For Australian architects, the tale of the Sydney Opera House is surrounded by so much mythology it’s become an epic poem of the hero from Denmark who gave us a temple to the sublime and eternal light of Architecture. It's a tragedy of him being forced home, our hero vanquished by inept bureaucrats and politicians.
According to Leplastrier, Utzon 'could always see right to the heart of something. Nothing ever got past him and this is why he had such trouble with the politicians. He saw right through them and they knew it.' Recounting a story of Utzon meeting then Premier Joseph Cahill for the first time, Leplastrier described the Great Dane and his team climbing the sandstone steps to enter the Premier’s office.
Cahill, uncomfortably seated behind a mahogany and green felted desk brought out small glasses for the group. Having toasted the Opera House he then demanded, ‘When can you start?’
Utzon (who rarely drank alcohol) replied that the design of the shells had not yet been solved and would prefer to find a solution before commencing. Cahill retorted, ‘That’s not what I asked you. When can you start?!’
For Utzon, moving to Australia was possibly a permanent decision and he had acquired land north of Sydney at Bayview to build a house for himself and his young family. Far from the pressures of Bennelong Point, Utzon kept a small office in a boatshed on the western side of Palm Beach. Leplastrier told us how every so often Jørn would remark that the day was too beautiful to be working inside so they would take Utzon’s yacht and sail Broken Bay, circumnavigating Lion Island.
A series of platforms roofed by a cascade of deep, interlocking plywood channels, the Bayview House had been crystallising for a number of years by the time Leplastrier arrived at Utzon’s office in 1964. Richard acknowledged that to walk the Bayview site with Utzon was a unique experience, allowing the young architect to see through his mentor's eyes. Utzon understood how nature worked. 'He used it as a workshop in space' says Leplastrier. Moving around the rock outcrops and seeking view corridors down Pittwater, Utzon had total awareness of the landscape and a clear sense of what made the site unique.
Utzon had commented that Australian vegetation was prickly and one wanted to be up and out of it, the rock escarpments providing a natural place to be able to move freely. The Bayview House would evoke these escarpments and also connect to a deeper thematic fascination Utzon had with the platform as an architectonic element. The vegetation would 'wash up against these platforms like a ship cutting wake'.
Leplastrier told us that Utzon’s father Aage was a naval architect. Growing up around the Aalborg shipyards, one naturally assumes this had a lasting influence on Utzon. Aage was a talented model maker, precise and accurate. He learnt from nature studying the lines of fish using them as a model for improving his yacht designs.
Aage was also a keen huntsman and passed this knowledge on to his son. This is perhaps a more significant influence on Utzon as an architect, giving him a unique understanding of landscape, reading of climatic conditions and a honed awareness of himself in place. He viewed the site with a hunters mind.
Lessons were always taken from nature. Utzon took his staff to the northern end of Palm Beach and had them sit between two large dunes so that only the blue horizon of the ocean could be seen, framed by the curving sand. Utzon asked them to, ‘Watch and wait’.
A seagull flew into view from behind one dune, darted across their field of view and disappeared behind the other. ‘Only show a part. Never show it all. The imagination is more powerful than reality can ever be.’ Utzon explained.
This idea of restricting and suggesting views, not showing everything at once and allowing for implication rather than explication formed the basis of the openings at the Bayview House (and would inform many later Utzon projects).
Leplastrier also described how he made a scale timber model of the Bayview House spending his weekend carefully assembling it before carrying it to the studio. Utzon immediately commented that the joints were mitred. ‘Never take a material to infinity!’ he exclaimed. A mitred joint would eventually open up. This lesson seems to have had lasting resonance as Leplastrier has never mitred a joint in any of his work.
Eventually taking five years to conceive and pass through Council, the approval came too late. Leplastrier was present when Utzon arrived at the studio having received confirmation via return post that his resignation had been accepted. In order to pay taxes, the Bayview site was sold and in other hands the land subdivided. He would be leaving his Opera House and Australia never to return. The opportunity to have Utzon's Bayview House lost forever.