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Opera dramatics

The Sydney Opera House was opened by the Queen 30 years ago.

Peter Murray reveals just what happened when Jørn Utzon left the project halfway through, and shows that, despite the passage of time, the lessons of the opera house are still relevant today Clive Woodward would understand how Jørn Utzon felt. Getting mauled by the Sydney press pack is a nasty business. But unlike Woodward, Utzon didn't manage to stick it out until full-time; when he flew out of the New South Wales capital in 1966, never to return, not even the raw concrete shells of his landmark Sydney Opera House were completed.

Today, the opera house is loved and admired by the people of Sydney, but while it was under construction attitudes were very different. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Daily Telegraph continually attacked its cost, its delays, its architect and the fees he was earning; headline writers gave the now-familiar white shell roofs nicknames such as 'the concrete camel', 'copulating terrapins' and 'the hunchback of Bennelong Point'. Following a visit to the site, Utzon's former teacher, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, wrote: 'Every day whilst I was in Sydney there were attacks on him in one way or other, as if he was a foreign swindler, who had come to extract money from the poor government.'

In 1966, while at the Architectural Association, I was editor of the two-page student section of the AJ (once a regular feature of this publication). I commissioned a drawing by Martin Sharp, of the infamous Oz magazine, which caricatured the New South Wales minister of public works, Davis Hughes, boasting of having forced Utzon to resign. Sharp's critical and incisive view of the opera house affair, describing the philistine destruction of genius, was to stay with me for the next 35 years. But as I delved into the historic records, an altogether more complex and difficult story began to emerge.

I had access to archival papers that have not been read for 35 years, to oral histories that have only recently become accessible, and to unpublished personal accounts written by some of the leading players. There is also a mass of information and drawings in archives in Sydney and in the UK.

Magnificent doodle Utzon quit the project nine years after winning an international open competition in 1957 with a scheme that the critic Robert Hughes described as 'nothing more than a magnificent doodle'. Overcoming huge technical and structural problems, Utzon and the engineer Ove Arup solved the problems of building the now-famous shells; but Utzon got stuck on the interiors. He was finding it impossible to fit the required number of seats into the larger of the two main halls. Unless it contained 2,800 seats for concerts, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra would refuse to move to the new accommodation.

Meanwhile, costs were escalating from an optimistic AU$3.5million at the start of the project to AU$25 million when Utzon departed (the final figure at the opening in 1973 was AU$102million).

Politicians tried to control the costs and speed up the programme. In February 1966 the pressures reached such a point that Utzon wrote to Hughes, saying: 'You have forced me to leave the job.' The minister accepted with alacrity what he took to be the architect's resignation. Utzon then denied that the letter meant he had resigned, although reading it today it is hard to see how it could be interpreted in any other way.

Any misunderstanding was either the result of Utzon's inadequate grasp of English or a negotiating ploy that went horribly wrong.

In an attempt to keep him on the job in some capacity, Hughes offered Utzon the role of design architect under the control of the government architect. Utzon, however, supported by the 'Bring Back Utzon' campaign, refused to return unless he had complete control - something Hughes, frustrated at the delays, was unwilling to concede. Soon after Utzon left, Hughes hired three local architects, Peter Hall (design), Lionel Todd (construction) and David Littlemore (contracts and documentation).

Despite having built so little (the Bagsvaerd Church and the Kuwaiti parliament building were the only major buildings he completed following the Sydney debacle), Utzon remains a major figure in late 20thcentury architecture. In April this year, at the age of 85, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize.

The citation read: 'There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty which has become known throughout the world - a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.' According to Frank Gehry, 'without Utzon's vision, there would hardly be the Guggenheim in Bilbao today'.

The significance of the opera house, though, is not merely its iconic status. The building identified Utzon as a member of what Siegfried Giedion called the 'third generation' of Modernist architects, who sought a more plastic and more humane way of building, and it buried the concept that 'form follows function'.

Pushing the boundaries Utzon's desire to push the boundaries of architecture meant the building became a test bed for new technologies in construction. The use of computers for structural design was in its infancy, but Arup could not have designed the roof shells without them.

Even so, calculations that would now take a mere fraction of a second took a couple of weeks in 1958. Computers were used for the first time in the positioning of elements of the roof during construction. The opera house story also raised questions about the need for changes in the management of major contracts, and advanced considerably the concept of project management in the construction industry.

These successes were garnered from a project that stretched many involved to the limit, professionally, personally and psychologically.As a direct result of the opera house, open competitions have been used less and less, with a growing preference for limited competitions in which the organisers have a chance to check architects' credentials before they invite them to participate.

When Utzon won the competition, Ove Arup and Partners was engaged as structural and civil engineer directly by the client, the New South Wales government, rather than by the architect, as was more usual in Australia at the time. Arup was also given responsibility for all other engineering disciplines - electrical, heating and ventilating, acoustic and theatrical. Even so, Utzon retained the authority to hire and fire these consultants. In 1962, Arup concluded that it was taking responsibility for managing the project, as well as doing working drawings for the shells that it would normally expect the architect to do, without suitable recompense;

and it asked to renegotiate the contract once the main structural work was complete. The scale and the pressure of the project was taking its toll on staff morale as well as on Ove Arup's health. Utzon misinterpreted this move and came to the erroneous conclusion that the engineer wanted to take over the job.

During the first stages (the podium and the shells) Utzon and Arup worked together harmoniously. In Denmark and London, architects and engineers collaborated to create the great shells, the form of which was the result of a true marriage of their two disciplines. When in 1962 both offices moved to Sydney and Utzon's attention turned to the interiors, the goodwill gradually evaporated and the process of collaborative design ceased.

Utzon was recently invited by the New South Wales government to prepare a series of design principles, with local architect Richard Johnson, that will guide refurbishment of the opera house in the future. This move reflects long-held feelings of guilt over the treatment of Utzon by a city that prides itself on its world status. It is a guilt-trip it does not need to take. Looking back, it is clear that something needed to be done if the opera house was ever going to get finished.

When Hall took on the interiors he thought he was going to carry out Utzon's designs, which the Dane had stated were making 'good progress'. Yet when the public works architects went to collect the drawings 'the cupboard was bare', according to Charlie Weatherburn, the deputy government architect. None of the 131 drawings were working drawings (despite Utzon's claims that these would be carried out by subcontractors, he had been unable to sort this out in the nine years he was on the project).

Triumph and tragedy As Bent Fyvberg et al described in Megaprojects and Risk, there are patterns in the way major construction projects overrun on cost and schedule. Sydney has lessons for all those involved in schemes like the Scottish parliament, where the early cost estimates were underplayed in order to ensure political acceptability; or Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, where the complex construction outstripped available funds in the early 1990s, as well as the computer capability for calculating its flowing lines.

The saga of the Sydney Opera House is a dramatic tale of triumph and of tragedy. The building has become the icon of modern Australia, but because of the uproar following his exit, Utzon's career failed to reach its full potential. Arup, who described Utzon as the best architect he had ever worked with and treated him like a son, was devastated when the two fell out over the building.Hall, who was pilloried by his peers for taking on the job, died prematurely in 1995, aged 65, having suffered from alcoholism, the collapse of his practice and crippling debt.

The Sydney Opera House is a dramatic story of the passion and fury that can be engendered by great architecture. But every Sydney commuter ferrying into Circular Quay, whose day is kick-started by the thrill of the morning light glinting off those lizard-skinned shells, and every tourist attracted to the city by Utzon's iconic shapes, can be grateful to all those who sweated blood and tears to design and build the 'eighth wonder of the world'.

lThe Saga of Sydney Opera House, by Peter Murray, was published on 27 November by Spon Press.

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