Breaking architectural news this morning is that architect Jorn Utzon has died, aged 90.  


BBC has full coverage here, although I suspect that most of you already know the story: Utzon won the competition for the Sydney Opera House, walked out part way through construction, and never went back to Australia. The Opera House (competition 1957, completion 1973) is now happily described as an icon for Sydney, in one of those possibly few correct applications of the word. It’s a World Heritage site, it’s one of the seven Wonders of the Modern World, it’s a fantastic piece of Architecture, and it’s a monument to the perseverance of the architect and the engineer. Yes, it is also a monument to Ove Arup, as it was the Opera House project that helped push Arup to the pinnacle of Engineering and has helped make them the most successful engineering company in the world.

While Utzon remained an architect, and produced many more buildings in his native Denmark, and others around Europe, he also had a love of boats, and his skills as a boat-builder and naval architect helped form his understanding of the complex roof structures of his most famous work. Peter Jones biography of Ove Arup (which I have been reading recently) goes into some detail about the whys and what-went-wrongs of the Opera House project – those of you who are chronologically challenged may not know that the building of the SOH was not an event filled with roses. It was a nasty, sordid, long, drawn-out affair, with the ugly side of the redneck Aussies coming to the fore as many did not want the cultural imposition of something like an “Opera House” and also the Australian taxpayer was not keen to foot the massively increasing bill: a series of lotteries were run for many years, and for a long time Sydney thought it had bought itself a costly lemon.


The problems with the building of the building were many: chief among them was the decision to have the 2 auditoria side by side, instead of one after the other, and the Opera House has been suffering the consequences ever since. Communication between architect and engineer was almost non-existant for some periods of time (never a good thing: play nicely in the sand-pit children), the head of the Sydney Sypmphony Orchestra (Eugene Goossens) and a useful ally to the project was forced to leave the country after customs found pornography in his baggage (Danish or Swedish – who knows?), both Felix Candela and Pier Luigi Nervi advised that the concrete shells were not self-supporting, there was a certain, shall we say, ‘disregard’ for both costs and respect for other members of the building team, and I will leave you to debate the worth of this final quote from Utzon himself:

I don’t care what it costs. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what scandal it causes. That is what I want.