Rising architect Peter Hall's impressive achievement of finishing Utzon’s unfinished masterpiece as design architect for Stage Three of the Sydney Opera House came at great personal and professional cost.
"I'm overwhelmed – but I think I can finish the Opera House."
Peter Hall, 20 April 1966.
Before taking on the role of design architect to complete Stage Three, Peter Hall was one of Australia's brightest young architects.
He had been a scholarship student at Sydney's prestigious Cranbrook School and went on to complete a combined architecture and arts degree at the University of Sydney. At the end of his studies he was awarded a generous travel scholarship that afforded him a year in Europe, during which time he visited Utzon in Hellebæk.
On returning to Australia, Hall went to work for Ted Farmer at the Department of Public Works where he assisted the Government Architect in designing the Goldstein College Dining Hall at the University of New South Wales, which was awarded the prestigious Sulman Medal.
Having already resigned from the Department in early 1966 to pursue his own practice Hall was approached by Farmer with the offer of the Opera House project.
Hall was willing to accept the role on the condition that there was no possibility of Utzon returning. Even so, his appointment was too much for many of his fellow architects, who insisted that no one but Utzon should complete the Sydney Opera House. Despite this pressure, after conferring directly with Utzon, Hall accepted the position. Nine days after Hall’s appointment was publically announced, on 28 April 1966, Utzon and his family left Australia for good.
“They have only been given prints of old drawings relating to what has been built and nothing on all the new parts.”
Quote from a letter from Utzon's assistant, Mogens Prip-Buus, to his parents, 3 April 1966.
Some weeks after their appointment in late April, the three architects reviewed the work left to them after Utzon's departure and were unanimously shocked by what they found.
There were sketches and designs, rather than the documentation they were expecting to find. There were no groups of working drawings, nor were there the crucial drawings illustrating Utzon's most recent thinking. They were all missing, along with about 5000 sketches and drawings that had been placed in storage by Utzon's office assistant, Bill Wheatland, where they would remain largely unseen until 1972.
When Peter Hall accepted the job, he was under the impression he would be following Utzon's plans. So it came as a shock for him to discover that the scope of the work required would be on a much larger scale.
Hall spent the following months overseas visiting Utzon's consultants, including engineers Ove Arup and Jack Zunz and acousticians Cremer and Gabler, and Willem Jordan, with whom he collaborated on the halls. He also visited various concert halls in Japan, Europe and the United States.
With Utzon's departure from the project confirmed, Peter Hall and his partners worked through the requirements to establish a new brief for Stage Three of construction.
It would need to incorporate the revised requirements of the principal users of the Sydney Opera House, particularly the Australian Broadcasting Commission which, the government insisted, should be convinced that changing its venue from Sydney Town Hall would be worthwhile. The ABC required both a sufficient concert hall in which Sydney Symphony Orchestra could perform in front of 2800 people and an appropriate recording environment.
As one of the acoustic consultants, Cremer, pointed out in a letter to Hall on 30 August 1966: "It is a pity that the ABC had not stated these requirements before the competition in 1957. This would have avoided the principal difficulties of the project which arise from the planning of two multipurpose halls of different capacity."
In this section of Hall's diaries we see the deliberations of an architect inheriting all the complexity that Utzon had been managing before his withdrawal.
Tensions and politicking surface: here Utzon insists that Hall keep their conversations away from engineers Povl Ahm and Ove Arup, the senior engineers of Arup and Partners, and friends and associates of Utzon. Hall notes Utzon feels he cannot trust Stan Havilland of the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee and is no friend of the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, who had all but overtly designed Utzon's departure from the project.
The business of constructing the glass walls to enclose the interior spaces of Sydney Opera House was an enormous undertaking as part of Stage Three.
The solutions devised by Peter Hall and the Arup engineers were internationally recognised at the time as yet another extraordinary Sydney Opera House design and engineering achievement.
Utzon's beautiful glass wall design, resembling a curtain hanging from the vaulted shell, was also inspired by the interstitial motion of an eagle's wings. It was interpreted by Hall and the Arup engineers, who used a steel mullion framework instead of the brass and plywood form that Utzon had been planning.
Hall's interpretation of the harbour-facing glass walls was designed to endure and survive the extreme changes in temperature that affect the building on a daily basis.
Although Hall's design splays outwards in a distinctly different way to the original design, Utzon reflected in the late 1990s that:
"The glass wall, which has been built, is in family with the glass wall we arrived at with its feeling of its hanging from the shell, but the old solution was not splaying it out, as it has been done ... In both versions you have, as you walk around the foyer, the full unimpeded view of the Sydney Harbour. You get a fantastic feeling of openness of space after being inside the auditoria."
Peter Hall's acceptance of the position of design architect following Utzon's withdrawal was an extremely divisive subject among architectural and artistic communities in Australia and around the world.
Although Utzon's influences can be seen in the interior design of Sydney Opera House, it is Hall's work that we see today.
Henry Cowan's letter speaks to the lack of credit Peter Hall received for successfully concluding the troubled, complex Sydney Opera House project.
Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team
Hall Family Archives
State Library of New South Wales
State Records NSW