MATTER OF INTEGRITY
review of Yuzo Mikami's Utzon's Sphere
The story of the Sydney Opera House is about
creativity, mathematics, politics and character.
plans for an opera house were given impetus by Eugene Goossens, a British conductor who was
hounded from Australia for a customs indiscretion involving a packet of
pornography. The NSW Government began construction before the design had been
completed - because
the principal backer, the NSW premier, Joe Cahill, feared an election loss
would kill support for it. The House was designed by a young Danish architect, Jørn
Utzon, who had achieved more success in competitions than for buildings of any
magnitude. The poetry of the original design was translated into practical
form with the help of a Danish-born British engineer, Ove Arup, and his
multi-national team of engineers - an association that eventually foundered.
Utzon was engineered from the project by a new-broom politician, Davis Hughes,
who replaced Utzon with an ambitious young Australian architect, Peter Hall,
who, in hindsight, must have realised that he had grasped the wrong straw. Thirty
years after his departure, Utzon accepted a remote commission to prepare
design guidelines to assist future work on the building.
Mikami’s new book Utzon’s Sphere is an authoritative,
illuminating and elegant account of the saga, interspersed with drawings,
personal photographs and anecdotes.
was a member of Utzon’s design team in Hellebaek, Denmark, from 1958 to 1961
before he joined Ove Arup in London, where he became one of the core members
of the design team for the spherical solution and tile cladding until
1967. His knowledge of the story is therefore not only first-hand, but also
unclouded by an automatic allegiance to one camp or the other.
meat of the book is the design of the building during these crucial years –
the work on the podium, the design of the halls and the development of the
‘triply handicapped’ roof structure.
transformation of simple competition drawings into complex structure is
portrayed as the battle of B6 and H2 pencils. Utzon’s tool of trade was a
green Faber Castell lead holder, perfect for locating form and rhythm in
thick, soft strokes. The hard, sharp pencils of his assistants were used to
convert the ideas into blueprints.
evolution of the roof structure - from freehand competition drawings to the
early parabolic scheme in the Red Book to the ellipsoid schemes
like an extended fugue. The spherical solution, the result of countless
iterations involving the Utzon and Arup teams, is resolved as ‘a lightning
flash in the midnight sky’
“One summer day
in 1961 Utzon went to the model shop alone with a heavy heart and began
dismantling the perspex model, sadly thinking that it would have no use if
he could not find a solution for it to be constructed in a rational way. The
whole job would be cancelled after all these years of hard work. In order to
save space to store the models of the shells, he stacked them together one
by one, a smaller shell inside a larger one. When he finished the stacking,
something struck his eyes. The curvatures of the shells which he thought to
be quite different from one shell to the other, were more similar to each
other than he had thought all these years.
“An idea flashed in his
head like a lightning in a dark sky. If they were so similar, why
couldn’t they be cut out from a common surface? In order to do that the
curvature must be the same in all directions. What is a geometrical body
with a constant curvature in all directions. A sphere! .
“He rushed home and
taking a child’s rubber beach ball, put it into the bath-tub full of
water. The surface of the red rubber ball changed colour when it was wet.
Therefore he was able to see the shapes of the spherical triangles he could
cut out from the ball on the parts which were left dry. After many trials he
realised that the variety of shapes and sizes available were almost
limitless. Big and small, flat and upright. He could now compose the whole
shell by the pieces of spherical triangles cut our from just one single
sphere. He had found the solution.”
is given where credit is due. The Sydney Opera House was the work of many. The
collaboration between Utzon’s team and Arup’s was particularly harmonious
in the Hellebaek years. Ove Arup was a catalyzer and played an important role
in finalising Utzon’s solution. The concourse beam concept was ‘Ove’s
invention’. Utzon’s mind turned from egg shell to articulated rib fan as a
solution for the roof, partly because Arup’s suggestion was put forward at
the right moment. Many drawings previously presented in publications as
anonymous images – such as Rafael Moneo’s spherical geometry - are
acknowledged for the first time.
politics and timing, however, cast their shadows.
presents Utzon as a brilliant and inspiring figure, a perfectionist, dedicated
to his family, devoted to his work and stimulated by nature rather than
architectural magazines. He is a persuasive talker, extremely open minded and
undogmatic. The atmosphere in the Hellebaek Office is relaxed and optimistic.
But, according to Mikami, Utzon lacked political skills and was inclined to
1963, Charles Moses, one of the prime movers of the Sydney Opera House,
representing the interests of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, expressed strong doubts about the seating
arrangements in Utzon’s scheme for the Major Hall as a convertible hall to
fulfil the requirements of the original brief for a multi-purpose venue. Utzon
planned for some of the the seats to be located behind the orchestra, but Moses asked
Utzon to put the 2,800 seats in front the orchestra. This reversed ideas
expressed in Utzon’s 1958 Red Book - and in subsequent presentations
- and was contrary to an acceptable trend in the seating configurations for
Utzon stood his ground against Moses, Mikami contends, solutions for the
interiors would have been straightforward. Utzon’s designs for the Minor
Hall (now the Opera Theatre) were almost complete when he departed. But he was
struggling to meet Moses’ seating requirements for the Major Hall (now the
Concert Hall). His architectural successors subsequently adopted a
configuration similar to Utzon’s. Mikami later demonstrated the feasibility
of a convertible hall in his own Orchard Hall in Tokyo, where the Sydney
Symphony Orchestra performed in 1996.
Hall, the architect who was appointed by the NSW Government to replace Utzon
in 1966, was a man out of his depth. His Review of Programme, was an
act of politically influenced vandalism that substantially changed the
requirements for the interiors of the Opera House, based, as is often the way
in organisations promoting change, on rhetoric about the future and distortion
of the past.
Peter Hall had sought a position with the Utzon in 1959, but the Danish
architect had not employed him on
the grounds that Hall was not able to stay long enough in Hellebaek. Mikima reflects
on what might have happened in 1966 if Utzon had decided otherwise.
“No-one who had worked directly with Utzon could believe that it was
technically possible or ethically justifiable for anyone other than Jørn
Utzon himself to do the design of the Sydney Opera House as long as he was
alive and active.”
The Sydney Opera House became
‘a half masterpiece’, a building without integrity.
The book is not only an
essential contribution to our understanding of Opera House story, it is a
vital document for those planning its future.
Utzon’s sphere: Sydney Opera
House – how it was designed and built by Yuzo Mikami.
Photographs by Osamu Murai. Tokyo, Shokoshuka, 2001.