A masterpiece of human creative genius … Joern Utzon after meeting the media at the site of the Sydney Opera House on March 8, 1966.

Joern Utzon lived surrounded by mementos of the masterpiece he created but never saw.

Tacked to his living room wall in his apartment near Copen-hagen was the design for the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room tapestry.

It was a symbol of the rapprochement between the architect, who died at the weekend aged 90, and the Australian political establishment that once hounded him.

The building, described as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”, was constantly in his mind’s eye even as his physical vision dimmed in recent years.

Utzon died having overseen detailed plans for the renovation of the Opera House, but without knowing whether the $800 million needed to realise his grand vision had been secured.

Without this money, the unfinished business of fixing the opera theatre’s problems with acoustics and space would put its future as a performing venue at risk. Utzon also died only weeks after his son and grandson differed over changes to the World Heritage building.

Richard Evans, chief executive of the Opera House, said Utzon had left a living monument to creativity and boldness. “The Opera House was very much part of his daily life, especially over the last decade,” he said.

Utzon left Sydney in 1966, amid acrimony with the NSW government and cost blow-outs. He never returned. Since his reconciliation with NSW and re-engagement with the Opera House a decade ago, Utzon has worked with his architect son Jan to realise his vision. Jan Utzon, who was en route to Denmark yesterday, was in Sydney working on the project when he learnt of his father’s death.
Mr Evans, who will attend Utzon’s funeral, described his emotional visit to the elderly Utzon’s home this year. “We spoke for 40 minutes, and when we left he embraced me and he whispered in my ear, ‘No tears,”‘ Mr Evans said. “… But of course, there were.”

Utzon had given the Opera House a detailed set of design principles for the building to guide it in future, Mr Evans said.

Utzon’s son and grandson last month clashed over the renovation plans, with the architect Jeppe Utzon, Jan’s son, saying these risked “messing up” his grandfather’s designs.

“It’s getting messed up [by other architects],” Jeppe Utzon told the architectural webzine Building Design. “It will be hard to distinguish who did what. It’s a patchwork of ideas … It is dangerous for [my father and grand-father], not so much for their reputations but for the purity [of the architecture]. It’s strange they said yes to it.” But Jan Utzon told the webzine his son was not well informed enough to comment on the project.

The architect Richard Johnson, who has been working with the Utzons on the renovations, said some aspects of the building should never be altered.

“One should never touch the sails, the shells, the fundamental processional route into the building. But there’s a lot that can be changed to be closer to what he originally intended.”

Utzon did not advocate returning to the ideas of the 1950s but using new design technologies consistent with the original spirit, Mr Johnson said.

“He often referred to it like the great Gothic cathedrals that would never be complete but would evolve and change over time,” Mr Johnson said. “He had a genuine interest in how people experienced architecture, how they felt, what they saw and how they moved through buildings.

“His humanism is very evident in his work and particularly the Sydney Opera House … He stretched our imaginations to show that the impossible was possible.”

Mr Johnson said he was surprised at Utzon’s detailed recall of the building he had not seen in more than four decades.

“We were talking about a minor room in the basement and he said: ‘We’ve got to be careful about that because the sewer is not far from there,’ ” Mr Johnson said.

“So there was this intimate knowledge of the building … He could [mentally] walk through all of those spaces.”

The Premier, Nathan Rees, said the renovation plans would be considered by the state and federal governments in coming months. He would push for adequate funding.

“There is no question the interior needs some work. The orchestra pit itself, the provision of disabled access and the interior refitting generally may cost up to $800 million, but we’ll work with the Federal Government. It is an iconic site.” It is believed the NSW government under Morris Iemma had been prepared to fund half the project, if the Federal Government matched the commitment.

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, described Utzon as a visionary whose legacy included one of the world’s most spectacular buildings.

A spokesman for the Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, said any funding for the renovations would be considered as part of the federal budget process.

The Opera House lights were dimmed for an hour last night and flags on the Harbour Bridge will fly at half mast today. Condolence books can be signed at the Opera House until Sunday.A memorial service will be held early next year.

Joyce Morgan, Conrad Walters and Paola Totaro
Brisbane Times