As part of ARCHITECT’s coverage on the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House, Mind & Matter columnist and regular contributor Blaine Brownell, AIA, spoke with Danish architect Jan Utzon, whose father, Jørn, famously won the commission to design the Opera House in 1957. Today, Jan Utzon is overseeing ongoing renovations to the landmark project. Below is an edited version of the full interview, which Brownell conducted via email.
What do you recall about the Sydney Opera House project after your family’s move to Australia?
When we arrived in Australia early in 1963, a completely new world opened to us. Prior to our move to Australia, my father had been working for six years on the project in Denmark with frequent trips to Australia. Throughout this time my father had always kept us—his family—informed of this work, his ideas, his sources of inspiration, and shared with us his enthusiasm for Australia, Australians, and the new project for the Sydney Opera House.
After I enrolled at the school of architecture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, I began to visit the Opera House building site regularly. I had the rare opportunity to see the craftsmen and tradespeople working, to see the complexity of a completely new and different type of construction site. The podium on which the roof rests had been completed in its raw state by the time we arrived in Australia. While we were in Australia, the casting of the elements for the roof began and erection of the roofs commenced.
We as a family felt very welcome in Australia, and the focus on the Opera House gave us many contacts. I spent my years from 18 to 22 in Sydney—a very important time in my life that I remember clearly and fondly.
How was your father re-commissioned to work on the Sydney Opera House?
In 1999, my father, Jørn Utzon, was approached by the Sydney Opera House Trust with regards to his possible engagement in the work for the future of the Opera House after many years’ absence.
My father, who was 80 at the time, did not want to travel to Sydney, but requested that I, his son, be his representative. The Trust agreed. I photographed and videotaped the Opera House inside and out, returned to my father in Majorca, Spain, where he was living at the time. We went through the entire building with the material I had and my father’s clear memory of the details at the Opera House.
My father and I made up a list of items that we felt were intruding upon the architecture of the building. Based on this, a document was drawn up that will give new generations involved with the Opera House an insight into my father’s world as an architect—his ideas, sources of inspiration, and his working methods. This document will be a guideline for individuals or groups of people—typically architects—who will be dealing with subsequent alterations to the project. If these architects are working on the basis of their own experience solely, they might not get the finer points in my father’s thinking.
How have you been involved in the subsequent efforts there?
My role in this was traveling back and forth between Denmark, Spain, and Australia, and trying to coordinate all this with the local architects, Richard Johnson and his firm, Johnson Pilton Walker. I have enjoyed these trips very much as I feel a great responsibility, on behalf of the Opera House and of course my father and his ideas, to produce documents that as far as humanly possible will ensure that the right things shall be done to the Opera House.
What was it like to begin performing design services on a project of such significance and frustration for your father’s career—not to mention global architectural history?
It was a great experience as I have been working with my father for 40 years. Before that, I was infused with my father’s ideas and thoughts throughout my upbringing. It was almost a natural step for me to take on this job. My father was very enthusiastic about being re-engaged in the life of the Opera House.
Please describe the particular Sydney Opera House renovation and additional projects in which you have been involved.
After we completed the report, a number of projects sprang out of it. One project was the refurbishment of the reception hall. This space was originally designated for chamber music, but has been used for weddings, meetings, and other public functions. We were asked to design a new interior for the space—to be used as before, but also as a chamber music venue. We added elements to the space in the ceiling to provide services for various performances, timber paneling to the walls, and a timber floor. On the western wall, my father designed a long tapestry, which has a function as an acoustical regulator and as a decoration for the space itself.
I also noticed the relatively recent bay windows at the ground level, as well as the ongoing expansion project on the south side.
Another item was to modify the space used as a foyer for the three venues at the lower level of the Opera House. The entry into the playhouse, the studio, and the drama theater at street level was in an oblong space closed off to the outside by the exterior wall of the podium. My father’s proposal—which was built—was to open the wall on the western side with deep niches that would provide a soft transition of the exterior harsh light to the interior subdued light. To hide the dark openings on the podium façade, my father designed a colonnade in front of the building which casts shadows on these windows. Therefore, the podium or base of the Opera House retains its visual heaviness and the colonnade itself provides a shaded space between outside and inside in the wonderful Australian climate.
The ongoing construction on the southern side of the building is an entry for heavy vehicles, trucks, etc., to service the building from below ground. Prior to this, all vehicular traffic has been at the same level as the pedestrian traffic, which consists mostly of tourists gazing at the Opera House and not noticing where there are walking. This new separation of traffic will improve safety.
What to you are some of the most successful aspects of the building in terms of how it is used today?
People in Sydney are generally satisfied with the Opera House. The concert hall seems to be working well, as are the playhouse, the studio, and the drama theater. The chamber music venue, which is called the Utzon Room, is also a success.
What areas need improvement?
One area in dire need of refurbishment is the opera theater: its acoustics, the size and configuration of the orchestra pit, and its colors. The air-conditioning units, which are heard in the venue when you are listening to opera ballet theater plays, all need replacement and modifications.
Are there any current plans to address these problems?
We have made a project that will ensure that the Opera House gets a festive opera theater with proper and great acoustics, decent working facilities for the musicians, a proper orchestra pit suited for the number of musicians present, extra wing space for the stage, and a greater volume for the acoustics—and also a completely new air-conditioning system delivering air to the new space from the floor and expelling it through the ceiling.
The question here is how to allocate money for the total refurbishment of the opera theater, its stage facilities, and new backspace facilities connecting it to the underground loading dock, which is under construction. The funding is a political decision shared between the State Parliament of New South Wales and the federal government of Australia.
My father had hoped that he would see the commencement of the refurbishment of the opera theater. Unfortunately, this did not happen, but he also knew from major buildings elsewhere that it is rare that a person or an individual architect is allowed to complete such a structure in his own lifetime.
It may surprise many people that a beloved architectural icon such as the Sydney Opera House—which many describe as timeless and enduring—would have a life that actually transforms over time, requiring technological, material, and design interventions along the way.
My father and I once passed through the great cathedral of Palma in Majorca and were admiring the architecture and all the arrangements in the church. My father asked one of the custodians about when building works commenced, and the response was about 1150. My father then asked when it was completed, and the custodian responded, “Complete? It is not complete yet.” They were still working on the building. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was 150 years in the making, with 15 different architects. Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona (La Sagrada Familia) has also been many years in the making with a number of different architects.
My father rationalized that a building like the Sydney Opera House would necessarily be a composite of the ideas of many different people in its lifetime. He was very happy to have been its conceptual creator and the creator of the most important features of the Opera House, and now again engaged with plans for its future. Apart from the items mentioned, there are several smaller projects being planned.
In your opinion, what is the best way for architecture to address the need for change while retaining its original design intentions?
The Sydney Opera House—as opposed to a monument like the pyramids of Egypt or other great world heritage sites—is a working and living center for the performing arts. Therefore, it is important that modifications be allowed to accommodate new ideas and new ways of performance, as well as new trends in society and the development of the use of the building over the years. Of course, considering the importance of the building itself in the City of Sydney, the Opera House has become a word heritage icon and must as such be treated with veneration to its original concepts. Therefore, it is important that present and future generations of users are respectful to, and considerate of, my father’s original concepts and the iconic value of the building as seen from outside Australia.
Note: This article has been updated since first publication to include family photographs graciously provided by Jan Utzon.