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Issued Thursday, 2 October 2003

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL FOR TWO INNOVATIVE ARCHITECTS, UTZON AND GEHRY
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By Ada Louise Huxtable

© 2003 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (tradinq as Factiva). All rights reserved.

There are 32 years and 7,487 miles separating the Sydney Opera House and Los Angeles Disney Concert Hall, but they share two things: an iconic image and a troubled history. Both are competition winning designs - the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, conceived his striking, sail-like shells for Sydney Harbour in 1956, and Frank Gehry, best known for the billowing silver forms of his Bilbao museum in Spain, won the commission for the Disney Concert Hall In 1988. Both architects have produced buildings that are masterworks of their time.

The Opera House was not completed until 1973, 17 long, conflict-ridden years later, and Disney Hall opens next month, after 15 years of struggling and stumbling that nearly did it in. Leadership and fund-raising problems put a stop to the project in 1994. At one critical point, there was a move to oust Mr. Gehry and substitute another architect; fortunately, an accommodation was reached that allowed Mr. Gehry to continue the work in 1999.

In Sydney, Mr. Utzon resigned in 1966, after 10 years on the job, driven out by dissension and compromise as costs skyrocketed for the difficult construction. He went back to Denmark and never returned to see the completed building. The depressingly pedestrian interiors that were designed by others after his departure have always been a letdown from the poetic presence in the harbor.

The selection committees that opt for these iconic images are dazzled by the genius that creates them but seem to mistrust it if the going gets rough. When an unconventional concept requires committed patronage as costs rise and problems escalate -- as inevitably happens with these large, expensive and complex undertakings - they pull back and drop the ball. There is usually a bottom-line mind and sensibility waiting to take over and “save” the project in some adulterated form, or it may not be built at all.

I visited Disney Hall in January, when it was nearly complete, and from what I saw the good news is that it is an unadulterated Gehry building that promises to be both beautiful and inviting; it is a standout in an era of bland, bleak halls cluttered with unattractive devices of acoustical uncertainty. After a bumpy trip, alls well that ends well in Los Angeles, but the happy ending has come much later in Sydney. Almost 40 years after he left, Jørn Utzon has been called back to redo the interiors in the spirit of his original design. He was named consulting architect three years ago, for as long as the work continues.

Thirty years of performances and tourism had taken their toll. The interiors are being “refurbished,” a polite word for a makeover that includes major revisions to deal with developments in the performing arts and the way the building is used. But the truly miraculous aspect of Mr. Utzon’s recall has been the expressed desire to put things right that were so blatantly wrong. The retrofitting, now under way, is being funded by the City of Sydney and the Sydney Opera House Trust, with an allocation of 45 million Australian dollars (about $30 million) from the New South Wales Ministry for the Arts.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a “transformed” Reception Hall will be completed in about six months. The dramatic sweep of the ceiling’s concrete beams, hidden so long under wrongheaded timber panelling, will now be revealed, as intended. Wall-to-wall green carpeting is being replaced by a wood floor designed to incorporate the structural pattern of the ceiling. Bronze-tinted glass will be changed to clear glass in walls for which a white woollen curtain is being woven. Details of lighting and finishes and a new chandelier and tapestry are all of Mr. Utzon’s design. The visual correspondence of the interior to the exterior, so essential to the buildings meaning and effect, is driving the redesign.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I am not a neutral observer of the Opera’s architectural epiphany, The Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury, of which I am a member, visited Mr. Utzon’s buildings in Denmark on an early study trip and found them particularly handsome and humane. When he was reconnected with the Opera House, bringing his life’s work full circle, it gave the jury the opportunity to honor him with the Pritzker Prize. We did so this year, in a unanimous vote.)

Calling an architect back after so long a time is virtually unheard of, particularly when the implications of error, humility and redemption are so strong. No more gracious statement exists in the annals of architecture than the Opera’s announcement that its action was taken to “reunite the man and the masterpiece.”

But the story gets even better. Mr. Utzon was asked to formulate a set of Design Principles -- as they are officially described and capitalized in Opera House documents -- against which all future changes or proposals will be measured. The purpose of this unusual step, according to the chairman of the Sydney Opera House, Joseph Skrzynski, is to “retain the integrity of Utzon’s vision,” providing “insight into the design, and guidance for the building’s conservation and management.”

Integrity? Vision? Insight? Guidance? These are not words or concepts frequently heard or honored by the boards and bureaucracies that build our most important monuments and institutions. One would hope for echoes in Lower Manhattan, as the dealing and juggling on the World Trade Center site continues. But there’s more. A foundation has been set up by the Opera House in Mr. Utzon’s name that will promote programs and prizes in the performing arts, inspired by the pioneering, expressive spirit of the building.

Although Jørn Utzon is now 85, and unable to travel, he is closely involved with the redesign from his retirement home in Majorca, Spain. He is being assisted by his son Jan, also an architect -- the firm continues as Utzon Associates -- and Richard Johnson, of the associated Sydney firm of Johnson Pilton Walker, who has been shuttling back and forth, getting approvals on materials, textures and colors. Even in the age of instant fax and computer communication, these are subtle, subjective decisions that are best made on site, or, lacking that, there is no substitute for the architect’s eye.

Frank Gehry is generous in his acknowledgment of the influence of Mr. Utzon’s Opera House on his own work; for him, then and now, it is a remarkable and inspiring building. The two architects possess a strong romantic vision, a gift for resolving programs in innovative ways with memorable images, demonstrated in landmarks almost half a century apart. But whatever visual similarities exist between their inventive, free forms, the means to produce them have improved exponentially in the intervening years.

Mr. Utzon’s concept was far ahead of its time and the tools for its efficient and economical execution. Mr. Gehry’s complex structures are developed with a computer program created for the aircraft industry; Mr. Utzon’s striking forms were carried out painstakingly, by hand. Every curve and connection, no matter how unique or eccentric, had to be laboriously and lengthily calculated and drawn, tracing over tracing; no instant adjustments were available with the click of a mouse. This makes Jørn Utzon brilliant, expressionistic design an even more remarkable achievement.

There should be a lesson in the vicissitudes of these two great buildings and their rocky road to realization, but I wouldn’t bet on it. If those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, those who lack the understanding of the uncommon, and the eternal need for its existence, are sure to sabotage it, over and over again. The one certainty is that politics, power plays, and personality conflicts will always endanger the dream.

With time, we are more comfortable with strangeness; the buildings become admired symbols that give us a lasting sense of place. It is through these extraordinary structures that we identify with the beautiful and the exceptional, that we understand ourselves and our aspirations. Sometimes we honor the architect, if we remember the name.

Ms. Huxtable is the architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal.

 

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