Inside Story

The man who wasn’t there

Sylvia Lawson on the ABC’s triumphant return to the Opera House

Sylvia Lawson 19 March 2013 3694 words

THREE months ago, on 28 November, the ABC staged a modest kind of public launch in Sydney for a lengthy and wide-ranging online documentary, The Opera House Project, which has been produced to mark the coming fortieth anniversary of the building’s official opening on 20 October 1973. As the date approaches, this remarkable film may be accorded some fanfare; it deserves it. It works on several tracks, and each of those splits and branches at your will, offering some twenty-six hours of history and commentary.

Click, for example, on “Performance and Events,” chapter 3 on the main menu, and you will be roaming around recent theatre history, and a wider field of public memory. There’s nothing bland about this account, and it’s worth remarking since this, after all, is an account of one major cultural institution by others (it began with an approach to the ABC from the Opera House Trust). It could have been anodyne; and in this chapter you might have got a harmless montage of operatic and balletic moments, grand gestures, an anthology of official culture. But the section is anything but predictable; the choices of segments from Bell Shakespeare, and Joan Sutherland’s appearances and her own commentary, are alive and thrilling, not only because a passage from La Stupenda singing Norma is pretty exciting in itself, but because of the energy with which the archival elements are set in motion again.

Reflections from John Bell, John Gaden, Yvonne Kenny and Moffatt Oxenbould revive other cultural pleasures; Gaden, Jacki Weaver and Robyn Nevin deliver theatre memories for their critically important generation. James Waites and others argue the merits and defects of the Opera House’s Drama Theatre. The librettist Dennis Watkins, the dance critic Jill Sykes and the designer Brian Thomson – all highly expressive and knowledgeable witnesses – intensify the sense of the difference the Opera House has made to a city and a country. And here again is that sight on the morning of 18 March 2003 when shocked city crowds around the Quay saw the words NO WAR in huge scarlet letters at the top of the highest arch. Those two brave and romantic activists couldn’t have found a more powerful signpost anywhere.

Here we also get film of the opening of the building by the Queen, whose brief speech memorably included the line “I understand that its construction has not been completely without problems.” Nor, in fact, was her own participation. Ten years earlier, during her second visit to Australia as monarch, she and her husband had been given a tour of the building site; next day the building’s designer, Jørn Utzon, and his wife Lis were among their guests at lunch aboard the royal yacht Britannia. In 1973, the Queen must have known about Utzon’s forced departure from the major task of his life. We know it’s part of her job to stand apart from politics; but was she compelled to endorse that deeply political hostility which ensured that throughout the opening program the exiled architect’s name wasn’t mentioned once? At the royal lunch, the Utzons met Patrick White, who had said that the Opera House design made him glad to be alive in Australia at the time. Not one for public occasions in general, he turned up regularly at the events organised in later years to support Utzon and bring him back.

Chapters one and two revive and rebuild a story that has been inextricably part of Australia’s for close on fifty years. Those who know it, even in outline, and who are aware of the deep clash between inside and outside, have reflected that it’s a case of symbolism that is only too valid. On the outside, exhilaration and hope; within, timidity, compromise and decoration – dated kitsch, in fact – concealing honest, functioning structure. What should have been there, an assemblage of coloured plywood ceilings (Chinese red in the larger hall, blue and silver in the smaller one) designed by a great geometer to make sense of a near-impossible brief, is something tourists and audiences can’t see. This documentary opens the building to its fourth dimension, history; we’re given back the voices of the dead, and of some still living as they were when very much younger. Justice is done to the great population of workers – 10,000 of them, speaking over thirty languages – who got those great vaults, with their magical tiling, from the ground into the air.

Depending on your choice of path through the film, with its many tracks, you may well end with a sense of gratitude for the building as we have it; you may also be confirmed in a sense of loss, and a toughened appreciation of intense cultural–political conflict. The early segments capture the near-incredible idealism of the project at its inception, when the NSW Labor premier John Joseph Cahill, an unpretentious, conservative Catholic, managed to grasp the visionary plan of a gifted, inexperienced young architect and commit his state’s machinery to its realisation. There’s a factor in that part of the story that the film-makers didn’t know – the way the Labor Party’s women’s conference voted, en bloc, to support Cahill in his political struggle to vote the Opera House project into existence; their role was vital. That said, Cahill emerges as one of this history’s several heroes; at the beginning of the story we’ve already witnessed the martyrdom of another, the conductor–composer Eugene Goossens.

CAHILL died in October 1959, seven months after helping Utzon lay the foundation stone. The building of stage one, the massive podium, went ahead, while plans for stages two and three, the vaulted roofs and the interiors, were still years from completion. Many, including Ove Arup, chief of the engineering firm that was the principal contractor, believed that construction had begun much too early; but Cahill believed, with good reason, that if building wasn’t begun while he was still premier, it might not be started at all. The film tells how Cahill, on his deathbed, enjoined his minister for public works, Norman Ryan, to keep the Opera House alive; Ryan had said that he didn’t understand the project. But in ways not shown in the film, he became more sympathetic to it in the years that followed. Utzon won him over, and not just by charm. Through the early months of 1965 Ryan – a former electrical engineer, intent on the practicalities of things – pored over the architect’s documents until he became convinced of the soundness of his methods. He then promised Utzon that if Labor won the May 1965 state election he would release the funds needed for the building of those prototypes from which plans for the building’s interiors would be derived. Labor lost; so did the architect, and we all lost the building that could have been.

With Davis Hughes installed as the Liberal–Country Party minister for public works, Utzon hadn’t a chance. Hughes had wanted control of the project from its outset, and he didn’t understand that the Danish architect was working in a European, craft-centred tradition in which planning connected, cooperatively, with manufacturing and building. The project also depended on three-dimensional geometry and the mass production of elements, thus requiring only small teams working on design. The film shows a very clear example of the approach, when the engineering principal Jack Zunz – standing beside Utzon while they’re interviewed by the ABC in 1962 – picks up and displays a model showing the segmented concrete ribs which form the structure of the roofs, a specimen of economical, repetitive geometry. In a stiff, polite, early ABC TV sort of way, that film clip also shows architect and engineer working coherently and amicably together.

As for a time they did. Utzon’s way was holistic, collaborative and multi-disciplinary, using what organisation theorists describe as “strategies of concurrency”: the work of design moves step-by-step with that of the contractors, engineers and manufacturers. In the Australian professional context of the 1960s this was audacious, radically different from the dominant practice in which the architect works apart from others and above them in status, producing detailed working drawings with the help of larger teams, and handing them on for tendering. In the struggle with the government, Utzon got no support from the NSW chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, though he had dutifully joined it, been made a fellow, and had designed for the president a beautiful chain of office. Some gibed that it was made of thirty pieces of silver. Had the RAIA shown solidarity – for example, by determining that none of its members should agree to take over Utzon’s job – the government could have done nothing. Solidarity of that kind is not, however, in the traditions of the profession.

For that reason, there are those close to the story who hold the RAIA more culpable than the NSW government in Utzon’s forced departure. To make things worse, the architect had lost the support of the principal engineering contractors, Ove Arup and Partners; the initial strong rapport had broken down, and as this film shows clearly, they were talking past each other. Arup’s principals were concerned about their positions in the control of the project, to which Ove Arup himself – now ill and ageing – had committed major resources. Territorial issues were sharpened; as history, the film does an invaluable job in presenting the spoken viewpoint of Michael Lewis, Arup’s director of work on the site. Unlike Ove, unlike Jack Zunz, said Lewis, he couldn’t fall in love with Jørn – and that understates it; in the memories of Utzon’s team, he was implacably hostile, and entirely ready to support the government’s version. On the evidence yielded by the film, however, he was a reasonable, pragmatic engineer who got on with Utzon well enough for a time; they lunched together on several occasions, and Lewis, among others, tried to persuade the architect not to threaten resignation in his dealings with Davis Hughes.

The immediate cause of the crisis was money. On coming to office, Hughes had made the architect’s regular payments conditional on productivity as he understood it – and it should be remembered that funding for the Opera House did not come out of the government’s general funds, but from the proceeds of a dedicated lottery. For no good reason, Hughes kept Utzon strung out on an emergency pay claim in February 1966; the money, long delayed, was desperately needed for staff, for consultants and for Ralph Symonds’s plywood model-building, for which specific funding had been persistently delayed – first by Norman Ryan, then after the election by Hughes. Utzon set a mid-February deadline, and when by 28 February the minister hadn’t delivered, he sent a letter which was meant to work as an ultimatum. Utzon’s staff urged him to seek legal advice; he refused to do so, and his wording was unstrategic: “you have forced me to leave the job… I have therefore today given my staff notice of dismissal.” Hughes took the letter as a resignation, and called in the press immediately. There were frantic attempts at damage control, but although Utzon – always charming and cheerful with the press – refused to take the matter as concluded, Hughes and the government had all the ammunition they wanted.

The government installed its own consortium of architects: Hall, Todd and Littlemore, or HTL. Like other members of the profession in Sydney, those three had no idea how far the planning by Utzon and his team had gone. While questions of cost and efficiency had been raised constantly against Utzon, HTL was allowed all the time and money it wanted for research, planning and consultation for the interiors that were built. The film is merciful to Peter Hall, who did not accept the position of design architect until he was sure that Utzon was going; but Utzon’s supporters, within and outside the profession, continued to see him as a traitor, and he carried that burden for the rest of his life. In this film, his position is lucidly analysed by Anne Watson of the Powerhouse Museum (whose extensive work on the history appears in the splendid collection of essays she edited for the Powerhouse, Building a Masterpiece).

The film makes much of the shock to HTL’s principals when, in taking over, they found that there was no legacy of usable working drawings. They had expected to pick up where Utzon and his team had left off, radically underestimating the difference between his way of working and the dominant practices in which they had been trained. Their dismay is recalled in the film; what isn’t told is that Hall pleaded to Utzon’s associate, Bill Wheatland, to “get the man back,” and that he told the minister that the job couldn’t be done without the principal architect. Hughes’s response was to call Peter Hall to order and send him off on a tour of the world’s opera houses. On that trip, it’s unlikely that he saw many auditoria built to accommodate both concerts and opera. In general, it doesn’t happen; but that was the difficult requirement laid on Utzon and his team in the original, badly developed brief for the Opera House.

It wasn’t until after Utzon’s departure that the ABC – always destined to be the building’s principal user – advised the government that the major hall should be organised for concerts only, with the minor hall set up for opera, and live theatre confined to the smaller spaces in the podium. But through all the years after he won the competition, Utzon’s central purpose had been to achieve a concert hall fit for variable acoustics. This was expressed in the stepped plywood interiors he and his team planned for the major hall, and most importantly in the unit of moveable stage machinery to be installed in the vault of the highest arch, thus making fully functional sense of that spectacular element. By 1966 the machinery, providing for variable kinds of performance, had been built and set in place; with the change of architectural leadership and the abandonment of the dual-purpose hall, it had to go. I heard that the scrap-metal merchant who was contracted to remove and demolish it found himself gripped by a great sadness, knowing that he was dismembering part of an absolutely remarkable project. That machinery wasn’t all that went to waste; so did years of design, research and experiment on the far cutting edges of architecture, engineering and acoustics.

But as the spoken evidence in the film shows clearly, Utzon’s partners in the enormous task didn’t know what he was doing from one point to the next, and he didn’t make it easy for them. For those concerned with the entanglements of politics and culture, the most important part of The Opera House Project will be the second set of tracks, “Engineering and Construction.” Here’s the blood on the floor. There were utterly different ways of thinking at work; look at the sections where Ove Arup and Michael Lewis deliver, each at length, the engineers’ absolutely reasonable viewpoints. In Arup’s case, the breakdown of communication with the architect was a matter of tragic personal loss; he had believed that in Utzon he had found the ideal architect-collaborator, and there was something of a father–son affinity.

Then look at the long passage from Peter Luck’s 1973 interview with Utzon; this particular retrieval is perhaps the present film’s most important gift to us. The conversation was filmed for the ABC on a rocky island off the coast of Sweden, a place where the architect and his family took holidays. Utzon had insisted on the location; Peter Luck was clearly amazed by the man’s intense concern that such a conversation should take place in a setting of natural beauty, and one remote from everyday working life. Sitting on a rock above a pebbled beach, gently windblown, Utzon gives his own explanation of the fatal rift, and his commentary on the outcome, in which the building’s interiors have nothing to do with the outside and no harmony with it. He sees massive waste; he claims that the final cost of the building could have been some $30 million less than it was. As the interview closes, he wonders a little sadly why he hasn’t been offered another commission in Australia, a country he enjoyed living in and, he says, a wonderful country for architecture.

He hasn’t a bad word to say about anyone; but when he met Peter Luck, he had evidently lost sight of his own intractability in Sydney, and the way he had cut off communication with all but a few; he refused to have a phone in the studio to which he retreated at Palm Beach for most of the working week. People say there’s always a gulf between architectural and engineering mentalities, but it isn’t clear that in this case it should have been unbridgeable. The nastier elements can’t be ignored; as Joseph Skrzynski, a former chair of the Opera House Trust, bears eloquent witness, Davis Hughes carried a deep, irrational malice towards the architect. Skrzynski’s evidence is reinforced by the unpleasant few minutes of “Davis Hughes in his own words.” Such enmity bears consideration, and it wasn’t the old story of the artist versus the state. The conflict was within the state, which had backed the architect in the first place; it was about control, and the way Utzon, the foreigner, couldn’t help giving offence. In his ways of working, he assumed a kind of freedom which no politician of Davis Hughes’s stripe could stand for. He’d call the team away from the drafting tables to look at the shape of a cloud; what could the bean-counters do with a man like that?

IN THE months following his departure, serious attempts were made to get him back. There was the rally and march; committees were formed; there were difficult, conflicted meetings of the RAIA; there were telegrams to the government from the biggest names in architecture across the world – the film displays them: Félix Candela, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn and Walter Gropius among others. In mid February 1967 the theatre academic Philip Parsons, with the young critic Francis Evers, filled the Australian’s broadsheet pages over three issues with a series of long articles explaining the architect’s methods and exposing the extent of cross-cultural misunderstanding. Three months later the intrepid bookseller and publisher Colonel Alec Sheppard – never one to back away from an honourable fight – published a pamphlet by the town planner Elias Duek-Cohen, with contributions by Donald Horne. Utzon and the Sydney Opera House: A Statement in the Public Interest made the facts and issues very clear indeed, with a lineup of ironic cartoons by George Molnar. The best-known of those appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, and is reproduced in the film. It is captioned with the rhyme “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.” Meanwhile in Denmark, Utzon carried on, intrepidly working on the building’s interiors, naively certain that before long they’d have to call him back.

On 19 February 1968, 1500 people turned out for the last major protest in Sydney Town Hall. The speakers included Norman Ryan, who never ceased to repent that he’d held out on Utzon’s funding for just too long; but what held the audience riveted was a taped message from the architect, affirming his ongoing command of the remaining design problems, and his desire to return, offering complete good will (“I stretch forth my hand to you, Mr Davis Hughes…”). No one who was there forgets it. Premier Askin, or Hughes, issued an annihilating statement in response: “The government knows of nothing relating to the completion of the Sydney Opera House that requires Mr Utzon’s attention.”

Their voices have died on the wind. Thirty-three years later the NSW premier Bob Carr, to his enduring credit, initiated moves towards the architect’s eventual return and re-engagement – not that he might come back physically, but with his son Jan he was contracted in 1999 to draw up a set of principles for the conservation of the building, to design the exterior colonnade along the western side of the podium, and to design also the broad, seaward-facing multipurpose room above the opera theatre. This splendid space (which I’ve experienced as a participant in public discussion) is the only internal area in the whole complex which Utzon actually designed, along with the stunning tapestry along its inner wall. The passage called “The Return,” which concludes this main chapter of The Opera House Project, is peculiarly moving. It unfolds a strange kind of happy ending for the architect, a late reconciliation for the last decade of his life, which ended in November 2008. He was ninety, and he’d outlived the whole pack of them.

THE Opera House Project is an enormous feat of research and teamwork. Sam Doust was the principal writer and director, and co-producer with Gabrielle Shaw. Tim Bosanquet wrote and directed “Performance and Events.” Lucy Bell’s way of delivering the narration is at once dispassionate and empathetic; there are moments when the run of the voice, over dense, flowing imagery and information, makes me think of certain works by the French film-maker Chris Marker. Music – piano works both gentle and profound from Satie, Schubert, Chopin and others – underlies and connects the elements in the chapter I have looked at here; it sets them down in time.

Utzon said once, “I like to be very modern. I like to live on the edge of the possible.” When you see the building from the middle distance – say on a ferry, or from the outer harbour looking west – you look at such an edge. On a headland, I heard a visitor say, “But no one could have built that.” Against all the odds, they did. •