Choosing between the Masterful and the Bizarre
About 220 designs were submitted to the international competition to design a National Opera House for Australia. When the judges gathered at the beginning of 1957, the winning design was still just a number: 218.
Competition entries were judged by a panel of four architects. Harry Ashworth, the organising judge, was joined by the government architect, Mr Cobden Parkes, and the head of architecture at Cambridge University, Sir Leslie Martin. The fourth judge was eminent American architect Eero Saarinen, who already knew Utzon quite well.
There is no precise record of how the winning design was finally chosen, and accounts vary as to the extent to which Saarinen was insistent on the winner.
A popular story is that Saarinen was underwhelmed by the already shortlisted entrants, and pulled Utzon’s entry out of a pile of rejected schemes, exclaiming that it was easily the winning design.
The anecdote is likely to have been at least close to the truth. Saarinen’s enthusiasm for Utzon’s design was directly related to a commission he’d been working on for what would become his most famous building, the TWA Passenger Terminal at what is now known as John F Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York.
Although none of the judges would have supported a design they were not enthusiastic about, Saarinen’s influence – as the most prestigious of the four architects – would have been significant.
The designer of London’s Royal Festival Hall, Sir Leslie Martin, was also particularly enthusiastic about Utzon’s design, with Ashworth and Parkes content to follow the recommendations of the more experienced men.
Their Assessors’ Report read: “We have returned again and again to the study of these drawings and are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world ... Because of its very originality, it is clearly a controversial design. We are however, absolutely convinced of its merits” (quoted from the bottom of previous page).
Jørn Utzon's competition submission drawing number 1 (1956) by Jørn UtzonSydney Opera House
Jørn Utzon's Competition Entry, Page 2, Site plan, 1:500 scale (1956) by Jørn Utzon and Erik AnderssonSydney Opera House
Jørn Utzon's Competition Entry, Page 7, West elevation (1956) by Jørn Utzon and Erik AnderssonSydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House: model of Utzon's competition entry for a National Opera House (2015) by LatchkeySydney Opera House
Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team
State Library of New South Wales
State Records NSW