The Sydney Opera House's Architect Never Saw His Design Completed

You’d think the man behind one of architecture’s most timeless works—a place often called the “eighth wonder of the world”—would be celebrated, or at least be invited to the opening ceremony of his crowning achievement.

Think again.

In 1956, the Honorable Joe Cahill, the New South Wales Premier, announced his selection for the design of the upcoming Sydney Opera House: Scheme number 218, a series of five auditoriums sheltered under enormous, geometric slabs of concrete designed by a relatively unknown Danish architect named Jørn Utzon. While he’d won several smaller competitions in his own country, Utzon had never found acclaim elsewhere.

The story goes that his designs—not much more than a simple diagram of the iconic structure—were discovered in the rejection pile and declared “genius” by judge Eero Saarinen, an architect and designer known for his neo-futurist style, many of which, like the TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York City, echo similar themes as Utzon's forward-thinking design.

“So many opera houses look like boots,” Saarinen said at the time. “Utzon has solved the problem.” 

Keystone // Getty

Utzon’s grand vision recalled sails billowing over Sydney Harbour, with the building’s 14 partial shells inspired by orange peels, intended, if combined, to fit together in a perfect sphere. But grand quickly became grandiose, as construction began before Utzon had completed the blueprints or even figured out how to support the weight of the enormous spherical shells.

It’s easy to blame the inexperienced Utzon for the series of maladies ahead: His plans were certainly ambitious, designed without structural solutions for the most extravagant features. He took on too much responsibility, tackling design troubles single-handedly until the situation grew dire. The project bled money. Utzon took leisurely vacations and moved to Palm Beach, spreading himself thin over multiple projects.

Trouble brewed in the New South Wales government. Robert Askin—a longtime critic of the project—took over as Premier, exerting unprecedented control over the project’s budget. His new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, questioned every decision, schedule, and cost, and eventually stopped paying Utzon. At Askin’s election party, Hughes' daughter promised that Utzon would soon be fired.

Her prediction was true in spirit, if inaccurate in its specifics: In February 1966, with the government owing him $100,000 in fees (which left him unable to pay his staff’s salaries), Utzon walked off the job—he actually climbed over the back wall of Askin’s office yard after a tense resignation meeting in hopes of avoiding the press. 

The country erupted, with protests and marches filling Sydney’s streets, but Askin and Hughes would not be swayed. At the time, the project had racked up just $22.9 million in costs; after bringing in a new architect, expenses swelled to $103 million, about 1457 percent over budget.

Seven years after Utzon’s resignation, Queen Elizabeth II opened the opera house in a grand ceremony—to which Utzon was not invited, nor his name even mentioned. 

Even after returning home, his native Denmark caused him grief. As a homecoming gift, he was slapped with an enormous tax bill and blacklisted by the Danish Architects Association, who told him “in no uncertain terms that his actions in Sydney were 'deplorable, the clients were always right, you can never leave a job' and what he had done was damaging for the architecture profession,” according to his son, Jan Utzon. The Association eventually rescinded their ban in 2013.

Utzon never returned to Australia and never saw his design in its completed glory. The Sydney Opera House extended a tentative olive branch in 1999, asking him to develop a set of guiding design principles for future renovations and addition. In 2004—a year after Utzon received the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize for his design and four years before his death—the refurbished reception room was re-named the Utzon Room, a change which the forgiving architect said “gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction.”

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images
This Just In
For $61, You Can Become a Co-Owner of This 13th-Century French Castle
Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images

A cultural heritage restoration site recently invited people to buy a French castle for as little as $61. The only catch? You'll be co-owning it with thousands of other donors. Now thousands of shareholders are responsible for the fate of the Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers in western France, and there's still room for more people to participate.

According to Mashable, the dilapidated structure has a rich history. Since its construction in the 13th century, the castle has been invaded by foreign forces, looted, renovated, and devastated by a fire. Friends of Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers, a small foundation formed in 2016 in an effort to conserve the overgrown property, want to see the castle restored to its former glory.

Thanks to a crowdfunding collaboration with the cultural heritage restoration platform Dartagnans, the group is closer than ever to realizing its mission. More than 9000 web users have contributed €51 ($61) or more to the campaign to “adopt” Mothe-Chandeniers. Now that the original €500,000 goal has been fulfilled, the property’s new owners are responsible for deciding what to do with their purchase.

“We intend to create a dedicated platform that will allow each owner to monitor the progress of works, events, project proposals and build a real collaborative and participatory project,” the campaign page reads. “To make an abandoned ruin a collective work is the best way to protect it over time.”

Even though the initial goal has been met, Dartagnans will continue accepting funds for the project through December 25. Money collected between now and then will be used to pay for various fees related to the purchase of the site, and new donors will be added to the growing list of owners.

The shareholders will be among the first to see the cleared-out site during an initial visit next spring. The rest of the public will have to wait until it’s fully restored to see the final product.

[h/t Mashable]


More from mental floss studios