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Visionary architect

Nick Bryant | 08:11 UK time, Sunday, 30 November 2008

Had Jorn Utzon been allowed to execute his extravagant architectural vision, the Sydney Opera House would surely be recognised universally as the finest building of the 20th Century. As it was, the long-running saga of its design, construction and unhappy completion offers a complicated tale both of towering and thwarted ambition. To this day, Utzon's masterpiece remains incomplete.

Jorn Utzon outside the Opera House in 1965

Even within Australia, I wonder how well the story is known of Utzon's resignation in 1966 following an acrimonious row with the state government of New South Wales over cost blow-outs and construction over-runs. Immediately after his resignation, the Danish architect flew out of Australia and never returned.

His departure meant that Utzon was responsible for the iconic whites shells, the most self-confident symbol of modern Australia, while the interiors were finished off by a team of local architects. In fashioning the inside of his shells, Utzon envisaged a burst of sub-aqua colour, with a pallet drawn from the underwater world. Instead, the Opera House made do with what was supposed to be a cut-price alternative. One of the many ironies is that when Utzon left the project the cost had escalated to A$22.9m. Ultimately, the price-tag soared to A$107m ($70m).

Eventually, the building was opened by the Queen in 1973, ten years after the original completion date and 30 times over budget. Since then, over four million people have visited the building each year and marvelled at its staggering beauty.

Iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House

Of course, Utzon's design, which edged out over 800 entries in an international competition in 1957, was extraordinarily bold and visionary. Even as construction began on the podium of the Opera House, Utzon and his team of engineers had not yet come up with a design solution for the gigantic shells which would one day rise above it. Sceptics feared it would be impossible to build. The bean-counters feared it would be too expensive. Eventually, Utzon solved the problem himself, his eureka moment coming when he peeled the skin from an orange.

In the late-1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust tried to make peace with Utzon, and he agreed to draw up a series of design principles for the building which would govern future changes to the structure. Since then, a small number of smallish rooms have been renovated in keeping with his original designs. But, for the most part, the interiors remain a colossal disappointment. No wonder many of Sydney's architects mounted a protest march - an architectural protest march! - when the incoming Liberal state government made Utzon's position untenable.

Many will still believe that the Opera House is inarguably the greatest building of the last century, even an eighth wonder of the world. Frank Gehry, the great and ground-breaking American architect, noted: "Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious criticism to a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that such an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence."

When I was a young architectural student, it was certainly one of my favourites.

The sadness is that Jorn Utzon went to the death this weekend knowing this most revolutionary of structures could have been even better.


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