Jørn Utzon, flights of angels, and the sound of the Sydney Opera House

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Photo by Vermin Inc / © Some rights reserved.


Architect Charles Boyle of Perth, Australia writes to Hello Beautiful!:

The issue with the acoustics in the Sydney Opera house stem from the use of the halls – at the time, the “Opera House” was intended to lend competitive cultural gravitas to Sydney in favour of Melbourne (the same bean-field war propagated the location of the national capital in Canberra mid-way between the two)

The larger hall was intended for Opera, and the smaller for concert performances.

However, opera waned in popularity, so the decision was made to house the opera in the smaller hall, but the facilities are modest, and the volume insufficient to allow the operatic acoustic to develop.

The reason why Mr Utzon could not continue was that he wished to build full-scale mock-ups and trials for the interior acoustic lining, but the government of New South Wales who had commissioned the project, baulked at the cost for something that might be simply discarded later, and so suspended any further payments on the project. Mr Utzon was thus forced to retire from the project. He never actually resigned.


His approach would not be questioned in these days when acoustic excellence is a specialised field of consultancy: I recall how his office in Helsingor was littered with models, prototypes and samples of construction methodologies as this was his very hand-on way of exploring new ideas and pioneering solutions.

“Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”

Charles Boyle – architect
Perth, Australia

Thank you Mr. Boyle.

—–

Joseph Rykwert:

“I never quite loved the Sydney Opera House.”

Like almost everybody, I reluctantly admired the Sydney Opera House when I first saw the competition results back in 1956, with its earth-bound podium growing out of the soil of Bennelong Point and jutting out into the bay, the vaults hovering over the layered platforms in counterpoint to the arch of the Harbour Bridge. It may all have been very thrilling, but I never quite loved it. Perhaps I was uneasy, or even feared those vaults as foreboding the iconic buildings 50 years hence. Or perhaps I could not buy into the analogy between the vaults and the sails in the bay. Just think how that analogy has now been debased by the curved side of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.

Burj Al-Arab in Dubai.

Read Rykwert here.

Interior photo from Flickr

2 Responses to “Jørn Utzon, flights of angels, and the sound of the Sydney Opera House”

  1. Marcus Trimble Says:

    Hi Edward,

    This assessment on the troubles of the Sydney Opera House by Boyle is a little simplistic and bit off the mark.

    It was not a waning interest in opera that led to the opera hall changing location, nor was the smaller hall originally meant to hold the symphonic concerts.

    The problems with the two halls were set in place early on with the general strategy as outlined Utzon’s competition scheme. The placement of the two halls side by side meant that fitting the required seating into both halls was problematic.

    The original plan was that the opera and symphonic concerts would be held in the same large hall. Operable elements would reduce the size of the hall for opera to accommodate the large sets and so on. The smaller hall was to be used as the drama theatre. Utzon’s office and Arups spent much of their time on the project attempting to get enough seats into the major hall to satisfy the brief from the ABC and the acoustic requirements.

    When it became clear that achieving the seat numbers was not going to be possible, a compromise was reached where the opera was moved to the smaller hall, additional seating was placed to the rear of the concert hall and the drama theatres were moved into the podium.

    As for Utzon leaving the job, this was for a number of complex factors beyond mere disputes over the funding of models, such as the change of the NSW State Government and the ensuing change in management of the project, disputes over Utzon’s role as lead consultant and refusal to work with a government appointed team of architects, disagreements over fees, and the failing relationship between Utzon and Ove Arup.

    I can recommend the excellent “The Saga of the Sydney Opera House” by Peter Murray which gives a detailed breakdown of the entire project.

  2. Marcus Trimble Says:

    Hi Edward,

    This assessment on the troubles of the Sydney Opera House by Boyle is a little simplistic and bit off the mark.

    It was not a waning interest in opera that led to the opera hall changing location, nor was the smaller hall originally meant to hold the symphonic concerts.

    The problems with the two halls were set in place early on with the general strategy as outlined Utzon’s competition scheme. The placement of the two halls side by side meant that fitting the required seating into both halls was problematic.

    The original plan was that the opera and symphonic concerts would be held in the same large hall. Operable elements would reduce the size of the hall for opera to accommodate the large sets and so on. The smaller hall was to be used as the drama theatre. Utzon’s office and Arups spent much of their time on the project attempting to get enough seats into the major hall to satisfy the brief from the ABC and the acoustic requirements.

    When it became clear that achieving the seat numbers was not going to be possible, a compromise was reached where the opera was moved to the smaller hall, additional seating was placed to the rear of the concert hall and the drama theatres were moved into the podium.

    As for Utzon leaving the job, this was for a number of complex factors beyond mere disputes over the funding of models, such as the change of the NSW State Government and the ensuing change in management of the project, disputes over Utzon’s role as lead consultant and refusal to work with a government appointed team of architects, disagreements over fees, and the failing relationship between Utzon and Ove Arup.

    I can recommend the excellent “The Saga of the Sydney Opera House” by Peter Murray which gives a detailed breakdown of the entire project.

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