MATTER OF INTEGRITY
review of Yuzo Mikami's Utzon's Sphere
2001, revised October 2013
story of the Sydney Opera House is about creativity, mathematics, politics
Plans for an opera house were given impetus by Eugene Goossens, a
British conductor who was hounded from Australia for a customs indiscretion
involving the importation 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 a young Australian architect, Peter
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 the Utzon and Arup camps.
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 -
unfolds 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 out from just one single sphere. He had found the
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 catalyser 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.
Character, 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 cave in.
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 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 concert halls.
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 – if not a multipurpose hall - in his own Orchard Hall
in Tokyo, where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed in 1996.
is dismissive of the work of Utzon’s successors headed by Peter Hall as
design architect. Hall’s Review of Programme, he writes, was an act
of politically influenced vandalism that substantially changed the
requirements for the interiors of the Opera House.
Although the standard of its design may be regarded well above average,
the interior of the House is nevertheless a result of political
expediency and architectural compromises made during the construction
period, and can hardly be evaluated as excellent…Despite the
well-meaning endeavour of Peter Hall and other architects in charge of
the design, it is hard not to describe all these acts as an
Ironically, 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.”
provides an illustration of the work of Danish architect Leif Kristensen in
transforming the Broadwalk Studio to the Studio, but does not consider
Kristensen’s other initiatives, including opening up and joining the foyers
along the Western Broadwalk. Nor does he consider it necessary to mention
Andrew Andersons’ work, with Peter Hall, on the forecourt and lower
final section of the book, he describes the Sydney Opera House as “a half
masterpiece”, a building without integrity. It is a building that “seems to
have no end and no conclusion”. With optimism, he notes the engagement of
Richard Johnson of Denton Corker Marshall to develop new plans for the
building involving Jørn Utzon and his eldest son Jan.
than a decade after the book was published, some of the designs by Richard
Johnson, Jan Utzon and Jørn Utzon have been realised, including
refurbishment of what is now called the Utzon Room, the construction of a
colonnade along part of the Western side of the podium, and the redesign of
the Western Broadwalk foyer. Architectural commentators continue to debate
the quality of these changes.
Richard Johnson, Jan Utzon and Jørn Utzon have also produced plans for the
refurbishment of the opera theatre, now called the Joan Sutherland Theatre.
As the Opera House Trust develops its next masterplan, these proposals have
not yet been widely publicised and the debate has focused on the projected
cost of more than $1 billion.
the past decade, the Sydney Opera House has also produced a new edition of a
conservation plan for the building by Dr James Semple Kerr.
Fresh appraisals of the work of Peter Hall have appeared.
history of the building, as well as its future, continue to be works in
Yuzo. Utzon’s Sphere: Sydney Opera House – How it Was Designed and Built.
Photographs by Osamu Murai. Tokyo, Shokoshuka, 2001
Brownell, Blaine. A Design Icon 40 Years in the Making. In Architect
7 October 2013
Building a masterpiece: the Sydney Opera House / edited by Anne Watson.
2nd edition, with new chapter on Peter Hall. Haymarket, NSW: Powerhouse
Performance Anxiety as the Sydney Opera House Turns 40. The Weekend
Australian Review Section 12-13 October 2013
James Semple, Sydney Opera House: a Plan for the Conservation of the
Sydney Opera House and its Site. 3rd edition. Sydney: Sydney Opera House
Webber, Peter. Peter Hall Architect: the Phantom of the Opera House.
Boorawa, NSW: The Watermark Press, 2012.
Woolley, Ken. Reviewing the Performance: the Design of the Sydney Opera
House. Boorawa, NSW: Watermark Press, 2010.