- October, 31, 1992
A quarter of a century on, Sydney Opera House designer Joern Utzon finally breaks his silence on the thwarting of his vision and explains why we all have paid a price. He also dispels a long-standing myth about his inspiration. ERIC ELLIS reports.
GATHERING dust in a house somewhere in Sydney's northern suburbs is an object that will vindicate the fractured vision of Joern Utzon. It is a perfect material scale model of the Opera House as this much misunderstood Danish genius conceived it.
Comprehensively tested by the best techniques then available, this missing link has perfect acoustics, a flawless interior with space for all disciplines, a car park and roof tiles that don't fall off. It is, by any measure, the best opera house in the world.
"Maybe it is possible your newspaper can find this model?" asks the reclusive Dane, acknowledged as one of the century's most gifted architects.
"I was not allowed to show this by the politicians before I left but it should finally lay to rest this ghost."
But Utzon's active mind has second thoughts: "Maybe it is perhaps better you do not find this. It is not always good to look to the past."
For the past 20 years, Joern Utzon has kept his counsel, peacefully "retired but not tired" to a stunning cliff-top house he built on a Spanish island with Lis, his wife of 50 years, soon after leaving Australia.
The precise location he prefers to keep secret. The topography resembles Sydney, the suburbs close to the Heads, but it's the Mediterranean out there. The house is situated in the well-chosen Colonia del Silencio, Colony of the Silence.
But now, Utzon says, "it is time to talk, just this once and to nobody else. I have a story and I think now is the right time to say it.
"There has been much criticism that the Opera House was a folly, that's what they say. But it was not a folly. It was something very beautiful, very unique."
Not least among Utzon's disclosures is that, contrary to popular belief, his inspiration for the building's roof came not from white sails but a segmented orange. "It just happened that white sails were similar," he says
Utzon has decided to talk for no reason other than that he's 74 and he's convinced, finally, that the climate of philistinism in Australia which spurned him "like a common criminal" 26 years ago has changed.
Far from the embittered and broken visionary portrayed by his critics, Utzon is a contented man who got on with his career without bitterness about the nine turbulent years he spent on the Opera House project.
Nor is it in his playful personality to brood. If he reflects at all on those years, it is about the opportunity Australia squandered to pioneer a new architectural epoch, and the fact that his family carries Danish, not Australian, passports.
"I am not bitter about anything," Utzon says. "I have had a marvellous career, more than I could have imagined. I have nothing but sincere love and warmth for a fabulous country and marvellous people. I can say this even for politicians, even Mr Davis Hughes." He says that with a wink.
FLASHBACK to April 28, 1966, Sydney International Airport. A car carrying Joern and Lis Utzon and their three children screeches on to the tarmac. The family hurry up the stairs into a Qantas jet, seconds from departure for Honolulu.
The Utzon children, sons Jan and Kim and daughter Lin, were in the middle of their school year. Airport officials said the family air tickets had been bought at "very short notice".
At the NSW Department of Public Works, Minister Davis Hughes expresses surprise at the Utzons' "sudden and unexpected departure". He pays tribute to Utzon and announces that three Sydney architects will be contracted to finish the Opera House, "ensuring that the spirit of the original conception is fulfilled".
As the plane climbs over the harbour en route to Hawaii, Utzon looks down at Bennelong Point, his dream-cum-nightmare not a quarter completed. It would be the last time he would see Australia.
The previous August, Robert Askin's Liberals had swept to power in NSW on a platform attacking the late Labor premier Joe Cahill's expensive vision of culture for the people in "an opera house which is capable of being one of the great buildings of the world".
Askin employed the politics of sleaze and it split the State. He milked the tactic for all it was worth, trading on xenophobia and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Newspaper archives of the day testify to the hysteria whipped up by Askin and his chief Utzon head-kicker, the irascible Country Party member for Armidale (now Sir) Davis Hughes:
"Sydney's White Elephant?" - The Sydney Morning Herald, June 1962;
"Opera House Estimate Ludicrous" - Daily Mirror, August 1962;
"Utzon Given Deadline" - Sun, July 1964;
"State Govt. Gravely Concerned" - SMH, September 1965;
"Angry Clash On Fees" - SMH, March 1966;
"Opera House Would Never Be Finished: Hughes" - SMH, March 1966;
"Secret Talk With Utzon Collapses" - Daily Telegraph, March 1966;
"Exit Mr Utzon" - SMH, April 1966.
Utzon remembers those years like they were yesterday.
"The nasty criticism I could understand," he says. "People were against the scheme, it was expensive, it was taking a long time. It was started with a false estimate (Pound 3.5 million), which I had nothing to do with.
"Before Mr Davis Hughes, the Opera House Committee were the best client you could think of. They were marvellous. The first thing I was told was that 'We are here to help you in any way.' They said it all the time and they were very sincere. They were criticised but they were all for the project, let there be no mistake about that.
"I think old Joe Cahill (who died in 1959) was a marvellous man because he dared to jump into all of this."
IN 1956, 38-year-old Joern Utzon bumped into a group of young Sydney girls on their way to the Olympic equestrian events then being held in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
He had been doodling with ideas for a competition he'd read about in a Swedish architectural journal for a design for a new arts building in faraway Australia and was thankful for the enthusiasm with which the girls described their home town and its magnificent harbour.
Six months later, on January 29, 1957, Joe Cahill announced to an invited audience at the Art Gallery of NSW that Utzon's entry had won the Pound 5,000 competition for the proposed new Sydney Opera House.
Utzon's design had been pulled from a reject pile by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, one of four jury members deciding the competition. Taken by Utzon's diagrammatical sketches, Saarinen harangued his colleagues into unanimity.
The design had come to Utzon slowly, a professional caution which would soon come to haunt him. It took six months to finesse the drawings.
"I wanted to get it right," recalls Utzon. "This was a job that was very important to me. In principle it was very simple. I wanted something that looked like it would grow, as Australia was growing.
"It was just like sculpture. I worked like a sculptor; I tried to shape the things and I made many models.
"It came from model work, more than paper work. You couldn't have this on paper because it would not be alive." (Utzon was widely pilloried by critics for not having adequate detailed diagrams for the construction, a charge he denies.)
At the Utzon home in Hellebaek, north of Copenhagen, the family was ecstatic at the news of Utzon's success. "My daughter Lin ran to tell me when I was out walking in the forest," says Utzon. "She threw her bicycle in a ditch and said now I have no excuse not to buy her a horse.
"It was a miracle for me that I won that contest; it was fabulous."
Lis Utzon recalls, "We were so looking forward to going to Australia. As a family, we were very excited and very happy."
When Utzon first arrived in Sydney in 1957, he was received like a visiting film star. The Australian Women's Weekly gushed that "lanky Joern Utzon is a young Gary Cooper, only better looking" while Woman's Day ran a feature from Denmark on "The Great Dane" at home, illustrated by photographs showing Utzon to be a whiz around the kitchen: "Utzon has other talents. Here he opens a can."
Says Lis, "We were quite unprepared for the media attention we received. We were just normal people, a normal family, not the urban sophisticates we had been made out to be by the press.
"It was quite a strain on our family at first, totally unexpected and at times overwhelming. It was also very funny sometimes."
With the concrete slab poured at Bennelong Point and tests in Europe well advanced, the family arrived in Sydney in 1963. They moved into a house at Palm Beach and Utzon commuted daily across the bridge in the family Holden.
"We lived in a marvellous place and we liked to swim and sail and everything," he says.
"We were just happy people like anybody else who loved nature and did our job and went to school. Our children loved it very much."
The Utzon children, all blond, slipped into the Sydney northern beaches culture as if they were born into it, going to local high schools in Narrabeen and later, for daughter Lin, to East Sydney Tech. Kim, the youngest, went to primary school close to home.
"We did not feel like foreigners in Australia," Utzon says. "It did not feel as if once this job was finished we would be away. We had found our place in the world. We had settled there. We made very many friends. This was our home, much more even than Denmark, and we felt like this as a family."
Says Lis Utzon, "Our children felt very much this way. They were Australians. Lin had it really tough coming back to Denmark; Jan also. (Lin later married an Australian.)
"If it wasn't for the situation that developed, we were going to settle there and become naturalised. We had the papers. This is the reason why we bought this piece of land here (in Spain), because the life is so much like Australia. We did not want to go back to Denmark."
UTZON admits that, at first, he didn't fully comprehend the seriousness of the political storm that would eventually engulf him.
"I can honestly say that because of the protection by the committee and because of the seriousness with which I tackled the project, and the marvellous job it was, I did not care much about the criticism.
"Besides, it was nonsense to speak about cost to the voter, because it was being paid for by the Opera House lottery, which was a very good scheme.
"My contract was with the committee, not with the Government, but when the government changed, Mr (Sidney) Havilland, the chairman, said to me, 'You now have to get your money from the Minister of Public Works, Mr Davis Hughes.'Before the (1965) election, this committee, my client, was accepting everything. There was 100 per cent support. Then Mr Davis Hughes came and it was nothing."
Work on the Opera House had ground to a virtual standstill. Utzon went to see Hughes in his office.
He recalls, "The funny thing was that when I came to see him the very first time, he was sitting in his office with two easels with enormous pictures of my designs on each side of him. I thought to myself, 'That's a good man', but then the first thing he said was that (we) could not go on using so much money on this scheme when in his electorate in Armidale, for Pounds 15,000 he could make a lot of culture. From that point, I think in late 1965, slowly at first and then all the time, when I said I want drawings to be approved and my work to be accepted, nothing happened.
"I think Mr Davis Hughes wanted something else and he had all the reasons for it: the money being used and the building not completed in a short time.
"But you could not complete this in a short time. This was something unique, but he didn't understand one thing about it. He didn't approve; he tore the whole thing down.
"Everybody has tried to write about this but, in principle, it is simple: he tore all this down and demonstrated very clearly that he did not want to continue what the committee had planned.
"He wanted this building to become his own, he wanted to be remembered as being responsible for this building and he made his own committee. He didn't even try to understand. He did not even bother because, for him, it was impossible. He just could not.
"He said once that the insides of the shells, all the ribs, should be covered in some way. He couldn't figure it in his mind, he couldn't get it here (Utzon points to his head).
"Many tried but nobody could persuade him and there was nothing I could do about that. I wasn't a politician. I was an architect. For him, this was natural and I have no bad feeling about this."
Utzon remembers vividly his last meeting with Davis Hughes. "I said to him, 'How can you alter everything against my advice?, and he said, 'Here in Australia you do what your client says.'"
The Utzons were hounded from Australia virtually penniless. Hughes had stopped his fees and the family was living on the grace and favour of friends.
"I have never said anything about this before," Utzon says. "I did not resign as many people have said. My contract was stopped. I had nothing to do with my departure. I was forced out. I had no choice. I was broke, I had to sell my sites. This is the way I was kicked out. He (Hughes) stopped payments; I never received any money from them.
"I could have continued but even if we got money from somewhere else he, Mr Davis Hughes, did not want me, Joern Utzon, to be there.
"I was not after the money, this did not matter to me. It was the most brilliant building any architect could wish to work on. But I had to pay my staff, and with this he made it very difficult."
I remind him of a remark he made in 1969 - "I still wonder ... I still ask myself just what I should have done, perhaps could have done, that I didn't do." He responds, "Any man would say that when he is kicked out. I questioned myself, what could I have done to prevent this terrible situation, like there is always a way to solve a problem."
Utzon was inundated with free legal advice, some of it sincere, much of it politically motivated. A young Neville Wran advised him for a time.
Says Utzon, "They said I was a goldmine but I did not want this. I couldn't get to the building to finish this marvellous work by going to court.
"I did not say anything for six years, and when the building was opened, I got a letter from the lawyer saying, 'Now you can come down and make your court case against the Minister or you can accept $25,000.' He laughs. "Now it is very funny."
ON AUGUST 27 this year, the NSW chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) finally paid tribute to Utzon's work with a commemorative Sulman award and "an apology", presumably for not having done so sooner.
"I am grateful for this award because these are my people," he says. The honour is sincerely felt.
But it was a different RAIA (NSW) that Utzon was a member of back in 1966.
He recalls: "It is a tragedy for Australian architects that the Public Works was their biggest client.
"I had many people say that my problem will destroy the relationship between the institute and the ministry. I can understand this feeling."
Utzon claims that Hughes's adroit politicising of the institute sealed his fate. He recalls a meeting of institute members at Sydney Town Hall in March 1966 to discuss the handling by the RAIA (NSW) and its president, Ron Gilling, of the dispute between Utzon and Hughes.
(Gilling had been criticised by some architects for not lending sufficient support to Utzon in his determination to remain sole architect on the project.).
"Hughes made the institute more or less responsible for kicking me out,"says Utzon.
"After much speeches and pleas on both sides for unity, the(meeting) voted with a small majority (in support of a motion of confidence in Gilling). I knew then I was completely out."
Utzon is surprisingly charitable in his feelings toward the institute."They were in no error, they were merely used by Mr Davis Hughes.
"After all this, I feel honoured with their award because they are my people, they are architects. I understood very much their situation.
"Later, the institute chairman wrote me a nice letter. He was afraid I would have all sorts of feelings. It was long ago.
"Really, it was just fate. You cannot be bitter about this sort of thing."
The John Fairfax Group, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has invited Joern Utzon back to Australia, to look over the completed building and talk about it. It has also been suggested that he complete his original interior design.
"Of course I would love to go back but I cannot," he says. "I have been wanting to go back many times before but if I go back, it will be crazy, I will be torn to pieces. I suffer from high blood pressure. My health would not stand it. I have declined many invitations.
"Sometimes I have thought I could wear some lipstick and a wig and go back to Australia as a woman. I would really like to see it but I would say it is very different from what I designed. I have seen many pictures and it's a completely different building. It is impossible to finish the design. This cannot be done. They would have to tear down a hell of a lot of things and close the Opera House down for some years. This would not be fair to the people of Sydney."
If he could travel, would he accept another commission in Australia?
"I was very taken by Australia, the light, the lifestyle and the desire for new things. This is very attractive for architects."
Yes, but would he accept another commission?
"Of course. Even from Mr Davis Hughes "
Utzon is handed a 1986 Herald clipping of an interview with the three architects who stepped in after he left. He reads the headline: "Could Utzon Have Finished the Job?", the great unanswered question of the Opera House saga.
"Of course " Utzon says. "Of course, of course. But I was not allowed to.
"If we could make these shells, how could it be that we would not be able to make the interior. We tested everything with the finest people available, in Stockholm, in Berlin, Denmark, in Graz and, of course, in Sydney.
"But Mr Davis Hughes did not want to hear of this. He said he wanted to keep the same plans, but the three men could not see my project because he wanted to control everything.
"I tried to speak with them, but I was not allowed by Mr Hughes. But I am happy at their comments since. They have said my ghost is there in the building."
JOERN Utzon is currently putting the finishing touches to what might well be his last building, a striking house nestled in the hills behind where he and Lis now live.
During the drive there in his old Citroen, he's cracking jokes and spinning traveller's tales: once while walking across Morocco he used his little movie camera to shoot what he thought were exclusive pictures of a civil war, only to discover a French crew was filming Beau Geste; he reflects on the time he spent in Kuwait building the National Assembly that was later sacked by the Iraqis.
The banter is constant. "I met a Japanese architect once who asked me what the Danish word for architect is," he says. "I told him it was Utzon."
The new house is hewn from sandstone out of the rugged bush. There is no landscaping. It's wild and he intends to keep it that way, for the best houses are the ones "closest to their environment".A centuries old castle dominates the hill above. Utzon's new house seems an appropriate neighbour.
Searching for a "special place I know for the best photograph", he leads a merry dance through the scrub, spurning the rain, sliding down three-metre gravel slopes, running after birds, always talking and running ideas around.
"I used to give pretty girls in Sydney a pencil and tell them this was the pencil that made the Opera House," he says. Lis gives him a scolding.
Utzon is endlessly inquisitive; about my family, photographer Jack Picone's equipment, Lis's well-being.
He grabs Picone's Nikon and starts snapping him. The frustrated Picone complains it's like shooting an enthusiastic puppy, to which Lis replies, "Yes, a 74-year-old, nine-year-old boy."
Back at the house, he's paying particular attention to architectural techniques in the living rooms, eager to show them off.
"This is a 50th wedding anniversary present for Lis. Now you can see I can do interiors," he says.
THE "tragedy", Utzon says, of the Opera House debacle is that Australia lost a unique opportunity.
With his work now universally acknowledged as among the most visionary of this century, Utzon won the Opera House competition just as he was scaling the creative pinnacle of his career. By his own admission, the building is his most satisfying work.
"This was the most brilliant building any architect could wish to work on. When I see my models and all the sails on the harbour, I simply soar into paradise. It is my idea of perfection.
"There was this feeling of a new epoch, a new school in architecture, not just among our group but from other learned people in Europe and America.
"We were doing things in our time, in our way as we might have been Romans in their era, or the pyramids in Egypt.
"People talk about how the pyramids were built and how marvellous they were but this was exactly the same thing, with industrial techniques, with fantastic constructions that were being invented and it was happening there in Australia ... and nobody seemed to care, nobody knew.
"It always surprised me that there was no more interest in that fantastic construction that went on in front of all these people where two men would stand on an element perfectly made up on the ground and be moved up by crane 60 metres and put it into place like you put a lens into a camera, so exact.
"It is a building that could only exist in Australia, could only be there. It was in a category by itself.
"You could actually say, and this is very rare, that the building itself forced the people on it, everybody, to live up to an extraordinary standard.
"The fantastic site, its function, the scale of the project and the fact that it was in Australia, a new country, a young country with the potential for limitless imagination, made us all absolutely selective and perfect in what we did.
"I have never felt this responsibility before. It was very, very important.
"Sydney could have been an architectural laboratory; there would have been 10 or 15 buildings just as fabulous as this if we had stayed there.
"Of this I feel sure."
PEELING AWAY THE MYTHS
"MANY people say my design was inspired by the sailing yachts in the harbour or by seashells. This is not the case.
It is like an orange, you peel an orange and you get these segments, these similar shapes. It was like this in my models.
It was not that I thought it should be like sails in the harbour. It just so happened that the white sails were similar.
I was influenced by the sails only to the extent that my father was a naval architect and I was familiar with big shapes.
I had never seen Sydney Harbour when I made this design, although I felt quite familiar with it from photographs and naval charts.
I was taken very much by the Sydney Heads and I thought if I could keep people up on top, where they took their performance and their intermission, it(the Opera House) could be another Head. In this I was influenced by the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza in Mexico.
The Mayans made these plat-forms exactly the same height as the roof of the jungle and then they lived in another world, eight metres above the other one. I had this in mind for the Opera House.
We also wanted to create a relationship between the shells and the interior halls so it would be in harmony, like when you opened a walnut.
The reason for the tiles on the roof is that the building was to reflect the mood of the harbour.
We thought white would be good because of the colours it would make and reflect from all the red roofs of the houses around the harbour. I got this idea (of reflected colour) while swimming on the Barrier Reef.
It is fine that people find what things are from what they see. Of course, they are like sails but this is not what we meant here, but I am very happy people think this."