Much will no doubt be written in the coming days about the legacy of architect Jørn Utzon, who has died in his native Copenhagen at the age of 90. Just as a litany of analysis has already been dedicated to Utzon’s masterwork, the Sydney Opera House. Accorded World Heritage List status by UNESCO in 2007 - the youngest cultural work to have ever made the list - the building was described by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in UNESCO’s expert evaluation report, as “one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind". Which is incredible really, when you consider the controversy in which the project was mired. The original – and, some have suggested, critically underestimated – A$7million budget, eventually blew out to A$102million, with Utzon reportedly telling one colleague, "I don't care what it costs. I don't care how long it takes. I don't care what scandal it causes. That is what I want." In 1966, eventually politically sidelined from the project, Utzon pulled the plug, fled the country and vowed never to return. He kept that promise.
Although designed by Utzon, the building was completed without him and finally opened in 1973, with some of the original design details jettisoned.
It took until 1999 for the Sydney Opera House Trust to reengage Utzon as an architect, in a bid to restore the building to at least some of its original intended glory.
The refurbishment project was managed from a distance, with Utzon himself remaining in Europe.
On April 9 this year, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Utzon was serenaded inside the Concert Hall.
Apparently a day did not go by when Utzon did not think about the building.
As he told The Guardian in 2005:
"No, I will not see it now, which makes me sad. Every day I wake up and think of the Opera House. It gives me such pleasure that the building means so much to the people of Sydney and Australia - that makes me very happy."
A Sydney Opera House memorial service for Utzon seems inevitable.
And one hopes that Utzon’s passing might help ignite further discussion about the role, and appreciation, of the arts within Australia.
Disputes over artistic differences and budget blowouts, in a variety of sectors, are not uncommon. They occur all over the world.
However as a nation, we do seem to give far greater credence – not to mention funding - to sporting pursuits, as opposed to creative ventures.
At the first opportunity, it seems, we celebrate and promote mediocrity, overlooking genuine innovation in favour of middle-of-the-road. And on more than one occasion, an ambitious plan has been sabotaged by short-sighted investors in search of a speedy ROI.
Some have said that the Sydney Opera House would have never been passed by contemporary regulators. Certainly not in Sydney.
Indeed, it seems miraculous that it managed to be built in the first place. It was almost by accident that Utzon’s design was selected – having been fished from a reject pile at the last minute.
Vale Jørn Utzon. He never gave in.