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After 40 Years, Sydney Opera House Still a Work in Progress
Blaine Brownell / ARCHITECT / October 2013
Overcome by Jørn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House, Louis Kahn once remarked, “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.” Forty years after its opening, one of the world’s most recognizable works of architecture is undergoing a gentle transformation—an incremental remodeling—that is bringing the public icon closer in alignment to its creator’s original vision.
Day or night, the atmosphere in the Opera House is animated by the energy exuded by the throngs of visitors. The nonstop activity, combined with the ongoing renovations, make the Sydney Opera House seem like a living being rather than a static monument.
The story behind the building’s design exemplifies both the best and worst of architectural commissions. Utzon was a mere 38 years old when he won the international design competition for the project in 1956. His proposal for a collection of soaring, wing-shaped shells on the Sydney Harbor promontory captured the imaginations of the jury, inspiring juror Eero Saarinen to call the entry “a work of genius.” Utzon relocated his family to Sydney and set up an office in a boathouse north of the city. For the next decade, the project would consume the relatively inexperienced Danish architect, a man who had become a celebrity overnight.
Constructing the ambitious and unprecedented design proved to be a formidable challenge, stymying some of the industry’s most talented minds, including that of structural engineer Ove Arup. Finding a pragmatic and economical way to build formwork for the massive concrete roof shells was one of the biggest obstacles; Utzon’s first design iteration had no repeating elements. Insistent that the wings remain, Utzon revised the roof shells to conform to the geometry of a sphere, which then enabled workers to use a modular set of formwork.
Though the Opera House vaulted Utzon’s career, it also led to its precipitous decline. An ill-fated decision by the client, New South Wales premier Joe Cahill, to kick off construction before key design elements had been finalized led to a dramatic escalation in project costs. When Cahill died suddenly in 1959, he was replaced by Davis Hughes, a fiscally conservative politician determined to squelch what he perceived to be an unmitigated spending spree. He stopped paying Utzon in 1966, when construction was well underway but the interiors were incomplete. As a result, Utzon had to close his practice and return to Denmark. He never set foot in Sydney or his beloved Opera House again.