The Sydney Opera House remains a highly controversial project. What really created it – like any building – was people. And the question of who really created what we see today remains fiercely debated almost half a century after it was finished.
It is above all about the interplay between three main characters.
Jorn Utzon, the visionary young architect with no international experience or indeed of building anything bigger than a small housing estate. Utzon was born in Copenhagen in 1918, the son of a naval architect. He loved sailing and fine art, and qualified as an architect in 1942. After the war Utzon travelled the world to meet his architectural and design heroes like Frank Lloyd Wright, and see ancient buildings in Morocco, Mexico and later China, Japan and India.
These experiences informed his belief that architecture should take account of form, materials and social context as well as function, and should be allowed to grow naturally. By 1956 he had a small established practice in Denmark that had designed a number of housing schemes and a water tower.
Ove Arup, the structural engineer, was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1895 to Scandinavian parents. He was educated in Denmark, then started work as an engineer specialising in reinforced concrete. He returned to England in 1923 and worked on several pioneering buildings, and later a significant role in developing the Mulberry Harbours that supported the D-Day landings in 1944. He was building up a highly innovative and well-respected practice by the late-1950s with offices in England, Ireland and several countries in Africa.
Peter Hall was born in 1931 in another Newcastle, this one about 100 miles north of Sydney. His modest upbringing did not hold him back and he won scholarships to be educated in Sydney and go on to Sydney University. He switched from fine arts to architecture and qualified in 1957. Like a lot of Australians at the time, he set off for London and got a job with a large firm of architects.
He got married to another Australian émigré and they toured Europe in an old van to see as much architecture as possible, including calling in on Jorn Utzon to admire one of his projects and see if he could take Peter on. Alas there was no short term work. Hall and his wife returned to Sydney where Peter started his proper career in the early 1960s producing a series of fine public buildings, including parts of the University of New South Wales, a law court and a records office in central Sydney, as well as a number of private houses.
In the early 1950s Sydney was at the far end of the world. It was ten weeks away from ‘the mother country’ by sea and three days by air. Australia’s largest city was enjoying a post-war boom and the place was bustling. There were some pretty fine buildings but it was not a graceful city. It was remote from the rest of the world and efforts to imbue serious culture into Sydney life were frustrated by the lack of anywhere suitable to perform.
The Sydney Town Hall was hopelessly inadequate as a base for concerts and opera. It had only 2,500 seats, no heating, and in the intervals concert-goers had to rush out to nearby pubs and cafes for refreshments. In 1954 the Opera House Committee was formed by the New South Wales government. It was decided that a new multi-purpose performing arts venue should be built on the site of a disused tram depot at Bennelong Point. This was next to the main ferry terminal at Circular Quay and right on the south bank of the Parramatta River.
It was also decided to run an international design competition and not restrict submissions to Australian architects. The competition was launched in December 1955 with submissions required by a year later.
The competition called for two large halls.
The rules said nothing at all about any of the practical things to do with such a building (like where the box-office should go or how it would be heated) or even how feasible it would be to build it.
223 schemes came in from 28 countries, about 30% of them from Australia. Each submission was anonymous. The jury of four included Leslie Martin (who had been responsible for designing the recently-opened London Festival Hall) and Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect who was a big fan of curving concrete.
Once the entries had arrived, three of the jury members began the task of assessing them. Saarinen would join them ten days later. Once the non-starters and rule-flouters were eliminated, finding a winner proved very difficult and the trio reached an impasse.
Then legend has it that Eero Saarinen flew in, dismissed all the short listed entries and in frustration looked through a pile of thirty rejected designs. Suddenly he declared, “Here is your winner!” Compared with the rather stale competitors it was a truly astonishing conception.
It was entry 218, and it arrived just days before the deadline. He convinced the others and on 29th January 1957 New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill opened the envelope and announced that Jorn Uzton had won.
It was estimated that Utzon’s design would cost £3.5 million to build (which was 40% less than the runner up was forecast to cost, and a half what was estimated for the third prize winner) and take five years to complete. For comparison the London Festival Hall which opened in May 1951 (and which had only one large auditorium seating 2,900) cost £2 million to build and took barely two years to design and construct.
On the other hand the judges declared in their report that “the drawings are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of being one of the great buildings of the world”.
Utzon had never been to Sydney. His inspiration was Kronborg Castle in Denmark, which sits on a peninsula and looks impressive from all sides, not just the front. His love of sailing inspired the sail-like shapes of the Opera House’s roof shells, recognising its relationship with the water.
His was the only design to place the halls side by side at the tip of Bennelong Point, creating a much stronger visual statement than the other entries that placed the halls one behind the other.
The day after Utzon received a cable from Australia to tell him he had won, Ove Arup was reading the Times newspaper over breakfast in Dublin. He sent the architect his congratulations and offered the services of his firm in working out the details of the distinctive shells.
A few days later Leslie Martin and Eero Saarinen (two of the judges) met Utzon in London. Their view was that Utzon was ‘admirably equipped to deal with all matters of design’ but would need help with financial management and structural calculations.
They strongly recommended to the New South Wales government that Arup’s firm be engaged as the structural engineers. Arup’s contract was not to be through the architect but directly with the Premier, and any specialist consultants would work for Arups not Utzon. They were naturally worried that Utzon simply did not have the experience to run such a large and risky project by himself.
New South Wales Premier Joe Cahill had to make sure that the project went ahead before political and public enthusiasm ebbed away. He declared that construction had to begin by February 1959 – just over a year after the winner was announced. The opening day was to be 26th January 1963 – Australia Day. And to pay for the scheme a public lottery would be launched. He was rather worried that the Opera House name sounded too elitist but Australians’ penchant for gambling happily overcame that objection and the lottery amply funded the project in spite of its massive overruns.
Jorn Utzon arrived in Sydney on 29 July 1957 for a three week visit. He was thrilled with the Bennelong Point site and he created a sensation in the city. He was tall, blond, charming and had the looks and presence of a film star. He attended a series of fund-raising events and accepted the appointment of Ove Arup and Partners as consulting engineers. He then returned to Denmark to assemble a team, including experts on acoustics, air conditioning, theatre design and electrical systems.
At this point Ove Arup hugely admired Utzon. They both had a Danish heritage so were on the same cultural wavelength. Arup entirely understood Utzon’s quest for creating something that was far more than just a functional building. Arup saw his role as enabling the architect’s vision to be realised, with the ultimate cost being a secondary consideration.
Almost at once the fundamental problems of Utzon’s design began to emerge. Getting the acoustics right for symphony concerts and grand opera in the same auditorium was going to be difficult and could only be achieved if the number of seats was reduced below 3,000. Complex moving floors would be required to reconfigure the spaces for different roles.
Under pressure to start work, initial plans for the podium upon which the Opera House would stand were made, and Stage 1 of construction began in 1959. This podium was more complicated than it sounds and Arup struggled to produce drawings fast enough. In addition, the ground under the site was less solid than predicted so far more piles were needed than expected. Stage 1 was completed two years late and well over budget.
But in one respect that did not matter, because no one could work out how to build the massive reinforced concrete shells that constituted Stage 2 of the project. Arups showed that the low parabolic shells envisaged by Utzon simply would not work. They would have to be cast on site at ruinous expense, and in any event tests showed they would not be strong enough to resist the most extreme wind loads.
The risks of going for an unprecedented design concept on top of the lack of serious thought about how the building was meant to work were becoming starkly clear and the stakes were rising.
In early 1962 there was a breakthrough. The myth is that Utzon was at home peeling an orange and realised that the shells could be made as sections of a sphere. The shells would rise higher and they would be stronger, but they would also be much cheaper because they could be made of standardised parts made off-site. The trouble was the shells were going to be much heavier than the original podium was designed for, so parts of it would have to be blown up and rebuilt.
Throughout these first few years Ove Arup acted as both a mentor and a defender of Utzon. Arup was busy with a series of projects and so did not see Utzon personally very often. However he was well respected by the New South Wales government. In the face of growing demands for detailed cost and progress reports from the government Ove Arup argued that “striving for perfection is the essence of the job… The Opera House could become the world’s foremost contemporary masterpiece if Utzon is given his head.” But behind the scenes relationships were becoming increasingly strained. Arup’s firm was doing far more of the architectural work (rather than engineering work) than would be expected.
It was clear that Utzon was well out of his depth. His ‘master architect’ style worked well in the small projects he was used to in his native Denmark where he was the hub of everything and took all the important decisions. But in the febrile political atmosphere of Sydney he was caught between the pressures to resolve basic problems with his design, the changing requirements of the main users (especially the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who ran the symphony orchestra) and the tense relationship with the state government.
It was becoming obvious that Utzon had no concept of cost control and this created ‘endless friction’ between him and Arup. Instead of relying on the Arup team’s great diplomatic skills in handling the client, Utzon insisted on briefing them directly, undermining Ove Arup’s position while accusing him of destroying his standing as the architect.
When the New South Wales government announced a revised cost of £17.5 million (five times the original estimate) in 1964 the opposition demanded a full enquiry. The Opera House had now become a full blown political issue.
That November Utzon decided he needed a less stressful working environment. He rented a boat shed thirty miles north of Sydney where he worked for three days a week with a small team and no telephone. In fact as early as 1962 he had been taking breaks of as long as three months away from the project, leaving consultants and contractors without direction.
He had confided to one Arup partner that he would not be concerned if the Opera House was never completed. A colleague in his Danish office said he ‘could easily become nervous’, had feelings of insecurity and was ‘not a tough person’. The fact that Ove Arup (and his colleagues) tolerated and supported him as much as they did is probably partly because they understood the psychological pressure he was under.
However, the sky was closing in. There was a state election in May 1965 and a tired Labor government that had clung on to power for 24 years was replaced by the Liberals under Bob Askin. He put David Hughes, his Public Works Minister, in charge of the project. Hughes demanded that Utzon give a final cost and completion date for the project and he put one of his men on site. After a thorough review showed that the real completion estimate was closer to £25 million, Hughes imposed stringent financial controls on Utzon.
In early 1966 a series of set-backs brought matters to a head. Utzon complained in a letter to Ove Arup that his engineers were going behind his back and discussing the interior ceilings with the client. Arup backed his own staff. ABC’s acoustic engineer announced that he felt the Opera House would not be suitable for the symphony orchestra. Then Utzon was told he would have to pay tax on income from the project that had already been taxed in Denmark. Utzon went straight into Hughes and demanded payment of a large outstanding invoice. Hughes said he would look into Utzon’s claim and get back to him by the end of the week. Utzon stormed out and tendered his resignation, saying that he felt Hughes did not respect him as an architect. Hughes immediately told the press Utzon had resigned, slyly adding that it was ‘a matter of regret’.
There was horror in architectural circles in Sydney. The nation’s foremost architects were appalled – even the ones who had entered the competition themselves. A 3,000 signature petition demanded Utzon’s reinstatement. 1,000 people marched and protested. In spite of his frustrations with the architect, Ove Arup personally lobbied from him to stay. But the only way that Hughes would consider having Utzon back was as an architectural advisor. He would have no control over the project and all his ideas would have to be validated by a panel of local architects and engineers.
Utzon and his family quietly slipped out of the country a few weeks later – never to return.
You get the feeling that some contingency plans had been made by the New South Wales government, because they lost no time in assembling a new team to complete the Opera House. In April 1966 Peter Hall was asked to take over as lead architect, alongside Lionel Todd who would look after working drawings and David Littlemore who would supervise construction.
Hall hesitated; he had actually signed the petition and marched in the protests. He also knew that this job would define his career just as he was attempting to set up in private practice. His wife was completely against it. On the other hand it would provide financial security for several years. Hall telephoned Utzon in Denmark to ask what he thought. Utzon told Hall he would not be able to finish the job and the government would have to invite Utzon back.
Hall thought it over for a couple of weeks then decided to accept. He was in for a bumpy ride. Whereas Utzon’s Nordic good looks and charm had enthralled his admirers, Hall’s flamboyant clothes, love of parties and passion for fast cars were seen as shallow and flashy. He came in for a lot of personal criticism but stood up to it well.
Hall’s style was completely different to Utzon’s. He was used to working in the collaborative atmosphere of a large government architectural office. He respected other people’s talents and ideas, and he got on well with contractors.
He immediately appraised the situation in front of him. The podium was built, but not completely finished. The shells were approaching completion. He expected that all the big problems for Stage 3 – the huge curtain windows and the interior layouts – would have been solved and his job would be to put the finishing touches to the drawings and sort out minor problems as they arose.
The reality was entirely different. A daunting amount of design work was needed. Most of the Stage 3 drawings were unavailable or unfinished. There was no solution to how to support the massive glass walls facing the harbour.
The seating capacity of the main auditorium was a long way short of what was needed. The original brief had been far too vague and the user organisations (with the possible exception of ABC) had not been properly involved throughout. Basic details about what provision would be needed for dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces and offices had not been defined; there was no specification for big installations like sound systems and air-conditioning.
The Opera House was conceived by Utzon on a building within a building principle. The shells would provide over-structures, and the auditoria would be free-standing boxes within them. The trouble was, the potential thickness and scale of the shells meant that the space within them was more limited than Utzon’s original scheme envisaged. It really was going to be about how to get a quart into a pint pot.
Hall took off at once for a three month world-wide examination of large performance venues to get ideas on how to proceed. He came back with three different possibilities:
None of these approaches would make everybody happy. The Government endorsed the second one.
In January 1967 a radical redesign was proposed. The Major Hall was to become exclusively a concert hall, with enough seating and the acoustics optimised for a large orchestra. The Minor Hall was to be dedicated mainly to opera and ballet with its auditorium shaped for this type of performance. But it would not be big enough to stage the largest operas and ballets. Space was found for a 500 seat Drama Theatre inside the podium.
The Uztonites felt betrayed. What was the point of an Opera House that couldn’t stage the largest operas? It was only some years later when early designs came to light that it became obvious that Utzon’s vision for the multi-use Major Hall was unbuildable. It would have had terrible acoustics, cramped seating, been structurally impossible to build and could never meet fire regulations.
Hall and his team worked closely with Arup and other contractors to create workable interiors that are distinctive in character but sympathetic to Utzon’s intentions. They are certainly not second-rate architecturally and work as well as they can within their difficult constraints.
The other major headache was the gigantic windows that had to cover the faces of the shells. Utzon and Arups had not worked out how to install these by 1966. Hall was inspired by the great glasshouses at Kew Gardens in London and the eventual solution is in that tradition. The answer he and Arups arrived at was to hang the windows from the shells with the glass panels fixed to steel mullions, which Utzon later acknowledged was in line with his original conception.
What was Peter Hall’s state of mind through all this? Clearly he was under huge pressure. The costs of the project were rising inexorably, in part because it was necessary to undo work that had already been finished, like moving expensive and heavy opera and ballet stage equipment from the Major to the Minor hall.
His relationship with Ove Arup appears to have been cordial and professional. This is evidenced by the fact that some years later Arups worked with Hall and his practice, retaining them as architectural consultants on two large projects – a cement works and a power station.
In public he was cool and reserved and careful what he said. In private things were not so calm. He now had plenty of money but his marriage was over and he was in a new relationship. He was building a stable of fancy cars, and bought a country home in Belltrees, close to the Hunter Valley wine growing district north-west of Sydney. He enjoyed fine wines and good cigars. He ate at the best restaurants and entertained lavishly. Work hard, play hard.
Gradually the compromises were agreed, the various users of the building accepted their lot, and the construction challenges were overcome. At last the project was brought to a close and the Sydney Opera House was opened by HM Queen Elizabeth on 20 October 1973, ten years late and 14 times over the original budget.
Neither Utzon, Arup nor Hall were mentioned in any of the speeches.
What happened afterwards brings us to the tragic part of this story.
Jorn Utzon never completed another major commission. He built a home in Mallorca and spent a good deal of time there. After the Opera House he designed more housing in Denmark, and had a few smallish commissions – a fine church, a department store in Copenhagen, a bank in Tehran.
In 1999 the then Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, invited Utzon to develop a Statement of Design Principles to guide long term preservation and internal redevelopment of the building. He was engaged to re-design, in partnership with his son Jan, Australian architect Richard Johnson and Arups, a series of spaces including what is now called the Utzon room. In 2003 Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest award.
One of the prize judges, the world-renowned Frank Gehry, declared, “Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country”. Utzon died in 2008, aged 90.
Ove Arup was 78 when the Opera House opened. It had been a gruelling assignment but it had also been a tremendous boost for his firm. No-one questioned the integrity of his team’s work and Arups emerged with a global reputation which they built on. Arup remains an independent firm, based in the UK with offices worldwide. It employs 13,000 people in 35 countries and is involved in some of the world’s most testing structural engineering projects.
Despite their differences Jorn Utzon said, “Luckily Ove Arup stayed on the job; otherwise it would never have been completed.” They met only once again when Utzon was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal in 1978. Arup was there to congratulate him. He died in 1988 at the age of 92.
Peter Hall went back into private practice in 1973. With little work around he came back into public service in 1976 as Director of Architecture for the Australian government, in charge of designing and maintaining public buildings across the country. He kept his own practice quietly ticking over. There was little scope to apply his immense, painfully-earned knowledge of performance venue design in Australia and he did not seek an international career.
He was still scorned by certain sections of the Australian architectural community. Any time he was given the slightest credit for what he had achieved at the Opera House, angry voices would snap back. He returned to full time private practice in 1980 and designed houses, offices, colleges, factories and bridges.
The next big downturn came in the early 1990s and in 1992 Hall was forced to close the practice. He laboured on as a sole practitioner but his high living and high spending were rapidly catching up with him. His relationships were falling apart and he was living alone in a small flat north of the Harbour Bridge and drinking heavily. In early May 1995 he was rushed to hospital and died on the 19th, aged just 64. Even after death they wouldn’t leave him alone. Hall’s balanced obituary in The Australian provoked one of Utzon’s senior staff to spit back that Hall’s efforts on the Opera House were ‘naïve and presumptuous’.
Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most famous buildings. It is a symbol of Australia and marks Sydney as a progressive, cultured and international city. When you go round it Jorn Utzon is venerated everywhere – perhaps as some kind of belated penance for his ignominious departure. His career was stunted but he won the prizes and died in contentment.
But nothing would have been achieved without the genius of Ove Arup. He had both the artistic sensibility to understand what Utzon struggled to articulate, and the technical skill to turn it into a real building. After Peter Hall took over, Arup provided continuity and probably felt relieved that there was at last a partner with whom the tremendous problems could be solved objectively and co-operatively. But in public at least, his role is overlooked. Within the architectural and engineering professions he is revered.
The truly tragic figure is Peter Hall. The Sydney Opera House was the job that made him and broke him. For seven years he strove to deliver a building that would do the maximum that was possible within the constraints Utzon had left him. He got little credit and the episode overshadowed his ultimately failed career. Jorn Utzon was more magnanimous. In 2006, he wrote, “My successors, who completed the building, did a tremendous job”.
Jorn Utzon: 1918 – 2008 (90). Age on 1 Jan 60 = 41
Ove Arup: 1895 – 1988 (92). Age on 1 Jan 60 = 64
Peter Hall: 1931 – 1995 (64). Age on 1 Jan 60 = 28.
Arup Group: www.arup.com
Baume, M. (2013). A forgotten hero. The Spectator. At https://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/11/a-forgotten-hero/
Los Angeles Times: www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-utzon30-2008nov30-story.html
Moy, M. (2009). Sydney Opera House, idea to icon. Ashgrove AU: Alpha Orion Press
Sydney Opera House: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/our-story/sydney-opera-house-history/the-competition.html
Webber, P. (2012). Peter Hall architect, the phantom of the Opera House. Boorowa, AU: Watermark Press.
Zaat, John – personal correspondence with one of Hall’s team, November 2017
(c) Eric Woodcock 2019