Visionary's Vision Doubted
Architect of Sydney Opera House Under Fire Yet Again

By Rohan Sullivan
Associated Press
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

SYDNEY -- His eyesight is fading, but at 88, Joern Utzon's mind remains sharp, and he still makes sketches to improve his masterwork, the Sydney Opera House.

The building's custodians and Utzon's family have denied recent charges that a degenerative eye condition has left the Danish architect unable to contribute fully to renovations underway on the landmark building and that his name is being used to push through substandard work.

The dispute is the latest episode in the bittersweet saga of Utzon and his most celebrated creation that for 45 years has played out like one of the operas staged beneath the building's unmistakable gleaming white roof shells.

Architectural critic and Utzon biographer Philip Drew said the architect's son, Jan Utzon, had told him recently that the elder Utzon could no longer see television and cannot read without a magnifying glass because of advancing age-related macular degeneration.

Likening the loss to a tragedy worse than Beethoven going deaf, Drew said the revelation raised serious doubts that Utzon can effectively communicate his ideas for work being done on the building or understand how the changes look.

"Architecture depends on making fine judgments of space and form, scale, color and texture," Drew wrote in the daily national newspaper the Australian. "Even with assistance, Utzon's ability to make such fine judgments inevitably will be impaired, along with his capacity to convey his thoughts in drawings."

Jan Utzon, an architect himself who works as a liaison between his father and leading Sydney architect Richard Johnson on the current work, dismissed suggestions that his father was incapable.

"My father's eyesight is somewhat impaired, true," Jan Utzon told the Associated Press in an e-mail response to questions. "But he can still see drawings and is often sketching new ideas for the opera house. He is very active concerning all issues that have relations to the opera house."

Utzon said he "may have exaggerated my father's disability" to Drew to try to protect the elderly architect from Drew's requests for interviews.

"My father turns 89 in April, and I am grateful to still have him around and to have the opportunity to work with him and his keen mind," he said.

Joern Utzon was pushed off the original opera house project before the building was finished. The project involved years of delays, cost overruns and bitter disputes with the government of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital. Utzon's design, selected in 1957 from more than 230 entrants in an international competition, was supposed to be built in four years after construction started in 1959. Fourteen years later, Queen Elizabeth II finally declared it open.

Although the exterior of Utzon's design -- which at the time tested construction technology as well as visual concepts of a building -- was retained, Australian architects who took over in 1966 changed the interior and other features under instructions to cut costs and get the building finished quickly.

Years later, public outrage at the cost overruns waned, the building became a national point of pride and the failure to achieve Utzon's original vision for it is largely viewed as tragic.

The building became Utzon's greatest triumph, though the success was tinged with bitterness. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2003, when judge Frank Gehry -- a Pritzker-winning architect himself -- wrote that Utzon had "persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country."

But Utzon never returned to Sydney and never saw the completed opera house.

In 1999, after the public mood had changed, Utzon was invited to draw up design plans that would guide any future work. A series of improvements was announced in 2002, with Utzon and son Jan appointed as part of a team overseeing the $36 million project.

A new colonnade and loggia have been completed, and refurbishment of some foyers is due to start later this year. Plans are also being considered to redo the concert hall and opera theater so they will be more in line with Utzon's original design.

Drew told the AP that the work done so far is "out of harmony" with the building. He said the Sydney Opera House Trust was being too secretive about the project and was putting Utzon's name ahead of the integrity of the building -- claims the trust has denied.

The Opera House Trust said in a statement that it was publicly known that Utzon's eyesight "is not what it has been." But having Utzon on the project was an "extraordinary privilege" that "afforded us the rare opportunity of once again benefiting from Joern Utzon's unique insight, ideas and genius."

Utzon has no plans to visit Sydney, his son said.

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