Even though this is a somewhat abstract image, most will recognize the sails of this building. The SOH says ‘Australia’ as strongly as Uluru (Ayres Rock), a gum tree, the Great Barrier Reef or it’s neighbor, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It’s an icon. Instant branding. Widely considered to be one of the 20th century’s most distinctive buildings and recognized worldwide. However, it’s construction was a controversial project that culminated in the architect never setting foot in the finished product.
Planning began in the late 1940’s. In 1955 an international design competition was launched and won by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. Construction began in 1958 and was completed in 1973 for a cost of $102 million (the original 1957 projected cost was $7 million).
The architect-client (the New South Wales Government) honeymoon was brief. The client insisted on progressive revisions and did not fully appreciate the costs, or work, involved in design and construction. Tensions mounted and were not helped when the client demanded commencement of work, despite an incomplete design. This just amplified delays, setbacks, design issues and cost increases. The building was unique and presented enough challenges without starting construction before plans were finalized.
A State election resulted in a change of Government and the ‘new client’ proved to be even more difficult than the precedessor. The new Premier of NSW (Robert Askin) had been a vocal critic of the project prior to his election, and his point of view did not change. He appointed a new Minister for Public Works (Davis Hughes), who was even less supportive. Differences ensued. Huges interfered, withheld permissions, payments, and meddled with reporting procedures. Tensions escalated. Utzon was unwilling to compromise on several design aspects that Messrs Davis and Co raised and by February 1966 Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees. Hughes then withheld funding so that Utzon could not even pay his own staff. Not surprisingly, Utzon resigned. He said that Hughes’s refusal to pay him any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation. Adding insult to injury, Hughes subsequently offered Utzon a subordinate role as “design architect” under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House’s construction. Utzon rejected this and he left the country never to return.
The Sydney Opera House was formally opened by Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973 in front of a large crowd. Utzon was not invited to the ceremony, nor was his name mentioned. The man behind one of the most remarkable buildings in the world was very publically snubbed. Not the NSW Government’s finest hour!
In the late 1990s, the SOH Trust resumed communication with Utzon in an attempt to effect a reconciliation and to secure his involvement in future changes to the building. In 1999 he was appointed by the Trust as a design consultant for future work. In 2004, the first interior space rebuilt to an Utzon design was opened, and renamed “The Utzon Room” in his honour. Utzon died on 29 November 2008. A state memorial service, attended by his son Jan and daughter Lin, celebrating his creative genius, was held in the Concert Hall on 25 March 2009 featuring performances, readings and recollections from prominent figures in the Australian performing arts scene.
Despite it’s name, the SOH is not one venue. It houses multiple venues and is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world. It hosts over 1,500 performances each year and has over 1 million visitors. It sits majestically on Bennelong Point And it is, unquestionably, singularly spectacular! Go see it:)