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Rykwert on Utzon’s Opera House

I never quite loved the Sydney Opera House, says Joseph Rykwert

It was a long way to go for a party, but I was bidden to Sydney to celebrate the contribution of architect-scholar Lawrence Nield to his highly successful office, Bligh Voller Nield, from which he has partially withdrawn to continue his work on a smaller scale. The party was in the best location Sydney has to offer: the retro-foyer of the Opera House (1973), with a panoramic window over the harbour, which obliged with a firework display during the speeches.

One party guest was Sydney-based architect Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker, who was chosen in 1998 to work on the revamp of this very building, and was lucky to gain architect Jørn Utzon’s trust and even enthusiasm. Some of the minor auditoria have already been returned to an honourable state. Their equipment and finishes have been renewed – Utzon himself designed a colourful, Arp-like tapestry for the chamber concert hall, which has been restored – and so have the acoustics.

The concert hall and the opera auditorium were neglected during the building’s troubled early years. Utzon left the project in 1966 due to quarrels with the client and 1,000 per cent cost overruns, and much of the building’s interior was not completed to his plans. Musicians had to get on as best they could. Now they are receiving proper attention. The opera house interior is to be encased in a carefully calibrated timber shell that will be partly visible from outside – a fan of timber box-ribs that will give the building the resonance it has always needed. The processional character of the public spaces is also to be restored.

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