Architectural model, Sydney Opera House, Jorn Utzon's design for the major hall, wood / plastic, Finecraft Scale Models Pty Ltd, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1966
This sectioned model documents Jorn Utzon's interior design for the major hall of Sydney Opera House. Although this interior design was not built, the model is significant as a record of Utzon's attempted resolution of the issues surrounding the design of the major hall and of Utzon's departure from the Opera House project.
The original collection record for the model when acquired by the Museum in 1978 states: 'This design was unsatisfactory due to lack of seating'. The truth is more complicated. The major (western) hall of Sydney Opera House was originally conceived as an opera theatre also capable of hosting concert performances. The smaller (eastern) hall was planned as a drama theatre. From 1964 Utzon and his team worked on the design of main theatre's interior, which was to be enclosed within a prefabricated plywood structure erected within the concrete roof and independent of its support. The plywood ceiling and walls were designed to accommodate the differing acoustic requirements of opera and orchestral performances, as well as to create a visually powerful environment.
In opera mode the hall was to feature a proscenium stage and orchestra pit and seating for an audience of about 2000 people. In concert mode the orchestra pit was to be used for seating permitting a capactiy of 2800. This seating capacity became an issue thanks partly to the influence of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
During the 1960s orchestral concerts were a better attended and longer established performance format than opera. The ABC was the major promoter and broadcaster of orchestral music. Sir Charles Moses, head of the ABC, wrote in 1961 that 'Sydney Opera House is misnamed. It is not an opera house. It is a group of four halls...in two of which opera could be presented from time to time, perhaps a total of eight weeks each year'. The ABC was aggressive in insisting that it would be the main tenant of the main hall. In contrast the Australian Opera Company had only been formed in 1956, did not have its own orchestra until 1967 or a year-round performance schedule until 1970. Politically it was no match for the ABC.
During 1965 the design of the major hall was revised several times. By early 1966 most of the accoustic and seating accommodation issues seemed to have been resolved, partly through the discovery that Utzon's team had been working on the basis of incorrect measurements of the interior space available. That the hall was larger than realised permitted a seating capacity of slightly more than 2500 people in concert mode - still less than that demanded by the ABC and the NSW government but functional in all other respects.
The design of the major hall was the most pressing of several issues which came to a head during February and March of 1966. The escalating budget of the building and continuing uncertainty as to its completion date had been issues of the 1965 NSW election, with the new Liberal/Country Party NSW government of Robert Askin determined to assert control of the Opera House project. Utzon dealt poorly with these political issues, resisting oversight by the new government and its Labor predecessor. He also communicated poorly with the government and his engineering partner Ove Arup. Doubts expressed by Arup's engineers as to the structural stability of the hall interiors increased opposition to his design. However Utzon was convinced that the quality of his interior design would win the day. Unfortunately it was impossible to design an opera theatre which could accommodate the ABC's demands for a larger seating capacity.
This issue, together with the inflation of the project budget, was used as a justification for the termination of Utzons' contract. Ironically the resulting decision to reconfigure the building resulting in a perfoming arts centre which was both more expensive and less functional than that promised by Utzon's 1966 design. The stage towers had already been installed in 1966, and were demolished to permit the main hall's reconstuction as a concert venue. Stage machinery recently purchased from Germany was discarded. Since the building's completion both the concert (western) hall and the opera (eastern) theatre have been plagued by inadequate acoustic performance while the seating capacity and the stage area of the opera theatre are inadequate. Hence the decisions taken in 1966 resulted in a functionally compromised building as well as interiors that can hardly be compared with those proposed by Utzon. Not surprisingly campaigns persist among architects and other Utzon afficionados for the restoration of his 1966 interiors.
The model of Utzon's design for the major hall is an important record of the design potential and history of the Sydney Opera House. Having been displayed in exhibitions celebrating Utzon's Opera House design, the model has helped ensure that the design of the building remains an ongoing controversy.
Charles Pickett, Curator Design and Built Environment.
The sectional model was constructed by Finecraft Scale Models Pty Ltd, Sydney, New South Wales in Australia in 1966.
This model was made by Finecraft Scale Models, Sydney. There is some doubt as the production date and history of the model. According to Philip Drew's chronology 'Utzon and the Sydney Opera House' (Sydney, 2000) in December 1964: 'The first model of the proposed interior of the SOH put on display in Dept of Public Works built by Finecraft Scale Models Pty Ltd. The 1 inch to 8 ft. scale model showed the cast and scenery of Act II of Tosca and took 14 months and cost 5000 pounds'. (p.98).
This description matches this model in regards to the Tosca cast (Floria Tosca and Baron Scarpia) and setting although the stated scale (1:96) differs from that of this model (1:128).
The design of the major hall interior changed considerably during 1965. In his 'The Masterpiece: Jorn Utzon A secret life' (Melbourne, 1999) Philip Drew writes that in February 1966 'the Finecraft model of the existing Major Hall was updated to include all the latest alterations' (p.338).
The model was in the possession of the SOH in 1978 when the Technical Manager of the Opera House 'uncovered' it 'and thought it should be given to the Museum', according to the file record of the resulting phone call.
The Opera House may have regretted this offer during the 1980s which saw renewed interest in Utzon's interior designs. The model was loaned back to Sydney Opera House in 1983 for the exhibition 'Theatre exposed', and in 1988-1989 for the exhibition 'The Building of the century'. Subsequently the model was displayed at the SOH in the Playhouse foyer until 1994 when it featured at the State Library of NSW exhibition 'Unseen Utzon'. In 2004 the model was displayed in a 'Jorn Utzon' exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebeak, Denmark and subsequently in the Museum of Sydney in the exhibition 'The Studio of Jorn Utzon'.
Finally, from 2005 to 2010 the model was displayed at the Powerhouse Museum.