Tell Sydney: the opera is nearly done

The building is 25 years old, and the architect has never seen it. By Rosanna de Lisle
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IN 1966 the Danish architect Jorn Utzon walked off the site of the Sydney Opera House after intractable arguments with the state government, and left Australia vowing never to return. More than 32 years later the premier of New South Wales has invited the visionary Dane to come back and finish the Opera House according to his original plans, which were either not known about or not consulted by the Australian architects who completed the building. On Tuesday, Sydney Opera House turned 25. For a quarter of a century its dazzling, soaring profile has symbolised Sydney - Australia, even - like no other building. It is one of the earliest works of modernist architecture, yet it still looks new.

Utzon is now 80. Earlier this year he was given the freedom of the city of Sydney. But he didn't come here to receive the keys: the lord mayor had to take them to Denmark. Nor has he turned up to the Opera House's month-long birthday party (his daughter, Lin Utzon, is here in his stead). On Monday, she joined the State Premier, Bob Carr, in announcing the new Utzon Foundation - a trust which will award a Aus$100,000 (pounds 37,000) biennial prize for outstanding lifetime achievement in the arts. But its real significance is its name: the Utzon Foundation finally reconciles the Opera House with its creator. That and the invitation to return are almost a formal apology for the way Utzon was hounded off the project in 1966.

Utzon meant what he said. He has never seen the finished Opera House. Nor, until this week, had he spoken publicly about the greatest - possibly also the unhappiest - project of his professional life. But he does not seem bitter. He recently told Carr: "In the 25 years of its existence, the Sydney Opera House has been a marvellous and inseparable part of my life." Lin said that her father regarded it as the "most important" building he had designed. "It was a fantastic period of his life. He remains filled with gratitude for the chance to build it." Utzon also appeared in an Australian Broadcasting Commission documentary commemorating the Opera House's anniversary. Asked what he felt about the circumstances surrounding his departure, he said wryly: "I'm not a fellow who wants to criticise. I left because the new authorities didn't want me. Bastards!"

The drama of the House has gripped Sydney for five decades. It had its genesis in the mind of Eugene Goossens, the world-renowned Belgian-English conductor who first came to Australia in 1946 and was surprised to find he was expected to perform in Sydney Town Hall: no real concert venue existed and the city's few theatres were not large enough to stage even medium-scale opera. When he became the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's resident conductor, Goossens began to lobby the government to build a proper concert hall. Goossens seized on Bennelong Point, a long finger of land jutting into the harbour as the ideal location for "his" opera house.

Eventually Goossens won the support of Joe Cahill, the premier. Cahill secured the support of his cabinet, set up an appeal fund, and later launched the lottery which was to pay for the Opera House within two years of its opening. In 1955, the Cahill government announced that an Opera House would be built on Bennelong Point. The next question was: who should design it? If the house was to double as a national monument, shouldn't it be built by an Australian architect? But if the idea was to raise the profile of Australian music and attract orchestras from all over the world, shouldn't the building be international?

In 1956 the government invited architects "in any country in the world" to submit designs for "a proposed National Opera House". In return for a pounds 10 deposit, entrants received a booklet containing the terms of the competition and a description of the site and its climate. The brief was to provide two halls. By the end of the year, 217 proposals had arrived in Sydney, including 53 from Britain. On 29 January 1957, Cahill declared Utzon the winner.

The day after the result was announced the competition drawings were due to go on display at the Art Gallery. But Utzon's drawings were, in the words of the art critic Robert Hughes, "nothing more than a magnificent doodle". So an artist was commissioned to produce a colour perspective. More than 8,000 people went to look at it. For weeks the Opera House dominated the letters columns of the newspapers. Most correspondents were thrilled by Utzon's design; a minority damned it as a "monstrosity", and reckoned that it looked, variously, like, "the Loch Ness Monster", a "plane crash", "some latterday evil eye", "a hideous parachute" or - least imaginatively - "a Danish Pastry". The grumblers were joined by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose reaction, on seeing the plans, was: "God help us."

Utzon landed at Sydney Airport in July 1957. He was 38. He had studied architecture in Copenhagen, worked with the great Alvar Aalto, and had built up a successful practice in Scandinavia. The son of a naval architect, Utzon had understood the site of Bennelong Point less from pictures than from shipping charts. When he saw it, he exclaimed: "It's breathtaking. There's no Opera House site in the world to compare with it. This site is even more beautiful than in the photographs."

Utzon reckoned that he needed 18 months to finalise his plans, and that "using a lot of men, the Opera House could then be built in two years". The government, under pressure to house people before opera singers, estimated that it would cost Aus$7m. Although Utzon's plans were not yet ready, Cahill appointed Ove Arup as engineer and ordered the bulldozers to start digging. The Opera House had its first performance the following year when Paul Robeson sang from the scaffolding.

The defining feature of Utzon's design was its form of overlapping "shells". But these proved a problem. In his original design, Utzon had conceived them as ovoid, like parts of an egg. Three years on, he and the engineers hadn't found a way of making the geometry work. Then Utzon took a lateral step. "It's so easy," he said. "It has to be a sphere." The shells would each be parts of the same sphere, and each would be the sum of hundreds of elements - ribs of pre-cast concrete, narrow at the base and fanning out at the top, rather like the bones of a skate. The shells were covered in more than a million glazed white tiles, arranged in intricate, geometric chevrons. They still gleam today.

By 1965, the essential structure of the House was finished, and Utzon was moving on to the interior. So far, the work had taken nearly seven years, at a cost of Aus$25m. To the new Liberal government the House was becoming an expensive problem. So when Utzon designed a series of plywood- box beams that would float up to the ceiling like waves, encasing the space in something like a giant guitar - the perfect acoustic - the government intervened. Only one firm, Ralph Simons, could supply sheets of plywood large enough for the purpose. But the new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, insisted that the order be put out to tender and refused to release further finance until Utzon produced detailed drawings of the scheme. Utzon said he must build prototypes first, and that there was no point involving contractors who could not deliver the materials. Hughes consulted Arup, who told him plywood was unworkable and suggested using steel instead. By February 1966, Utzon felt exposed. Hughes did not believe that Utzon would ever finish. So when Utzon wrote to him threatening to resign, Hughes accepted, and quickly appointed three Australian architects, Peter Hall, Lionel Todd and David Littlemore to finish the job. More than 1,000 people, led by Harry Seidler and other prominent local architects, marched on Parliament House to call for Utzon's reinstatement, and several Sydney architects abandoned the profession in protest. But the government was unmoved. Within weeks Utzon was gone.

Seven years and another Aus$75m later, Sydney Opera House was opened by the Queen (she saw War and Peace). Since 1973, all the world has come to its stage: Leonard Bernstein, Dame Joan Sutherland, Nelson Mandela, Ella Fitzgerald, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Connolly, the Pope. With youth on its side, no dress code and comparatively low ticket prices - Aus$132 (pounds 48) tops - the House has more or less avoided the kind of hoary accusation of elitism that continues to dog Covent Garden. It regularly puts on "Opera in the Park", jazz and rock concerts, and free events. Fireworks were let off there when Sydney won the 2000 Olympics (and there'll be many more on Millennium night); earlier this year, the House was washed in Yves Klein Blue.

But there are persistent problems. After Utzon left, the government decided to swap the functions of the halls. Opera now takes place in a theatre that is too small for Aida. Its pit is pitiful; half the orchestral players have to sit under the stage, scraping their heads against the ceiling. In the large concert hall, the acoustic is not what it might have been: only perspex sonic doughnuts allow the orchestra to hear what it's playing.

The foyer areas are uninspiring; whereas Utzon planned to cover the shells' open ends with panes of glass articulated by slim rods of featherlight plywood, his successor, Peter Hall, divided the windows with heavy steel supports which give the impression of holding the building up when it ought to float. These are the defects the forthcoming redesign is meant to redress.

Will Utzon come back? Lin Utzon says that her father is delighted by the invitation, and Richard Johnson, the architect appointed to oversee the redesign, is about to visit him in Majorca. But Utzon's appearance here seems unlikely: these days he travels only as far as Spain. All we can hope is that, just as he had his extraordinary vision for Sydney without ever having seen the place, he will once again, at home in Denmark, be able to envisage something new and spectacular to go inside those glorious sails.

And then he will have truly finished his masterpiece.