From The House (2018)

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design won the 1957 competition for the Sydney Opera House. In July, he set foot in Australia for the first time, accompanied by his business partner, Swedish architect Erik Andersson. When they first saw the Bennelong Point site they were accompanied by Gavin Souter, features writer for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Model of Opera House shell, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

Perched high above the site on the Tarpeian Way, the path above the sheer rock face cut along the north-west side of Macquarie Street in the Botanic Garden, they took in the splendid view of both the harbour and the promontory.

Utzon was blown away by the location and almost literally by the nor’-wester coming in off the harbour. ‘It’s right,’ said the Dane as his hair and gabardine coat blew wildly in the wind. Like a good sailor he scanned the horizon, from the Sydney Heads to the Circular Quay ferry terminal. He took in the vista of the harbour, the clouds, the Harbour Bridge – everything he could from this high vantage point. ‘It’s okay. This is the way they placed temples in the old days. It’s absolutely breathtaking. There’s no opera house site in the world to compare with it….This site is even more beautiful than in the photographs from which I worked.’

…Utzon explained he wanted a house that seemed to grow organically out of the landscape. To find such a shape, he had looked at flowers and insects.  He spoke about Mayan platforms and Kronborg Castle, which stood on a point only a few miles from his home.

‘It was not really the same. At Kronborg, part of the horizon is open; here the site is more intimate because the other side of the harbour is so close. Kronborg Castle is a big heavy structure with high towers and, as the ferry runs around it, the towers seem to move,’ he explained to Souter, as he watched a Manly ferry rounding the point on its way to Circular Quay. ‘The House will have several shells behind each other so that when you move past, they seem to move too…’

 

Model of Opera House interior, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

‘What do you think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s criticism?’ Souter asked.

‘He would not bother attacking it if he were not interested in it,’ Utzon replied, noting the praise from architects such as Richard Neutra, whom he’d visited in Los Angeles on his way to Sydney.

‘Don’t let me be a self-praiser,’ Utzon cautioned. ‘Self-praise stinks in Denmark.’ In Denmark, Jante’s law, a concept similar to Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, downplayed individual success.

To those who dismissed his design as ‘modern foolishness’, he said their criticism didn’t interest him, echoing his own father’s openness to the spirit of the new. ‘We ride in automobiles and we fire rockets. Why should we build in the Victorian style today?…’

‘This is how it will be at Bennelong Point. You must belong to your surroundings. When we design for Copenhagen, we are Danes; when we made this scheme for the Opera House, we camped on Bennelong Point. We were Bennelong Pointers.’

 -Helen Pitt, Australian

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