Features Australia

A forgotten hero

Spare a thought for the real brains behind the Sydney Opera House

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

A spectre haunted the Sydney Opera House’s recent 40th anniversary. It was the disconsolate ghost of that foully treated Danish-bred man. No, not Jørn Utzon, the venerated architect of the world-renowned sculpture on Bennelong Point. The ghost is of the man deliberately air-brushed out of existence as Danish mini-royals joined in the universal tribute to Utzon in commemorating the building’s 1973 official opening, which was delayed by ten controversial years.

Yet Ove Arup and his structural engineer colleagues did more than anyone, Utzon included, to convert Utzon’s sketchy ill-defined concept into the world’s greatest 20th-century building. Without Ove Arup & Partners, there would be no Sydney Opera House. Utzon’s competition-winning imaginative sketch (so inadequate it broke the competition rules) could not be built — and it wasn’t. His thin lower-slung concrete shells resembling Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York became, instead, towering gothic arches six feet thick, standing far more upright and looking more like spinnakers in a blow. But Arup’s name is not to be mentioned in the celebratory Utzon hymns of praise.

Utzon’s dream could only become reality by his accepting Joe Cahill’s NSW government’s cautionary requirement (recommended by the competition’s adjudicators, including Saarinen) that the British-born ethnic Dane, Ove Arup, be the structural engineer. In an arrangement that would ultimately doom Utzon, the government insisted not only that Arup’s contract be directly with the Premier of NSW, to whom he would be responsible, rather than to the architect, but also that any specialist consultants would be responsible to Arups, not Utzon. The government saw this as a sort of insurance; Utzon, a serial architectural competition entrant, had never previously been called on to actually build anything of substance.

Arup’s appointment not only provided the gravitas that enabled the project to proceed, he was so entranced by the challenge, as he told Utzon, of creating ‘a building which will be of great liberating importance to today’s architecture’ by ensuring ‘that your idea is realised in the fullest sense and for it still to be economically viable’, that he gave respectability to Utzon’s absolute priority for the building to have ‘integrity’, relegating to a subservient role the client’s top priorities of function and ‘economic viability’.

In effect this represented a conspiracy with Utzon to keep hidden from the client (the government’s dysfunctional Opera House Committee) the reality that there would be unknown and unlimited costs involved in their pursuit of the ‘integrity’ of an unprecedented self-supporting concrete shell construction rather than the far cheaper conventional steel frame to which cladding is attached that was the basis on which the government was advised its likely cost would be only $7 million rather than the eventual $102 million.

Arup’s biographer admits: ‘The building could no doubt have been built in other ways, possibly more cheaply, while maintaining essentially the same appearance’. Yet it is the appearance that makes it an icon, with its form (especially after the space-reducing roof solution) severely limiting its intended function; this is so unsatisfactory that upwards of a billion dollars is now proposed to be spent on renovations, mainly to make it more user-friendly — a priority that was well down Utzon’s list.

The arrangement Utzon accepted in 1957 in order to build his dream, he rejected as intolerable when, nine years later and with seven years’ work still to be done, he resigned. Utzon had been content with the system so long as Arup kept protecting him from the increasingly impatient government. This was done, for example, in 1963, six years into the project, when Arup sought to calm down a Premier concerned about delays and cost rises by telling him that the building required ‘the subordination of every detail to the overriding architectural or aesthetic conception… striving for perfection is of the essence of the job… The Opera House could become the world’s foremost contemporary masterpiece if Utzon is given his head.’

Arup’s protection, which had given Utzon a false sense of security in his pursuit of perfection whatever the cost, also involved concealing from the government for many years (and many millions of dollars) what it belatedly acknowledged was ‘chaos’ as Utzon’s ‘cavalier approach to costs began to cause endless friction’ between them. This attitude was evident in Utzon’s demand about solving the roof problem: ‘I don’t care what it costs. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what scandal it causes. That is what I want.’

Their falling out had led to Utzon bricking up the connecting door between their site offices. Ignoring Arup’s direct contractual responsibility to the government, Utzon demanded that contact only be made through him. He also attempted to instruct an increasingly irritated (and soon to be defeated) Renshaw Labor government whose repeated requests for detailed information from Utzon remained unsatisfied, not to seek the information from ‘consultants’ — i.e. Arup. When Arup then responded, as required, to governmental enquiries, Utzon complained to Ove: ‘Your lack of support and misleading information… to a great extent destroyed the architect’s position.’

Arup thus became the enemy in the Utzon lexicon as one of the philistines (led by the coalition government’s Works Minister Davis Hughes) forcing him out of his right to complete his masterpiece. So Arup can be given no acknowledgement, no accolades for a building that, while it is undeniably Utzon’s concept, is Arup’s structure.

Utzon’s resignation was shattering for Arup, who had pleaded with him not to threaten to resign as ‘the building would not remain a masterpiece if completed by another hand’. And he proposed ways, rejected by Utzon, by which he could complete it. But Arup later wrote that his faith in Utzon ‘has been destroyed’; it had been a mistake to keep the client so ignorant; and he told Utzon ‘you have killed the joy of collaboration’.

Evidence of Arup’s emotional dedication to the concept is in the three fruitless and expensive years spent searching for a way to build Utzon’s unbuildable self-supporting shells. According to Professor Peter Jones’s biography of Ove Arup in 2006, the resolution of the roof problems with huge interlocking ribs (refined by Utzon’s imaginative change from his original free-form shells to the regularity of segments of a sphere) ‘secured Arup a place in architectural and engineering history’. Too bad there was no place for him in the Opera House’s 40-year celebrations.

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Michael Baume is author of The Sydney Opera House Affair (1967).

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