AT&T [00:00:00] AT&T Connects–an ode to podcasts. Connect the alarm. Change the podcasts you stream. Connect to snooze, ten more minutes to dream. Connect the shower, lather up with the news, sports talk, comedians, or movie reviews. Connect with that three-hour philosophy show. Change the drive to work in traffic so slow. Connect the dishes to voices that glow. Thank you to the geniuses of spoken audio. Connect the stories. Change your perspective. Connecting changes everything. AT&T.
Roman Mars [00:01:03] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. The Sydney Opera House is one of the most iconic and distinctive buildings in the world. It took a relative newcomer and architectural outsider to dream it up. But the saga of making this future World Heritage landmark a reality is a tale for the ages–a cautionary tale. And for cautionary tales. I turn to the brilliant Tim Harford. I’ve been dying to hear the story of the Sydney Opera House told in this way, and Tim and his team just nailed it. And I know you’re going to love it as much as I do. Enjoy.
Tim Harford [00:01:53] In a clearing in a forest, a day’s walk north of Copenhagen, stood a little house–a fairytale setting worthy of Hans Christian Andersen, perhaps. But this is no fairy tale. And it wasn’t a fairy tale house. It was low, flat, and minimalist. Denmark’s first open plan house. It had been built in 1952 without proper floor plans. The house’s young architect was building his own home, and he’d insisted instead on personally directing the work as it progressed. But it was brilliant. Denmark’s most celebrated architect visited the construction site and muttered under his breath, “Hell, he’s better than I am.” Maybe so. It was hard to be sure. The young architect, Jørn Utzon, had won plenty of competitions. But with his career interrupted by the war, that house was almost the only thing he’d actually built. Late in January 1957, the phone in the Utzon home rang. Jørn and his wife were taking a winter walk in the woods. Their ten-year-old daughter, Lin, was at home babysitting her newborn brother. She answered the phone.
Lin Utzon [00:03:13] Hello?
Tim Harford [00:03:13] The village operator was on the other end. She knew the family.
Operator [00:03:18] Lin, is your father home?
Lin Utzon [00:03:20] No.
Operator [00:03:21] Is your mother home?
Lin Utzon [00:03:22] No. They’re out walking.
Operator [00:03:24] Quick. Go find your father. He’s won a prize. It’s someone from the newspaper in Sydney, Australia. Go tell him to come quick.
Tim Harford [00:03:32] Lin drops the phone, leaves her sleeping brother, and grabs her bike. She races out into the Danish winter, yelling for her parents. He must have been alarmed to see their little, blond, babysitting daughter cycling towards them, screaming at the top of her voice.
Lin Utzon [00:03:48] Sydney! Sydney!
Tim Harford [00:03:50] She skids to a halt.
Lin Utzon [00:03:52] You’ve won a prize. You won something in Sydney. Someone’s on the phone, and they want to talk to you.
Tim Harford [00:03:58] It must have felt like a phone call from the moon. The unknown young Dane, Jørn Utzon had won an international competition to design the Sydney Opera House. But Utzon couldn’t have imagined what a bitter victory it would prove to be. I’m Tim Harford, and you’re listening to Cautionary Tales. Eugene Goossens was a distinguished violinist and conductor. In the 1940s, he moved from Britain to the far away city of Sydney, where he was struck by three things: the beauty of the harbor, the apparent indifference of the locals to that beauty, and the lack of a really good venue for classical music. Goossens dreamed up an idea to build a huge opera house on Bennelong Point–a finger of rock poking out into Sydney’s glorious harbor in which blue water is surrounded on all sides by the city and spanned by the vast arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Goossens was charismatic, and local politicians were keen to show that they could deliver cultural amenities for Sydney voters. They formed a committee which announced an open competition to design the new Opera House. Anyone, even an unknown young architect from Denmark, could try to win. As Goossens’s grand project gathered momentum, he flew back to London to be knighted by the Queen. And on his return, tipped off by a journalist, customs officers asked to search his luggage. They found it to be packed with naughty photographs and even naughtier rubber masks. In 1950s Australia, it was a scandal. So, Eugene fled back to London a broken man. Alas, Sir Eugene’s fate–great talent, self-inflicted wounds, and a tragic end to a great career–is just the overture to the story of the Sydney Opera House, in which the same dramatic beats would play out on a much bigger stage. Not that anyone should have expected the Sydney Opera House to be an easy project, Sir Eugene had wanted big concert halls, but Bennelong Point was a cramped sight. The Premier of the State wanted a grand legacy–a building for the ages–but no politician wanted to raise taxes to pay for it. And opera houses are actually rather ungainly structures. Their bulging towers for stage machinery are usually hidden behind grand facades. But Sydney’s Opera House couldn’t hide. It would be visible across the water from north, east, and west–even from above, from the monumental Sydney Harbor Bridge. In announcing their competition then, the committee laid down the challenge to architects from around the world. “Design an opera house for us. It needs to be huge, fit onto a tiny site, look amazing from any angle, and be cheap. Knock yourselves out.” In January 1957, the time came to choose a winner. The judging panel spent four days sifting through more than 200 entries and drawing up a shortlist. They were waiting for the arrival of the final judge, an architectural rock star, the great Finnish American architect, Eero Saarinen. But he was running late. That was understandable. Saarinen was a busy man–designer of landmarks, such as the celebrated TWA terminal at New York’s International Airport. And if buildings like that helped New York to feel like the center of the world, then Sydney, at the world’s edge, wanted some of that stardust. When the other judges showed Eero Saarinen the ten leading entries, everyone could tell that he wasn’t impressed. The ideas were awkward compromises, predictably boxed in by their attempts to satisfy the contradictory requirements of the competition. Saarinen shook his head and went for a stroll to Bennelong Point. He sat and sketched for a while. Caressed on three sides by the lapping waters of Sydney Harbor, it really was a magnificent spot. He returned to the judging room and started flipping through the rejects. There was one which stood out as completely different, even though it was really little more than a sketch. There was a monumental base reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid or a Chinese imperial palace. Floating above it were light shell-like roof structures, overlapping like the sails of some grand ship. It was like no building Saarinen had ever seen. He laid it out, stepped back to ponder it, stepped forward to peer at the details, then he turned to the other judges.
Eero Saarinen [00:09:51] Gentlemen, here is your Opera House.
Tim Harford [00:09:58] 12 days later, the state premier, Joseph Cahill, stands in front of the cameras with a sealed envelope. He’s a former trade union organizer–not your stereotypical operagoer. But now that the disgraced Sir Eugene Goossens has fled the country, Cahill has surprised some people by stepping up as the Opera House’s biggest champion. Like any good politician, he’s going to milk this dramatic moment. “The winning design,” he announces, “is scheme number 218.” And who designed that? Cahill doesn’t have the name to hand. An official hurries forward, rummages in the envelope, pulls out a second document… “Ah, yes. Scheme number 218, submitted by Jørn Utzon of Hellebuyck, Denmark. Jørn Utzon? Who?” A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald places a long-distance call to directory assistance in Hellebuyck. They try Utzon’s office number. He’s not there. Then they try his home number. The operator comes back on the line. Apparently, he’s gone out for a walk, but his daughter has gone to find him. Is it okay to hold? For the first interview with the unknown winner of the Sydney Opera House competition? Sure, he’ll hold. All of Australia wants to know about the mysterious Jørn Utzon. When the winning sketch was published, public opinion was divided. Letters published in the Sydney Morning Herald described the design as “a wonderful piece of sculpture,” “a haystack covered by several tarpaulins,” “a ray of hope,” “a sink with plates stacked in readiness for washing,” “some large, lovely ship of the imagination,” “a hideous parachute which we cannot fold up and put away.” But when Jørn Utzon arrived in Sydney, some of those doubts began to melt away. Tall, blond, blue eyed, that sexy Danish accent, movie star looks… “He’s our Gary Cooper!” declared one local lady. Sydney was a bustling place, but it usually felt far from the world’s spotlight. Now it felt as though Hollywood had come to call. The city fell in love with a man. Professional architects were more cautious. The sketches were impressive–sure–but Utzon hadn’t submitted all the plans and drawings the competition rules specified. One Australian art critic described his entry as “nothing more than a magnificent doodle.” What’s more, Utzon’s doodle building overstepped the site’s boundaries. Then there was the question of whether its glorious sail-like roof structures could actually stand up. None of this worried Eero Saarinen, the rock star architect who’d pushed his fellow judges into choosing Utzon’s entry.
Eero Saarinen [00:13:23] Nothing to it.
Tim Harford [00:13:24] Said Saarinen about those roof structures.
Eero Saarinen [00:13:27] Three inches thick at the top and, say, 12 inches thick at the base.
Tim Harford [00:13:32] But concrete shell architecture was still an emerging field. Many experts weren’t so sure. Yes, eggshell structures could be surprisingly strong. But cut the egg in half, and much of that strength is gone. And Utzon’s Opera House roof? It was a series of quarter shells. Until this point, Utzon had taken no engineering advice. And he wouldn’t have long to figure out a solution because the project’s champion, state premier Joseph Cahill, was a man in a hurry. He was a heavy smoker with a history of health problems. He knew he was also at risk of losing the next election. He wanted a monument to his place in history. So, he instructed the Opera House team…
Joseph Cahill [00:14:24] Go down to Bennelong Point and make such progress that no one who succeeds me can stop this going through to completion.
Tim Harford [00:14:32] As a result, the building started before Utzon could figure out the structural basics. Joseph Cahill laid the foundation stone on the 2nd of March 1959. Within a year, he was dead–killed by his third heart attack. But just as he had intended, so much work had already been done that stopping the project was unthinkable. By now, an engineer had been found. His name was Ove Arup, the Anglo Danish boss of Ove Arup & Partners, a respected engineering firm. The two Danes, Utzon and Arup, had been working together to try to figure out a solution to the structural problem. And it was at this point that Arup informed Utzon of the bad news. His beautiful, free standing roof shells simply couldn’t be built. There’s no such thing as too many Danes. So, let’s meet a third: Bent Flyvbjerg. He’s the world’s leading expert on large projects and on why these megaprojects are so often delivered late and way overbudget. And he’s fascinated by the Sydney Opera House because it’s the ultimate case study–the definitive fiasco–of how not to run a megaproject. Flyvbjerg says that the original sin of many megaprojects is this: People start building before they figured out what they’re really trying to do. The ideal megaproject starts with the question “Why are we doing this?” Then there’s a long, careful planning process. Every detail is finalized. Then the expensive construction phase can be kept as short as possible with no costly changes. The Opera House violated these principles in the most flagrant way imaginable. Nobody ever really answered the question “Why?” So, Eugene Goossens had wanted to accommodate a lot of operagoers and used the beautiful location of Bennelong Point. The state’s premier, Joseph Cahill, had wanted a lasting monument on the cheap without spending taxpayer money. Jørn Utzon wanted to build something beautiful and new. But what if you couldn’t make it both beautiful and cheap? What if you couldn’t make it big while also squeezing it onto Bennelong Point? The tradeoffs were swept under the carpet–the difficult decisions postponed or ignored. Then, of course, the building was rushed with workers digging foundations before Utzon and Arup had figured out how to build the thing. Utzon was in an impossible position. And Utzon wasn’t blameless either. Remember how he’d never drawn proper plans for his beautiful home in the Danish forest, but instead had been onsite throughout, personally directing the builders? Careful planning was all very well, but he loved to experiment–to feel his way through a project. It worked for his beautiful home. But could it also work for a colossal, structurally innovative megaproject? Utzon worked like an artist, not a project manager. He wanted to make the final decision on every detail, no matter how small. At one point he declared about a particular design change…
Jørn Utzon [00:18:19] I don’t care what it costs. I don’t care what scandal it causes. I don’t care how long it takes. That’s what I want.
Tim Harford [00:18:27] That attitude explains why Utzon’s Opera House is the most beautiful building in the world. It also made him the mother of all bottlenecks, especially as Utzon had a habit of disappearing for weeks at a time. After his second visit to Sydney, Utzon decided to return to Denmark via China, Japan, and Nepal. When he finally resurfaced, Arup jovially wrote…
Ove Arup [00:18:58] It was nice to hear from you. I really thought you were lost in the wilds of Asia.
Tim Harford [00:19:04] Utzon had hoped to pick up inspiration on his travels that he could use for the Opera House. And he did. But decisions on the project ground to a halt without him. And the problem of the roof was no joke. Utzon’s original, magnificent doodle used a variety of different curves. That caused two headaches. The first was the expense. It made every section of the roof a unique construction. The second was more serious. Arup had to spend a fortune on groundbreaking computer simulations to figure out whether they would collapse under their own weight. Eventually, Arup concluded that they would. It was Utzon who solved the problem. In a flash of inspiration, he realized that each part of each vaulted roof–large or small–could be proportioned as though it were sliced out of the same single enormous sphere. It doesn’t sound like much, but the structural properties of these spherical curves were well understood, and because the curves would all be identical, they could be built at a much lower cost. Utzon was delighted.
Jørn Utzon [00:20:24] It was the cheapest way of making it you could dream of. All of the work during these three years has been the background for arriving at this magnificent solution.
Tim Harford [00:20:36] If they hadn’t yet started construction, this would have been a triumphant moment. Unfortunately, construction had begun two and a half years earlier. The new design would require heavier supports than the ones they had just built. And the ones they’d just built were almost indestructible. The local contractor recommended dynamiting them one by one during the rush hour so that the noise would be camouflaged by the traffic. That worked for a while until a lump of concrete was blown high over the harbor and landed on a passing ferry. “Another Opera House bungle!” yelled the local newspapers. Utzon had decided to move his office to Sydney to oversee proceedings. “That was a good idea,” thought Arup’s team until Utzon told them he’d be traveling again and out of contact between Christmas and March. Arup begged him not to do this. There were so many decisions to be made, and Utzon was the only person who could make them. But Utzon agreed only to a long meeting near London’s Heathrow Airport, the day after Christmas, to pin down a long list of details. Utzon was persuaded to hurry the very last mile of his journey. While flying from Tahiti to Sydney, the DC-7 airliner’s radio crackled into life with an invitation. Her Majesty the Queen was on the Royal Yacht in Sydney Harbor, and Mr. Utzon was invited to lunch. After touchdown, he dashed to the royal reception. Arup’s man on the ground wasn’t impressed.
Arup Engineer [00:22:30] Lo and behold, God appears from heaven.
Tim Harford [00:22:35] Utzon had descended from Tahiti, popped in for lunch with the Queen, and then grumbled the Arup engineer…
Arup Engineer [00:22:42] In the afternoon, he comes onto the site and starts complaining about some things he wasn’t informed about. I mean, there was no one we could contact.
Tim Harford [00:22:51] Four months later–July 1963–the Opera House was scheduled to have been finished. Yet the site on Bennelong Point was still just a huge flat sprawl of concrete. The basic outline of the broad low podium was visible with the structure of the two sunken theaters scooped out of it. There was no sign of walls, let alone the roof. In his history of the project, The Saga of Sydney Opera House, architectural writer Peter Murray combs through the letters between Ove Arup and Jørn Utzon and finds two men whose relationship is slowly falling apart–Utzon worried that Arup was trying to take control and steal the credit. Arup was eyeing the exits. Here’s Arup…
Ove Arup [00:23:47] I do not know whether you have thought of getting other engineers to help you. I would welcome the idea of someone else solving the problems and experiencing your method of working.
Tim Harford [00:24:00] Utzon responded…
Jørn Utzon [00:24:02] Dear Ove, please desist from your criticism. Management is, in a way, the easiest part of the job–something which most people can learn.
Tim Harford [00:24:13] Well, perhaps. Nobody doubted Utzon’s genius as an architect. But as deadline after deadline was being broken, this was no time to be taking management for granted. The megaproject expert, Bent Flyvbjerg, argues that the longer the construction phase of a project lasts, the more time there is for something to derail everything. He’s right. In May 1965, two years after the Opera House was supposed to have been finished, there was a state election in New South Wales. The backdrop for this election was an expensive and manifestly unfinished building. The roof shells had at last been built, soaring above the podium and the waters of the harbor. But they were bare concrete. The epic job of tiling them had hardly begun. The site was open to the elements since the spectacular glass curtain wall facing out over the harbor was still just a structural problem on Utzon’s drawing board. And so, the populist opposition party campaigned on a promise to clean up the mess at the Opera House. Although the project was funded mostly by proceeds from the state lottery rather than taxes, it was hugely overbudget. And conservative rural voters had started to wonder why that lottery money couldn’t be spent on something else, such as more roads, schools, and hospitals. When the opposition won, the job of Minister for Public Works, went to a politician named Davis Hughes. Hughes was a controversial choice and not only because he had recently become notorious for falsely claiming to have a bachelor’s degree in job applications. When he was put in charge of this vast construction project, his wife laughingly remarked that he couldn’t drive a nail in straight. In the first six months of his tenure, Hughes struggled to get a grip. To his frustration, spending on the opera House ballooned more than ever. By the start of 1966, nine years after Utzon had become famous around the world for winning the design competition, Hughes was ready for a showdown. He began withholding payments to Utzon, demanding more oversight and more control. Without the money, Utzon couldn’t pay his staff. He was already in financial trouble because both Denmark and Australia were arguing that he should be paying his taxes to them. Was Davis Hughes deliberately undermining Utzon? Or was he imposing some much-needed discipline? Whatever the aim, the result was predictable. Ove Arup could see what was coming. He wrote to Utzon urging him not to resign, telling him that resigning would solve nothing. But Arup’s letter didn’t arrive in time to warn Utzon to be careful what he said. After a tense meeting with Hughes, Utzon sent a letter explaining that “by cutting off the money, you have forced me to leave the job.” Utzon later said that he was just pausing work for lack of funds and that quitting was never his intention. But Davis Hughes didn’t see any ambiguity. He promptly announced to the State Assembly that Jørn Utzon had resigned.
Roman Mars [00:28:19] If you run as part of your weekly routine for therapeutic reasons or for body and health benefits, Brooks has the perfect running shoes for you. Brooks creates the best running gear, tools, and experiences to move you along your path. Let Brooks do the research and sweat the details to help you find your best run. You can find Brooks softest cushioning in their Glycerin 20 shoes. I have a pair of those. I love them. The Glycerin 20 shoes are designed to deliver comfort on the run and designed to be lightweight, responsive, and durable. Several years ago, I was running regularly for the first time, and I was in constant pain. And someone in the know suggested Brooks to me. And my foot pain when I was running went away immediately. And I never looked back. I run exclusively in Brooks to this day. They are the best. Find your perfect pair of running shoes now at brooksrunning.com. That’s brooksrunning.com. Article believes in delightful design for every home. And thanks to their online only model, they have some really delightful prices, too. Their curated assortment of mid-century, modern, coastal, industrial, and Scandinavian designs make furniture shopping simple. Article’s team of designers are all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. They’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time and looks good doing it. Article’s knowledgeable Customer Care team is there when you need them to make sure your experience is smooth and stress free. I think my favorite piece of furniture in my house is the Geome sideboard. Maslow picked it out. Remember, Maslow? And I keep my vinyl records and CDs in it. It just is awesome. I love the way it looks. Article is offering 99% Invisible listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit article.com/99 and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99 for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more.
New York Lottery [00:30:17] Our sources say a second chance to shake things up has been revealed. Enter eligible Magic 8 Ball scratch-off tickets from the New York Lottery into Collect ‘N Win for a chance at fortunes up to $88,888 in addition to daily instant wins of $50 or $100. Enter by October 31st for your second chance. Please play responsibly. Must be 18+. Gambling problem–call 1-877-8-HOPENY or text HOPENY.
Roman Mars [00:30:48] Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, the content you create, and even your time. With member areas, you can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to gated content like videos, online courses, or newsletters. This Summer, why not share your adventures with your followers in a newsletter? Or maybe make some fun video compilations of all your summer escapades? Now you can create Pro-level videos effortlessly in the Squarespace Video Studio app. You can easily display posts from your social profiles on your website or share your new blogs or videos on social media. Automatically push website content to your favorite channels so your followers can share too. Plus, use Squarespace Insights to grow your business. Learn where your site visits and sales are coming from and analyze which channels are most effective. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain.
Tim Harford [00:31:54] Utzon’s departure was announced on the 1st of March 1966, almost exactly seven years after construction had begun. Despite all the project’s troubles, it was a bombshell. By now, the curved shells were almost fully tiled. The shimmering effect looked spectacular. Protesters gathered at the half-finished structure on Bennelong Point, waving signs: “Save the Opera House” and “We Need Utzon.” The Royal Australian Institute of Architects told Davis Hughes, “Get him back.” No prominent architect would touch the Opera House project after Utzon’s acrimonious departure. It was a matter of professional solidarity. The engineer, Ove Arup, did not resign. Utzon saw this as a betrayal. He stopped returning Arup’s calls. Arup handwrote an emotional letter to Utzon urging him to come back, offering to broker a compromise with Davis Hughes. Couldn’t Ove and Jørn at least meet for a chat? He signed off…
Ove Arup [00:33:08] Even if you don’t trust me, it couldn’t do any harm, could it? The situation can’t get any worse, so why not try?
Tim Harford [00:33:17] Utzon replied the same day…
Jørn Utzon [00:33:19] If you think I should be in charge of the project, then act according.
Tim Harford [00:33:23] He wrote.
Jørn Utzon [00:33:24] Tell the minister that Utzon must be in charge.
Tim Harford [00:33:28] Utzon returned to Denmark, still thinking about all the remaining challenges on the project, such as how to fit more seats into the hall. He expected that Davis Hughes would come crawling back, in part because he couldn’t imagine anyone else being capable of finishing the job.
Jørn Utzon [00:33:49] I am still available. It is not I but the Sydney Opera House that creates all of the enormous difficulties.
Tim Harford [00:33:56] But Davis Hughes wasn’t the type to back down. If no prominent architect would take the job, he’d just have to get one nobody had heard of. He called in a young local government architect named Peter Hall and handed him the task of finishing the Opera House. Hall did so, taking seven more years and three times as much money as had already been spent. The Opera House cost 15 times the original budget. Admittedly, the original budget was always a fiction. And it was completed a decade behind schedule. Jørn Utzon wasn’t the type to back down either. Years later, Ove Arup asked a mutual friend to try to arrange a reconciliation. Maybe he and Utzon could meet and talk things over. They drove to Utzon’s hometown. And Arup sat in a hotel lobby, nursing a coffee, and waiting. The friend returned. Utzon didn’t want to see Arup. There would be no reconciliation. The Opera House was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on the 20th of October 1973. Jørn Utzon declined his invitation to attend, which was perhaps just as well. The Queen’s speech, written by local politicians, didn’t mention Utzon’s name. The plaque she unveiled celebrated young Peter Hall and Davis Hughes. In his book, How Big Things Get Done, Bent Flyvbjerg describes what happened when star architect Frank Gehry was asked to come to Bilbao to work on a building. Unlike the young, unknown Utzon, Gehry was 62 years old, battle-hardened by some painful political fights over his buildings, and famous. Bilbao’s officials showed him a beautiful old warehouse, and they asked him if he would consider renovating it to become a new Guggenheim Museum. “Why?” asked Gehry. “What are you trying to achieve?” In Sydney, nobody had really formulated those questions, let alone answered them. But in Bilbao, they knew what they wanted. They wanted to get by design what Sydney had got by accident–an icon. Bilbao was the Detroit of Southern Europe–a once great city ravaged by deindustrialization. The local government wanted the new museum to spark an urban renaissance to put Bilbao on the map, just as Sydney Opera House had put Sydney on the map. “Fine,” said Gehry. “In that case, forget the renovation project. You’re going to have to do what Sydney did and build something breathtaking and new. You’re going to have to put it on the waterfront. And in fact,” added Gehry, “I’ve seen just the spot.” When Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao was finally opened, it was a huge success–on time and under budget. According to Flyvbjerg’s data on megaprojects, that sort of thing doesn’t happen a lot. But the fact that it happened at all is because Gehry started with a clearly agreed plan and nobody rushed to start digging. These days, everybody seems to want one of those iconic buildings. Frank Gehry made it look easy after all. But the Sydney Opera House was the first and the greatest and the most painful. In spite of everything, the Opera House is a masterpiece. I’ve been lucky enough to see it–to stroll around the Sydney Harbor, admiring all the angles–to walk up the grand steps of the podium on Bennelong Point. I’ve even performed on the stage. It’s breathtaking–all of it. No camera can do it justice. In the entire 20th century, only the Empire State Building comes close to serving as an icon of a city. The Sydney Opera House is like the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids. It’s repaid its debt to the citizens of the city many times over. So, you might think, “Who cares that it was late? Who cares what it cost? It was all worth it in the end.” But Bent Flyvbjerg disagrees. The process of building the Opera House was a fiasco, and that fiasco had a cost that you can’t measure in delays or in dollars. The cost starts with Jørn Utzon’s reputation. Utzon was told that because he’d resigned, he’d never get a government project in Denmark. He taught for a while in Hawaii and anonymously designed some buildings for a friend’s architecture practice. He did win a commission to design something big in Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein’s army set fire to that in 1991. In a Copenhagen suburb, he built a humble church. It’s unprepossessing on the outside, but on the inside there’s a gorgeous ceiling that looks like folds of cloth parting to reveal the light of heaven. Apparently, he’d had something similar in mind for the interior of the Opera House, but nobody wanted to give him another chance to display his genius on the stage it deserved. The price of the Sydney Opera House? It was all those other buildings that Jørn Utzon was never allowed to design. Eventually, the architecture profession woke up and began showering prizes on him, often acknowledging, regretfully, that Utzon hadn’t built much besides the Opera House. But it was too late to change that. When he won architecture’s Nobel Prize, the Pritzker, he was 85 years old. The Opera House itself had started to become embarrassed by the controversy and that graceless plaque that didn’t even mention Utzon’s name. In the 1990s, they attempted a rapprochement, naming a room in his honor and asking him to help design a new wing. Still, he didn’t come. He sent his son to give a speech explaining that his elderly father…
Jan Utzon [00:41:15] Lives and breathes the Opera House. And as its creator, he just has to close his eyes to see it.
Tim Harford [00:41:26] One person who sneered at the peacemaking was Davis Hughes. An old man, like Utzon himself, he phoned the chairman of the Opera House management team and ranted for 45 minutes about the very idea of asking Utzon his opinion on anything…
Davis Hughes [00:41:45] I did Utzon a favor.
Tim Harford [00:41:47] He said…
Davis Hughes [00:41:48] I put him out of his misery like you put down a dog.
Tim Harford [00:41:52] Late in Utzon’s life, a British architect named John Pardey went to visit him in Majorca, where he’d spent most of his later years. It was a kind of pilgrimage to meet one of the true greats of architecture, Utzon, who designed the home, of course. And Pardey described its…
John Pardey [00:42:13] Glare-free hush that seemed to transport me to another world.
Tim Harford [00:42:19] They talked about this and that. The old man expressed the occasional pain at the Opera House affair.
Jørn Utzon [00:42:27] But this was all a long time ago…
Tim Harford [00:42:32] He said. Utzon had never been back to Sydney. He designed the most beautiful building of the 20th century. And he’d never seen it. Sensing that Utzon had left some part of his heart in Sydney, Pardey offered to help the old man travel back. Utzon’s wife pulled Pardey aside. “That wasn’t possible,” she said. “It would kill him.” Did she mean the arduous journey? Or did she mean the memories? Important sources for this episode were The House by Helen Pitt and The Saga of Sydney Opera House by Peter Murray. If you’re interested in Bent Flyvbjerg and megaprojects, I have a three-part series on the V-2 rocket program. It’s available to subscribers on Pushkin+. For a full list of our sources, please see the show notes at timharford.com. Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. It’s produced by Alice Fiennes with support from Edith Rousselot. The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Sarah Knicks edited the script. Cautionary Tales features the voice talents of Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Ben Crowe, Stella Halford and Gemma Saunders. The show wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Jacob Weisberg, Ryan Dilley, Greta Cohen, Lietel Mallard, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, and Erik Sandler. Cautionary Tales is a production of Pushkin Industries. It was recorded in Wardour Studios in London by Tom Barry. If you like the show, please remember to share, rate, and review. Go on. You know it helps us. And if you want to hear the show ad-free, sign up for Pushkin+ on the show page, in Apple Podcasts, or at pushkin.fm/plus.
Roman Mars [00:44:55] I mean, if you haven’t already subscribed to Cautionary Tales after hearing that story, there’s nothing I can do for you. I can’t help you. You need to have your head examined. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll have a new 99PI from us next week.
New York Lottery [00:45:11] Do you want a second chance to win cash? Enter eligible HGTV’s My Lottery Dream Home scratch-off tickets from the New York Lottery for a second chance to win $1 million. Visit nylmylotterydreamhome.com today for a chance to give your dreams a home. Please play responsibly. Must be 18+.