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An opera with a happy ending

Times Staff Writer

The last time Danish architect Jorn Utzon set eyes on his most famous creation, the Sydney Opera House, it was 1966, and workers were affixing the last ceramic tiles to its giant white sails.

Utzon, who conceived the building’s striking design, was forced out of the project by officials who wanted Australian architects to finish the job. The new architects discarded his design for the interior, ripping out work that had already begun.

At the grand opening ceremony in 1973, Utzon’s name was not even mentioned.

Since then, the building’s distinctive shape has made the opera house an Australian icon and one of the world’s best-known buildings. Among architects, it is recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century. Last year, Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize, widely considered to be the Nobel Prize of architecture.

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Now officials in Sydney are doing their best to make up for the way Utzon, 86, was treated nearly 40 years ago.

For the last several years, Utzon has quietly been drafting plans to improve the building’s interior. Working from photographs of the building, he has resurrected some of his original designs and incorporated new elements that reflect changes in his thinking.

Last month, the opera house officially opened its first interior space built entirely according to Utzon’s design at a cost of about $3.4 million. The newly renovated room overlooking Sydney Harbor highlights the remarkable concrete beams that support the structure, and a colorful 45-foot tapestry designed by Utzon covers one wall. Formerly called the Reception Hall, it has been renamed the Utzon Room.

“We are very keen to make amends for the past,” says Norman Gillespie, chief executive of the Opera House. “He’s razor sharp. He has never stopped thinking about the building.”

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Utzon has welcomed the reconciliation.

“It was an outstretched hand my father eagerly accepted,” said his son, Jan, an architect who is working closely with him. “My father always loved Australia. It was just a few individuals he could not work with.”

Utzon, whose health does not allow him to travel long distances and who does not grant interviews, issued a statement from Denmark for the grand opening of the Utzon Room.

“The fact I’m mentioned in such a marvelous way, it gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction,” he wrote. “I don’t think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get and have got.”

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Joseph Skrzynski, chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust, praised the design, saying it was the first time that a room inside the structure matched the beauty of the building’s exterior.

“Utzon has never sought honors or recognition, but we know he had a special fondness for this room,” said Bob Carr, premier of New South Wales, where Sydney is located. “By naming it for him, we acknowledge that his extraordinary building has given Sydney and Australia a focus of identity, pride and celebration -- way beyond what was ever imagined.”

Exterior finesse

Work has begun on a second project, also designed by Utzon, to correct problems introduced in the redesign after he was forced out. This will include the first exterior modification to the structure.

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The opera house has two main sections, one larger than the other. Under Utzon’s original design, the larger section would have housed an opera hall and a theater. The smaller section would have held a concert hall.

But the team of Australian architects turned the design around, putting a concert hall in the larger section and cramming an opera house and three theaters into the smaller section.

Those changes meant putting an entrance on the western side in a way Utzon had never intended and creating a narrow foyer for the three theaters that to some resembles a casino.

Utzon’s new design calls for building a colonnade to extend the structure outward and to bring light into the foyer by installing nine large windows. The changes will give the room panoramic views of Sydney Harbor and the Harbor Bridge.

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The work, which will be done without closing any of the theaters, is due to be completed by the end of the year for about $4.5 million.

Gillespie hopes the Utzon Room and the colonnade are only the beginning.

“When people come in and see the room as Utzon would have designed the interior space, there will be a clamor for him to give us all his plans,” he says.

Gillespie’s goal is to bring to life Utzon’s intent for the interior -- to “deliver a world-class theater in a world-class exterior.”

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“The outside is timeless,” he says. “But when I walk in the door, I am disappointed. The inside is definitely 1970s.”

He envisions renovating the opera hall to add more seats, improve the acoustics, create more space backstage for performers and expand the cramped orchestra pit. That would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require closing the building for three years.

Gillespie has begun trying to raise private and public funds for the renovation, but even under the best scenario work would not begin until 2007.

“I’m giving it my best shot because this would be the greatest legacy anyone could leave, to complete the Sydney Opera House,” he says.

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As a young man, Utzon considered becoming a ship designer like his father before settling on architecture. He traveled widely and his designs later drew inspiration from Mayan temples, Islamic monuments and Chinese caves. His work was little known internationally when his design for the Sydney Opera House was chosen in 1957, much to his surprise.

Building the opera house was the dream of New South Wales Premier Joe Cahill at a time when Sydney was a modest city and opera was hardly a popular pastime. The forceful premier envisioned a grand monument that would dominate Bennelong Point, which juts into the harbor between Circular Quay and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Cahill’s death in 1959 left Utzon without the political backing he needed and eventually led to the architect’s replacement. He came under fire for cost overruns, although Jan Utzon notes that in the end, about 80% of the construction funds were spent on the interior of the building after his father left the project.

Jorn Utzon was invited to attend the opening ceremony but declined.

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“He didn’t want to go back and see all the things that were done to the opera house that were completely detrimental to what he wanted it to be and have to answer questions like, ‘Isn’t it a wonderful house?’ ” Jan Utzon said by telephone from Copenhagen.

Building a city’s image

The finished structure helped put Sydney on the map. Through television, photographs and tourist brochures, its image has become as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Pyramids.

Each year about 4.5 million tourists visit the building, home to nearly 2,800 performances with 1.3 million tickets sold. It is open 363 days a year.

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The venue has attracted some of the greatest performers in the world, from Joan Sutherland to Elton John. The premiere of the film “The Matrix: Revolutions” was held here last year. Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr. Olympia title here in 1980.

Although the Sydney Opera House is Utzon’s most famous building, he has been praised for some of his later creations, including a church in Denmark, a bank in Iran and the Kuwait National Assembly building -- which was damaged by Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops in 1991.

Frank Gehry, the Los Angeles architect who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall and served on the jury that awarded Utzon the Pritzker Prize, noted that the Danish architect had avoided the limelight and never sought accolades.

“Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country,” said Gehry, who won the Pritzker Prize in 1989.

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“It is the first time in our lifetime that an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence.”


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