The soap opera behind the construction of Australia’s most iconic building

At the opening of the Sydney Opera House 40 years ago last month there was a notable absentee: the building’s designer.

Thousands gathered last week at the Sydney Opera House to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the building’s opening in 1973. Among those at the festivities were Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary. Their presence was a fitting tribute to the building’s designer, Danish architect Jørn Utzon.

Utzson’s son Jan was also in Sydney for the anniversary and said he was proud to see the links between Denmark and Australia maintained – and that his father would feel the same.
“I feel his spirit is here with us in the opera house, the most important achievement for him in his life,” Utzon told the Sydney Morning Herald.

But while 40 years have passed since the opera house was completed, critics and historians alike are reluctant to let audiences forget the controversy that surrounded the building’s inception. When the opera house was first formally opened on 20 October 1973 by Britain’s Elizabeth II, Utzon was neither present nor mentioned at the festivities. In fact, the architect never saw his project in its completed state during his lifetime.

Born in Copenhagen in 1918, Utzon grew up in Aalborg as the son of a naval architect and engineer. While he originally planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a naval engineer, he later opted to study architecture instead. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1942, Utzon worked in Sweden until the Second World War ended, before returning to open his own architecture practice in 1950.

An unlikely choice
In December 1955, the then Australian prime minister, Joseph Cahill, launched a competition to design a dedicated opera house for the city of Sydney. A total of 233 entries were received from around the world, including one from the then 38-year-old Utzon.

Utzon had conceived the design for the opera house from his office in the northern Zealand town of Hellebæk, and he submitted his entry in the form of 12 drawings. The original plan was largely conceptual, however, and lacked enough detail for the rooftop to be realistically built. Thus, the design had to be significantly altered and further developed to even begin construction. In fact, Utzon completed the plans without ever having seen the site or travelling to Sydney. Instead, the architect is said to have used his naval background to design the building. He used naval charts of Sydney Harbour to design the opera house’s platform along the waterfront, and the rooftop’s signature ‘shells’ were actually meant to resemble sails.

The entry deadline came in December 1956, and three judges started assessing the designs in January. As the story goes, Utzon’s design was originally tossed aside, and it wasn’t until a fourth judge, the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, arrived late and selected the design out of a pile of 30 rejects, that the plans were seriously considered.

Ultimately Utzon’s design was selected as the winner of the competition, for which he was awarded a prize of 5,000 British pounds. Utzon was apparently told of his success by his children, who met him at the train station on his way home from work to tell him that he’d won.

While the judges called the design “simple to the point of being diagrammatic” in their report, they ultimately recognised the innovativeness of Utzen’s design. “We have returned again and again to the study of these drawings and we are convinced they present a concept of an opera house that is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world,” the report stated. “Because of its very originality, it is clearly a controversial design. We are however, absolutely convinced of its merits.”…

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