A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
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Phantom of the Opera House


The Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Almost immediately after its completion in 1973, the ground-breaking building became an icon for a city, a country, a continent.

On the day we arrived in Australia, Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who conceived the Opera House, died in his sleep without ever having seen his completed masterpiece.

Forty years earlier Utzon had been humiliated by a discredited government Minister and run out of Australia, never to return.

Briefly, here’s what happened.


In 1957 Utzon had unexpectedly won the design competition to build the new performing arts center.

He had submitted nothing more than a set of preliminary drawings – but the sketches were so compelling that one judge called them “genius” and declared he could support no other choice.

Construction began in 1959 before Utzon had time to complete his final plans. New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill was eager to get started before public support for the project weakened.

The pressure to build quickly led to mistakes, expensive change orders, delays and setbacks.

In 1965, Joseph Cahill’s Labour Government was defeated at the polls and Robert Askin’s new Liberal Government targeted Utzon and the Opera House as an example of wasteful government spending.

In 1966 New Public Works Minister Davis Hughes publicly attacked Utzon, then witheld payment of more than $100,000 in fees. Utzon could not pay his staff, and ultimately was forced to resign as chief architect.

A great public argument followed, and there was much discussion about who was right and who was wrong. Utzon returned to Denmark and never set foot in Australia again.

It would take seven more years and approximately eighty million more dollars to complete the building. At the time Utzon took the rap.

But history has taken a different view. Australian architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly said this about Minister Davis Hughes:

Hughes had no interest in art, architecture or aesthetics. A fraud, as well as a philistine, he had been exposed before Parliament and dumped as Country Party leader for 19 years of falsely claiming a university degree.

The Opera House gave Hughes a second chance. For him, as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius.”

In 2003 Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Award, architecture’s highest award, for his work on the Opera House. Frank Gehry, one of the most honored living architects, had this to say:

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.

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

In a 2005 article in Harvard Design Magazine, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg argued that the scandal over Utzon’s firing kept him from building more masterpieces. This, according to Flyvbjerg, was the real cost of the Sydney Opera House:

Utzon was thirty-eight when he won the competition for the Opera House – how would the work of the mature master have enriched our lives?

We’ll never know. That’s the high price Sydney has imposed by its incompetence in building the Opera House.”


1 Simon { 01.19.09 at 4:26 am }

Hi Guys,

Craig, great info, loving you’re blog. The mixture of background information and the day to day trials & tribulations of travelling with a family really make for compelling monitoring.

You really bring your trip alive and stir the great memories of our trip, which is definately a good thing.

Safe travels.

2 Sujatha { 01.19.09 at 7:38 am }

Great post! I had always admired teh pictures of this landmark but did nit know the history/background of the construction. Keep it coming.

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