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Utzon: Finding the master architect

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The Sydney Opera House is celebrating its 50th anniversary this October. It has become an international cultural and architectural icon visited by millions. Yet its Danish creator, Jorn Utzon, never set foot in his completed masterpiece. The construction of the opera house was mired in controversy and bad blood forcing Utzon to leave the project and Australia in 1966. Reporter Anne-Maria Nicholson recalls the world exclusive interview with the banished architect that she obtained for the ABC in 2002.


It took me two years of negotiation to score an interview with one of the world’s famous recluses, the Danish architect of the Sydney Opera House, Jorn Utzon. Then, another period of arm-wrestling, to persuade the ABC to fund the trip to his hideaway on the Spanish island of Majorca.

Nothing was easy about this assignment. The Sydney Opera House Trust members were protective of the architect after they’d signed him up in 1999 to help design future changes to the opera house which, for decades had divided the city of Sydney, its politicians and the architectural community. Requests for an interview went unanswered.

The Utzon family was equally protective of their patriarch, having witnessed earlier waves of hostile media coverage and seen him shunned, not only by Australia in the 1960s, but on his return to Denmark, by his home country.

It took the intervention of then NSW Premier Bob Carr, who had signed off the architect’s re-engagement, to persuade Utzon to break his silence and grant me his first television interview in 32 years. With the help of Carr’s arts advisor, Vivienne Skinner, preparations were made for me to visit him in mid-2002.

For me, then the National Arts Reporter, the Sydney Opera House was like the grand cathedral of Australian culture. I was there frequently, interviewing singers, actors, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, circus stars, authors and intellectuals. I attended performances great and small. And all the while I was aware of the combined majesty of the building and the phantom presence of the architect who had never walked inside.

After the NSW Coalition government forced Utzon out in 1966 by refusing to pay his fees, three other architects took over and Utzon’s designs for the interior were never realised.

Filled with excitement and trepidation, I travelled from Sydney to Majorca alone, a 36-hour journey flying via Paris and Madrid to the capital, Palma, hiring a car and driving a couple of hours to the town of Cala d’Or on the island’s south-east coast. There, brushing aside my tiredness, I joined producer Geoff Hutchison and camera operator Ron Ekkel, two of the ABC’s best, who’d flown from their base in the Brussels’ bureau, to plan our shoot. 

My contact on the ground was Jan Utzon, Jorn’s architect son, who’d travelled from Copenhagen to be present for the interview. He’d insisted that he and his father needed to meet us in person before agreeing to let us visit the family home. They arrived to vet us, an unmistakable duo, tall, lean and tanned Danes striding towards the café where we’d agreed to meet. They were at once, warm, affable and welcoming. I felt emotional shaking the hand of Jorn, then 84, a man exuding charm, humour and great dignity but with the reputation of a tragic hero. 

We passed muster and they provided us with the directions to Jorn’s house, Can Lis. We set off next morning, recording a piece to camera in our hire car as we traversed a bumpy road that took us high in the hills beyond the town.

The house was a wondrous sight, built from ancient local materials but modern and designed, like the Sydney Opera House, by Utzon.

I was stunned when he opened the door and we were dressed, quite comically as photographs of the day attest, identically: yellow shirts and cream suits, as though we worked for a Scandi airline. 

Anne Maria Nicholson and Jorn Utzon, dressed alike in yellow shirts and cream suits.

His wife Lis, 83, dressed in white with a girlish headband, and son, Jan, greeted us inside. Jorn was effusive, showing us this summer hideaway, a homage, he said, to the beloved Pittwater area of Sydney where he’d lived with his family during his years in Australia. It was a remarkable house, comprised of four separate buildings facing a covered patio with views to the Mediterranean.

Jan Utzon, (son) Jorn Utzon and Jorn’s wife, Lis.

Ron Ekkel and Geoff Hutchison chose a place inside the living area for the interview. Utzon, at once imposing and humble, gave long and detailed explanations of his experiences of winning the international design completion in 1955, living in Australia, being driven out, his life afterwards and his dreams for the future of the marvel on Sydney Harbour which was already being talked about as the eighth wonder of the world and was destined in 2006 to be World Heritage listed.

Tell me what it was like when you won the competition?”  I asked him.

“It was in the morning. We were in the forest, Lis and I, on the way to the post office. They didn’t bring our post. And then we heard screaming among the trees and it was our daughter Lin and one of my assistants and they said, Sydney! Sydney!”  he laughed with excitement as if it was yesterday.“They screamed and I said, third prize? And they said no, first prize!”

Utzon with ABC team – Ron Ekkel, camera, Anne Maria Nicholson, reporter and Geoff Hutchison, producer.

The young, largely unknown architect’s revolutionary design was plucked from the reject pile of hundreds of entries to emerge the surprise winner. The Utzon family moved to Sydney, intending to make Australia a permanent home.  

Jorn Utzon was immediately backed by the unlikely visionary of the opera house, NSW Labor Premier Joe Cahill. A railway fitter from a working-class background, Premier Cahill believed if Sydney was to become a global city, it needed a world-class cultural icon.  

Utzon recalled:“It’s a matter of what I admire (in) Mr Cahill…. to see a possibility, to take a daring step in the unknown and he did that in the most beautiful way.”

The architect met Cahill in his parliamentary office.

“And he gave me a whisky and also one for the doorman – he was a Labor man! –  and he said he had the feeling that his people lacked something. They needed what they had in Europe in every big town, the access and contact of a building with musicians and artists.”

As the building took shape on Bennelong Point, it became a focal point for Sydney, a city longing to prove itself on the international stage. But in political circles, ballooning costs, delays, design complications and strikes made it an easy target.

“You always have this criticism that it is a bad idea to throw money on culture when you need hospitals and schools,” Utzon said.

When Cahill died suddenly in 1959, Utzon, to some extent, lost his champion. When the Liberal Coalition won government from Labor in 1965, Utzon’s days began to be numbered.

Controversies over his innovative, experimental work practices and cost overruns put him on a collision course with the new government. On 28 February 1966, Utzon lost a game of brinkmanship with the NSW Minister of Public Works Davis Hughes. Thwarted by Hughes’ refusal to pay fees for him and his staff, Utzon wrote a letter of resignation, believing this would force the government’s hand to pay him. But Hughes seized the opportunity, accepting the resignation and forcing Utzon out.

He appointed three other architects, Peter Hall, Lionel Todd and David Littlemore to finish the job. Protesters demanding the architect be brought back went unheeded. It took the new architects another seven years with more massive budget overruns to complete the job in time for its opening in 1973. 

“Was it a letter of resignation?” I asked.

“You can call it whatever you want. I couldn’t go on because of lack of interest in my continuation.”

His son Jan said:“They did not pay the fees so he had to close the office as he could not pay the employees.  You could not say it was a resignation, it was a forced resignation.” 1

Shockingly for Utzon, he was also shunned and denied work in his homeland Denmark where his reputation had been sullied by the Sydney scandal and he was forced to seek jobs in other countries. Plagued by bad luck, he settled on a teaching job for a time in Hawaii.

Of course, when I left I thought they would call me back,” he said.  But the call wasn’t to come for another 32 years. Remarkably, as the camera rolled, he showed neither bitterness nor regret.

“It was usual for cathedrals in Europe to take centuries to build and the architects never saw them finished,’ he said philosophically.

But for many, the absence of the original architect remained a blight on modern Australia, a wrong needing to be righted. 

It wasn’t until 1998, when the Sydney Opera House was in need of refurbishment, that the Opera House Trust chair, Joseph Skrzynski, led the charge to bring Utzon back to the drawing board. After months of discussions, it was decided to appoint Utzon’s son, Jan, and Sydney architect Richard Johnson to help him realise the masterplan and design principles to take the building into the future. 2

Utzon’s re-engagement had clearly reignited his passion and he spoke excitedly of his vision, including a new dramatic red and gold interior of the Opera Theatre, an idea yet to be realised. But he’d made it clear he would be doing the work remotely, not intending to return to Australia.

It’s like writing a book, it’s a creative act you can do anywhere,” he said. “I could sit in a train or in the middle of a cinema. I can get an idea. This is not hard work for an old man.”

After the interview, Jorn joyfully held up some attractive abstracts he’d painted. These were to become the designs for the huge tapestry now in place in the Utzon Room, a multi-purpose space in the opera house and the first interior to be built to his design. But while the artwork found its niche, the architect would never find a physical place in the building.

It’s worth remembering that unlike the hundreds of millions of people who’ve marvelled at the Sydney Opera House, the architect of this 20th century masterpiece, Jorn Utzon, never saw it. Ultimately it was his choice whether or not to return.

Will you come back?” I asked.

 His eyes twinkled as he humoured me.

I might go back to Sydney in the future. I’ll just put that in so people will stop asking.”

But I knew in my heart he was never coming back. A year later, in 2003, Jorn Utzon won the world’s most prestigious architectural laurel, the Pritzker  Prize. He continued developing design principles and lived to see (on video) a number of his new changes including the opening up of the western side of the Opera House with new foyers and colonnades.

He’d anticipated as much when he told me:“It’s good Anne Maria, I’m happy you came here and I hope you will experience the next step of the building when all the money is used.”

Jorn Utzon died in Denmark in 2008. His wife Lis died in 2010.

Whenever I’m at the opera house, I feel a pang of sadness for what was lost. And I imagine Jorn’s voice saying, as he did in the interview:

I have the Opera House in my head like a composer has his symphony.”


Footnotes

  1. Elsa Atkin was Utzon’s Personal Assistant on the Sydney Opera House site. On 28 February 1966, she typed his letter of resignation (now in the State Library) when Davis Hughes refused to pay his fees. Utzon was paying his staff out of his own pocket and had run out of money. He was convinced this letter would prompt the NSW government to pay up. Instead the government accepted his resignation immediately and he was forced out.   
  2. Jan Utzon was to be his father’s “eyes and ears” (along with Sydney architect Richard Johnson) to implement the new design guidelines for the Sydney Opera House,

The Utzon story was screened on the 7.30 Report, AM and Lateline in July 2002.  It is on show at the Museum of Sydney’s ‘People’s House: Sydney Opera House at 50’ until 12 November 2023.

Read Anne Maria’s story for the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 October 2023, “Jorn Again”, on the people who re-engaged Utzon in 1999: 

Anne Maria Nicholson is a Sydney-based journalist and author.  She worked for the ABC full-time from 1994 to 2014 and as a producer for Foreign Correspondent in 2018.  She is the author of three novels, “Weeping Waters” (2006), “Pliny’s Warning” (2009) and “Poker Protocol” (2022).


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