In January 2015 the new Philharmonie de Paris concert hall was opened by President François Hollande. The event was controversially boycotted by the building’s architect, Jean Nouvel, in protest at the French government’s decision to open the 2400-seat auditorium well before it was finished. The architect has since lost a court battle that hinged on what he called the ‘sabotage’ of his design. Way over budget and schedule and with many construction hurdles, the problematic project and the repercussions for its architect strike a familiar chord.
Half a century ago a similar scenario, but with even more drastic consequences, played out in Sydney when Jørn Utzon spectacularly resigned as architect of the unfinished Sydney Opera House. In April 1966 he flew out of Sydney, never to return. He left behind a set of magnificent but empty concrete shells: not only was the building unfinished, the plans for completion of its interiors and cladding were far from resolved.
It was into this perilous void that the 34-year-old Sydney architect Peter Hall bravely, or perhaps naively, stepped in April 1966 as part of the government-appointed consortium Hall, Todd & Littlemore. Charged with finishing the building, Hall, as design architect, was confronted with a perplexing logjam of problems, not the least of which was the pressing need to resolve the impasse over the conflicting seating and acoustic requirements of the dual-purpose main hall. The rights and wrongs of Utzon’s abrupt departure have been widely discussed over the years, but it is the narrative of the misunderstood ‘creative genius’, thwarted by an unsympathetic client and uncooperative consultants, that has stuck and has fed the compelling Utzon myth. So entrenched has this myth become that even 50 years on it continues to eclipse the achievements of those who completed the building. Join one of the very popular Opera House guided tours and you will hear little if anything of those responsible for the interiors—principally the Concert Hall and Opera Theatre—you visit. The 40th anniversary celebrations in 2013 made almost no mention of the post-Utzon work from 1966 to 1973—more than half of the building’s total construction time
But worse than the enduring disregard and ignorance is the continuing vilification of Hall. To this day the mere mention of his name in connection with the Opera House is enough to send many architects into paroxysms of indignation. In Hall’s own time he was snubbed by many in the profession and his career post–Opera House never fulfilled the promise of his considerable early achievements, including the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ Sulman Medal in 1965. His family was threatened and his colleagues sidelined in their subsequent careers. The controversy over his appointment in 1966 effectively ended his first marriage and Hall’s premature death at the age of 64 in 1995 was, I believe, partly precipitated by the rekindling of old prejudices in the highly partisan, and uninformed, response by the media to the ‘Unseen Utzon’ exhibition at the Opera House in 1994–95.
I recall the exhibition well: the beguiling drawings of Utzon’s final schemes for the halls, the captivating models, the underlying thesis that Utzon’s designs were ‘ready to go’, as one journalist put it. Ten years on, as a curator at the Powerhouse Museum, I was still blissfully ignorant of the possibility that the powerful Utzon narrative was only part of the story. In 2006 I was editor and a contributing author of a book of essays on the Opera House. Like almost every Opera House historian before me, I adhered to the belief that what was designed after Utzon left was heavily compromised and thus not worth bothering about. Ken Woolley’s book analysing Utzon’s last designs and Peter Webber’s biography of Hall were still some years off. Unlike, for example, the gripping yarn of Utzon’s supposed Eureka-moment discovery of the spherical solution for the shells when contemplating an orange, what happened on Hall’s watch seemed decidedly less, well, fruity. The epic struggle to solve myriad technical and functional hurdles of the interiors after the shells had been constructed, not the reverse as should have been the case, was simply too challenging to consider. That perspective was to change, however: soon after my book, Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House was published I was introduced to Hall’s son Willy.
When Peter Hall died it was Willy who salvaged his father’s papers. Willy and his young family live on a rambling, picturesque farm in the NSW Southern Highlands and it was there, one freezing July day in 2007, that I sat in a cavernous corrugated-iron shed with an ineffective one-bar heater unexpectedly absorbed by the diaries, letters, reports and photos that documented Hall’s career, and most particularly his seven years on the Opera House. Paradoxically, I was supposed to be there not as a researcher but with my curatorial hat on to provide advice about a suitable institution in which to deposit the archive. Call it an epiphany, but several hours later I was seriously re-examining my prejudices about the value of Hall’s contribution.
The archive told a very different story to the one I was familiar with. Here was a highly talented and committed architect, steeped in modernism, but also in the pragmatics of function. Here was an architect who not only greatly respected Utzon, but who was willing to challenge the bureaucrats, as Utzon had done, to ensure the best for the Opera House. And here was a human being who, perhaps unaware of the magnitude of the problems he was taking on at the outset of the project, was professionally and to some extent personally undone by the controversies and misunderstandings that have persisted to this day.
Peter Hall was a typical high-achiever. Born in Newcastle in 1931, he won a scholarship as a boarder to the Sydney private school Cranbrook, another scholarship to Sydney University, where he achieved a double degree in Architecture and Arts, majoring in the classics, and a trainee bursary in the NSW Government Architects Office. Newly graduated in 1957, he was awarded a prestigious travelling scholarship that took him and his soon-to-be wife Libby Bryant on an extended tour of Europe, a trip that was to be pivotal for the affirmation of his interest in modernism and his introduction to the architecture of the Mediterranean countries. Perhaps not pivotal, but certainly portentous, was Hall’s travel to Denmark to meet Utzon, just a year or so into the Opera House design after Utzon had won the competition in January 1957. Hoping to secure some short-term work on the project, Hall was, ironically, unsuccessful because Utzon at this early stage needed a more long-term commitment. It was in the Government Architects Office that Hall designed the Sulman Medal–winning Goldstein Hall at the University of New South Wales in 1964. It is tempting to speculate that had Hall not garnered the accolades that accompanied the award, the trajectory of his life after 1965 might have been very different. As it was, Hall’s obvious talents and growing reputation were what motivated the government architect, Ted Farmer, to approach him in April 1966 and offer the role of design architect in the consortium set up to complete the Opera House. ‘He was a … very fine designer, and a man of many parts,’ wrote Farmer many years later. ‘I had enormous respect for him.’
Why Hall took on the job when other more experienced architects such as Ken Woolley and Col Madigan had rejected Farmer’s overtures is conjectural. In March 1966 when Hall had just left the Government Architects Office to forge a career in private practice, he signed a petition acknowledging Utzon as ‘the only architect technically and ethically able to complete the Opera House as it should be completed’. Nonetheless Hall was ambitious, no doubt flattered, and liked nothing so much as a good challenge. Satisfied that Utzon had no intention of returning following a phone conversation with the architect, and after a month of ‘independent enquiry’ and much deliberation, Hall agreed to take on ‘that immense and complicated thing’, as he described the building in a 1973 interview.
Hall’s papers are revealing for both the new narrative they uncover and the significance that he must surely have attached to what he kept. One of the earliest documents is the list of drawings handed over to the new team—Hall, Lionel Todd and David Littlemore—by Utzon’s office in May 1966. Perhaps conscious of the fact that this was a critical moment in the complicated history of the building, Hall retained copies of the various drawing lists and their annotations. Of the 131 drawings on Utzon’s list he identified 14 that were missing in the transfer, including, crucially, two drawings showing the most recent seating layouts for the Major Hall. Not on the list at all were the final Major Hall ceiling drawings on which the Utzon office had been working in late 1965/early 1966. Hall’s notes record that ‘critical items, seating and ceiling, are either not shown or not in the set’. The transferred drawings also included design work for paving and cladding, the glass walls and the Minor Hall ceiling. Peter Hall’s comments on his handwritten list ranged from ‘useful’ to ‘design idea’ to ‘practically useless’. There was unanimous agreement among all three architects that ‘there were no working drawings available, nor any complete detail drawings’. David Littlemore later remarked that examination of the drawings ‘took place in an atmosphere of suspense and fear’. Presumably expecting a much greater level of completion, the architects’ first confrontation with Utzon’s Stage 3 legacy was clearly somewhat disturbing.
The lack of resolution in the Utzon drawings for the interiors and glass walls, after six years of work, reflect more than anything the tangled web of complex issues that had stymied progress in early 1966. It is the misguided oversimplification of these issues that has obscured clear thinking about the rationale for the solutions that were eventually adopted. To the Utzon diehards all that was needed was for Utzon to be given more time, more money and more support to solve the building’s many significant design and technical hurdles. But as the post-Utzon team soon discovered, solutions could only be found by radical compromise; and it was compromise that Utzon, both before and after his departure, had shown he was unable or unwilling to accept.
Apart from budget and schedule, at the core of the problems in the mid sixties were three key design issues: Utzon’s wish to use the technically innovative, but largely untested, long sheets of plywood for the theatre ceilings and the blade-like mullions of the northern glass walls; the compromised acoustics likely to result from a dual-purpose concert and opera theatre; and the impossibility of squeezing the required 2800 seats into it. Solving the first was dependent on the concurrence of Arup’s, structural engineers on the project since day one. Solving the second and third issues was dependent on the ABC, then manager of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the principal user of the main hall, relaxing its insistence on the seating quota and ideal concert acoustics for the hall. But Utzon’s relationship with the Arup office in Sydney had soured considerably—to the point where communication was highly strained and at best formal and sporadic—and the ABC remained bullishly intransigent over its requirements.
Two important sets of documents in Hall’s papers reflect the inception of a strategy to come to grips with these issues. The first records the discussions at the joint consultants summit held on site on 4–10 May, to which Ove Arup himself flew from London, and which was apparently the first comprehensive conference since the project started. The second set—diaries, letters and photos—details Hall’s first overseas study trip. In June 1966 Hall flew to San Francisco, the first stop in a three-month trip to North America, Britain, Europe and Japan to meet with acoustic and engineering consultants, theatre-design experts and architects, to visit concert halls, opera houses and a range of landmark buildings, and generally to equip himself to supply the brief to complete the remaining design of the Sydney Opera House. As he wrote:
Ideally this brief should have been formulated before planning was begun … Otherwise the brief could have evolved during planning, with the users and a project manager contributing to the work of the architect and consultants. On any kind of official basis, neither had ever been done, with the result that after nine years we were confronted with the statement of the principal prospective user [ABC] that the proposed accommodation was in no way acceptable. The job was being built, in effect, without definition of what was expected of it … One of the accusations made against the Minister and ourselves in 1966 was that we would reduce the quality of the job. We had no such intention. The big question, though, was what were we supposed to build?
Hall alludes here to the ineffectiveness of the Sydney Opera House Trust in formulating a management brief for the building over the years. Had the trust not lost sight of the original competition requirements, the stalemate of 1966 might have been avoided. For the competition clearly articulated that the first priority of the Major Hall was to be for concerts and the second priority to be opera, but that ‘Compromises which will prejudice the entirely satisfactory performance of a function with a higher priority … should not be made.’ At the core of Hall’s study trip then was the need to garner best-practice opinion to enable an informed decision about the advisability of building a multi-function main hall.
Hall’s recommendation to the government, with the support of international theatre and acoustic experts, was that a single-purpose main auditorium was the ideal around which the new brief should be structured. Released, perhaps strategically, just a few days before Christmas 1966, the ‘Review of Programme’, with its central proposal for a 2800-seat concert hall and the relocation of opera to the Minor Hall, provoked a furore unprecedented even by Opera House standards. In a project long troubled by controversy, the meetings, reports, media coverage, resignations and recriminations generated by the review over the next three months—much of it documented in Hall’s papers—would severely test his dedication to the project.
Not surprisingly the ABC, whose requirements were comprehensively met by the review, gave its ‘unreserved support’ for the changes to the brief. Less supportive, indeed positively disgruntled, was the Elizabethan Theatre Trust (ETT)—the national managing body for ballet, drama and the country’s fledgling opera company under the helm of the redoubtable H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs—which understandably took exception to what was considered the ‘relegation’ of opera to a much smaller hall designed for drama productions. For the government, and Hall, it was an unwinnable situation. But what was the alternative? The idea of a convertible main hall had been studied but abandoned because its extensive technical requirements were considered unworkable under the restrictive curve of the shell perimeter. And while the Sydney Symphony’s subscriptions audience had already outgrown the capacity of the orchestra’s then home at the Sydney Town Hall, the ETT’s Opera Company had had a somewhat problematic recent past, with variable production standards, patchy attendances and an inexperienced administration contributing to a decade of what colourful music writer and broadcaster John Cargher described as ‘unending traumas’. Inevitably, after several conferences and numerous reports by various consultants, including Ernest Bean, imported for the occasion from London’s Festival Hall, the minister for works, Davis Hughes, announced in March 1967 his decision in favour of the review’s recommendations. With some modifications they effectively provided the blueprint for the as-built Opera House interiors.
The review acted as a necessary circuit breaker to the impasse of 1966, but there were, of course, consequences. The dual-purpose, proscenium-stage Major Hall that Utzon had laboured over for six years now had to be redesigned as an auditorium with an orchestra platform and choir seating behind, negating the logic of Utzon’s last design for a curved plywood-ribbed ceiling converging at the proscenium arch. The inadequacies of the stage and orchestra facilities for the newly designated Opera Theatre were recognised from the outset and Hall, theatre consultants and the engineers explored possibilities for their improvement for more than a year.
Short of extending the stage wings into the foyer space, there was little that could be done. The proposal now under consideration for a redesigned Opera Theatre—the result of Utzon’s re-engagement in 1999—requires the technically difficult severing of the beam that ties the shell arches together, an extremely radical, and expensive, intervention that was unthinkable in Peter Hall’s time. With the decision, after much agonised deliberation, to abandon Utzon’s ambitious scheme for the northern glass wall plywood mullions as both too experimental and an impractical intrusion into the foyer’s harbour views, the glazing had to be redesigned by the new team—perhaps the most challenging of all the remaining work.
In retrospect the changes to the building brief introduced by the ‘Review of Programme’ were, arguably, unavoidable. Yes, the now necessary redesign of both auditoria impacted on Utzon’s integrated vision for the building. But it was the very magnificence of this vision, unachievable within the constraints of the unorthodox shell structure on the narrow Bennelong Point site, inflexible user/client requirements and the limitations of 1960s construction and acoustic technology that, paradoxically, set the project on an inevitable trajectory to its perplexing denouement in early 1966. What was the architect’s great imaginative masterstroke in 1956 was also a classic example of creative overreach. Utzon was mostly correct when he said, ‘it is not I but Sydney Opera House that creates all the enormous difficulties’. ‘Mostly’, because the wild cards of human nature, political intervention, interpersonal conflict and client mismanagement also contributed significantly to the frustration of progress in the first half of the 1960s. They were all issues with which Hall also grappled in his determination to make the building fulfil the functions for which it was conceived.
But while Utzon and Hall were both victims of the great speculative venture that was the Sydney Opera House, Utzon’s reputational rehabilitation has been absolute, while Hall’s reputation has languished in an enduring mire of controversy. It is as though the monumental presence of the building precludes the possibility of alternative readings that are less than heroic, that challenge the simplistic myth and that suggest the project was beset by all-too-human failings and contradictions. As the 50th anniversary of Utzon’s withdrawal approaches, it is perhaps timely to reconcile the two halves of the Opera House story—before and after 1966—to embrace Utzon’s great achievement and Hall’s hard-fought endeavours to complete the building. They are not mutually exclusive. For what they reflect, separately and together, is history. Not the stuff of legend but the muddy reality of the collision between the pursuit of creative perfection and the limits of imperfect human knowledge and behaviour.
Despite its epic and conflicted gestation, the Opera House has been a spectacular success—with audiences, performers and visitors and as an inspirational masterpiece of twentieth-century architecture. The extraordinary global marketing power of brand ‘Sydney Opera House’ is probably unequalled by any other modern building. Utzon benefited inestimably in his later career from the building’s star status but for Hall, acknowledgment has been negligible. Yet despite the opprobrium he suffered during his lifetime, Hall never publicly complained about his treatment or the lack of recognition for him or his team. Indeed, in his 1990 report outlining a conservation strategy for the building, Hall was generous in his praise of Utzon and credited the teamwork among architects, engineers and consultants for making the building the triumph it is. Five years later, after Hall’s death in May 1995, former government architect Ted Farmer wrote a moving eulogy that is as poignantly apt now as it was then:
I had to choose a design architect who would replace Utzon. I then asked Peter if he would do this but warned him that the project would always be mixed up with politics. That it could lead to fame for him or the reverse … After a great deal of thought he accepted. He succeeded beyond doubt but there is no doubt he sacrificed his career in loyalty to his profession and to me personally.