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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.”

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Courtesy of Fernando Artigas
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Step Inside This Stunning, Nature-Inspired Art Gallery in Tulum, Mexico
Courtesy of Fernando Artigas
Courtesy of Fernando Artigas

Upon closer inspection, this building in Tulum, Mexico, doesn’t seem like a suitable place to house an art exhibit. Everything that makes it so visually striking—its curved walls, uneven floors, and lack of drab, white backgrounds—also makes it a challenge for curators.

But none of these factors deterred Santiago Rumney Guggenheim—the great-grandson of the late famed art collector and heiress Peggy Guggenheim—from christening the space an art gallery. And thus, IK LAB was born.

“We want to trigger the creative minds of artists to create for a completely different environment,” Rumney Guggenheim, the gallery’s director, tells Artsy. “We are challenging the artists to make work for a space that doesn’t have straight walls or floors—we don’t even have walls really, it’s more like shapes coming out of the floor. And the floor is hardly a floor.”

A view inside IK LAB
Courtesy of Fernando Artigas

A view inside IK LAB
Courtesy of Fernando Artigas

A view inside IK LAB
Courtesy of Fernando Artigas

A view inside IK LAB
Courtesy of Fernando Artigas

IK LAB was brought to life by Rumney Guggenheim and Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel, the founder of luxury resort Azulik. The two properties, which have a similar style of architecture, share a site near the Caribbean coast. IK LAB may be unconventional, but it certainly makes a statement. Its ceiling is composed of diagonal slats resembling the veins of a leaf, and a wavy wooden texture breaks up the monotony of concrete floors. Entry to the gallery is gained through a 13-foot-high glass door that’s shaped a little like a hobbit hole.

The gallery was also designed to be eco-conscious. The building is propped up on stilts, which not only lets wildlife pass underneath, but also gives guests a view overlooking the forest canopy. Many of the materials have been sourced from local jungles. Gallery organizers say the building is designed to induce a “meditative state,” and visitors are asked to go barefoot to foster a more sensory experience. (Be careful, though—you wouldn't want to trip on the uneven floor.)

The gallery's first exhibition, "Alignments," features the suspended sculptures of Artur Lescher, the perception-challenging works of Margo Trushina, and the geometrical pendulums of Tatiana Trouvé. One piece by Trouvé features 250 pendulums suspended from the gallery's domed ceiling. If you want to see this exhibit, be sure to get there before it ends in September.

[h/t Dezeen]

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Engineers Have Figured Out How the Leaning Tower of Pisa Withstands Earthquakes
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iStock

Builders had barely finished the second floor of the Tower of Pisa when the structure started to tilt. Despite foundational issues, the project was completed, and eight centuries and at least four major earthquakes later, the precarious landmark remains standing. Now, a team of engineers from the University of Bristol and other institutions claims to have finally solved the mystery behind its endurance.

Pisa is located between the Arno and Serchio rivers, and the city's iconic tower was built on soft ground consisting largely of clay, shells, and fine sand. The unstable foundation meant the tower had been sinking little by little until 2008, when construction workers removed 70 metric tons of soil to stabilize the site. Today it leans at a 4-degree angle—about 13 feet past perfectly vertical.

Now researchers say that the dirt responsible for the tower's lean also played a vital role in its survival. Their study, which will be presented at this year's European Conference on Earthquake Engineering in Greece, shows that the combination of the tall, stiff tower with the soft soil produced an effect known as dynamic soil-structure interaction, or DSSI. During an earthquake, the tower doesn't move and shake with the earth the same way it would with a firmer, more stable foundation. According to the engineers, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is the world's best example of the effects of DSSI.

"Ironically, the very same soil that caused the leaning instability and brought the tower to the verge of collapse can be credited for helping it survive these seismic events," study co-author George Mylonakis said in a statement.

The tower's earthquake-proof foundation was an accident, but engineers are interested in intentionally incorporating the principles of DSSI into their structures—as long as they can keep them upright at the same time.

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