A sleepy coastal town not far from Copenhagen was the unassuming setting for the design of the Sydney Opera House.

In the Danish coastal town of Hellebæk, surrounded by the beech forest and lake systems of his childhood, architect Jørn Utzon pursued the realisation of the Sydney Opera House.

Utzon had designed and built his own house just outside of the township in 1952. Located some 40 kilometres north of Copenhagen and five kilometres north-west of Helsingør, Hellebæk is where, from 1958 to 1962, Utzon ran his architectural practice and model shop in a rented townhouse.

Many of the young architects who worked for Utzon during these years recall a halcyon time, a highly creative and hardworking environment of drawing and model making.

It was not uncommon for aspiring architects to sleep on the stairs of the main studio in the hope of being employed by Utzon.

Australian architect Peter Hall, who would much later agree to take over from Utzon for the third stage of the Opera House project, was one such young aspirant.

Jørn Utzon's practice was situated in a rented townhouse in Hellebæk.

Hellebæk is just north of the city of Helsingør, home to Kronborg castle, which has been immortalised by William Shakespeare as Elsinore Castle in Hamlet.

From left: Jørn Utzon with architects and assistants Mogens Prip-Buus, Lotte La Cour, Lis Utzon, Heige Hjertholm, Gerda Corydon, Yuzo Mikami, Knud Lartrup-Larsen, Jon Lundberg.

Surrounded by beech forest and a lake system, Hellebæk is a beautiful and peaceful setting that provided a rarefied environment for the international group of architects and engineers who worked alongside Utzon.

From left: Jon Lundberg, Helge Hjertholm, Lotte La Cour, Aage Hartvig Petersen and Mogens Prip-Buus.

James Thomas reflects on how he came to work at Utzon's offices in Hellebæk.

Among Utzon's talented staff was Yuzo Mikami, who worked for Utzon from 1958 to the end of February 1961, crucial years in the design process.

Utzon had written to leading modernist architect Kunio Maekawa, asking for an assistant who had worked on the Japanese Pavilion for Expo 58, the 11th World's Fair. When Yuzo Mikami was shown the letter, he seized the opportunity.

Mikami's story offers a fascinating perspective on the Sydney Opera House. He worked for two masters: through the heyday of the Hellebæk design period for Utzon; then from 1962 with engineer Ove Arup, founder of the global engineering firm that still bears his name today, drafting working drawings for the building’s final design.

Both Mikami’s own work under Utzon and Arup, and his documentation of the project as a whole, reveal a crucial perspective on the Sydney Opera House story.

Mikami worked with Utzon on the Red Book – Utzon was required by the Opera House Executive Committee to produce new plans within six months of the announcement of his win. These plans would become the Red Book, presented to the committee in March 1958.

Mikami also helped with the designs of both the Inaugural Plaque laid by the then premier of New South Wales, Joe Cahill, at the ceremony to commemorate the beginning of construction in 1959, and the never-realised faceted ceiling design of the Major Hall.

Over the years, Mikami drafted hundreds of designs and schematics, including many of the most important documents, such as the elevation of the superstructure showing the final ribbed scheme based on Utzon's Spherical Solution, and the view of the sequence of construction Stage Two.

James Thomas gives an example of Yuzo Mikami's contribution to the design process

The engineers of Ove Arup and Partners often spoke of the pleasure they felt in leaving the commotion of Fitzroy Street in the centre of London for the peace of Hellebæk.

In a letter to fellow structural engineer Povl Ahm in 1959, Hugo Molman wrote, "No doubt you are enjoying life in Hellebæk, the 'kolde bord' [cold cuts] in the 'badehotel' [lake resort] and bathing and sailing in Jørn's boats. Who knows, you may even find some time for some work now and then."

There can be little doubt that both Arup’s engineers and Utzon's architects, designers and consultants found a great deal of time for work. It was estimated that the work undertaken by Ove Arup and Partners up to 1962, even before beginning construction of the roof, totalled more than 150,000 hours, carried out by engineers of 12 different nationalities – the equivalent of more than 100 years of full-time work for a single person.

In Hellebæk, life revolved around work, with long weekdays and Saturday mornings frequently spent at the drafting tables.

Despite being an excellent draftsman himself, Utzon rarely drew plans, instead providing his staff of gifted younger architects with sketches drawn with his characteristic 6B lead pencil. Utzon would distribute these among the architects and, in briefing them, elaborate on concepts in the sketches.

He would also take them for walks into the beech forest, pointing out subtle forms found in nature, the interpretation of which were fundamental to his approach.

James Thomas describes the quality of the draftsmanship required by Utzon.

Apart from the Danes, architects from Japan, Italy, Britain and Australia worked for Utzon, realising designs for the building’s many facets.

This cohort would steadily grow in number as the years went on. At the beginning, in 1958, there were about nine. During 1960 the design staff had grown to 12, which Utzon thinned again by the end of the year, explaining that 12 was too many.

By late 1961, before Utzon arrived at the Spherical Solution, there was upwards of 20 staff, some hired while Utzon was away in Sydney, and the design office relocated 10 kilometres south to better accommodate them.

James Thomas describes the moment Utzon became convinced that a spherical geometry was the solution to the roof for Sydney Opera House
James Thomas explains Utzon's derivation of forms from nature
James Thomas describes the qualities and contradictions of a master architect, as he observed them in Jørn Utzon

When in December 1962 Utzon closed the Hellebæk office, it was the end of an extraordinary and collaborative period between architects and engineers.

Utzon was also ending the collaboration with key staff members of the period. Mikami had left in 1961 and by the beginning of 1962 was working for Arup. While his work on the Sydney Opera House continued, there was some antipathy regarding this move.

Architects Paul Schooboe, Knud Lautrup-Larsen and Aage Hartvig Petersen all ended their work with Utzon.

Only four of the inner group of nine architects went to Sydney: Jakob Kielland Brandt, Mogens Prip-Buus, Jon Lundberg, and Oktay Nayman.

James Thomas reflects on his sense of Jørn Utzon
Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team

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Contributors:
State Library of New South Wales

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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