Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
High noon at Bennelong Point
OBITUARY – JOERN UTZON: 1918 – 2008
Joern Utzon had it all: global fame, a huge cult following, an eponymous foundation and one of the world’s most glorious buildings indelibly attached to his name. Tall, principled, idealistic, with Gary Cooper looks and a Princess Diana shy-star quality, Utzon remains, nevertheless, a lonely figure in world architecture, a tragic hero, Sydney’s Prometheus.
Utzon’s luminous idea gave Sydney its most potent and profitable symbol, to which Sydney reciprocated, both then and since, with devoted admiration. And yet within a decade Utzon was crushed and spat out by the grind-stones of history, never to regain the extraordinary brilliance of those excruciating Sydney years.
Scholars have occasionally blamed Sydney for the extreme gradients of Utzon’s trajectory, both up and down, and to some extent the blame is apt; Sydney’s craving for glamour shot Utzon to stardom, and our addiction to mediocrity brought him crashing down. The 1966 sacking of Utzon will always sit heavily on Sydney’s conscience, and rightly. But the players – Robert Askin, Eugene Goossens, Davis Hughes and indeed Utzon himself – were puppets in a much larger opera.
Australia’s relationship with the avant-garde had always been timid, toe-in-the-water stuff. We were curious but mistrustful; interested but deeply risk-averse. We were, in a word, frightened. And mid-century Sydney, immortally described by one reviewer as “King George’s gulag”, was the epicentre of this timidity. Our tectonic shift into the modern world was belated, to say the least, and all the more violent for it. It was this clash of mighty forces – primal fear versus euphoric optimism – in which Utzon found himself trapped.
Born on April 9, 1918, Joern Utzon was the middle of three sons. His father Aage was determined, athletic and square-jawed; his mother Estrid warm, buxom and generous. They lived in a rented flat in the industrial district of Aalborg, Denmark, where Aage worked as a shipyard engineer and, from 1913, designed yachts in his spare time. Joern, tall and handsome like his dad, enjoyed sailing, skiing, hunting, biology and anything that took him close to nature. After school he would often visit his father’s design office to help draw and model the latest yachts.
In 1930, when Joern was 12, the family went to the Stockholm Exhibition that brought modernism to Scandinavia. On display were full-size model apartments, clean-lined furniture, and houses with south-facing plate glass and sun-terraces for the modern lifestyle. Aage and Estrid were instant converts to the new functionalist creed and the family’s life changed overnight. “The concept,” Utzon later recalled, “was space and light.” The family’s old dark furniture was thrown out and replaced by light, simple, streamlined stuff. They began to eat healthy, lean and green and to swim and cycle daily.
Joern’s next big discovery, as a teenager, was art. During a seaside holiday at his grandmother’s house in Alsgarde, an artist-neighbour taught him to draw; soft, expressive drawings in pencil and charcoal. So, when his first two career choices, the navy and naval architecture, fell foul of poor high-school maths results, art became Plan C. One of his father’s cousins, however, a sculptor and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, recommended architecture as a more practical option. In 1937 the 19-year-old Joern scraped into the Royal Academy.
Utzon’s student work was unremarkable. He met Alvar Aalto, the famous (and famously alcoholic) Finnish architect, and studied under the influential writer Steen Eiler Rasmussen, whose 1959 treatise Experiencing Architecture would become formative for generations of students. During these years, Utzon was shy and somewhat countrified, a practical joker with what would now be called “emotional” intelligence, rather than the full-frontal, highly articulate sort.
In 1940, Utzon built his first building, an unpretentious weatherboard shack near his grandmother’s house on the sea-wall at Alsgarde. In the same year, at her 21st birthday party in Copenhagen, Utzon met Lis Fenger, a vivacious commercial art student, one of eight girls in a family of 11 children. In December 1942, they married in Stockholm, where Joern was then employed. Stockholm was the town of Utzon’s hero, the great Erik Gunnar Asplund, architect of the sublime Woodland Crematorium. Utzon’s biographer, Philip Drew, notes Utzon’s admiration for Asplund’s habit of resigning whenever a job became sticky, then waiting for the client to back down and accept his terms. It was a high-risk strategy but it worked, for Asplund.
Utzon’s own world-shattering resignation was some way off, but the implication is that he took Asplund’s example excessively to heart. And it is this kind of ill-fit between Utzon and Sydney that made it such an explosive relationship. In Utzon’s familiar Old World culture, architects were greatly respected but opportunities to build strictly limited; Sydney, by contrast, offered limitless opportunity, but desperately little of the kind of respect Utzon took for granted.
In late 1945, after six weeks working in Helsinki, Utzon set up practice in Copenhagen. Lis was pregnant but because “real” work was hard to come by, much of the office’s time was spent on competition entries, in which they became especially skilled, winning seven first prizes in 21 competitions over 12 years.
Schemes included a proposal for the Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where a group of sculptural buildings was unified by a broad, linking platform; a “shell-burst”, three-chapel crematorium on a quiet hilltop in Denmark (1945), and an unplaced entry for the replacement for Paxton’s Crystal Palace on London’s South Bank (1946), again linking disparate buildings into a common platform base. With a friend, Tobias Faber, Utzon wrote a controversial article espousing two central architectural principles; learning from vernacular architecture and intelligent response to function.
If these were the seeds of the Sydney Opera House design, travel was the nutrient. In the late 1940s, the Utzons went to America, where Joern had warm meetings with the renowned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in Michigan, Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin and Charles Eames in California, as well as a bizarre encounter in Chicago with the cigar-sucking Mies van der Rohe, where communication, in English, was through a secretary. Mies allowed the Utzons to visit his newly finished Farnsworth House at Plano, Illinois.
Utzon was struck by the way Miesian spaces were at once disciplined and voluptuous, by Wright’s richly textural use of material and by the sheer panache with which Eames combined off-the-shelf componentry; lessons which he combined to good effect in his own house in Hammermill Wood, Hellebaek, 1952. Next stop Mexico, where Utzon had his first experience of the Mayan temples that, in creating massive stone platforms at the height of the jungle canopy, enabled the Mayans to break through into the sunlight and re-create lost horizons; much as Utzon would later do in Sydney.
The Hellebaek House attracted attention, and a potential client, the wealthy young literato Knud W. Jensen. It was 1956. Jensen, a friend of Baroness Karen von Blixen, wanted to build a modern art museum in the grounds of his manor house at Louisiana, outside Copenhagen. Utzon, however, was busy on the Opera House competition. Architects Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert got the job instead, producing the woodland pavilion that would become a magnet for design-pilgrims the world over. It was all good mental nourishment. But the upshot was that by the time he won the Sydney Opera House competition, Utzon was a 39-year-old architect brimming with ideas and design skill but with relatively little experience in the tribulations of getting things built.
The judging panel in Sydney’s Opera House competition included three overseas experts: Dr (later Professor Sir) Leslie Martin, chief architect of the London County Council, responsible for the Royal Festival Hall (replacing the Crystal Palace) on South Bank; Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth, British chair of architecture at Sydney University; Eero Saarinen, architect of the gorgeously swooping TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy airport, and a local, NSW government architect, Cobden Parkes (grandson of Henry).
The apocryphal story is that Saarinen arrived two days late and, plucking Utzon’s scheme from the bin, declared it the winner. “So many opera houses look like boots,” he told the press at the time. “Utzon has solved the problem.” Ashworth later disputed this story, insisting that Martin had already shortlisted the Utzon scheme. Either way, the winner was agreed, announced by the premier, Joe Cahill, and informed by telegram. Ten-year-old Lin Utzon, Joern’s eldest child (who herself would later create a number of artworks for Sydney buildings) carried the news to her father, pedalling furiously through the frozen landscape on her bike. “Now,” she said, “can I have my horse?”
Even as Utzon basked in his win, the furore began. His winning scheme was displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art beside Saarinen’s TWA Terminal. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe hated Utzon’s design; Saarinen and Richard Neutra loved it. In Sydney, the profession generally backed the winning scheme, with Harry Seidler calling it “magnificent . . . pure poetry”, and Arthur Baldwinson producing a watercolour impression to help communicate Utzon’s design to the public. But the politics had begun. The March 1959 re-election of Cahill as premier saved the Opera House for the time being, but the posse was gathering on the hill.
It wasn’t just Askin’s Opposition gunning for the project, on grounds – however spurious – of public profligacy. Internally, too, Utzon’s inexperience was showing. It was a vast, complex and immensely significant project, yet Utzon was reluctant to request expert help until the situation was desperate; tended to take long, idyllic holidays at crucial junctures; gradually (and then, from 1964, completely) moved from the shared Bennelong Point site office to a 1920s Palm Beach boatshed with no telephone, and was determined, even while the Opera House design development was at its most feverish, to take on other work as well, such as the never-built underground Silkeborg Kunstmuseum in Denmark.
At a personal level, Utzon was likeable and admirable. Professionally, such habits – whether they bespoke arrogance, insecurity or simple inexperience – made the job difficult for everyone. They also paved the way for those with other agendas, such as Ove Arup’s project engineer Michael Lewis and, more dramatically, the public works minister, Davis Hughes.
Askin was elected premier in May 1965, already a vocal critic of the Opera House project. Utzon, however, welcomed the change. He and Askin had met once and, he thought, liked each other.
Ever the optimist, Utzon believed a change of guard might ease a tense situation. But, reports Drew, at an election night dinner party in Mosman, Hughes’s daughter Sue Burgoyne boasted that her father would soon sack Utzon. Hughes had no interest in art, architecture or aesthetics. A fraud, as well as a philistine, he had been exposed before Parliament and dumped as Country Party leader for 19 years of falsely claiming a university degree. The Opera House gave Hughes a second chance. For him, as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius. In 1964 Hughes began to pay Utzon not for design problems solved, but for drawings produced. Utzon remained resilient, delighting his staff, for instance, by suddenly walking across the office on his hands.
But a pattern evolved. Utzon would solve a problem, structural, acoustic or spatial; Hughes would respond by refusing to fund tests for the new solution. Utzon would receive a huge tax bill, Hughes would tighten his “chequebook control” further still.
By February 1966 Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees. He threatened to quit and when Hughes called his bluff, did so. He believed the government would back down. At 4.30 on the fateful afternoon of March 4, 1966, there was a farcical meeting between Utzon and Askin in the premier’s wing of the old State Office Block on Macquarie Street. Utzon ended up climbing over a rear yard wall to avoid the press and being saved from a seven-metre drop only by the quick thinking of a colleague, Bill Wheatland.
The Utzons left Sydney on April 28, travelling to Hawaii under false names to evade the press. Still, Utzon fully expected to be recalled, but the government had already set about replacing him with what Drew describes as “a conspiracy of nobodies”.
Utzon did not attend the opening of the Opera House in October 1973, refused efforts to bring him back (including blandishments 30 years on by the premier Bob Carr) and never tried to tell his version of the story. Far from being lionised on his return to Denmark, he was threatened with a huge tax bill if he resumed his Danish citizenship and hauled over the coals by the Danish Institute of Architects, so spent the rest of his days in virtual exile in the beautiful Can Lis (1971) in Majorca. He built other fine buildings – including the Bagsvaerd Church (1968-76) and the Kuwait National Assembly (1971-83). But he would never again reach the heights of creative flair that Sydney elicited from him.
Joern Utzon was a remarkable man. Blessed with a beautiful, talented wife, three children (Lin, Jan and Kim) and grandchildren, he had a rich personal life. Footage from the 1960s shows him lying on the beach in Sweden while his two-year-old grandson Jeppe (now an architect in his own right, and recently critical of the new Utzon-Johnson interventions in the Opera House interiors) happily pours sand into his mouth.
But work was always paramount with Utzon, and in the end it was work that let him down. The Sydney Opera House could not have happened in Europe: only a wide-open New World culture would have had the innocent courage to build it, but the same cowboy-culture proved Utzon’s nemesis. Utzon and Sydney put each other on the map, but the intensity of the relationship contained the germ of heartbreak. Like Marshal Kane in High Noon, Utzon got to toss his badge contemptuously into the dust and ride off into the sunset. Although in later life he sounded reconciled both to this turn of events and to the built result, with its interloper interior, his failure to return and visit his most incandescent offspring suggests it may still have felt a somewhat hollow victory, bitter on the tongue.
TWO PHOTOS: Daring . . . the Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List last year. Photo: Steven Siewert
Online gallery at smh.com.au
March 3, 1966, after Utzon’s resignation. Photo: Frank Burke