Review: The Studio of Jorn Utzon: Creating the Opera House

It’s one thing to have buildings you like, that you find interesting, that you have been influenced by; even to have a favourite building is commonplace enough. But it is another thing to actually love a work of architecture. Given that buildings can be rather unyielding and even unlovable things, it is rare to feel a deep personal connection, to feel both affectionate and passionate towards one. I suspect that for many people, and certainly for me, the Sydney Opera House would be one of the few buildings that would fall into this category. And an exhibition about the Opera House, currently mounted at the Museum of Sydney, has reinforced this all over again.

The exhibition has been curated by guest curator John Murphy, and designed by Kathryn Grant of kfg design. It is called The Studio of Jørn Utzon: Creating the Opera House, and is certainly the most comprehensive exhibition yet to be staged about the building and its creative evolution. It includes numerous drawings, models and photographs that have never before been publicly exhibited, and are here assembled and presented with great clarity and sensitivity. Artefacts include the original competition drawings, complete with gold leaf rendering and pencil-corrected spelling errors, and a wonderful overall perspective drawn by Eero Saarinen, drawn to assist in communicating the winning scheme to the public. There is also a selection of significant archival film footage, including Utzon’s travel movies of Mayan temples in Mexico, which are particularly fascinating – meticulously constructed, the films are full of careful slow pans and zooms. The young Utzon could not have known how these pre-Columbian temples would influence his later work, but his careful and close documentation cannot but be endearing. What was he planning to do with these films? Watch them again and again for his own reference? Archive them for posterity? Entertain his architect friends at parties?

Whatever the answer to such frivolous questions, the opportunity is invaluable – to examine the influences on a young architect just as they were gathered. Murphy’s curatorial focus throughout is on Utzon’s design process, the sources of inspiration and allusion behind the Opera House building, and the way the design developed over a long and sometimes tortuous period. This process is presented as ongoing, given Utzon’s involvement in the current redesign and refurbishment of parts of the building. There is a fine circularity in the inclusion of video footage of Utzon discussing design drawings with Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker, his collaborator along with his son Jan Utzon on the new work. An exhibit addressing Utzon’s design for a tapestry, now completed and installed in the refurbished “Utzon Room” reception hall, forms a kind of coda to the historical artefacts on display, pointing forward to further work to come.

The exhibition also includes a number of stunningly beautiful timber models of the performance halls, which demonstrate Utzon’s original conception of these as fitting within, but not touching, the exterior walls. This was to reinforce the appearance of the shells as freestanding structures, such that the two concert halls would read as more detailed and more highly coloured timber “kernels” settled within an independent ribbed concrete casing. This intention can also be seen in the various permutations of the curtain glass walls at the front of each shell, culminating in the version Utzon was working on immediately before he left the project. His subtly faceted glass screen supported by thin plywood battens fused with bronze on the exterior. This scheme is demonstrated in several late models, and could hardly be further from the blunt, angular, visor-like windows that were actually constructed.

One of the most fascinating elements of the exhibition is its demonstration of the long design process for the form and construction of the shells themselves. These developed from the irregular, low-vaulted roofs which can be seen in sketches of the competition scheme to the “spherical solution” that was finally built, where all of the parts were prefabricated on the same spherical radius. The elegant simplicity of this solution has always seemed so apparently inevitable, so right, that it’s impossible to imagine it being built in any other way. And this is one of the overwhelming impressions left by the exhibition – that the technical, material and pragmatic aspects of the building’s brief were solved in such an integrated way, and in such harmony with its formal and tectonic expression, that it is almost miraculous. Utzon himself was aware of this, and his November 1961 letter to one of the competition judges, Professor Henry Ingham Ashworth, is reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. “We have overcome the shells and you will get the most marvellous solution you could dream of,” he writes, “the real ideal solution for everything technically and aesthetically was developed and it was even the cheapest way of making it.” Such claims made about any other building would be hubris and hyperbole. But said about the Opera House, they are sweetly earnest, even modest – a simple statement of facts.

The apparent inevitability of the design, however, has been something of a double-edged sword. As Murphy comments, the building appears so poetic and spontaneous that it is easy to overlook its highly ingenious and intricate solution of pragmatic architectural problems. The exhibition presents evidence of endless working models, drawings and prototypes, and thus reveals the process of a methodical mind, setting out to answer the requirements of the programme – what Utzon referred to as the “life” of the building rather than its “function” – in a carefully rational and systematic way. Utzon “has been represented as a kind of revolutionary day-dreamer”, who “didn’t know how to finish the project”, says Murphy, “but nothing could be further from the truth.” From the most loose and ghostly design sketches to precise technical acoustic models, the artefacts and images in the exhibition do indeed prove that Utzon was highly conscientious and committed in his approach to realizing the scheme, in both its lyric and its practical aspects. What is really painful to behold is how close he was to actually achieving that goal at the time that he was forced to leave the project.

At the entry to the exhibition is a short looped section of film showing Utzon, walking in the snowy woods near his house in Denmark in 1968, following his forced departure from the project. The footage is strangely haunting, as the camera follows this tall man, striding in slow motion through the bare trees, his figure dark against the blue-tinted snow. Murphy explains the choice of this segment of footage partly for its allusion to comparisons that were often made in the Australian press at the time – that Utzon was like Hamlet, that other melancholy and brooding prince of Denmark. Murphy suggests, however, that the film now finds closer comparison with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a spirit awaiting retribution. This contrasts poignantly with another section of film from 1957, shown within the gallery space, which depicts a young, smiling and optimistic Utzon, having won the competition, on the point of leaving Australia with the promise to return with developed drawings. Yet another clip shows immaculately gloved and hatted Sydney crowds viewing the competition schemes, a startling reminder that while the building may look remarkably contemporary today, things were very different at the time of its conception.
As I walked around the exhibition, I overheard a conversation between two women. “You know it’s really a national disgrace, the way he was treated. We should all be ashamed of that,” said the first. And the second replied with “Yes, you’re right, but he has forgiven now, at least.” This exhibition is another important step in telling the true story of the Opera House design and construction process, and perhaps in redressing some of those past wrongs.

Comments are closed.