Ask almost anybody anywhere in the world to suggest something they associated with Sydney and the answer is likely to be the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. Without doubt the two landmarks, in many people’s minds, define and epitomize Sydney. It is fair to suggest in fact that the harbour area of Sydney defines what would otherwise be a rather homogenous, dense, European type city.
Devoid of the harbour area, what remains of the 4700 or so square miles of the city is a fairly generic and mediocre clutter of high rise building in the centre surrounded by a suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see. “On the ground what strikes the visitor is the dullness of the architecture bereft of its harbour, Sydney would be no more interesting than Finchley.” It is astounding that the only piece of architecture which has managed to live up and respond to its fantastic natural setting is Utzon’s Opera House.
Flawed though it undoubtedly is, the beautifully tiled vaults and complex monumental base next to the botanical gardens has remained unchallenged in almost half a century of supposed architectural development and advances. What is it about Jørn Utzon’s building which has stood the test of time in the fickle world of architecture, securing its place as one of the defining public buildings of the 20th century?
The urban myths surrounding the Sydney Opera House are almost as well known as the finished article itself. Throughout the architectural world the story of Utzon and the beleaguered Opera house is something of architectural legend. A world wide competition was launched in December 1955 by the State Government of New South Wales for a Performing Arts Centre.
A tempting brief with a generous timetable, open criteria and the spectacular and historically resonant site of Bennelong Point enticed over 930 architects to register and produced nearly 250 competition entries. The emerging victor was a relatively young Danish Architect Jørn Utzon. Irrespective of the truth in the romantic tale of Utzon’s fairly sketchy entry being rescued from a pile of discarded submissions by competition judge Eero Saarinen, arriving a day and a half late, the assessors’ final statement was unanimously in favour.
Utzon’s drawings submitted for this scheme simple to the point of being diagrammatic we are convinced that they present a concept for the Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the greatest buildings of the world.’
Of course Utzon’s designs were not unanimously admired by the media or his peers. The brave new forms, loved or hated, were the centre of much attention as newspaper letters pages were full with people fraught with horror or pleasure- ships in full sail’, a flock of white gulls’, disintegrating circus tent in a gale’, a sink with plates stacked in readiness for washing’ were some more lucid analogies produced.
In the profession Siegfried Giegion marked Utzon as the Leader of the Third Generation of Architects; Frank Lloyd-Wright simply considered it inorganic fantasy which confirmed the folly of competitions and whilst visiting Mies Van de Rohe in Chicago, the Master turned his back and refused to speak to Utzon. This is not to mention the hostility shown by many Australian Architects who resented Utzon, a young foreigner, for getting Australia’s plum commission.
Utzon’s concept constituted two main parts. A large dense slab jutting out into the harbour on which the lighter shell forms delicately perched. When coming up with the concept for his Opera House submission, Utzon amongst other things, studied Greek amphitheatres in great detail. These ancient Greek theatres were carved into the rock rather than being built from the ground up. Utzon’s design called for a run of steps almost a hundred metres wide which were to look as if hewn from stone.
The construction of the huge artificial plinth began in earnest before the huge engineering problem presented by the shell structures had even been resolved. Over 30,000 cubic metres of rock and rubble had to be removed to replace real land with Utzon’s man made peninsula. The plinth was split into two levels. A harbour-side café a restaurant level was combined with a vehicular concourse underneath the main pedestrian slab.’
This allowed Utzon to continue the massive carved rock theme of the plinth. He insisted the main terraces were completely flat and that drainage was achieved through small gaps in the paving rather than having to accept a slope. The continuity of materials, the lack of clutter and Utzon’s attention to detail means the plinth is unquestionably successful in creating a sense of mass, space and permanence. “The flatness of Utzon’s platform is certainly astonishing and absolutely modern in its reinterpretation of an archaic idea.”
Figure 1. Slab like quality of plinth. Photograph; R. Weston
There are many theories as to what inspired Utzon’s daring forms. At various times the roof form (or fifth façade as Utzon described it), has been likened to, and suggested that Utzon was inspired by; clouds, waves, ships sails, parabolas formed by bending sticks and leaves. It is impossible to confirm what Utzon was actually inspired by but it is likely that it was a variety of influences. Utzon was familiar with the Sung building manuals of Ying Tsao Fah Shih which saw the earth as square and the sky as round and this is acknowledged as a great influence.
One of the greatest successes of the Sydney Opera House is undoubtedly the arresting roof shells. Originally Jørn Utzon’s competition submission showed organic shells constructed from 5cm thick concrete cast on site, with pure white exterior and a gilded underside, the experience was to likened to that of entering a mosque with the smooth vaulting and shimmering gilt surfaces.
Figure 2. Utzon’s original competition entry. J. Utzon
Utzon, very much of European work ethic, designed alongside engineers and contractors, almost unheard of in Australia where the Architect would come up with the drawing first and then hand them over to the tender. From the outset of the design process, Utzon was linked to British based engineer Ove Arup, well known for his desire to work alongside architects to make their seemingly impossible concepts tangible.
Almost instantly Arup broke the news to Utzon that his structure was not possible in the way the Dane had perceived, and that a much larger structure would be necessary. Unperturbed, Utzon approached the problem from a different angle. Rather than his original monolithic parabolic shells he developed the forms so that they could all be formed from parts of the same hemisphere cutting down on the complexity of the geometry.
This also had the additional benefit of meaning the shells could be formed with a relatively small number of twelve repeated chevron shaped elements. “In this he is, of course, very much of the sixties when it was still reasonable to believe in the architectural possibilities of mass production he was able to make one of those fantastic and all too rare leaps in architectural conception.” In this sense the engineering achievement of the Opera House can be appreciated fully. The forming of a complex and seemingly unsystematic forms with a limited number of prefabricated repeated components which can be produced in factory conditions to a higher level of specificity is inspirational and no doubt influenced many later architects.
Figure 3. Construction of the shell showing standardized chevron pieces. Photograph; L’Architecture D’Aujourd’hui.
For all its success as a cultural icon, a landmark which is immediately associated with Sydney and its picture postcard connotations it is often forgotten that the Opera House was not merely commissioned as a tourist attraction but as a Performing Arts Centre. Conceived by Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Opera House was supposed to be the beginning of Goossens’ dream who believed music was the birthright of the people. He envisaged 3,500 seat acoustically perfect concert hall for the Australian people.
His mission was to bring the music of the highest quality to the masses. It is said that statistics can prove anything. “Building it (the Opera House) challenged the notion that Australians were a nation of beer swilling gamblers, more interested in footy than the arts. Today the position is reversed: more people in Australia visit art galleries and attend concerts than go to sports events.” This statement may or may not be true to the true demographic of the Australian, but what it doesn’t do is assess the success of the Opera House with regards to the criteria envisaged by Goossens.
Utzon’s thoroughness did not simply stop with the exterior of the building. “Completed designs for the Major and Minor Halls show Utzon’s new perception of architecture to have been highly developed all the auditoria acoustic ceilings had been designed and their mass production technologies perfected.” Utzon’s design had even inspired an innovative manufacturer to develop a new type of plywood capable of being produced in 15m lengths.
Utzon’s layout of the two halls was also very radical. Rather than position the two concert halls end to end as was customary, Utzon positioned the two auditoria side by side, slightly converging the axes. He imagined the exterior lobbies, hallways and concourse to be one continuous landscape underneath the huge vaulted shells in which people of differing musical interests could mingle. Such thinking is still mirrored today.
One example is Sir Foster’s Sage Music Centre in Gateshead which has an open plan circulation space around three different auditoria placed side by side, underneath one large, vaulted span. With its position so close to the Tyne Bridge, it is almost impossible not to draw the association to Sydney. However with such inspired and clarity of design it is difficult to see why the Sydney Opera House fell short of its intended success as a venue.
Probably one of the greatest accounts surrounding the difficulties of the beleaguered Opera House was the forced resignation of Jørn Utzon and his stealthy departure from Australia. With designs for the interiors almost complete, the shell under construction and the plinth virtually finished Utzon was forced to resign his position in February 1966.
Years of cutting edge research and radical ideas on the interiors of concert halls were lost as a new government wanted to be seen doing something about the ever increasing costs of the Opera House. A consortium of three Australian Architects was brought in to finish the interior. However, whilst they accepted Utzon’s commission, they failed to acknowledge Utzon’s highly refined and researched interior designs. Rather ironically Utzon, whose forced resignation, was a factor of ever increasing costs, actually only contributed to 18% of the final $102 million bill for the Opera House.
It is not clear whether the Opera House as a venue would have been more successful if Utzon’s designs had been fully implicated. However, a planned re-fit of the Opera House is in the pipeline, with a strategy to restore the interior to something much more akin to Utzon’s original design. It’s rumoured that Utzon, now eighty-something, has been brought in as a consultant to the project.
Figure 4. Complex geometry of Utzon’s acoustic ceilings J. Utzon
The success of the Sydney Opera house can be measured in a variety of ways. As an iconic landmark it could be said it is one of the most spectacular and successful of the modern world. A poll in The Times newspaper found 90% of its readers rated the Opera House as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The pioneering in construction and engineering by Utzon and Arup is also a triumph. Creating such a complex geometry with such precision is not easy, and the structure has robustly stood the test of time. Where the Opera House is flawed, it’s much more political than architectural.
Lack of appreciation for what the politicians had commissioned often led to creative restrictions on Utzon and eventually his departure. The Opera House does not currently, and has not for fifty years, functioned to it full potential as a venue. By now, a more mundane, less inspired Opera House would have been torn down to be replaced. Perhaps this is a tribute to the strength of Utzon’s designs and it seems a shame that they could not be fully realized due to the narrow-mindedness of a little known politician.
Figure 5. Crisp majestic forms seem to balance on the dense plinth. Photograph A. Browell.
Word count: 2014
Drew, P., Architecture in Detail; Sydney Opera House- Jørn Utzon (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1995).
Weston, R., Utzon (Denmark: Edition Blondal., 2002).
Best, A., Une Histoire Inachevée (Architectural Review., 1998 Feb v.203 n.1212 p.27).
Building (1973, Oct 19, v.225, n.42, p,99-103).
Myers, P.(L’Architecture D’Aujourd’hui.,1993 Feb n.285 p60-67).
Title Page:Cover of the Yellow Book.
(Weston, R., Utzon. p.136)
Figure 1:Photograph of Completed plinth. Richard Weston.(Weston, R., Utzon. p.129)
Figure 2:Submission by Utzon for Competition.(Weston, R., Utzon. p.117)
Figure 3:Photograph showing Chevrons in construction.( L’Architecture D’Aujourd’hui. p.67)
Figure 4:Utzon’s designs for the acoustic geometry of the auditoria ceilings. (Weston, R., Utzon. p.168)
Figure 5:Photograph of completed Opera House, Anthony Browell. (Architecture in Detail; Sydney Opera House- Jørn Utzon. p.31)