If Jørn Utzon did not exist, we would have to invent him. His story, mostly the legend of that single and singular building, the Sydney Opera House, provides the enduring foundational myth for all contemporary architectural practice. Utzon is our sage Kenobi, our renegade Solo, our heroic Skywalker, all in one. He looked the part, too: an architect out of central casting in the Gary-Cooper-as-Howard-Roark mould, as tall as Rem Koolhaas, as beautiful as Jacques Herzog, as Danish as Bjarke Ingels.
That his professional story ends so unhappily—or rather that it fades out into such a long and poignant anticlimax—makes it all the more inviting to imagine that we might step into his shoes and finish his mission. (As he wrote to Le Corbusier in 1962, “I feel a personal connection with you, as, you could say, an architectural son.”) That his actual work was so inimitable makes it all the more possible to dream of him without any anxiety of influence. He was no immortal—a Corbusier or a Wright—but just an unusually skilled modern architect not so different from you and me at our absolute best; who’d worked and studied with some of the greats (Asplund, Aalto, Rasmussen); who was possessed of a small and uneven body of work; and who, with the help of an enduringly great engineer and a briefly great client, got it extraordinarily, immortally, irrefutably, indispensably, miraculously right. And then, you know, screwed up.
Or got screwed. Let’s review the legend.
For all no-longer-quite-so-young architects in search of a big break, there’s the stunning 1957 international competition win at age 38 (not a minute too late, nor too soon, professionally speaking) and the twice-told-tale of juror Eero Saarinen arriving late to the deliberations and rescuing those illegibly moody drawings of entry Number 218—charcoal calligraphy of sea and sky—out of the reject pile to which the local yokels had consigned it.
For all architects who draw in poetry and build in prose, there’s the rationalization of the unbuildably indeterminate roof forms in those drawings into notional fragments of a single sphere, their construction already underway. For mystics, there’s that cosmically platonic sphere itself, as well as all that light dancing on water, all that earth ascending into heaven—plus Utzon’s accounts from the 1950s of climbing the altar platforms of Mayan pyramids to contemplate clouds and Quetzalcoatl.
Read about Jan Utzon's continuing work on the Sydney Opera House.
For he-men, there’s all the nautical stuff: the marine-architect father, the designs for abstractly beautiful (but empirically unseaworthy) hybrid monohull-trimarans, the debatable but irresistible conflation of sails and hulls with the shells of the Opera House roof. For technicians and tacticians, there’s Utzon’s extraordinary (and testy) collaboration on the Opera House with structural engineer Ove Arup, who brought some of the earliest of what we might now call computational parametrics to resolving and refining the project’s complex geometries.
For would-be Vasaris in search of Medicis, there’s Utzon’s cultivation of a sympathetic Australian government to mobilize a continent’s worth of resources to get onto the map a modern wonder of the Mother Art. For would-be Michelangelos in search of Philistines—for those who suspect that Mother Art at her most sublime is somehow too good for the unbelieving world, and better left on paper—there’s the cold comfort of Utzon’s squalid forcing out, through methodical undermining and political outmaneuvering, by a minister in the government that succeeded the one that hired him. And then, seven years later in 1973, the finished building: bowdlerized, bastardized, broken, botched—yet almost alright, almost perfect.
And for connoisseurs of a good downfall—and who among us architects is not?—there is Utzon’s subsequent exile: from the Australia to which he never returned, and from the architectural mainstream. Especially during the shrill mirth of the Postmodern 1980s in which Utzon’s tendency toward modernist verities and formalist severity left him expressing ever bigger ideas in buildings that were ever smaller—all the way down to the million-thoughts-per-square-inch summerhouses he built for himself on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.
All this and more is to be found in the new monograph, Jørn Utzon, Drawings and Buildings (December 2013; Princeton Architectural Press; $60), written and edited by Michael Asgaard Andersen in time for the Opera House’s 40th anniversary. Perhaps in counterpoint to all that operatic drama, the book is sanguine: meticulous in its accounts and assembly of original materials, if a little credulous in its treatment of some of its subject’s lesser works and professed methods. The book is organized into six themes (including Place, Construction, and Materiality), which means that suburban Copenhagen gets as much attention as Bennelong Point. Depending on your sensibilities, this will either seem like sober diligence or like a survey of the career of Paul McCartney in which Band on the Run gets as much recurring attention as The White Album. Yet in its methodical synthesis of Utzon’s few built and many unbuilt works, in its application of underreported facts to well-worn legend, Andersen’s work is instantly indispensable.
I lived, until the age of eight, a 10-minute ferry ride across the harbor from the Sydney Opera House. It is the reason (along with an ongoing attempt to comprehend my own architect father) that I am an architect. It is my only memory palace. I remember the iridescent finish on the cast-concrete panels that made up its vast plinth and cascade of steps. I remember the surprisingly wide rain gap between those panels, and how their thinness lent all that seemingly solid platform the lightness and intimacy of the surface of a drum.
Today, Sydney’s ferry boats are modern and sleek, but back then they were still a motley fleet of steamers and tramps, all rumbling brass and iron under a thousand layers of paint. I remember the ferry we took across the green water, under the leviathan shadow of the Harbor Bridge, to Circular Quay, the dock near the Opera House. I remember the ferryman, languid, practiced, who would secure boat to dock with a coil of rope as thick as his arm, and who would then send the remainder of the rope coiling and falling, center to perimeter, loop after loop into a perfect flat spiral on the floor of the quay. I remember the arc of each length of falling rope, recalling in its fluid gyre from section to plan every nautilus and sunflower, every equation and proportion, as the ferryman resolved coil after coil into a settled circle.
And I remember that this resolution had all the impossible perfection of a film running backward—stones withdrawing from ponds, bullets from windows, drawings from buildings, exiles home from every wilderness, and all the broken world made whole.