Architecture: Land of missed opportunity

The man who created Sydney's landmark never finished it. Will he forgive the country that betrayed him?
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The Independent Culture
Architects might just admit that they are paranoid, as long as it wasn't in front of someone they're afraid of. Paranoia goes with the job along with the designer label clothes, professional rivalry, cultural and social pressures, and an unshakeable belief in their worth. But the ultimate paranoid's nightmare turns out to be true.

Jorn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, felt betrayed when he left Australia before his monument was finished in 1966, never to return.

The Sydney Opera House put Australia on the map not only culturally but geographically. It is one of the few buildings of which it can truly be said that it is an icon. Yet before it was completed Utzon had a row with the New South Wales Labour government over the interiors. They refused to pay the 20 architects in his office on site and, after Utzon left, completed the Opera House with a local company. The client claimed that Utzon had not submitted drawings for the interiors, which meant they did not have to pay him. This has since been disproved by the discovery of their existence in the public library in Sydney.

But now, one of the oldest scores in architectural history is about to be settled. The government of New South Wales has asked Jorn Utzon to come back and complete the building.

What prompted their change of heart? "New generations are often judgmental of the past. Then they try to make amends," Jan Utzon, Jorn Utzon's 54- year-old son, also an architect, observes. He grew up in Australia. "Most of my father's work was never even shown because the government put a lid on it, claiming he didn't do the drawings so they didn't have to pay fees. Now that they have found them all in the public library, a number of people feel it would be nice to have him back in one way or another." Everyone, including Utzon, accepts that there would be no point in reviving the same plans that he drew up in the Fifties, but to interpret the concept of them for the electronic age.

Utzon, who lives in Majorca, will not return to Australia. He says that, at 81, he is too frail but his sons, Jon (54) and Kim (42), both of whom are architects based in Denmark, can interpret his wishes if he decides to sign up for the job. It is by no means certain that he will.

The project began when the government of New South Wales announced a competition for an opera house in 1957 at Bennelong Point, the spectacular harbour peninsula visible from every direction in Sydney. Architects internationally were invited to submit designs for a programme to include two halls, a restaurant and meeting rooms. It was intended to elevate Sydney's cultural viability and visibility.

Frequently - and wrongly - described as sails silhouetted against Sydney harbour, Utzon's design was conceived as shells. Their express purpose was to conceal the height of the fly tower for shifting theatrical machinery. Having found the form for the function, the architect then needed to find the materials to best express it. He wanted to build a thin concrete membrane. As it turned out, at that scale and size, the weight of the concrete itself meant it had to become enormously thick to support such height and span.

The shells threatened to be too heavy for the platform on which they stood. Utzon proposed auditorium shell forms which were segments of a single sphere 300 feet in diameter. Folding thin cement into those distinctive, spiny-backed shell shapes turned them into a stronger membrane capable of carrying a certain weight over a certain span. So the distinctive silhouette was dictated by load bearing. Jan Utzon explains it best with a sheet of A4 paper: "By itself lightweight and pliable but, when folded into pleats, capable of supporting a pencil." Concrete ribs cast in modular pieces were then joined together on site and covered with prefabricated tiles and chevron shaped panels as Utzon, working with engineers Ove Arup, created an organic form with the most advanced technology. To this day, the Sydney Opera House is still voted one of the top ten construction projects in the world. Jan Utzon recalls its impact in 1957.

"From the beginning my father's design was different from how other architects worked at the time. His way of dealing with architecture and expressing himself is partly functional, yet partly a wish to make a strong, simple structure out of many simple elements which, when combined, create a rich atmosphere. Take a tree with leaves. Pick one leaf and it's relatively simple. Put clusters on the tree and you have a magnificent structure."

So what went wrong? The acoustics were blamed at one time. Some say it was the budget. And some, bloody-mindedness.

"It was a lot of things in combination," says Jan Utzon. "Primarily, the client in control changed and the brief changed. The Labour government who'd been in power for some 20 years started the project. In 1965 they were beaten by the Liberals, who had different interests."

Labour had seen the building primarily as a vehicle for opera. The Liberal government saw it as important for broadcasting. They wanted the fly tower and all the stage-set machinery taken out to enlarge the auditorium, holding 3,000 people in a big concert hall without a stage. They discarded the idea of putting on opera in it. Utzon argued that the entire building had been structured around these programmes. There would not have been any need for tall shells because they were designed to cover the fly tower.

A smear campaign began about Utzon's acoustics failing the test of operatic divas. Utzon refutes this: "Although they were never tried out, the acoustics were marvellous. The best acoustics experts in Germany developed it. Different sounds require different approaches."

Even in his own country, Jorn Utzon has been spurned. This year he was to have gone on site at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. He was commissioned by his old friend Knud Jensen, 83, who started the delightful Louisiana museum outside Copenhagen at Humelbaek, to create a centre for architectural exhibitions on a 100-metre sliver of land on the shores of the Baltic.

In his museum the philanthropic Jensen likes people to hug a Frink, stroke the Brancusi, swing on a Calder and sit on the Henry Moore in the garden. He brings new meaning to the phrase interactive art. Louisiana's sculpture park is always full of picnickers. "I believe that the public would like to come down to the beach, and enjoy the sound and the smells," he says. So the brief asked for bathing huts and a jetty.

Because Knud Jensen finds most architectural exhibitions incredibly boring, he wanted a space to make architectural scale models and drawings more entertaining. The Frank Gehry working studio exhibition, currently at the Soane Museum in London, was first shown at the Louisiana. Utzon designed a long, elegant boat-house of a building which rose up and curled over in a wave shape so that the walls became the sheltering roof. "Very sculptural, and fluid in its geometry," observes Jensen. "But the tower was 45 feet tall and this created an enormous fuss in the neighbourhood. All of a sudden Jorn stopped working on it. He said he was in bad health. So I called in the original architects, Wohlert, who completed the loop of the Louisiana some years ago."

Of course, Jorn Utzon isn't really ill. He was asked to produce a design which met with local resistance and he just couldn't take it any more. After a while he said: "I'm not going to spend the rest of my time on earth fighting for it. If my design doesn't have the backing it needs, I'm not going to throw myself into the thick of the battle. It's enough work for me to do the job, let alone fight the people."

A Norwegian friend of his once put his finger on what makes Utzon a genius when he explained that he is very good at collecting all the relevant information for the job, and so he "gets a good deck of cards to play with. This leaves him very open-minded."

It is pitiful that in his 81st year Utzon's beautiful designs still meet with such resistance. The Danes have missed a great opportunity.

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