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Damned by Sydney: The passing of Jørn Utzon

Damned by Sydney: The passing of Jørn Utzon


By Binoy Kampmark

While Sydneysiders will venture that their harbour remains inimitable, that incomparably pagan place of beauty in the world (What of stunning beauties such as Stockholm? Or dashing, daring San Francisco Bay?), one of the primary reasons for its fame was due to a Dane. And that enterprising figure of the art world, Jørn Utzon, is no longer with us, dead at 90 in Mallorca of various ailments, including a degenerative eye condition that brought him near blindness.

His name is forever fastened to that problematic edifice we all know as the Sydney Opera House. In 1957, he commenced a task he probably wished he never began, the result of winning a competition in 1956.

Criticisms were arraigned against it from start to finish. There was that nagging problem with how to sustain the shells in the design, and provincial criticism about Utzon’s ‘day-dreaming’ and Hamlet-like ponderings that prolonged the project. Money costs were spiraling, and a meddlesome state Minister for Public works, Davis Hughes, decided to throw in a few aesthetic and commercial observations, with negative results. Then came the vengeful critique of the final product. Acoustically, it lacked bite. Spatially, it was cramped, limiting effective performances.

And the whole project, like an unshakeable fever, would not leave him. A remodeling project that was to subsequently take place years later strained relations with son (Jan) and grandson (Jeppe), both architects in their own right. In true Utzon tradition, all cited interference from other architects, all unable to appreciate the manic purity that held sway in the Utzon product for decades.

While branded with the mark of a recalcitrant Sydney, Utzon did not stop there. Magisterial works emerged from his draftsmanship in Iran and Kuwait, the latter’s capital privileged by a national assembly building built between 1971 and 1983. There, the inspiration was less the sea than the caravan tent pitched in the desert. He also revolutionized Danish housing design.

His training was pedigree plus – a stint with Swedes Paul Hedquist and Gunnar Apslund and tutelage with the Finnish colossus of architecture, Alvar Aalto. Prior to that, he dabbled, with some evident skill, in sculpting.

His buildings tended to have an eye for the sea. This may come as little surprise – Utzon’s father was himself an accomplished naval architect, and director of a shipyard in the Danish town of Aalborg. The Sydney Opera House, with its marine overtones, is no exception, resonating with that effortless combination between water and human initiative.

What ultimately gave Utzon his inspirational drive was a trip to Mexico in 1949, where he had his architectural epiphany. There, he noticed, the Maya had made extensive and ingenious use of platforms that were sensitive to bountiful landscape and brooding deity. By ‘building up the platform on a level with the roof of the jungle, these people had suddenly conquered a new dimension that was a worthy place for the worship of their gods. They built their temples on these high platforms, which can be as much as a hundred meters long.’

The Danish response to Utzon’s passing was located somewhere between genuine warmth and megalomania. It saw in Utzon the greatest of inspirations. The Danish minister of culture, Carina Christensen claimed (Politiken, 29 Nov) that Denmark, and indeed world culture, had lost a remarkable ambassador. His name had been preserved, she mystically suggested, in his works.

Australia did acknowledge him in various forms, if perhaps grudgingly, though he never visited after leaving in 1966. There was little reason to – he was neither invited to the Opera house’s opening ceremony in 1973 or barely mentioned in proceedings. The Hamlet of the architectural world had vanished from the building record of the antipodes.

To soften the severity of such treatment, he was conferred the Order of Australia in 1985. But what mattered was his architectural genius, something openly acknowledged by the award of the Pritzker Prize in 2003. But again, clinging to his oeuvre like stubborn adhesive tape, came the mention of that critical piece, the Opera House. The judges were clear that Sydney’s seminal monument deserved a place in the pantheon of Twentieth Century architecture. And few would deny Utzon that credit.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, and lecturer in history at the University of Queensland

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