Sharp, Dennis, The Independent (London, England)
Award-winning architect who designed the Sydney Opera House
At the time of the Australian Bicentennial celebrations in 1988, Sydney Opera House was voted one of "the wonders of the 20th century". However, during the building's problematic construction period, from 1961 to 1973, it was nothing of the sort.
Jrn Utzon, its Danish architect, won the international competition for the project in 1957 and signed thecontract for the first stage of the scheme in 1961. Aware that there were fundamental problems with theconstruction of the parabolic concrete shells of his roof design and finding that budgetary and detailing issues were getting out of hand, he left the site in 1966. The complex was completed by others and the building opened officially in 1973. Utzon did not attend. The key original element was a large opera hall but this was reduced in a change to the brief from a major to a minor auditorium. Altogether thefollowing stages were an unholy compromise and Utzon was never persuaded to return to see the outcome of his work.
A few years later the political climate changed and the building's distinctive profile was to put Sydney on the "World Cities" list, as well as the cultural tourist map and Australian postage stamps. Its dramatic position, on a shelf surrounded by water on three sides, gave it the appearance, some thought, of a great mother ship around which all other vessels revolved: a locus in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful harbours anywhere. The question of scale - of an appropriate scale - was also beautifully achieved in the natural harbour. Here Utzon excelled. The object creates the place. The building was to be framed, but not overwhelmed, in one direction by the great hanger bridge and in another by fast-growing trees and a civic renovation and development scheme that has done much to enhance the opera house's site.
Sydneyites eventually came to terms with their own world-famous building, which overtook the somewhat overrated Bondi Beach and Sydney Harbour Bridge itself as an object of tourist desire. As an Australian colleague said over the weekend: "I really can not think of Sydney without it". Despite the many vicissitudes that the structure and the plan underwent, the Opera House remains a powerful and comprehensive complex, indelibly tied to its dramatic site, a voluptuous, exciting, unique cultural flume sitting astride a bedrock of granite on Bennelong Point.
The original concept drawings submitted for the competition were simple and diagrammatic, yet profound - a portent of a new kind of modernist architecture. The American Eero Saarinen and Britain's Leslie Martin were the two foreign architect assessors, and they saw something special in Utzon's design. Later Saarinen referred to it as a scheme that showed a "beautiful movement of people within that architecture". All the assessors admired the "Classical" treatment of the Bennelong Point site which was to accommodate the massive base and to be resurfaced by what the judges saw as a "magnificent ceremonial app-roach to buildings that provided a unity for structural expression".
Utzon himself later explained his ideas: "I had to visualise five to six thousand people going out to that peninsula, which is perhaps 600 by 300 feet, so automatically I made this peninsula into a 'rock' and put everything to do with preparation (rehearsal rooms, workshops, etc) underneath the big 45ft high platform ... finished plays were presented to the audience on top of this 'rock' covered by the big sails... People were separated from daily life by this fantastic building."
The forms of the original Opera House design were immensely daring and some saw them as unbuildable, which was partially true. However, it was not an entirely novel design but a product of the current architectural Zeitgeist - a Modernist building of the romantically expressionist, organic sort, part of the same ethos that produced Le Corbusier's wonderful Ronchamp Chapel, in eastern France - which, more than any other single building of the period 1950-55, revolutionised and changed the course of contemporary architecture - and Eero Saarinen's expressive Yale Hockey stadium of 1956 as well as the riotously curved carapace of the TWA Terminal at New York's main airport. …