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.”

Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images
Vantablack Pavilion at the Winter Olympics Mimics the Darkness of Space
Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images
Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images

British company Surrey NanoSystems disrupted the color spectrum when it debuted Vantablack: the darkest artificial substance ever made. The material is dark enough to absorb virtually all light waves, making 3D objects look like endless black voids. It was originally designed for technology, but artists and designers have embraced the unique shade. Now, Dezeen reports that British architect Asif Khan has brought Vantablack to the Winter Olympics.

His temporary pavilion at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea has been dubbed the darkest building on Earth. The 33-foot-tall structure has been coated with Vantablack VBx2, a version of Vantablack pigment that comes in a spray can.

The building’s sides curve inward like shadowboxes. To break up the all-consuming blackness, Khan outfitted the walls with rods. White lights at the ends of the sticks create the effect of stars scattered across an endless night sky.

Child next to wall painted to look like the night sky.
Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images

Khan told Dezeen that the piece is meant to give “the impression of a window cut into space.” He was only able to realize this vision after contacting the scientists behind Vantablack. He told them he wanted to use the color to coat a building, something the pigment wasn’t designed for originally. Sculptor Anish Kapoor securing exclusive rights to artistic use of the color in 2016 further complicated his plans. The solution was the sprayable version: Vantablack VBx2 is structurally (and therefore legally) different from the original pigment and better suited for large-scale projects.

The pavilion was commissioned by Hyundai to promote their hydrogen fuel cell technology. The space-themed exterior is a nod to the hydrogen in stars. Inside, a white room filled with sprinklers is meant to represent the hydrogen found in water.

The area will be open to visitors during the Winter Olympics, which kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday, February 9.

[h/t Dezeen]

Shari Austrian
You Can Order a Stunningly Detailed LEGO Replica of Your House on Etsy
Shari Austrian
Shari Austrian

LEGO blocks can be used to construct fictional starships and works of abstract art, but there's something comforting in replicating what's familiar to you. That's the concept behind Little Brick Lane, an Etsy shop that promises to custom-build detailed LEGO models of real homes.

Designer Shari Austrian tells Apartment Therapy that the idea came to her when her family was building their real-life house. Her twin boys had recently gotten her interested in LEGO, so she decided to construct a scaled-down, blocky replica to match their new home. She enjoyed the project enough to launch a business around LEGO architecture on Etsy at the end of 2017.

Austrian bases her designs off interior and exterior photos of each house, and if they're available, architectural plans. Over eight to 10 weeks, she constructs the model using LEGO pieces she orders to match the building design perfectly, recreating both the inside and outside of the house in the utmost detail.

To request a custom LEGO abode of your own, you can reach out to Austrian through her Etsy shop, but warning: It won't come cheap. A full model will cost you at least $2500 (the exact price is based on the square footage of your home). That price covers the cost of the materials Austrian invests in each house, which can add up quick. "The average LEGO piece costs approximately 10 cents," she tells Mental Floss, and her models are made up of tens of thousands of pieces. But if you're looking for something slightly cheaper, she also offers exterior-only models for $1500 and up.

For your money, you can be confident that Austrian won't skimp on any details. As you can see in the images below, every feature of your house—from the appliances in your kitchen to the flowers in your yard—will be immortalized in carefully chosen plastic bricks.

A bedroom made of LEGO

A kitchen model made of LEGO

The exterior of a house made of LEGO

[h/t Apartment Therapy]

All images courtesy of Shari Austrian.


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