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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One of Frank Lloyd Wright's Final Residential Designs Goes on Sale in Ohio
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In case you’ve missed the many recent sales of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed real estate, you have yet another chance to secure yourself a historical starchitect home. The Louis Penfield House is being sold by its original owners, and it could be yours for a cool $1.3 million. The restored Usonian home in Willoughby Hills, Ohio has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.

The house is currently a vacation rental and, depending on the preference of the new owner, it could continue to operate as a tourist destination. Or you could take it over as your private residence, which sounds pretty luxurious. It still has a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled living room that looks out on the Chagrin River, and comes with all the original furniture Wright designed. Like Wright’s other Usonian homes, it has a radiant-floor heating system that draws on a natural gas well onsite.

A retro-looking living room features floor-to-ceiling windows.
A bedroom is filled with vintage wooden furniture.

Around the same time as the original commission, Louis and Pauline Penfield also asked Wright to create another house on an adjacent property, and that home would prove to be the architect’s final residential design. It was still on the drawing board when he died unexpectedly in 1959. The sale of the Penfield House includes the original plans for the second house, called Riverrock, so you’d be getting more like 1.5 Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Seems like a pretty good deal to us.

All images via Estately

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Chilton & Chadwick
Frank Lloyd Wright-Designed Home on a Private Island Goes Up for Sale
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Chilton & Chadwick

From Fallingwater in Pennsylvania to Taliesin West in Arizona, many works of architect Frank Lloyd Wright are known for their stunning natural locations. The address of the latest Wright-designed home to hit the market is hard to beat: The Massaro House is situated on a heart-shaped island in Lake Mahopac in Putnam County, New York.

According to inhabitat, real estate agency Chilton & Chadwick is selling the property for $14.92 million. The listing includes all 11 acres of Petra Island plus a main house with a rich architectural history.

Frank Lloyd Wright house on private island

Frank Lloyd Wright house on private island

Frank Lloyd Wright house on private island

Around 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned by engineer A.K. Chahroudi to build a house on the island. The architect agreed and got to work on a project that would surpass Fallingwater in ambition. The designs were complete after a few months, but they had to be scaled down to fit the owner's budget. In place of the full 5000-square-foot home, Chahroudi settled for a small guest cottage.

The house that currently stands on Petra Island is the realization of Wright’s original vision (with a few modern, somewhat controversial upgrades). Sheet metal contractor Joe Massaro bought the island in 1996 and also obtained the architect’s designs. Not long after, the new owner dedicated himself to constructing the house Wright intended to make.

Though it was completed decades after his death, the six-bedroom house on Petra Island emanates Wright’s signature style. Geometric windows light the home, a wraparound patio provides sweeping views, and boulders integrated into the walls give the building a natural feel. There are also plenty of features that you don’t necessarily need to be an architecture fanatic to appreciate, like the guest house, tea house, and helipad for 15-minute flights to Manhattan.

Watch the video below to get an intimate tour of the property.

[h/t inhabitat]

All images courtesy of Chilton & Chadwick


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