The Utzon Effect

Leon van Schaik has recently argued in his book Design City Melbourne that, for all its great qualities, Jørn Utzon’s Opera House has made little impact on the architectural culture of Sydney. In fact, he writes provocatively, it has had ‘as much consequence for the local design culture as if it were from Mars.’ There is however a quite definable streak in Sydney architecture that would argue otherwise, and it was made very evident in a series of four recent talks, every Wednesday evening throughout the month of April. Convened by Eoghan Lewis, each had different speakers but all were dedicated to ‘celebrating the work and influence of Jørn Utzon’. The timing was set to coincide with Utzon’s birthday, but also the ongoing work at the Opera House, including the opening of the new Western logia. The events were an extension of a long-running series known as ‘slide night’, convened by Lewis and Simeon King. Slide night has become a Sydney institution as an opportunity to talk informally about architecture, and it has staged some now-legendary events in locations such as the Spanish Club and on the roof of the Palisades hotel. This focussed series on Utzon was a new initiative which, in collaboration with the Historic Houses Trust, formalised and shifted the discussion into the more plush institutional venues of the Museum of Sydney and the Mint.

Lewis is well known in Sydney as the convenor of the Sydney Architecture Walks, and is a prominent figure in local discourse and education. His intention with the series was to examine Utzon’s significance for this city and for 20th century architecture more generally, and to approach his major work, the Sydney Opera House, tangentially – to ‘talk about the object by talking around it’. The idea was that local debate about this seminal modern building could be made more ‘pointy’, both in the sense of being more topical, and more critical. Accordingly, the four talks were framed as a kind of loose before and after, beginning with ‘the Bayview Houses’, followed by ‘Utzon vs the Liberal Government’, then ‘After Sydney: Denmark, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Majorca’, and finally ‘The Legacy’.

The series opened, appropriately enough, with Richard Leplastrier, who worked for Utzon between 1964-66, and who was clearly deeply influenced by that period. Whilst the talk was ostensibly about the unrealised house projects that Utzon designed for his family at Bayview, it was more an occasion for storytelling about Utzon’s time in Sydney. This first event was sold out, and the audience sat riveted, giving occasional little hums of empathetic agreement or lightly clicking tongues in surprise. This was not your usual architectural audience. But they liked what they got, as Leplastrier recounted what it was like to be in ‘a group of young people working for this amazing man’. There was a palpable nostalgia here, but one which was strangely moving at times, as when Leplastrier described those idyllic days of forty years ago when he and Utzon would go sailing in fine weather rather than working in the office, wistfully saying that ‘it was just so nice…’

The second talk in the series featured Elias Duek Cohen, Bill Wheatland, and Sylvia Lawson. In this more than any of the other sessions, one had a sense that this was oral history being performed before our eyes – that this testimony to the minutiae of the political and legal processes which preceded and followed Utzon’s departure from the Opera House project must be preserved for the historic record. Bill Wheatland in particular, as the architect left to ‘clean up’ Utzon’s affairs and to pursue his court case for unpaid fees, was in a unique position to observe the machinations of the architectural and the political. Sure enough, the HHT has recorded and will archive this, and all of the discussions.

The third talk in the series was given by Alex Popov, who worked for Utzon for ten years and thus was probably the closest to him of all the speakers, in both personal and professional terms. Perhaps because of this familiarity, his was a refreshingly matter-of-fact presentation, which retained a critical acuity sometimes lacking in the other papers. His presentation of the work ‘after Sydney’ was also illuminating – it sometimes seemed that Utzon was cursed, with almost every major project in the years following his leaving Sydney being stymied in one way or another. The Zurich Schauspielhaus for instance, which Utzon had won in an international competition, was abandoned from one day to the next after seven years of documentation.

The fourth and final talk in the series was the most indicative of the true impact Utzon has had on the local scene, since it largely focussed on the concept of influence, and by extension, on genealogy. The speakers were Chris Bosse of PTW, Peter Poulet, and Peter Stutchbury. In different ways each addressed the theme of nature, and its role as an inspiration and source for architecture. But the most revealing moment of the whole series came in Stutchbury’s presentation, when he recounted an anecdote that had already been told by Leplastrier three weeks earlier, about sailing with Utzon on Pittwater and his pointing out a particular cloud formation rising up and over a headland. While this moment was clearly something of an epiphany for Leplastrier, what is really interesting is the way this very same story was re-told by Stutchbury, one of Leplastrier’s own students. This telling and retelling of stories down the generations, their dissemination by disciples to their own disciples, is precisely what writes history into myth.

Perhaps, these days, it is impossible for a public audience to gather and talk about the ‘Great Dane’ without a strange intellectual rowdiness emerging – an anxious desire to loudly cheer the hero and throw tomatoes at the villains. At one point James Weirick referred to ‘the Opera House tragedy’, and there is indeed something of the theatrical epic tragedy here, complete with Greek chorus, and with wailing. There is a distinctly odd mixture of hushed reverence, quasi-religious hagiography, and a surprisingly vehement – albeit to me rather misguided – vilification of Hall, Todd, and Littlemore, who took over the project after Utzon’s departure. There is an almost palpable sense of communal guilt, apology, and a fierce wish for redemption. In Sydney, today, it is perhaps not possible to be clear-eyed and critical about Utzon and his legacy. The subject is so overwrought, both the hagiography and the cynicism are so thick, the trees press so close it may be impossible to see the forest.

In this context Lewis’s decision to circle around the Opera House without directly addressing it seems a very wise one. But van Schaik’s question of the Opera House’s consequence for Sydney architecture remains. It seems to me that this impact is quite distinct, but also that it is less a formal influence, and more one of architectural attitude, design process, and personal connection. Genealogy maintains a very firm grip in Sydney architecture, and there is a privileged lineage which springs from a handful of ‘masters’ including Utzon, and leads onward through several generations of disciples. The fact that many of these figures have held influential teaching positions, and indeed have been great teachers, has perpetuated this system, and thus a reverential emulation has passed down through the years. It has fundamentally inflected what we know as Sydney architecture today.

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