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Norman Foster pays tribute to Sydney Opera House engineer Jack Zunz

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Norman Foster has paid tribute to Sydney Opera House lead engineer Jack Zunz who died last week aged 94 

The Arup engineer, who worked with Foster on the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) building and Stansted Airport, died last Tuesday (11 December). 

Zunz, who was born in 1923, grew up in South Africa and graduated in civil engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

He joined Arup in 1950 and quickly rose to become the principal structural designer on Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in 1961, one of the most structurally ambitious projects in the world.

Foster said he was a ‘rare individual’ who ‘expertly combined the essence of engineering and design as a seamless whole’.

Describing him as an ‘uncle figure’, he added: ‘Jack Zunz was passionate on the subject of design education and the value that engineering, architecture and infrastructure can add to our society.

‘He shared books with me on the cultural standing of the engineer over history – in times of peace and war. He was far-sighted and right to the very end he was focused on the future.’

Recalling his work on Sydney Opera House, Foster said: ‘Throughout the project there were several setbacks – the architect resigned, costs spiralled, and the project was on course to be a national scandal. Jack was the only constant presence, who guided the project through the completion and was vindicated in the end with a building that is now a global icon.

‘I can recall Jack showing me the hardwood models which interlocked to demonstrate the fusion of geometry and engineering to realise the emblematic roof shells.’

In recognition of his career achievements, Zunz received the Gold Medal from the Institution of Structural Engineers (1988) and was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (1983) and Honorary Member of the Architectural Association (2011).

Foster’s full tribute

Jack Zunz was a rare individual who so expertly combined the essence of engineering and design as a seamless whole. His approach was one of collaboration, but this was balanced with an integrity and commitment that went beyond the normal professional boundaries

Jack spent almost his entire career at Arup, which began in a very serendipitous way. Having grown up in South Africa, Jack wrote to Ove Arup on the recommendation of a friend in 1950. Ove invited him to London but said he may not be able to offer him a job. As luck would have it, Ronald Jenkins, one of the then-senior partners at Arup needed someone with experience in steel structures to start immediately, and offered Jack the job – the rest is a truly outstanding history.

He quickly rose to become the principal structural designer for the Sydney Opera House in 1961, one of the most structurally ambitious projects in the world that could not have been realised without the combined vision of the architect and engineer. Throughout the project there were several setbacks – the architect resigned, costs spiralled, and the project was on course to be a national scandal. Jack was the only constant presence, who guided the project through the completion and was vindicated in the end, with a building that is now a global icon. I can recall Jack showing me the hardwood models which interlocked to demonstrate the fusion of geometry and engineering to realise the emblematic roof shells.

There are many engineers who have influenced me from my childhood to the present and also those that I have collaborated with over the years. But I am especially grateful to Jack Zunz, who I worked with on many of our most significant projects including Hongkong Bank and Stansted Airport. He had a gift for spotting younger talent and he encouraged and brought forth new generations of influential and innovative engineers – some who have passed away like Peter Rice and Tony Fitzpatrick – others who are amongst the most creative in their field today. I referred to Jack recently as a father figure and one of his protegés, Chris Wise, corrected me and said ‘no, he was more like an uncle’ – commanding and wise.

While working on the project in Hong Kong, the client asked him to conduct an audit to determine whether our design – which offered a radical solution for the time – was worth the investment. Always a consummate professional, Jack’s thorough analysis convinced them of the value of our design and dissuaded them from going for a conventional tower. Once again, he was proved right when the bank was able to move a trading floor into the building at a later date, without the need for major alterations to the tower – something that would have been impossible in a conventional tower with a central core. It is another example of Jack’s vision and the respect he commanded beyond the boundaries of his profession

Jack Zunz was passionate on the subject of design education and the value that engineering, architecture and infrastructure can add to our society. He shared books with me on the cultural standing of the engineer over history – in times of peace and war. He was far-sighted and right to the very end he was focused on the future.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Such sadness. I have known Jack all my conscious life and like so many of the 'old guard' at Arup he was an integral part of my growing up. He was a really good sounding board who wouldn't mince his words, driven always by an engineer's clarity of thought. I will miss him; like many of the great people I have been lucky enough to know, he is often in the back of my mind, goading me to think with more clarity and communicate with more precision. Thank you Jack.

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  • A life well lived; a very honourable and decent man.

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  • I'll never forget his brilliant presentation of the challenges of transforming the Sydney Opera House from sketches to reality - and he must have inspired countless architecture students to appreciate how creative and valuable really good structural engineering design could be.

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  • Jack Zunz and the Ove Arup Foundation were the initial funders of the cities programme at LSE. Jack was passionate about connecting design to society. His stewardship, intelligence and support helped shape the interdisciplinary learning at LSE and other educational establishments.
    Ricky Burdett, LSE Cities

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