Sydney Opera House architect back to complete his masterpiece 35 years on

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The Independent Online
For nearly three decades, the Sydney Opera House has stood as a modern architectural icon of breathtaking beauty ⓠand as a symbol of bitter division.</p>Joern Utzon, the visionary Dane who designed Australia's most famous landmark, was forced off the project in 1966, seven years before the Opera House opened in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge. He left the country, vowing never to return, after an acrimonious dispute with New South Wales authorities over spiralling costs.</p>Now the rift is finally to be healed, with the 83-year-old architect accepting an invitation by the state government to oversee an A$24m (£9m) revamp. Mr Utzon, who has never seen the completed structure, with its distinctive roof of billowing sails, has agreed to be principal design consultant on work to upgrade the interior.</p>With Mr Utzon ⓠwho is revered by many Australians ⓠtoo infirm to travel, his son and professional partner, Jan, will liaise with a local architect, Richard Johnson, on the ground.</p>The NSW premier, Bob Carr, who last week approved the funds for the first stage, wants to ensure that alterations are compatible with Mr Utzon's original vision. Mr Carr has welcomed his involvement as "a historic act of reconciliation", while the chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust, Joseph Skrzynski, said that it reunited "the man and his masterpiece".</p>Mr Utzon, whose revolutionary design won an international competition in 1954, was angry and frustrated by the circumstances of his departure from Australia. But time appears to have mellowed him, and he described the consultancy as an opportunity to work on a project that had been "a marvellous and inseparable part of my life".</p>The Opera House may be a masterpiece, but it is a flawed one, thanks to the epic falling-out between the architect and his political masters. After Mr Utzon was ousted, his plans for the interior were scrapped to cut costs. The legacy is a structure whose inside spaces fail to match its aesthetic beauty; one critic has described it as "grand piano on the outside and rusty xylophone on the inside". Visiting performers regularly express amazement at the poor acoustics, and the resident Sydney Symphony Orchestra has threatened to boycott it.</p>The acoustics and lighting will be improved as part of the facelift, which will also see the orchestra pit enlarged and the forecourt transformed into an outdoors performance venue.</p>Philip Drew, an architectural historian, said visitors were supposed to be filled with mounting anticipation as they approached the building. "For that to work,the interiors have to be absolutely stunning to satisfy your expectations. It's like a long striptease but, in this case, at the end of the striptease there's a fat lady."</p>Mr Utzon, whose philosophy was "to work on the edge of the possible", was sacked amid public disquiet at the ever-expanding construction schedule ⓠthe project took 17 years to complete ⓠand a budget blow-out from A$7m to A$100m. The saga even became the subject of an opera written by the Australian composer, Alan John, entitled Eighth Wonder and first performed at the Opera House in 1995.</p>But contact was not re-established with Mr Utzon until the building's 25th anniversary in 1998, when the state government made a first tentative approach. Now, Mr Utzon, who lives mainly in Majorca, has embraced the necessity for change.</p>"I like to think the Sydney Opera House is a musical instrument and, like any fine instrument, it needs a little maintenance and fine tuning from time to time," he said. He is drafting a set of design principles that will govern all future redevelopment work. For him, the planned refurbishment means his original vision will finally be realised in its entirety.</p>Mr Utzon's acceptance of the consultancy was greeted with relief; until then, according to Mr Skrzynski, the Opera House was "like an enchanted castle with a spell on it". He said: "No architect of any talent would consider working on it, so it had become something of a poisoned chalice. There was no way to go forward until we had gone backward." </p>

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