A little bit of local history.

A recent ABC television program about architect Peter Hall's involvement in completing the Sydney Opera House after Utzon was sacked, evoked old memories and emphasised yet again that a full and balanced history of that great building still has to be written.

A few years after my return from overseas in 1960 I was elected to the NSW Chapter Council of the RAIA, so when Utzon 'resigned' I was quick to ask how my conservative professional Institute proposed to help him. 

The then NSW President was Ron Gilling,  senior partner in Joseland and Gilling, a big Sydney firm.  He explained to us that Davis Hughes, Minister for Public Works in the recently elected Liberal Government, had taken him to lunch and told him in spades what a mess Utzon was making of the Opera House but he couldn't reveal the details to us as he'd promised to keep them confidential. 

Making confidential allegations to discredit someone is an old political trick to neutralise potential opponents. Gilling had fallen for it, and in his opinion the Institute should do nothing, and his view was simply accepted without a formal vote. 

I didn't understand the full details of the SOH situation then of course, and I still don't understand them at all well, but it was one of the major buildings of our time and the RAIA existed to represent architects.  In my opinion something had to be done to counter Davis Hughes' open antagonism to the project; it was his deliberate provocation in withholding fees that had led to Utzon's so-called resignation. 

It's important to understand that Utzon didn't ever formally resign from the project.  He said he had 'withdrawn his services,' in other words he'd simply stopped work until outstanding fees were paid and the other points at issue had been resolved.  It was what any architect would do in similar circumstances, why after all, would he want to resign from such a dream project?  But the Government was quick to insist he had resigned and repetition made it stick.

I was appalled at Gilling's reaction so with the support of two other younger councillors I moved a No Confidence motion in the Council, forcing the holding of an Extraordinary General Meeting of the RAIA.  It was held in an overcrowded Lower Town Hall.  Gilling spoke first reiterating the mantra that Utzon had resigned, the Government had accepted his resignation and there was nothing the RAIA could do. 

It's over fifty years ago and I don't remember exactly what I said in reply, I'm not a great public speaker, but basically it was a plea for good men and women to find a way out of what was an unnecessary situation of the Government's own making, that they should withdraw their acceptance of Utzon's so-called resignation, and Utzon should resume work while mediation took place, that it was too good a design, too important a building and too prominent a location to play politics. 

Milo Dunphy, Harry Seidler and others also spoke and there was some hot rhetoric from Utzon's younger supporters; it was a noisy meeting, and eventually a vote was taken.  My 50 year old memory is that most of the audience were sitting on the floor and half a dozen people picked their way around the Hall with difficulty, counting those with their hands up.  To say the least it was confused, it wasn't at all clear that everyone were RAIA members and entitled to vote, and it was impossible to ensure there was no over-lapping with the haphazard method of vote counting.  It also became clear that Gilling and the older councillors had pressed all their employees to attend, and in the end, whatever the shortcomings, we narrowly lost.  

About the same time there was a march down Macquarie Street to Parliament House led by Patrick White and Harry Seidler, which the Government ignored, and I also wrote a Leader page article in theHeraldsupporting Utzon, all to no avail.

All these events followed the 1965 State elections when the Labor Party lost office.  It was a Labor Government who had initiated the Opera House and Premier Joe Cahill had insisted on an immediate start of construction before the detailed design had been worked out.  

It was a bad management decision but a shrewd political one.  Cahill was determined that the project should be sufficiently advanced under his watch that it couldn't be undone by a succeeding government.  Labor lost the elections for all the normal reasons, they'd had a too long spell in office and the constantly escalating estimates of the Opera House hadn't helped. 

Peter Hall was working as a design architect in the NSW Government Architect's Office when he was asked to complete the Opera House.  His design for Goldstein Hall at the University of NSW had won him the Sulman Award the year before.  

I'd written a favourable review of his Sulman building and we talked from time to time; we weren't close friends but we liked one another, and he sought my opinion whether he should accept. At age 34 he apparently wasn't the first choice, other unknowns had already refused what looked to me like a poisoned chalice.

Only he could decide I said, but he should realise that it would be at least ten years out of his life, and that rightly or wrongly he would be ostracized by a large part of the architectural community who would never forgive him for replacing Utzon, and that no matter how well he did in a design sense, critics would always feel that Utzon would have done it better. 

I didn't try and persuade him either way, but made it clear I wouldn't accept if I had been asked.  I supported the general view that if architects placed a black ban on the job there was a forlorn hope that the government would be forced to negotiate with Utzon.

Hall accepted of course, he probably used that old self-serving justification that if he didn't do it someone else would, and with normal architectural arrogance, was confident he could do it better than anyone else!  He was appointed to complete the building with the back up support of Lionel Todd and David Littlemore. 

The SOH was such a totally all-demanding job that he dropped out of all the places where I might normally have run into him, he probably also shunned public gatherings to avoid his more vocal critics, and both of us were so busy that we completely lost touch.

Peter Hall went on to design the interiors of the building and the difficult glass walls, and when the Opera House was finally completed in 1973, he opened his own office.  But it didn't prosper, the description of him by critic Phillip Drew as 'the man who buggered up the Opera House' haunted him, and he ended up destitute and alcoholic, dying in 1995 aged 64.  It was a very sad end to the promising career of a good man.

Peter Hall's son Willy, a builder in the NSW Southern Tablelands, rescued all his father's papers, drawings and diaries when he died, and makes a plea in the ABC program for recognition of his father's bravery in taking on a necessary job in the face of so much popular opposition, and the vital role he had then played.  Willy Hall wants his dad's legacy rewritten, claiming his important role has been obscured by romantic rhetoric about Utzon, that the full story hasn't yet been told

Amen to that, but he's not the only one whose role should be re-examined.  
Joe Cahill set up a Committee to act as the client, and Henry Ingham Ashworth, Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney, was appointed Chairman. 

It is an architectural truism that the best buildings have a great client as well as a great architect, and Ashworth  was a bad choice.   He was a second rate, self-important Englishman who was clearly unable to understand or play the vital role of standing up to and arguing with Utzon, while at the same time totally supporting him. 

It wasn't until I actually saw a snake in the grass that I realized what an accurate expression it was, and although I've never actually changed horses in mid-stream I can appreciate how difficult it must be. For that's exactly what happened.  After the roof shells had been constructed, the primary uses of the two main halls were changed at the behest of the main user, the ABC.  It was only after Utzon had left that the necessary major changes that he had resisted were finally made, and Hall was a party to making these hard decisions. 

The main hall, originally intended for Opera, was converted into a symphony concert hall seating 2,800, and the smaller venue changed from the originally intended drama theatre to be the primary opera venue.  This change has plagued opera performances in the smaller space, which remains too cramped for the staging of many opera productions. It is a Sydney irony that it's universallly referred to as the Sydney Opera House when it's anythng but.

As in most complex, real world situations, there are no simple answers and along with Ashworth, Utzon must share some of the blame, and in turn Hall must share a lot of the credit for the implementation of this difficult change in mid-stream.

Utzon was a private person, and busy with this big and complex job, doesn't appear to have had any close friends in the Sydney scene who might have helped him navigate the shoals and rapids of tough Sydney politics.  Utzon spoke fluent English but there are always nuances that might have been avoided if he'd taken advice from locals who understood the mean minds and motives of politicians like Davis Hughes. 

I've always thought it was a mistake to have used the very slightly ambiguous sounding phrase 'withdrawn his services.  I knew what he meant but it gave Davis Hughes the hook to claim he had resigned.'  He should have said more directly, 'We are stopping work until you pay our outstanding fees'; he did after all have to pay his staff.

The very public humiliation of the Opera House debacle would have crushed many men but Utzon recovered and went on to design three outstanding buildings; his own house in Mallorca in 1966, the Bagsværd Church, just outside Copenhagen, designed in 1968 and completed in 1976, and the Kuwait National Assembly Building, completed in 1982, all of which demonstrate his sensitivity to culture and place. 

Although many attempts at reconciliation were made, Jørn Utzon never returned to Australia.  He joined other competition-winning foreign architects like Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony, who had also been destroyed by narrow-minded Australian politics.  Utzon died in 2008 aged 90, and his son, also an architect, has been engaged recently to carry out various interior changes his father had designed.  One hopes there will also be a realistic revaluation of Peter Hall's fraught and difficult role.

It's now over 40 years since the English Queen formally opened the Opera House, and there is sufficient distance from the politics and passions of the time for a good historian to dispassionately evaluate the roles of Utzon and how the brief came to run off the rails, the great contribution by the engineers Arups, Peter Hall's difficult life change in midstream, Ashworth's lack of leadership, along with an understanding of the politics of Joe Cahill and Davis Hughes in the context of the time.  

I do remember that there were some great political cartoons at the time.  Martin Sharp encapsulated the Government's anti-intellectual attitude in one that had Davis Hughes saying, 'Brilliant move forcing that Danish prima donna to resign, he'd want to sing his own bloody operas if we let him stay.'  

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid February 2016

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