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Bennelong Point, where Utzon’s genius bore fruit

Eric Ellis, who interviewed the reclusive architect in 1992, considers the inspiration behind his modernist milestone

10 December 2008

12:00 AM

10 December 2008

12:00 AM

So what was it? What precisely was Jørn Utzon thinking when he conceived that brilliant masterpiece on Bennelong Point, the acme of 20th-century architecture.

Was it seashells? Or harbour spinnakers, the billowing ‘nuns’ scrums’ as yachties call them over a Tooheys or six? Was it a childhood spent around the Øresund boatyards of Denmark, the hulls his naval architect father would lovingly shape? Mexico’s soaring Aztec and Mayan temples at Monte Alban and Chichen Itza that Utzon tramped around after the second world war? Palm fronds? Or the cave dwellings of Chinese troglodytes?

Or was it, as a doped-out ragtrader once prosaically insisted to me between tokes of his joint at Balmain Market, a collection of egg cups to complement the neighbouring bridge-as-toast-rack, as depicted on the ‘Breakfast in Sydney’ T-shirts he was selling?

The one voice missing from last week’s obituaries was Utzon’s.

I interviewed Jørn Utzon in September 1992 at Can Lis, the retreat named for his wife that he built on a Mallorcan clifftop that looks a lot like Sydney’s coast. Utzon hadn’t spoken to the Australian media since being hounded from Sydney by the bitter philistine Sir Davis Hughes in April 1966. Today, a week after his death and 42 years after he left Australia never to return, that interview 16 years ago remains one of the few he ever did. ‘It is time to talk,’ he told me back then. ‘Just this once and to nobody else. I have a story and I think now is the right time to say it.

‘Many people say my design was inspired by the sailing yachts in the harbour or by seashells,’ he said. ‘This is not the case. It is like an orange, you peel an orange and you get these segments, these similar shapes. It was like this in my models. It was not that I thought it should be like sails in the harbour. It just so happened that the white sails were similar. I was influenced by the sails only to the extent that my father was a naval architect and I was familiar with big shapes.

‘I had never seen Sydney Harbour when I made this design, although I felt quite familiar with it from photographs and naval charts. I was taken very much by the Sydney Heads and I thought if I could keep people up on top, where they took their performance and their intermission, it could be another Head. In this I was influenced by the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza in Mexico.

‘The Mayans made these platforms exactly the same height as the roof of the jungle and then they lived in another world, eight metres above the other one. I had this in mind for the Opera House.

‘It is fine that people find what things are from what they see. Of course, they are like sails but this is not what we meant here, but I am very happy people think this.’

When we spoke, the 21st anniversary of the Opera House opening was coming up. My editors wanted me to deliver an invitation for Utzon to attend, to accept Sydney’s gratitude for its defining landmark but equally its mea culpa for Hughes’s beastly treatment of him three decades earlier. And maybe even help with those unfinished interiors.

His son Jan in Denmark explained that his father had loved Australia, as had all the family, how he’d been embraced by its light, captivated by its raw natural form. They had gone there fully expecting to stay there, to become Australian citizens.

Jan only told me his parents lived in a remote part of Mallorca, which I surmised to be the discreet calas of the south-east. I trawled tiny hamlets with a photograph, and got lucky in a restaurant in Porto Petro. The caballeros there knew the family well. The Utzons were away in Denmark but would be back in a few days, for lunch. Can Lis was on a cliff out of town, in an urbanisacion called, appropriately, La Colonia del Silencio. I left a note and some flowers the night before they were due back, citing my own Danish heritage, my natural father from Copenhagen. Photographer Jack Picone and I checked into a portside hostal, and waited.

The Utzons arrived back and, sure enough, we saw them lunching by the port, below our window. Maybe it was because we’d been chasing the odious fugitive Skase, also in Mallorca, or perhaps it was Jan Utzon’s reticence, but — absurd behaviour, looking back — Picone and I staked out the Utzons with a long lens from our window paparazzi-style so as to at least secure a shot of this recluse for the ‘Gotcha’ splash if need be. There wasn’t. Utzon returned a note to reception saying it was time to talk.

One rarely gets to meet true genius, to be humbled by it. The Utzons spoke over an afternoon, and it was the most engaging assignment I’ve ever done. Declining the invitation — ‘if I go back, it will be crazy, I will be torn to pieces’ — Utzon was anything but bitter about his treatment, or Australia. He even had good words for Hughes (though it was never reciprocated — Hughes later told Sydney Opera House Trust chairman Joseph Skrzynski: ‘I did Utzon a favour. I put him out of his misery like you put down a dog.’)

The orange revelation ran on the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page on 31 October 1992, and the cover of Good Weekend. ‘Utzon Breaks His Silence; My Orange Peel Opera House.’

But the paper got the headline wrong — it was more like orange segments. And maybe I was a little wrong too. Utzon led me to believe — and I vividly remember drilling down on this — that the segment inspiration formed part of the drawings that won him the NSW government’s competition in 1957 to design the building — ‘a series of sketches and the least finished work in the competition,’ as the SMH then reported. His words seem unambiguous: ‘You peel an orange and you get these segments, these similar shapes. It was like this in my models.’

Since then a rarified debate has waged about when in the process did he, architecture’s Sir John Cockcroft perhaps, ‘split the orange.’ Was it an inspiration before he arrived in Sydney, at the competition phase? Or was it necessary to realise his vision, at the site with confounded engineers?

The orange segments were later referenced in a 1998 interview for an ABC documentary, The Edge of the Possible, timed for the 25th anniversary. Director Daryl Dellora interviewed Mogens Prip-Buus, one of Utzon’s design team members in Denmark, who told him it was Utzon who had the ‘creative breakthrough’ of realising his original drawings.

‘Jørn came down one morning and said, “I can see we’ve all been pretty dumb, completely crazy, completely dumb. It’s so easy. It has to be a sphere”,’ Prip-Buus says in the Dellora documentary. ‘And we all looked at it and he sent somebody over to the shop buying an orange and he simply demonstrated by peeling off how the shells could be made by spherical sections.’ Dellora says he confirmed the orange story with Utzon, though Dellora adds it has ‘taken on a huge significance that it does not deserve’.

In 2005, Geraldine Brooks interviewed Utzon for the New Yorker, and she too references the orange ‘inspiration’ in her piece. Her narrative places the build project as well underway, in the early 1960s, when fingers were already being pointed at Utzon for construction delays. She writes that the piers needed to support the roof were sunk in place before the roof design — ‘Utzon had drawn free-form sculptural shapes’ — was resolved. Ove Arup, the project engineer, was struggling to actualise Utzon’s vision. Brooks describes Utzon prowling through his father’s Danish shipyard, where curved hulls gave him a
n idea, that the roof shells could be parts of a single sphere. Brooks writes: ‘Excited, he returned to his studio and explained the idea to an assistant by cutting all the necessary shell-shaped segments from the skin of a single orange.’

We tend to be proprietorial about the architecture we use, about the constructions we love. Everyone has a view on what inspired Utzon, as if it was a singular idea and that it matters. Australians luxuriate in the structure’s obvious beauty, and Sydneysiders can’t believe their luck that the world’s most remarkable example of modern-art-as-architecture somehow got planted not on their doorstep but in the living room of what many would describe as their philistine extremity of the world. (Sad to think that when it was being built, some residents of the harbour’s lower north shore complained it was ruining their view).

After Utzon died in Denmark on 29 November aged 90, the theories tumbled again into myriad obituaries, in tributes to his clearly evident genius, the most eloquent of which was at the building itself the Sunday evening after his death when the floodlights that illuminate his soaring white and much-debated roof dimmed in mourning.

When I regard the Opera House, I see orange segments. But I had the rare honour of meeting this shining man, who explained the building, and who also had an interest — if one were needed — in restoring his reputation in a place that mattered deeply to him. The times I visit Sydney and I’m around Circular Quay, I play gormless tourist contriving conversations with random interlocutors — waiters, cabbies, ferrymen — to vox-pop perceptions. In the 16 years I’ve played this silly game, most say yachts. Only one person has ever said an orange — a Ghanaian taxi driver who was an architecture student.

Looking back it at all today, it doesn’t matter what inspired the Sydney Opera House. The building — if that’s what it is, the word seems inadequate here — speaks for itself, however it was conceived. If anything is singular about it, its because its one-of-a-kind, beyond unique, throw-away-the-plans, Utzon as Australia’s Postnik Yakovlev, the 16th-century architect who, as Muscovite legend has it, was blinded by Ivan the Terrible (a.k.a. Davis Hughes?) after finishing St Basil’s Cathedral so he could never create something as beautiful again.

What matters more to Australia is some of the rest of what Utzon told me back in 1992: what was lost.

‘There was this feeling of a new epoch, a new school in architecture, not just among our group but from other learned people in Europe and America. We were doing things in our time, in our way as we might have been Romans in their era, or the pyramids in Egypt.

‘People talk about how the pyramids were built and how marvellous they were but this was exactly the same thing, with industrial techniques, with fantastic constructions that were being invented and it was happening there in Australia … and nobody seemed to care, nobody knew.

‘It always surprised me that there was no more interest in that fantastic construction that went on in front of all these people.

‘The fantastic site, its function, the scale of the project and the fact that it was in Australia, a new country, a young country with the potential for limitless imagination, made us all absolutely selective and perfect in what we did.

‘Sydney could have been an architectural laboratory; there would have been 10 or 15 buildings just as fabulous as this if we had stayed there.

‘Of this I feel sure.’

Eric Ellis is a foreign correspondent based in South-East Asia.

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