With Ove Arup stepping back from the project as he prepared for retirement, responsibility was handed to the partner in charge of Arup’s Sydney Office, Michael Lewis. By 1964 Lewis began raising concerns about Utzon’s ability to deliver the huge volume of drawings needed for the interiors that were to be built in Stage Three. Ryan demanded that Utzon produce the drawings, but Utzon said these drawings could not be provided until he had prototyped the innovative plywood beams he planned to use to support the ceilings and the glass exteriors walls.
In May 1965 the government changed. After 24 years of Labor rule, R.W Askin’s Liberal party formed a Coalition with Davis Hugh’s Country party. Given his strained relations with the Labor Minister for Public Work, Norman Ryan, Utzon was initially hopeful. It was instead the beginning of the end of his involvement in the project.
Having campaigned on a platform of reining in costs at the Opera House, Davis Hughes made himself the project’s master by giving himself the Public Works portfolio. Three months after taking office, Hughes declared that Utzon would henceforth only be paid for producing drawings. By the end of 1965, Utzon needed 60,000 pounds to build the prototypes he needed to test the large, plywood beams that would be suspended from the soffits of the shell’s arches to support the ceiling as well as the plywood munnions that would support the glass walls. Asked for advice by Hughes, Arup’s engineers, who were more used to working with steel, questioned whether the plywood scheme would work.
The fight over the plywood mock-ups turned into an impasse. Without the prototypes, Utzon could not proceed with the drawings of the Opera House’s interiors, known as Stage Three. Without the drawings, Hughes was able to stop payments to Utzon.
At noon on 28 February, 1966, Utzon met Davis Hughes at his Ministerial office in Bridge Street. Utzon had intended to discuss a 51,626 pound fee he was owed for managing the stage machinery contracts, which had been outstanding for four months. He also pressed Hughes about the money needed for the plywood mock-ups. Hughes said he could not make a decision and cited the adverse report from Arup. Utzon threatened to quit, to which Hughes replied ‘You are always threatening to quit...’ Feeling provoked, Utzon walked out. The meeting had lasted barely 15 minutes.
Hours later Utzon’s secretary hand-delivered a letter to Hughes in which Utzon accused the Minister of forcing him out. Hughes immediately made arrangements for an Opera House without Utzon’s further involvement and sought assurances from the engineers and the builders that they would continue on the project. Having been assured they would, Hughes told the press that evening and then Parliament the next day that Utzon had resigned.
Utzon’s resignation caused an unprecedented outcry. There were letters of protest from eminent artists, designers and intellectuals from across the globe. On 3 March, 1000 people marched on State Parliament through the streets of Sydney led by architect Harry Seidler, author Patrick White and others, who demanded that Utzon be reinstated. A further rally organised by a group that called itself ‘Utzon-in-Charge’ was held and a petition of 3000 signatures was delivered to Premier Askin.