“I like to be on the edge of the impossible”, said Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who was responsible for designing the Sydney Opera House. On my visit to Australia, I toured the world-renowned landmark. I learned its construction and design was indeed a story of someone achieving ‘the impossible’, but it is also a story of dreams and relationships broken and restored.
The Sydney Opera House is a World Heritage Site because so many of the architectural methods and engineering techniques used to build it were completely new and were created expressly for its construction. Utzon’s design for the building was chosen from 233 submitted, but no one, including Utzon, was really sure a structure of its kind could be built. The tiles on the outside are just one example of the innovation required. They change colour depending on the amount of daylight and the temperature, so they rarely look the same. Most importantly they are self -cleaning. It took Utzon three years to design just the tiles.
Utzon devised and tested sixteen different schemes for making the famous white sails on the building’s roof before he figured out how to cut them from circles of steel. 16,000 workers were required to be on site during the construction of the signature ‘sails’. Utzon by the way did not call them sails. He wanted them to be abstract so each visitor to the opera house could have their own idea what they looked like. Some people say they remind them of waves, a dragon’s back, seashells, or dishes in a dishwasher. I thought they looked like Marilyn Munroe’s white dress in the movie Some Like It Hot when a blast of air from the subway grate blows her skirt up into the air. Whatever they remind you of, those ‘sails’ on the opera house roof took eight years to build.
Ten years after Utzon started work on the opera house a newly elected Australian government gave him an ultimatum. He either had to make concessions in his design and collaborate with government architects so the building could be finished more quickly, or he had to quit. Utzon resigned and the government hired others to complete his work. Utzon never went back to Sydney to see the finished opera house even though he won many of architecture’s most prestigious awards for designing it.
Thirty- three years after he’d resigned someone from the opera house staff approached Utzon to apologize to him and ask for an interview. Would he be willing to let them see all his notes and drawings and would he explain his original ideas so they could be kept for posterity? Utzon accepted the apology and agreed to the interview. Now the Australian government is slowly making changes to the Opera House so that eventually it will look exactly as Utzon planned. They have already replaced concrete outer walls with banks of windows and repainted interior walls with new colours following Utzon’s original plans. Utzon’s son has flown to Sydney to supervise these changes. John Utzon died in 2008 at age 90 but he died knowing that his original ‘dream’ for the Opera House would become a reality in the future.
Seven million people from all over the world visit the opera house each year and 350,000 take a guided tour. They learn all about how the one of kind architectural masterpiece was built. They also hear the story of how the relationship between the opera house designer and the country of Australia was broken and restored because each party was willing to be gracious and forgiving. Both of the stories are inspiring and important.