The Wolanski Foundation Project

Research

Paper no 11 launch address

 

ABOUT US

WHAT'S NEW
SITE MAP
 

SEARCHING

MANAGING

LEARNING

LIBRARY

RESEARCH

List of papers

 

CONTACT US

HOME

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

UTZON AND THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE: 

as it happen 1918-2000

by Philip Drew

 

Address given at the launch of the book at the Museum of Sydney 20 November 2000


Thank you Sue Hunt for your gracious introduction of the Hon Peter Collins QC, MP for Willoughby.  You were kind enough to remind us that, in addition to being one of the most energetic and involved ministers for the arts in NSW, he was the minister most directly involved with the establishing the museum.  We all benefit in some fashion, since it provides a focus for understanding and recording the life, culture, creativity and shape of Sydney so we in turn, understand a little better why Sydney is the way it is.

 

On one side of the original 1963 Christmas jigsaw puzzle box Utzon printed the message: 'it took several hundred men some years to put this together I am sure you can do it in an hour.' it wasn't that easyŚnot as easy as Utzon pretended.  A friend spent two months, one hour each morning before breakfast working on it; I spent a further month and the puzzle is still unfinished.  Perhaps I should explain, the puzzle comprised a black-and-white aerial picture of the Bennelong Point Opera House site taken late 1963.

 

It was the book designer's idea that my book should be presented in a box recreated from the puzzle box.

 

That turned out to be significant, not only because it established a theme for the book itself, but because the motif of red arcs on a white background which wrap around and meet at the edges tells us a considerable amount about the design thinking of Utzon.

 

He called the opera house roof 'the fifth facade'.  The puzzle box has an extra or sixth facade--its bottom--; it is covered with a pattern of red arcs; this was extremely challenging since the arcs must coincide along each edge.  It demonstrated, among other things, some of the difficulties Utzon and his architectural team were confronted by in resolving the complex geometrical puzzle of the Opera House.

 

Utzon and the Sydney Opera House is the literary equivalent of Utzon's jigsaw puzzle.  Each entry is a piece in the puzzle.  It interlocks with others.  When the right pieces are matched we begin to see the larger picture of events.  I have attempted as best i could and within the limits of limited resources to give you all the key pieces in the puzzle.  They are arranged chronologically for ease of reference to facilitate the process of pattern building.

 

The book is a real historical puzzle, just like Utzon's 1963 Christmas jigsaw puzzle.  Hence, it seemed to me to be especially appropriate that the designers chose, and, I might add, insisted on, that the book be presented in its own puzzle box.  I trust you like the result as much as I do.

 

The two colours and the arc motif itself all have a special significance in terms of Utzon's ideas for the opera house.  The seats in the major hall were to be red ox hide, with a white Pirelli tile floor.  Many of you probably also are aware that the roofs are based on his spherical solution and the proposed geometry for the auditoria interiors were also to have been generated by rolling cylinders.

 

Utzon called them the 'mother cylinder'.  Hence, the box design represents a key statement by Utzon about his design intentions in 1963 which he chose to embody in the puzzle box as a kind of synthesis.

 

It is not my intention to speak at any length, but I would like to raise two matters: the first is the relationship of the Sydney Opera House to Ragnar Ostberg's 1923 Stockholm town hall, and the desperate need--1 was going to say absolute--for systematic research and publication of Sydney Opera House architectural history.  Unfortunately, after 27 years of neglect, this is still not on the agenda.  Interviews were carried out in the 1980s and this was extremely useful, but at the present time no real attempt has been made to collect all the documents and sources, provide authoritative commentaries and publish this record of the building.  It is crucial that this is done now before further decisions or irreversible changes are made to the fabric. 

 

Ostberg spent 14 years working to realise his town hall, he lived on a further 22 years after it was completed, as a forgotten and neglected figure in Swedish culture.  He died the same year that Utzon returned to Denmark after his 3 year exile in Sweden.  Ostberg's fate, his tragedy which arose from his total dedication to a single work, greatly distressed Utzon.  He referred to Ostberg and his fate to staff on many occasions.  Utzon wished to avoid what occurred to Ostberg and this gives us some understanding into the background of the thoughts which weighed on his mind in February 1966 and which may have influenced his decision to withdraw temporarily for the project.

 

Utzon also mentions in the Gold Book that Ostberg's town hall assisted Stockholm to rediscover its waterfront.  One of the great contributions of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s is that it led this city to look at its own waterfront and to examine ways that the public could be given greater access to it, which of course, looking back with hindsight, we can now see was the powerful seed that once planted by the opera house has grown into a great tree.  The idea of gold leaf on the underside of the vaults in the first model, no doubt, originated with Ostberg's 'golden hall', which is world famous as the venue of the Nobel Prize awards.

 

Utzon spent three years in Sweden from June 1942 until 1945.  Before anyone rushes to the conclusion that it is all derived all from Chinese architecture as some people have proposed, 1 would recommend that more attention should be paid to this important formative chapter in Utzon's life which undoubtedly shaped not only his architecture afterwards, but had an impact that extended beyond the professional into the personal sphere.

 

The second matter is much more politically sensitive.  It has to be faced up to.  The Sydney opera house trust has failed to support and fund a significant ongoing programme of historical research into the building and its history.  Furthermore, the trust has not made any attempt to publish the drawings and related documentation, as a primary reference source on the opera house's conception, design development and troubled realisation.  Such a record, at a minimum, would need to be accompanied by authoritative commentaries and interpretations in large folio size volumes with all the essential relevant background to ensure that decisions about the building fabric ape informed.  The procedure is customary with archaeological.

 

Monuments and buildings whose heritage status is similar to, or even of lesser international significance.

 

In 1994, when I set about collecting the art work for my Phaidon volume, I was astounded to discover that the trust lacked even the most rudimentary drawings, namely, a complete set of plans and elevations of the opera house.  And this was twenty years after the building had been opened! I had to wait a year for a cad team to complete a set of plans and elevations of the building.

 

Talking to Elias Duek-Cohen, I discovered that Utzon had expressed an identical concern in a recent letter. 

 

Who is being served by such a failure to carry out the most basic architectural research into the Opera House's history?.  It cannot be in the long term interests of the community or the building.  Such a record ought to have been started right at the beginning, and carried forward at regular intervals.  It is sorely needed now.

 

There is simply no credible argument for not carrying out such fundamental research.  One of the preconditions for the world heritage nomination to go forward to Unesco in Paris was the existence of such a record.  It was a great weakness that none existed at the time.  It will furthermore be invaluable and assist every one with responsibilities for the opera house by providing a complete, accurate and reliable record of the building and the process of its realisation.  How can we accept the world's admiration of the Opera House, while, at the same time, neglecting to generate a full record of its design history.  To fail to do this is to risk its defilement or adulteration by mediocrity in the future.

 

Some of you may have noticed that the cover of the book has no title.  You may have thought it was an oversight on my part.  The cover image is an Australian masterpiece of photography by Josef Vissel.  There is quite a story attached to it.  Utzon wanted a multi-exposure photograph such as the famous American one of the golfer but the photographer had to do it by making single exposures of each hand position. . First Vissel photographed Utzon's head, then he placed a photographer's black hood over Utzon's face, changed the lighting, and made exposures of each hand position.  Utzon moved his hands in the darkness so they describe the profile of the glass walls like a flapping gull wing.  Just think about it one moment, there he is standing with his head hooded in total blackness, at the same time he moves his hands through 28 or so different positions, keeping both hands symmetrical remembering the previous hand position.  It tells us something deeply significant about Utzon -- what a superb spatial memory he must have possessed to do this.

 

But returning the front jacket -- why no title?  The integrity of this photograph was so important the designers preferred not to compromise it with intrusive lettering.  Additionally, the absence of a title on the front conveys something further that was important to Utzon.  This is the idea of an anonymous architecture, an architecture without individuals, without signatures, without ubiquitous designer 

 

Labels plastered over its bum.  It is a very alien concept at present when everyone clamours for attention, where every object desperately calls attention to itself -- begs to be noticed.  I hope the image is sufficiently intriguing that you will pick my book up and you will want to own a copy for yourself.  Nevertheless, the message is the reverse of individuality and glorification of artistic genius as such.  It is more to do with the beauty or ordinary everyday things, with the vernacular, with community connections and sensibilities. 

 

It is about a discovery Alvar Aalto mentions in 1972, that 'blossoms on an apple tree are standardised and yet are different'. Utzon shared the same belief with Aalto on standardisation, a realisation that nature can teach us about how to design well, and hence, 'that is how we, too, should build'.  Nature does not sign its apple tree blossoms, nor does Utzon sign his architecture; one aspires to anonymity, the other is anonymous. Before concluding I would like to thank a number of individuals for their invaluable assistance and advice: 

 

Paul Bentley, for helping to shape the idea and assisting with the text; Anne Zimmer from the Opera House shop and Peter Barns at the museum -  both made valuable suggestions about the book's shape and contents; Colin Rowan and Rhys Butler for their wonderful design, intelligence and sensitivity; superfine printing for its speed and quality; my parents for their unswerving support.  I am immensely grateful to the Museum of Sydney for allowing me to do the launch here.  There could hardly have been a better more appropriate venue than this because the Sydney Opera House is one of those focal stories that remain so central to any apprehension of Sydney, its essential meanings and symbolism as one of the great harbour cities of the world.

 

Thank you for listening and being here this afternoon.

 

Back to book summary.

 

 

Top


 About usWhat's newSite map | Searching  | Managing  | Learning  |  Library |  Research 

  Contact us | Home  

© 2000 The Wolanski Foundation Project 

 Email web manager.  URL: http://www.twf.org.au/

Page last updated: 25 November 2000