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Paper no 17









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A review of Yuzo Mikami's Utzon's Sphere

By Paul Bentley

September 2001, revised October 2013

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 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 Hall.

Yuzo Mikami’s new book Utzon’s Sphere is an authoritative, illuminating and elegant account of the saga, interspersed with drawings, personal photographs and anecdotes.

Mikami 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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 solution.

Credit 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.

Mikami 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.

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.

Had 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.

Mikami 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 architectural vandalism.

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.”

Mikami 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 concourse.

In the 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.

More 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.

During 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.

The history of the building, as well as its future, continue to be works in progress.

Book details

Mikami, Yuzo. Utzon’s Sphere: Sydney Opera House – How it Was Designed and Built. Photographs by Osamu Murai. Tokyo, Shokoshuka, 2001

Additional sources

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 Publishing, 2013

Drew, Philip. Performance Anxiety as the Sydney Opera House Turns 40. The Weekend Australian Review Section 12-13 October 2013

Kerr, James Semple, Sydney Opera House: a Plan for the Conservation of the Sydney Opera House and its Site. 3rd edition. Sydney: Sydney Opera House Trust, 2003.

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.


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