The Sydney Opera House loses its creator.

December 2, 2008

Jorn Utzon died last weekend. He was the Danish visionary who gave the world the fantastic gift that is the Sydney Opera House. His story is tainted with sadness and his crowning glory became a nightmare from which he never really escaped. Read more about him here on wikipedia.

He won a competition to design the Sydney Opera House, and the story of doing that is one that I’ve told many of my clients over the years. This tale is from a stellar book called ‘Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite’ by Paul Arden. So here’s a neat little story from his book, that reinforces the idea that simplicity is what wins through.

“What I find interesting about the Sydney Opera House is how the architect Jorn Utzon sold his outrageous and what was then unbuildable design to Sydney’s city fathers.

When presenting his plans he referred to the building as a sail.

Once the committee had the image of sails on the water, no other entrant in the architectural competition stood a chance.

He summed up his concept in one word.

Sail.

Brilliant.”

And that’s why I love the curious tale of the Dane who won this huge, prestigious competition. He thought smarter than his fellow entrants, and that’s why he won the day. It doesn’t always follow that the best idea will always be picked. But if you keep it simple, you’ve got a much better chance.

Sadly Jorn’s tale is not always a happy one. He was subjected to some outrageously poor treatment from the Australians. There had been a huge change in the political landscape from the days of Jorn winning the competition and the start of construction. The new city fathers seemed to care very little for what is now one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. Have a look at the Wikipedia link to see how badly he was treated by State Governor Robert Askin and his head of public works David Hughes. They effectively removed him from the project by stopping paying him. He couldn’t, therefore, afford to pay his employees and was shunted sideways off the project.

When the Queen opened the building in 1973 he was not invited, nor was his name mentioned in the ceremony. He took this insult with great grace, and never once bemoaned the outcome. He never visited the completed Opera House. He did, with his son, design a new wing that was opened in March 2006. His son attended the opening ceremony. Sadly Jorn did not. His son said at the time that his father: “is too old by now to take the long flight to Australia. But he lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it.”

Which is how it should be. Australia did try to redress the balance by bestowing accolades onto Jorn at the end of his life. But they should stand shame-faced today as they realise how badly they treated the man who has put them on the world map.

Just in case you don’t have as vivid an imagination as Jorn, here’s his Opera House in all its glory. I like to think that this angle does justice to Jorn and his dreams of “sails”.

Jorn, but not forgotten.

Jorn, but not forgotten.

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