tennis australian_open_logo_04The Rod Laver Tennis Stadium has nothing to do with the Sydney Opera House, except while watching the players at this important tennis event this week in Melbourne, I thought about how dedicated Australia is to sports, architecture and the arts. I was reminded of a spectacular edifice in the architectural world 550 miles away in Sydney.

The Sydney Opera House.

Jørn Oberg Utzon, (9 April 1918 – 29 November 2008) was a Danish architect, most notable for designing the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

In 1957, Utzon unexpectedly won the competition to design the Sydney Opera House. His submission was one of 233 designs from 32 countries, many of them from the most famous architects of the day. Although he had won six other architectural competitions previously, the Opera House was his first non-domestic project. One of the judges, Eero Saarinen, described it as “genius” and declared he could not endorse any other choice. When it was declared a World Heritage Site on 28 June 2007, Utzon became only the second person to have received such recognition for one of his works during his lifetime.

The Sydney Opera House Photo by

The Sydney Opera House Photo by Biarte Sorensen

Looking like wind-filled sails,12 white cement shells up to nearly 200 feet (160 meters) high stand on a deck of natural stone at the tip of a tongue of land extending into Sydney harbor, irrational and without any direct function but to arouse emotion. Yet they have become the symbol not just for Sidney but for the whole fifth continent. They stand in two rows on top of the “experience zone,” the concert hall, opera theatre, stage theatre, two foyers and main restaurant. The horizontally layered building underneath contains several stones of servicing departments for all the “experiences.” Utzon’s 1956 design for the Opera House won him the international competition and the contract to build it. Utzon’s designs puts him in the company of the organic tradition of architects, Wright, Scharoun, Asplund and access to opera housesydney1 tennis front view sydney oh lit tennis front view sydney-opera-house-05

Opera House interior view

Opera House interior view

The new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, was not enthusiastic about the project. Elizabeth Farrelly, Australian architecture critic, has written that at an election night dinner party, 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 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.

Utzon soon found himself in conflict with the new Minister. Attempting to rein in the escalating cost of the project, Hughes began questioning Utzon’s capability, his designs, schedules and cost estimates, refusing to pay running costs. In 1966, after a final request from Utzon that plywood manufacturer Ralph Symonds should be one of the suppliers for the roof structure was refused, he resigned from the job, closed his Sydney office and vowed never to return to Australia. When Utzon left, the shells were almost complete, and costs amounted to only $22.9 million. Following major changes to the original plans for the interiors, costs finally rose to $103 Sydney_Opera_House_Close_up_HDR_Sydney_AustraliaHowever, the Opera House was finally completed, and was opened in 1973 by Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia. The architect was not invited to the ceremony, nor was his name even mentioned during any of the speeches. He was, however, to be recognized later when he was asked to design updates to the interior of the opera house. The Utzon Room, overlooking Sydney Harbor, was officially dedicated in October 2004. In a statement at the time Utzon wrote: “The fact that I’m mentioned in such a marvellous way, gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don’t think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get and have gotten.” Furthermore, Frank Gehry, one of the Pritzker Prize judges, commented: “Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.”

What do you love most, architecture, the arts, tennis or something else? If you had to pick, which would it be? If something else, what is it?

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