Opinion

Opera House architect 'a man ahead of his time'

Madeleine Coorey

Australia on Sunday mourned the death of Danish architect Joern Utzon, who designed Sydney's iconic, sail-shaped Opera House.

Australia on Sunday mourned the death of Danish architect Joern Utzon, who designed Sydney’s iconic, sail-shaped Opera House but never saw his building completed.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led the tributes to Utzon, who died in Copenhagen aged 90, describing him as a visionary whose legacy includes one of the world’s most spectacular and inspiring structures.

“This opera house is not just Sydney’s great symbol to the world, it’s Australia’s great symbol to the world. And we owe this great symbol to this great man who has now passed away,” Rudd said.

“A son of Denmark, but I’ve got to say, in terms of his spirit, a son of Australia as well.”

The famous building’s lights will be dimmed on Sunday night in memory of Utzon while the flags on Sydney’s nearby Harbour Bridge will fly at half-mast on Monday.

New South Wales state premier Nathan Rees said Australia was indebted to Utzon for the “architectural masterpiece” which draws about 7,5-million visitors each year.

“[He was] a man ahead of his time and we were lucky enough to be the beneficiaries,” Rees said.

“We pay tribute to a visionary architect whose design for the Sydney Opera House—an architectural masterpiece—has come to symbolise the spirit of our great nation around the world.”

The Opera House Trust, which maintains and pperates the building and which works with Utzon’s son Jan on modifications, said he was “an architectural and creative genius who gave Australia and the world a great gift”.

Utzon won a 1956 competition to design the building and began work the following year on a distinctive design which featured the off-white “sails” pointing towards the harbour.

But a storm of controversy over budget blow-outs and Utzon’s artistic vision saw him quit the project in 1966, and he never returned to Australia to see his revolutionary concept as a finished building.

When Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II opened the Opera House in 1973, the building’s interiors were not those of Utzon’s design and several unplanned venues had been added.

Sydney Opera House chief executive Richard Evans, who worked with Utzon on recent modifications, said he did not think the architect “carried around a lot of grief” about how the project was completed without him.

“I think there are sections of the building that he was more happy with than others,” he said. “But I didn’t have an overwhelming sense, from knowing him, that he was bitter.”

Evans said Utzon would have returned to Australia if he could, particularly after the New South Wales state government honoured him with the keys to the city in the late 1990s and asked for his help with future modifications.

“His health didn’t allow him to come back and visit the building,” he said.

In his later years, not only did New South Wales recognise Utzon’s contribution but the Sydney Opera House was included in the World Heritage List in 2007 and he was awarded the Pritzker architecture prize.

In its evaluation, the World Heritage Committee said the Opera House “stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind”.

Evans said the building, which he described as a cross between New York’s Lincoln Centre and Paris’ Eiffel Tower, had changed the way Australia thought of itself.

“That an opera house is a symbol of a very young country is, I think, quite remarkable,” he said. - AFP

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