Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Sydney Opera House
Over the past few weeks I have been reading The Saga if the Sydney Opera House by Peter Murray. The building is one of the modern wonders of the world and one of the few located in the Southern Hemisphere. It has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and is an icon of Australia.
It was designed by the Danish architect, Jorn (that ‘o’ should have a diagonal line through it) Utzon. He was very good at winning architectural competitions but few of his designs ever got built. His design won the competition in 1957.
The remit was to build a large 3000 seater concert hall come opera house with a second smaller hall to seat 1200 for theater productions. It would be rude to say that Utzon’s design was a back of a fag packet affair (fag being a British word for cigarette without the American connotation), but the design was another of those that wins competitions but doesn’t get built. Indeed in 1957 it was doubtful that it could be. The task of building it was given to another Dane, Ove Arup and Partners, consulting engineers.
The book details the difficulties there were in translating, what was obviously a beautiful design into a real three dimensional building that functioned as it should.
Although praised as a masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House has been criticized. Many people say that the acoustics are poor and that the theater doesn't have enough performance or backstage space. Yet the architectural community has been extremely supportive of Utzon and extremely critical of the Australian governmental machine and the Australian press. Most prominent articles on the Internet are supportive too.
Peter Murray is less so. He points out that the Opera House took 14 years to build and cost 14 times the original estimate. Utzon was impossible to work with and seemed astonished that he should get paid according to work done, rather than simply reimbursed what it cost to keep his Sydney office running, even when most of them were working on other projects like the Zurich concert hall. Arups, whose design solutions for the shells had made use of computer design (and remember what computers were like in the 1960s) were his constant supporters, but he even managed to fall out with them and in 1966 he resigned from the project with only the base and the shells completed. His designs for the interior were in his head with virtually nothing on paper. For the first two stages of the project he had relied on Arups to provide working drawings to build from; now he had fallen out with the engineers he had no-one capable of doing it. There were no drawings for the interior when he eventually resigned.
His resignation was really a sort of negotiating position, but David Hughes the minister responsible had had enough of Utzon. For months he had been out of contact, holidaying inn Hawaii and his offices in Sydney didn’t even have a telephone. Hughes called his bluff and assembled a committee to take his place. There were four main criticisms of Utzon: he insisted on the wrong organizational approach; he ignored questions of time; he ignored questions of cost; and he was not a practical man.
Although Utzon may have been a talented artist, he seemed to have no conception of the difficulties that sub-contractors would have in building his designs. His knowledge of acoustics was minimal and he had no idea how large an area was needed to sit in comfortably at a concert. There was no way that his large hall could accommodate both symphony concerts and opera. Eventually opera was moved to the smaller hall, but even so Sydney still has acoustic problems, especially for those 579 in the large hall who sit behind the orchestra. The total seating in the large hall was for 2679 – more than 300 short of the 3000 asked for, though they did have sufficient leg room.
The opera house was opened on October 20th 1973 by the Queen of Australia. The organ, the largest pipe organ in the world, was not completed until 1979. The final cost was 102 million Australian dollars against an original estimate of 7 million.
In 1976 Dame Edna Everage attempted to enter the Royal enclosure at Royal Acsot wearing this hat.