Jack Zunz’s Opera House

Sir Jack Zunz may have conceded that he left his book late in the day (on the second page, to be exact), but he could not have known the extent of it. After signing off in November 2018 with deep gratitude to Babs, his wife of seventy years, he died in London before the year ended, aged ninety-four.

He blamed laziness for the delay, but I suspect decades of deliberation more likely. “I have tried to avoid any controversy,” he told me in early November, on sharing a late draft of An Engineer’s Tale. “Whether successfully or not is for others to judge.” Not a moment too soon then, we may make our own judgment on what Zunz witnessed and experienced.

This essay appears in Quadrant‘s May edition.
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Put simply, Zunz was at the table for so much of the design and drama that defined Sydney’s World Heritage site, Jørn Utzon’s wondrous Opera House. Within weeks of his move from South Africa to Ove Arup’s London office in August 1961, Zunz, then only thirty-seven years old, was handed the central crisis of the entire Opera House project: that, after four years of development, no workable roof structure could be found. Such was the scepticism, the Minister for Public Works and his advisers assumed it could never be built, yet the project muddled on.

Zunz introduced a new structural basis for the shells, separating each to stand on stable four- or six-point footings. Look closely at the two most northern shells of each hall and you will see Zunz’s innovation, the separations hidden within a visual trick. So much has been debated about Utzon’s “spherical solution”, but it was no coincidence that it was chosen a mere month after Zunz’s arrival. Zunz and his team had reassembled the problem for the right conversation with Utzon, taking a ribbed solution that Arup had evolved and adapting it to what the architect unequivocally preferred.

All of this was already on the public record, but for a version of the Opera House story that presented diverse contributions and views in detail, one had to know where to look. First there was Michael Baume’s book The Sydney Opera House Affair in 1967, which, for its exhaustive journalism, brought accusations of political bias for some time. Baume’s indiscretion? Gaining access, for the first time, to documents from both the Arup and Utzon offices, and thereafter persuading the government to provide their own documents to round out the story.

A year later Arup and Zunz went on film for John Weiley’s Autopsy on a Dream. They were so shocked by their portrayal that on Ove’s complaint about its errors, the film was never shown again by the BBC. Ove Arup & Partners (“Arups”) went silent for years.

Then, in the early 1990s, Zunz gave numerous interviews to David Messent, and Arups granted Messent unrestricted access to its records. His book Opera House Act One, self-published in 1997, is not widely known. Peter Jones had similar access for his 2006 biography of Ove Arup, but made limited mention of Zunz in his book.

For half a century, it has always been a hesitant business to provide a critical analysis of the Opera House story, with both its glories and sins. An Engineer’s Tale follows in the tradition—a self-published, limited print—but with a difference: Zunz is ultimately the only central actor in the whole story to write a forthright first-hand account.

What then, is new? It is the intimate description of just how close Utzon’s relationship with his consulting engineers once was, and then, how surprisingly early and dramatic the break—earlier than understood from previously available documents. That break ultimately set the context for Utzon’s resignation and its aftermath, one of the most hotly debated events of Sydney’s social and political history.

Design documents poured forth at pace in 1961-62, a heady period of unlocked productivity once the roof crisis had been overcome. The culmination of it all was Utzon’s Yellow Book, and with copies in their luggage, Zunz and Utzon made their first joint visit to Australia, to persuade an entire nation to accept the new direction.

That March 1962 trip was the peak of their relationship. Here were two young men, surfing in Hawaii and swimming in Bondi, yet to be burdened with the political weight ahead of them. Zunz’s recollection is like no other Opera House account, because it is his lived experience before entering the public gaze. Wandering the streets of Beverly Hills together during a stopover, he says:

We passed a very forbidding gated house where the two ornate stone pillar gateposts were topped out with two fierce gargoyles. Utzon, at the time a really fun companion and who was not shy to indulge in the odd (and usually original) prank, stuffed two dollar notes into the snouts of the gargoyles. Sadly we were denied witnessing the owner’s reaction.

In Sydney they found themselves live on national television within days, promoting the principles of the Yellow Book. The importance of Zunz’s role was obvious to everyone. Asked what he thought of the notion of architecture’s pre-eminence on a project, he didn’t hesitate: “I think it’s a silly attitude. I think we have to each recognise the other’s worth, and in any particular project, the man most suitable—the architect, the engineer, or it might even be someone else—would be the leader of the team.” It was a sentiment Utzon shared at the time:

He was often quite a demonstrative person—on one particular occasion when we were trying to solve a particularly knotty problem, he placed his arm around my shoulder and said: “Jack, it’s good to work with you, we force the best out of each other.” He often spoke about the obvious benefits of working collaboratively and was always careful to use the word “we” rather than “I” when we were discussing work and particularly design.

All was well until August, when Zunz received an overseas call from Public Works Minister Norm Ryan at 2 a.m. Melbourne’s King Street Bridge had collapsed and the New South Wales government panicked at their own pending construction of far greater complexity:

I am still not sure why he contacted me. I was very much number three in the hierarchy, after Utzon and Ove. I can only imagine that he was dazzled by, or frightened of, Utzon or that he realised that de facto Arup was managing the contract despite the formality of Utzon being the appointed architect.

Utzon and Zunz returned to Sydney with haste, accompanied by Arup, and convinced their client that the shells would stand, but it was on their return to Europe that it first appeared the relationship between Utzon and his engineers would not. An Engineer’s Tale puts this watershed on the public record for the first time:

Over dinner I indicated to Utzon that we were now building up a strong team and were approaching the stage where we could start preparing working drawings, initially for discussions with the contractor, but then for actual construction. It looked as if at long last we could think about producing firm information to start building in general and the precast elements in particular. To make such progress we required a considerable amount of information from Utzon’s office, information as trivial as the required finish of the edges of the precast segments and as fundamentally important as the disposition of the tiles on the roof surface, the very essence of the architecture of the building. Utzon’s response was unexpected, unfriendly and sharp. He said that we had all the information we required. It was such an outrageous statement …

From that moment, Utzon and his engineers followed different paths. Utzon, tired of the cycle of design and stakeholder management that he’d carried for five years, felt he could move his young practice on to other projects. Arups had been with him the whole way, and yet the difficult business of construction was all before them.

Things got worse quickly. Early in 1963 Arups were dragged into the burden of arbitration between the state government and Civil & Civic over podium construction cost claims. Zunz supported the government’s legal team in Sydney, led by no lesser names than Sir John Kerr and Sir Anthony Mason. The state government agreed to a negotiated sum and the entire Opera House project breathed a sigh of relief.

But Utzon was nowhere to be seen, having left the matter entirely to Arups to vouch for the required quality of his work: “This was work, I kept reminding myself, that should strictly speaking have been carried out by the architect. This increasing burden, for which we received neither thanks nor money, became another cloud forming on the horizon.”

Zunz took full ownership of Job 1112 for Arups. When the firm told the state government their intention to relinquish assumed contract management duties—to never again be dragged into disputes by a contractor like Civil & Civic—it became known to some as “Ove’s declaration of independence”. An Engineer’s Tale, however, reveals it as Zunz’s idea. The demarcations that Arups set on their responsibilities unsettled Utzon and fuelled his sense of isolation:

We made it very clear that we wanted less responsibility, not more. But Utzon painted it the opposite way. The only explanation I can think of for deliberately distorting what it actually said in the memorandum was that he was overstressed, and looking for conspiracy theories. Yet after Utzon resigned, Ove, who had signed this internal memorandum, was vilified by him and his supporters for trying to steal the project from him. If anyone should have been vilified, it was I, who started it all.

When fears of collapse continued to occupy Norm Ryan’s thoughts, the roof report commissioned by Ryan in 1964 bore Zunz’s name, giving assurances to the government that the roof was possible. His structural report made no reference to Utzon by name for the chosen spherical geometry. That omission (whether we judge the inclusion necessary or not—Arups alone were responsible for keeping the building upright), coupled with the step-back from contract management, ended the relationship in Utzon’s mind.

And finally, when Utzon resigned on February 28, 1966, having reached an impasse on his claims for fees with the newly elected government, it was Zunz, not Ove Arup, who insisted that Arups had no reason to resign. A generation of professionals and artists protested and reviled all opposition to Utzon, but until now, they have never understood the conflict or Zunz’s position:

I was summoned … to see the Minister, Davis Hughes, with a clear caveat to come alone. I duly presented myself and was immediately ushered into the Minister’s palatial office … He asked me what our intentions were in working for him and his department in order to help complete the Opera House. I pleaded ignorance as to the reason for him asking the question. He said that from information he had received from his staff he was led to understand that Mr Arup had been suggesting that his firm might resign from the project, as a consequence of Utzon leaving the job. I told him that no such decision had been taken and that in my mind there was no question of our not fulfilling our commitments to him and his government. And then he made what was, for me, an extraordinary statement. “You realise,” he said, “if you resign, I will have to leave government and my political career will be finished.”

All of this points to Zunz as the enabling figure in the realisation of the Opera House. At the moment of truth for the building, Zunz freed Utzon and Arup of the structural straitjacket inherent in the original competition scheme. Thereafter, he was the connector between Utzon’s vision in Hellebæk and the realities in Sydney, persuading all sides to get on with the job because it had finally come within reach. And ultimately, when Utzon left the job, it was Zunz who insisted that the building came before the man. “Why don’t you put the Opera House first?” he wrote to Utzon after his resignation, pleading with him to reconsider. “Can you not see that the problem arises out of your uncompromising and proud attitudes? One wonders whether you really want to finish the job.”

Three decades after the building’s completion, with no reconciliation between architect and engineer in the intervening years, Utzon surprised many with his gracious assessment of Arups in his 2002 book Utzon Design Principles: “Luckily Ove Arup stayed on the job; otherwise it would never have been completed.”

We now know that it was Zunz who stayed on the job, and further, An Engineer’s Tale reveals that Utzon became grateful for the fact. Utzon never replied to Zunz’s 1966 letter, but he was to speak to Zunz once more in his life, well into his eighties:

My belief that he wanted to put the past behind was underlined in 2003. About nine o’clock one morning, my home telephone rang. I answered and the voice asked, “Is that Jack Zunz?” I replied in the affirmative, when the voice said, “This is Jørn Utzon, calling from Majorca, how are you?” We spoke for a long time about the project and the work we did and the fun we had together. He had met my family, and my children still remembered him crawling on all fours giving them a ride on his back … The phone call, coming more than 35 years since his resignation and since we had any contact, was as unexpected as it was surprising. It was also very heartening. I believe he wanted to draw a line and bring closure to the unpleasantness which had soured our relationship. His helpful statements in his 2002 Design Principles reinforces this view. I was sorry that Ove wasn’t alive—his disappointment and anger might have been assuaged, at least partially.

For too long the Opera House story has had a partisan telling, from simplistic notions of who solved the roof, to black-and-white questions of whether Utzon was wronged. Therein lies the significance of An Engineer’s Tale: finally, a first-hand account by a key actor that should balance our understanding.

Andrew Botros was Engineers Australia’s Young Engineer of the Year in 2006. He wrote the article “The Engineer’s Clarinet” in the May 2018 issue of Quadrant.


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