So, what would Utzon do now?

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Sydney Opera House by night.

Sydney Opera House by night. Image: Linda Cheng

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A moody sky over Murrayfield Station, Bruny Island.

A moody sky over Murrayfield Station, Bruny Island. Image: Harry Catterns

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The beach Truganini used to fish at on Murrayfields Station, Bruny Island Tasmania.

The beach Truganini used to fish at on Murrayfields Station, Bruny Island Tasmania. Image: Harry Catterns

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Shearer’s accomodation on Murrayfield Station, Bruny Island.

Shearer’s accomodation on Murrayfield Station, Bruny Island. Image: Jasper Ludewig

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A bush blown over by the wind on.

A bush blown over by the wind on. Image: Jasper Ludewig

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Utzon Workshop leaders (L–R): Richard Leplastrier, Lene Tranberg, John Wardle, Juhani Pallasmaa (far right).

Utzon Workshop leaders (L–R): Richard Leplastrier, Lene Tranberg, John Wardle, Juhani Pallasmaa (far right). Image: Harry Catterns

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Sydney designer Harry Catterns recently went on an Utzon pilgrimage, attending the 2nd International Utzon Symposium (What Would Utzon Do?) at the Sydney Opera House, and the 4th International Utzon Workshop on Tasmania’s Bruny Island. He shares his report with ArchitectureAU.

Nervous looking AV staff politely dart through the small, chattering crowd of carefully dressed, middle-aged architects on the first morning of the 2014 Utzon Symposium at the Sydney Opera House.

Among the crowd, a tall, thin man in coarse linen gestures towards the recently soda-washed concrete beams that define the ceiling. Reflected light from the sea is dancing across their surface (much to the man’s delight) and he goes on to describe with great confidence the particulars of the newly refurbished Utzon Room. Soon enough the microphone crackles to life, blinds are lowered and the symposium begins in earnest.

“What would Utzon do now” – the distinctively evangelical theme of the symposium, resonated with the staunch devotion Jørn Utzon has inspired in many of the speakers. These devotees presented hugely specific, deeply obscure, research on day-lighting in Can Lis, or 1960s quantity-surveying of the Opera House, and jarred against the tenuously linked and, in some cases, indifferent speeches of the keynoters who, in Juhani Pallasamaa’s case, felt “obliged to mention Utzon”.

There was also an air of tragedy to the proceedings as the old guard poured over the sad circumstances of what happened [to Utzon] and what could have been. Joan Domicelj AM, former ICOMOS World Heritage director spoke on the heritage listing of the Sydney Opera House. Her conviction that it is “critically endangered” was intensified by the strains of a violin piece, written for an international conference on world cultural heritage, which played as she spoke. In a deep, unwavering voice, Domicelj railed against the new economic compromises to the forecourt, in accord with Richard Leplastrier’s solemn appeal to “clarify the platform from which all things are measured”.

Domicelj began: “If I’m honest I come here with a sense of despair. That’s not a diplomatic thing to say but I need to say it.”

At times this devotion slipped into a strange affectionate pedantry, Joseph Skrzynski, who went on to deliver a fascinating account of how Utzon was re-engaged in the refurbishment, began in this way:

JS “Is it possible to have the house lights up please?”
AV “They are up”
JS “They are up?
AV “Yeah”
JS “The ceiling lights?”
AV “That’s all we’ve got at the moment”
JS “It’s a pity. It’s not the way they’re designed. Those lights should be expressing the – any way, I’ll come to that [audience laughs]. [Pause] um [pause] look, do try and get the right switch because – we’re not talking about the data lights, we’re talking about the ones that shoot up. Afternoon ladies and gentlemen…”

This type of request was fantastically typical - the eternal question of whether the blinds should be down (so as to enable optimal screen viewing) or up (so as to “fully experience the architecture”) played out with almost every new speaker - with the overseas guests seeming delightfully unaware or perhaps uninterested in the apparent faux pas of wanting their presentations to be visible.

The man in coarse linen (in fact, there were many) was Trevor Waters – a heritage consultant, charming speaker and, not surprisingly, a concrete expert. He was, in part, responsible for the refurbishment of the Utzon Room, which he describes as “the only space that is authentically Utzon”. His commitment to the building was palpable and included the analysis of 50-year-old dusty tools from the site to determine the intended finish for the internal concrete. He ended his twenty minutes like any true believer, with deference: “sorry about that”.

When Adrian Carter, Associate Professor at Aalborg Denmark, took to the stage in Sydney it was difficult to imagine a more different setting than the delightfully absurd one he would encounter only a few days later at the Second Utzon International Workshop, held on Bruny Island, Tasmania. There, standing in front of over a hundred raucous sheep (their restlessness foreshadowing their imminent artificial insemination in bondage-style leather hoof restraints – “no photos”), dwarfed inside the giant, freezing shearing shed of Murrayfield Station, Adrian would again be called upon to present his views on Utzon, this time to a group of twenty or so students.

There was a dramatic shift in the tone on Bruny. Once on the Island, there was time to look past the politics of the day and delight in the genius of Utzon and for that matter in the teachers and practitioners who would be leading the event: Lene Tranberg, Juhani Pallasmaa, Richard Leplastrier and John Wardle.

What a privilege to be lectured by John in his award winning Shearers Quarters, to be counselled in depth by Lene and Juhani and to be led by Richard through his celebrated Cloudy Bay Retreat. What a pleasure to have Utzon’s ceiling construction described in ten seconds with charcoal on the ground and to have the Island’s history explained to us by Rodney Dillon – a Palawa elder and a man instrumental in the purchase of the sheep station for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people.

Maybe there was something slightly too privileged in the discussion of architectural philosophies served over fine local cheese, something out of sync with Utzon’s vision of egalitarianism in the Tasmanian wine. But in a lull between the sheep’s bleating, Adrian said something that silenced the congregation:

“Utzon had started his application for residency. He wanted to live in Australia and to contribute to architecture here”.

Most of us know what we did to the Opera House, the betrayal of Utzon, the botched switch of major and minor, the glass walls, the world’s largest Picasso mural that never was. What I hadn’t known was how much more we missed out on.

The 4th International Utzon Symposium What would Utzon do Now? 7-9 March 2014 was organized by the UNSW Built Environment in conjunction with the Jørn Utzon Research Network and Utzon Research Center (JURN).

The 2nd Utzon International Workshop 14-22 March 2014 was jointly organised by the Jørn Utzon Research Network, the Utzon Research Center and the University of Tasmania, hosted on Bruny Island, Tasmania.


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