January 1998, ISBN 3 927258 72 5
Everything that is planned for the Opera House is based on the desire to take people from their daily routine into a world of fantasy, a world which they can share with the musicians and actors.
Jørn Utzon, July 1964
Two flicks of a saw-toothed roofline on the Olympic logo, and the world knew which city staged the games. Sydney Opera House is the only 20th-century building that has become a city’s icon – Big Ben, Miss Liberty and the Eiffel Tower date from the 19th – and may well rank with Hagia Sophia and the Taj Mahal as our era’s legacy to the ages. How did an easy-going metropolis, not noted even in Australia for elegance or charm, manage to snare this rare beauty? Come to think of it, where are its successors? Why are most modern cities ugly clumps of commercial towers, our attempts at memorialising the Millennium such dismal flops?
Before the Opera House, Sydney already had what Australians hoped was a world-famous Bridge, endlessly repainted in North Sea grey, brooding like a Calvinist’s conscience over the city that started off as King George’s Gulag and still struggles to shake off the mighty influence of a minor archipelago on the other side of the world. A glance tells you more than you want to know about Our Bridge. It’s a solid job; it almost bankrupted its British builders, Dorman Long. Its granite pylons, enlargements of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, don’t actually do anything, but it got Middlesbrough, Yorkshire through the Depression. But even adorned with Olympic rings and gigantic Australian flags, Our Bridge is now a proscenium; your eye is irresistibly drawn to the fantasy pirouetting on the blue waters of Our Harbour below: cheekily, Our Opera House easily upstages the biggest steel arch in the world.
Some think of the Opera House as a superb example of Goethe’s frozen music; others imagine a beached white whale, a galleon sailing off to Elfland, nine ears cocked to hear some heavenly aria, nine nuns playing football. ‘A bunch of toenails clipped from a large albino dog’, the Sydney journalist Ron Saw once wrote. ‘It looks like something that crawled up out of the harbour and died,’ a hostile politician sneered, adding: ‘you wouldn’t sell pies out of it.’ Like all great art, it is one-off: Sydney Opera House looks like itself. From the outside, that is. The interior, rarely photographed, is a mess of tacky ideas from the 1960s, reminiscent of a bingo hall in, say, Middlesbrough. Despite its name, opera cannot be performed in it; and the minor hall beside it, which can stage chamber operas, is painted close to black inside and needs only a glitter ball to suggest a suburban disco. How come? The exterior of the building was designed by one architect, the Danish master Jørn Utzon; the inside by a confused committee, or, as the Australian critic Philip Drew sourly calls them, ‘a conspiracy of nobodies’. It is a bittersweet story, and one that goes far to explain why most modern architecture is so awful.
Like Sydney, the Opera House was a British idea. Sir Eugene Goossens, the violinist and composer, arrived in Australia in 1945 to conduct a series of concerts for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, then run by another cultivated Brit, Sir Charles Moses. Goossens found an ‘immense spirit and enthusiasm’ for the musical arts, but nowhere to satisfy them beyond Sydney Town Hall, a wedding-cake confection in Second Empire style with fuzzy acoustics, seating at best 2500. Like many visitors, Goossens was struck by the indifference of Sydney’s citizens to the city’s superb harbourside setting, and their taste for stale European fashions from a quite different history and climate – the dreaded ‘cultural cringe’ of later recrimination over a foreign-designed Opera House.
A much-married, restless bohemian, Goossens saw what was missing: a centre ‘for opera, ballet, theatre and concerts . . . the community should be kept in touch with contemporary thought and feeling in music.’ With a missionary’s zeal he combed the city for a site, accompanied by Dr Kurt Langer, a town-planner of Viennese origin. They decided on a rocky finger projecting into the harbour close to Circular Quay, the hub where the city’s ferries meet the train and bus systems. Called Bennelong Point after an Aboriginal friend of Sydney’s first Governor, the site then housed Fort Macquarie, a monstrosity of high Victorian kitsch whose loopholed walls and machicolated turrets disguised its homely role as the main depot for Sydney’s trams. But Sydney’s brief love-affair with its penal past still lay ahead – ‘just as well,’ a visitor observed, ‘or they’d have slapped a preservation order on the tramshed!’ – and trams were about to give way to buses. To Goossens, it was ‘the ideal place’. He wanted a massive hall seating 3500 to 4000, so that he could soothe parched Sydney ears with music in big, economical batches.
The first convert was H. Ingham Ashworth, a former British Army colonel, then professor of architecture at Sydney University. Indian barracks were more Ashworth’s line, but once committed to the idea, he was a loyal and stubborn ally. Ashworth introduced Goossens to John Joseph Cahill, who was soon to become Labour Premier of New South Wales. A backroom politician of Irish immigrant stock who dreamed of bringing art to the people, Cahill gave an Australian down-to-earthness to the high-toned support for the scheme, and many still call the Opera House the Taj Cahill. He brought on board Stan Haviland, the opera-loving chairman of the Sydney Water Board. Things were moving.
On 17 May 1955, the state cabinet sanctioned an opera house on Bennelong Point, as long as public funds were not involved. An international competition for a design was launched. The following year Cahill’s Government narrowly scraped back for a three-year term. Time was pressing, but in the same month prudish, provincial New South Wales delivered the first of its many counter-blows to the cause of culture. An anonymous telephone call alerted Moses at the ABC that his friend Goossens, abroad studying opera houses, would have his luggage searched at Sydney airport, an unheard-of nosiness in those drug-free days. Moses failed to pass on the warning. Goossens’s bags were found to contain paraphernalia for the Black Mass, including rubber masks in the form of recognisable sexual organs. He had, it emerged, been passing some of his duller Sydney evenings with a coven of suburban witches convened by a local personality, Rosaleen (Rowie) Norton. Goossens claimed he had been blackmailed into bringing in the naughty gear, which nowadays would barely draw a glance at Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Ball. Goossens was fined £100; he resigned his conductorship of the new Sydney Symphony Orchestra and died broken-hearted and forgotten back in England. The Opera House had already lost its first, most eloquent and influential champion.
The competition attracted 233 entries – the sign of an international buzz. Before his disgrace Goossens had selected four assessors, all architects: his friend Ashworth, the NSW Government Architect Cobden Parkes (token Australian), Leslie Martin, co-designer of the London Festival Hall, and the Finnish-American Eero Saarinen, who had recently been moving away from the bloodless straight-ruler international style to the sculptural possibilities of a new technology, shell concrete. (Saarinen’s TWA terminal in New York, a poor man’s Opera House, was then under construction.) Goossens and Moses had set the contest’s requirements. Although it has always been called the Opera House, in the singular, they called for two halls, one very big, for concerts and grand opera like Puccini or Wagner, a smaller one for Mozart, drama and ballet, along with space to store sets, and rooms for rehearsals and restaurants. On his European shopping trip, Goossens was also discovering what these requirements implied in terms of specialised buildings with awkward shapes designed to cope with the complex demands of opera, their ungainliness concealed behind a tall façade and an anonymous rear. The Sydney site, a peninsula overlooked on all sides across miles of blue water, or by a nearby high-rise city, ruled out this camouflage.
All but one of the contestants began with the most obvious difficulty: how to squeeze two opera houses onto a site barely 250 feet wide by 350 feet deep, with deep water on three sides. Françoise Fromonot of Paris, whose book lists Sydney Opera House among grands projets never realised as their designers intended, shows us the second and third prize-winners, which can be taken as standing in for all the others. The runner-up, an American group, put the theatres back-to-back, sharing one stage tower, and disguised the resulting pair-of-boots profile with a spiral plan planted on pylons. The third-placed British entry, influenced by New York’s Lincoln Center, separated the theatres, one behind the other, on a vast paved piazza. But something there is, as Robert Frost says, that does not like a wall. From any angle, these schemes suggested disguised factories for making some plebeian product – meat pies, perhaps – inexplicably thrusting out of the harbour, the same problem that had inspired the soon to be demolished tramshed.
Only one entry had put the two halls side by side; it solved the exposed wall problem by having no walls at all, just a series of fan-like white roofs, moored to a podium of Cyclopean stone. Giving no specifics, the entry proposed to solve the side-stage problem by lowering the sets into caverns let into the massive platform. As the pile of rejects grew, the jurors kept going back to this startlingly original entry. Saarinen, in one version, hired a boat to show his colleagues the idea from the water. On 29 January 1957, a beaming Joe Cahill announced the result. The winner was a Dane, aged 38, romantically living near Hamlet’s Elsinore with his young family in a house of his own design, one of the few projects he had worked on that had actually been built. His name, which few in Sydney could place, much less pronounce, was Jørn Utzon.
An unusual life had shaped the unorthodox proposal. Like all Danes, Utzon had grown up close to the sea. His father Aage, a yacht designer, taught his sons to sail on the Øresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden. His second son spent his childhood on the water, or among the half-models and part-finished hulls in his father’s shipyard. Years later, the dogman of a crane swinging high over the Opera House explained to the Sydney artist Emerson Curtis: ‘Not a right angle in it, mate – just like a boat!’ The younger Utzon hoped to follow his father’s profession, but poor school marks, the result of dyslexia, ruled that out and incidentally added Utzon’s name to the long list, headed by Albert Einstein, of brilliant dyslexics, as well as planting some unjustified sense of inadequacy deep in his personality. Two artist friends of his grandmother taught Utzon to draw and closely observe nature, and on the advice of a sculptor-uncle, he enrolled as an architecture student at the Royal Danish Academy, then – in 1937 – in aesthetic ferment as the costive diet and heavy furniture of Ibsen’s day gave way to the fibrous foods and clean lines of modern Scandinavia.
It was Sydney’s good luck that Utzon’s formative years coincided with the Second World War, when commercial building had all but ceased. Like all modern cities, Sydney’s core has become the central business district, a vertical marketplace where people crowd together and lunch at their desks – a congestion made possible by Elisha Otis of Yonkers, NY, whose 1853 invention of the passenger lift, or ‘elevator’ as he called it, enabled the same piece of land to be rented sixty, a hundred, Trump knows how many times. Occasionally a student prank like Beaubourg in Paris gets built, but the steel-framed tower, clad in curtain walling from a contractor’s catalogue, has now, for the first time in human history, made our great cities indistinguishable, their inhabitants sealed and air-conditioned away from the invigorating real world.
Studying in wartime Denmark and then in Sweden, Utzon had no opportunity to get into this lucrative, deadening work. Instead, he began entering competitions for postwar public buildings. In 1945, with a fellow student, he was awarded the Minor Gold Medal for a concert hall and practice rooms in Copenhagen, a design exercise never realised. The complex was to stand on a raised terrace, an idea Utzon had first met studying classical Chinese architecture, where the majesty of a ruler was expressed by the height on which his palace stood, and his power by the flights of stairs his subjects had to climb to see him. In Utzon’s thinking, the terrace has another significance: it emphasises the separation of the timeless arts from the bustle of a busy city. Over the concert hall Utzon and his colleague raised a copper-covered concrete shell, its external profile matching the sound-reflecting ceiling of the auditorium underneath. In this apprentice work, we already see elements of his stunning Sydney success 11 years later.
In 1946 Utzon entered another contest, a replacement for Sir Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace in South London, destroyed by fire in 1936. Britain was lucky that the winning entry, modelled on the Baths of Caracalla in ancient Rome, another dying empire, was never built. Utzon’s entry prefigured many of the elements of the Opera House: two concert halls side-by-side on an elevated platform, approached by a broad staircase. ‘Dreamy and emotional,’ the English architect Maxwell Fry commented, ‘but far too resigned to be real.’ Already, here was a hint that Utzon might turn away from conflict when, inevitably, his originality collided with meaner minds. Only one entry, not Utzon’s, repeated some of the technical daring of the 1851 Crystal Palace: a glass and concrete pyramid proposed by a British team, Clive Entwhistle and Ove Arup, the latter an engineer of Danish origin, designer of the concrete Mulberry harbours for the Normandy landings. Far ahead of his time, Entwhistle recalled the adage of Greek sculptors: ‘the Gods see from all sides.’ And: ‘The roof has become the fifth façade . . . the ambiguity of the pyramid is of particular interest; it faces the sky as much as it does the horizon . . . not only does the new architecture need sculpture, it is itself re-becoming sculpture.’ ‘The fifth façade’ was the heart of Utzon’s Opera House proposal.
Artists from small countries like Denmark (Australia, not small, is certainly isolated) can either bloom in parochial solitude or take on the wider world. Perhaps because of his early educational problems, Utzon has never seemed altogether at home in Denmark, and he now lives in aloof retirement in Majorca. In the late 1940s the Utzons visited Greece and Morocco, drove a road-weary car around the US, visited Frank Lloyd Wright, Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe (who granted Utzon a minimalist interview, speaking, back turned, through a secretary) and then made for Mexico and the Aztec temples at Monte Alban in Oaxaca and Chichen Itza in Yucatan. These astonishing ruins stand on massive platforms, reached by broad stairs, high above a sea of jungle stretching to the horizon. Utzon was searching for an architecture that people would walk to, in and around, not the reflection of a particular culture but an amalgam of many. A greater contrast with the stern Britishness of the Harbour Bridge – or a better icon for a growing city aspiring to a new synthesis of cultures – is hard to imagine. Certainly, in 1957, no other contestant even tried.
Le tout Sydney was captivated by the winning design, and even more by the designer on his first visit in July 1957 (he had pictured the site by knowledgeably reading marine charts). ‘He’s our Gary Cooper!’ a Sydney matron gushed on sighting the tall, blond, blue-eyed Dane and hearing his exotic, Norse-tinged English, a change from the somewhat harsh local accent. Although his idea was little more than a sketch, a Sydney firm estimated the cost at £3.5 million. ‘Cheapest to Build!’ crowed the Sydney Morning Herald. Utzon volunteered to open the fundraising by selling kisses at £100 a smack, a labour of love soon superseded by a more Sydney-like lottery, pouring £100,000 a fortnight into the project. Utzon returned to Denmark, hired a design team and set to work. ‘We were like a jazz group, everyone knowing exactly what to contribute,’ one of his collaborators, Jon Lundberg, recalls in the excellent documentary film, ‘The Edge of the Possible’. ‘We had seven years of pure happiness together.’
The jury chose Utzon’s design believing it was ‘capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world’ but they also said that the drawings were ‘simple to the point of being diagrammatic’. The problems, obliquely hinted at, remain unsolved to this day. The side-by-side arrangement of the two halls provides both with a dramatic approach, on foot, up the same monumental flight of stairs, and together they make up the building’s memorable silhouette, but no room is left for the side-stages of a conventional opera house. Further, for opera a hall needs a short reverberation time, around 1.2 seconds, so that the singers’ words can be separated, while a full orchestra calls for closer to two seconds, with some sound reflected from the sides of the hall. Utzon intended to hoist the scenery from pits below the stages, for which his massive podium left plenty of space, and to attend to the acoustics by suitably shaping the shell roofs. With its love of music, mechanical ingenuity and copious supply of wrecked opera houses, Germany leads the world in acoustical science, and Utzon wisely engaged Walther Unruh of Berlin as his stage expert.
The NSW Government had appointed the Ove Arup partnership engineers to the project. The two Danes got along famously; too famously perhaps, because fundamental engineering problems were still unsolved when Joe Cahill, spurred by failing health and a dwindling Parliamentary majority, laid the first stone on 2 March 1959. Within the year Cahill was dead. ‘Cahill adored Utzon for his genius and his innocence and Utzon revered the visionary hidden within his tenacious old patron,’ Fromonot records. Soon afterwards, Ove Arup’s reported that after 3000 engineer-hours and 1500 of computer time – one of their first uses in architecture – no way could be found to build the huge freeform shells. ‘Structurally naive,’ the London engineers said.
Utzon himself saved Sydney’s icon. Originally, he had proposed shells ‘made of netted wire, sprayed and later tiled’ – like his sculptor uncle’s studio maquettes for human figures, but utterly impracticable on the scale of a theatre roof. Utzon’s design group and Ove Arup’s engineers fiddled with a dozen variations, parabolas, ellipsoids and more exotic curves, without success. One day in 1961, deeply discouraged, Utzon was dismantling a model based on yet another unworkable curve and stacking the roof shells for storage when he had a flash of the lateral thinking at which dyslexics often excel. Similarly curved, the shells more or less fitted inside each other. What shape, Utzon asked himself, has everywhere a constant curve? A sphere. The shells could be made out of triangular sections of a notional concrete ball, 492 feet in diameter, and these sections could, in turn, be assembled from smaller curved triangles, industrially precast and pretiled on the site. Technically, the result would be bonded vaults, a structure of known strength and stability. The roofs were feasible.
Utzon’s solution was eventually to force him off the job, but it was a stroke of genius. The tiles could be set in place mechanically, so the resulting surface has the taut, precise weave, unattainable by human craftsmanship, that produces the fascinating play of sunlight reflected from the water. Because every cross-section of the vaults is part of a circle, the roof ridges are circular, too, giving the building’s silhouette a visual rhythm where Utzon’s freehand curves, even if they could have been built, would have seemed frivolous and too easily overpowered by the bridge towering over them. The controlling geometry of the whole building is now the straight line of the staircase and podium and the circle of the shells: a simple, strong pattern which makes a visual unity of influences from China, Mexico, Greece, Morocco, Denmark and wherever, and turns a salad of styles into a coherent whole – as seen, that is, from the outside.
Utzon called his principle ‘additive architecture’, seeing in it a resolution of the key artistic dilemma of our time: efficiency v. plastic expression, how to serve human ends when the craftsman himself has been replaced by a machine. Fromonot notes that Utzon’s solution departed from the then fashionable ‘organic’ style, defined by its American progenitor, Frank Lloyd Wright, as a ‘ten-fingered grasp of reality’, to enter what is still unexplored territory, the human potential of the machine age.
Meanwhile, the new roofline raised other problems. More upright, the vaults no longer met the acoustic needs of the halls below; separate, sound-reflecting ceilings would be needed. The ends of the vaults facing the harbour had somehow to be closed; this is aesthetically critical, because they should not seem to be supporting the shells above, or to substitute for blank walls. The solution to both, Utzon thought, might be plywood; and in Sydney he found its prophet, the inventor and industrialist Ralph Symonds. As long ago as 1923 Symonds had bolted an Avro aero engine to a Bondi surfboat, anticipating the jet-ski by a half-century. Bored making furniture, he had acquired a disused slaughterhouse at Homebush Bay, near the Olympic site. Here he was moulding roofs for Sydney’s trains of single sheets of plywood 45 feet by 8 feet, then the biggest in the world. Bonding thin sheets of bronze, lead and aluminium to plywood, Symonds produced a new material of any desired shape, size, strength, weather resistance and acoustic properties – just what Utzon needed to finish the Opera House on his new principle.
Deriving the sound-reflecting ceilings from geometric forms turned out to be trickier that designing the roof vaults, which Utzon used to demonstrate simply by slicing the peel of an orange. He meditated long on the Ying Zao Fa Shi, an ancient treatise on the modular bracket sets that hold up the roofs of Chinese temples. ‘Additive architecture’, however, called for uniform, industrially-made elements. Eventually Utzon’s design team came up with an imaginary drum some 600 feet in diameter, which, rolling down an incline, would generate a linked chain of beams, simultaneously reflecting sound down to the audience and guiding their eyes towards the proscenium arches of the major and minor halls. The beams were to be prefabricated in Symonds’s factory from identically curved moulds, much as the concrete roof elements were being prefabricated on-site, and then, like the unfinished hulls conveyed to Utzon’s father’s shipyard, barged down the harbour to complete the halls. The biggest beam, corresponding to the lowest notes of the organ, would have been 140 feet long. Utzon intended to paint his acoustic ceilings in striking colours, Chinese scarlet and gold in the major hall, blue and silver (a combination he had seen in coral fish on the Great Barrier Reef) for the minor. To close the ends of the shells, he settled, with Symonds’s help, on enormous glass walls with deep plywood mullions suspended from the shells’ ribs, finding their own curve as they projected over the vestibules below. The plan combined the lightness and strength of a seabird’s wing with a delicate, ever-changing ambiguity about what was inside. In an orgy of invention Utzon worked with Symonds’s factory to design lavatories, handrails, doors, the cladding of the corridors, all in the magic new material.
The idea of the architect working directly with industry on the leading edge of technology, new to Australia, is an old one in Europe; it is a modernised version of the master-builders’ collaboration with stonemasons that created the medieval cathedrals. In the Age of Faith, the Glory of God called for the best that men could offer; time and money were unimportant. One contemporary masterpiece is still being built on these lines. The Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi’s Expiatory Church of the Holy Family – the Sagrada Familia – was begun in 1882, Gaudi himself died in 1926, and it is far from complete; work proceeds only as fast as the faithful of suburban Barcelona contribute funds. For a while, it seemed that Utzon, too, had reinvented the Age of Faith, with the arts replacing religion, and devout lottery punters making offerings of £50,000 a week, thus relieving taxpayers of the worldly burden. New South Wales is, however, a raucous democracy, and Utzon, preoccupied with his ideas in his modest office on the site, failed to notice the political storm clouds gathering.
The first estimate of the project’s cost, £3.5 million, was a guess by a reporter on a deadline. The first tender, £2.75 million for the foundations and podium alone, turned out to be wildly optimistic. Joe Cahill’s eagerness to get the building started before any of the engineering problems had been solved was politically prudent – Labor, in power in New South Wales for more than twenty years, was losing voters, and his health was failing – but it forced the engineers to guess the loads that the as yet undesigned vaults would impose on the podium, and when Utzon at last found the spherical solution, the earlier work had to be dynamited and stouter foundations sunk. In January 1963 the contract for the roof vaults was set for £6.25 million, another piece of optimism. Three months later, when Utzon had moved to Sydney, the spending limit was raised to £12.5 million.
The escalating estimates and slow progress did not go unnoticed in Sydney’s oldest public building, State Parliament House, still called the Rum Hospital because the convicts and ticket-of-leave men who built it would only work for spirits. Corruption has been a well publicised feature of New South Wales politics ever since. The day Utzon’s selection was announced, and even before, a groundswell of criticism had begun. Country people, condescended to by the saying ‘Sydney or the bush’, resented money being spent in the capital, even though it was lottery money. Rival contractors hungered for the orders that were going to firms, like Ralph Symonds’s, favoured by Utzon. Australia’s foremost architect, Harry Seidler, himself an unsuccessful entrant, had cabled Utzon on his win: ‘Pure poetry. It is magnificent!’ But the great Frank Lloyd Wright, nearing ninety, had scoffed, ‘A whim, that’s all it is, a whim!’ and some of the 119 disappointed Australian entrants showed less generosity of spirit than Seidler. Aesthetic judgments easily mask jealousy. By 1965 inland New South Wales was gripped by drought. Promising to ‘clean up the mess at the Opera House’, the State Opposition claimed that the lottery money they could save would be spent on roads, hospitals and schools. In May 1965 Labor was narrowly defeated, after 24 years in office. On election night the new State Premier, Robert Askin, exulted, ‘We’re in the tart shop now, boys!’ meaning they would clean up on the income from brothels, casinos and off-course bookmaking that went with control of the Sydney police. Within a year Utzon had been manoeuvred off the project and left Sydney, never to return. The mutilation of his masterpiece took another seven costly years.
In Philip Drew’s bitter account of what followed, Askin lost interest in the Opera House once it had served his electoral purpose and scarcely mentioned it before he retired in 1975 and died, a multi-millionaire, in 1981. Not so his minister for public works, Davis Hughes, a former schoolteacher from rural Orange who is the villain of Drew’s story and, like Utzon, is still with us. Drew charges, with convincing documentation, that Hughes intended even before the election to get Utzon off the project. Summoned to meet Hughes, and believing that ‘public works’ meant sewers, dams and bridges, the unsuspecting Utzon was flattered to find the new minister’s office decorated with plans, drawings and photographs of his creation. ‘I thought Mr Hughes must love the Opera House,’ he recalled years later – in a sense, a perceptive judgment. The inquiry promised during the election campaign into the supposed scandal at the Opera House, conducted by Hughes himself, turned up nothing amiss. Hughes sought opinions on how to subdue Utzon, and was confidentially advised by a government architect, Bill Wood, to use ‘chequebook control’ to stop Utzon’s monthly progress payments, without which he could not run his office. Davis then demanded that Utzon submit detailed drawings for the minister’s personal approval, to be let to public tender: the system devised in the 19th century to inhibit what Australians call ‘rorts’ and others the bribery of public officials, good enough for sharing out sewers and roadworks, impossible for the cutting-edge technology Utzon was working with.
The inevitable showdown came early in 1966, over £51,626 which Utzon was owed for design work on the machinery that would have allowed opera to be staged in the major hall. Hughes again refused payment. In a fury (and, says Drew, in deep financial trouble over tax demands from both Australia and Denmark on the same income) Utzon tried pressuring Hughes with a veiled threat. By not agreeing to pay his fee by 28 February 1966, Utzon informed Hughes, ‘you have forced me to leave the job.’ Following Utzon out of Hughes’s office, Bill Wheatland of Utzon’s design team glanced back and saw ‘the minister crouched over his desk, his face wreathed in a self-satisfied smirk.’ That same evening Hughes called a hasty conference to announce Utzon’s ‘resignation’, adding that he saw no problem in finishing the Opera House without him.
There was one obvious problem. Utzon had won the contest and he was world-famous, at least among architects. Hughes had already spotted an unlikely replacement: Peter Hall, then 34, an architect in his own Public Works department who had designed some government-funded university buildings. As a former friend, Hall sought the approval of Utzon, now back in Denmark, for usurping his project, and was puzzled not to get it. Led by the indignant Harry Seidler, Sydney architectural students picketed the unfinished building chanting ‘Bring Back Utzon.’ Three-quarters of the Government’s own architects – Peter Hall among them – had petitioned Hughes, saying that ‘Utzon is the only architect technically and ethically able to complete the Opera House as it should be completed.’ Hughes was unmoved: Hall was appointed.
Knowing nothing about music or its requirements, Hall and his now all-Australian retinue set out on yet another world tour of opera houses. In New York a theatre expert, Ben Schlanger, advised that opera could not be performed in the Opera House, except on a reduced scale in the minor hall. Drew demonstrates that he was wrong: there are many fine convertible dual-purpose halls, including one in Tokyo designed by Yuzo Mikami, a former assistant of Utzon’s. The stage machinery, arriving from Europe in Utzon’s last days, was sold for scrap at 50 pence a pound, and its windowless cavern under the stage was made over as a recording studio. The changes made by Hall and his team cost £4.7 million. The result was the dated, muddled interior we now see. None of Hall’s innovations mar the exterior of the building, on which its fame rests, with one all too visible exception. He replaced Utzon’s deep plywood mullions for the suspended glass walls, evoking gull’s wings, with painted steel windows, a 1960s fashion. But he never tamed the geometry, and his windows, concealing nothing, have strange bulges and ugly dog-ears stuck on at either end – a foretaste of the disaster inside. By the time Queen Elizabeth inaugurated the Opera House on 20 October 1973, the final cost was A$102 million (then £51 million) of which 75 per cent was spent after Utzon’s departure, often exceeding the lottery income. George Molnar, a lecturer in architecture and a Sydney cartoonist, wrote a biting caption: ‘Mr Hughes is right. We must have control of expenditure, whatever it may cost.’ ‘We might as well have kept Mr Utzon to finish the job,’ the Sydney Morning Herald added wistfully, seven years too late.
Persuaded that his redesign of Utzon’s Opera House would make him famous, Peter Hall never got another important commission, and died, forgotten, in Sydney in 1989. Sensing a swing to Labor, Hughes left Sydney before the Opera House was opened for the sinecure of Agent-General for New South Wales in London, and then obscurity. He is remembered in Sydney, if at all, as a philistine who vandalised the city’s icon. Hughes still claims – as he would – that without him the Opera House would never have been finished. A better clue to his motivation may be the bronze plaque unveiled by the Queen in 1973, still firmly bolted to the entrance. The first non-royal name is that of the Minister for Public Works, the Hon. Davis Hughes, followed by those of Peter Hall and his associates. Utzon is not credited as the architect and the Queen did not mention him in her speech, a shameful discourtesy, as she had entertained Utzon aboard the royal yacht in Sydney Harbour in his days of glory – but New South Wales is a Westminster-style mini-monarchy, and her speech was drafted by the State Government. Hughes turned out to be that sad figure, a man with an artist’s ambition, drive and single-mindedness – minus the talent.
Back in Denmark, still expecting to be recalled to Sydney, Utzon kept working on his ideas. Twice he offered to return, to be icily rebuffed by Hughes, fresh from his own world study-tour of opera houses. Hoping to draw a line under his frustration, one dark night in 1968 Utzon gave his Opera House a Viking’s funeral, burning the last of his models and drawings by a lonely fjord in Jutland. New commissions were few in Denmark, where his troubles with Hughes had been much reported but little understood. He found an architect’s refuge in lean times, designing a house for himself in Majorca. In 1972, recommended by Leslie Martin, one of the Sydney contest judges, Utzon and his son Jan were commissioned to design a National Assembly for Kuwait. Set by the seaboard of the Persian Gulf, the Assembly echoes the Opera House in placing two auditoria side by side on a podium constructed from precast concrete elements, with a tent-like roof over the space between, where Utzon expected Kuwait’s legislators would converse in air-conditioned calm. Completed in 1982 (disproving the charge that Utzon never finished what he began), it was all but destroyed in the Iraqi invasion in 1991. Rebuilt, more Beirut than Bayreuth, it now has un-Scandinavian crystal chandeliers and gilding over Utzon’s austere teak interior, and the covered forum has become the legislator’s car park. In Denmark, Utzon has, since his departure from Sydney, designed a church, a furniture shop, a telephone box, a garage with a defiant reprise of his Opera House glass walls, and pitifully little else. A theatre design for Zurich, much acclaimed, was never realised through no fault of Utzon’s. His ‘additive architecture’, using standardised building elements in a sculptural, human approach, has found few exponents; its merits are aesthetic rather than commercial, and far removed from the post-and-beam towers tarted up with classical motifs which are the staple of Post-Modernism.
Sydney Opera House is the most visited tourist site in Australia and, even before the Olympics, was one of the world’s most famous buildings. Artistic Sydney would dearly love to rip out the 1960s tat and complete their Opera House as Utzon intended, money now no object. But the moment has passed; the recluse of Majorca is not the young dreamer who won the competition. While, understandably, Utzon has no desire to see his mutilated vision, last year he graciously agreed to write a nebulous Statement of Design Principles to guide a projected £35 million refurbishment, with his son Jan as overseer. But great monuments are not built of words, even if Utzon ever writes them. His Opera House, with its huge stage and stunning interiors, is now an unattainable What Might Have Been.
It was probably inevitable. Like all considerable artists, Utzon is a perfectionist, perfection being what he thought both his site and his client called for. But architecture can seldom be an art, with no aim beyond expression. In our imperfect world, it is more of a business, which tries to satisfy conflicting demands with cost as the bottom line. We should be grateful that a rare conjunction of worldly visionaries and the ambitions of a still naive provincial city left us with an outer shell of near-perfection. ‘You’ll never get tired, you will never be finished with it,’ Utzon promised us in 1965. He was right: we never will.