Monday, January 31, 2011

20 Nov 2010: Utzon, Sydney Architecture Walks

20 Nov 2010, Sat:

After the meet-up with my friend, KF, I brisk-walked to the Museum of Sydney for the Sydney Architecture Walks that would start at 10.30 a.m. The Sydney Architecture Walks are a series of urban walking tours led by architects. The tours were intended for the general public.

I was the only Asian onboard the tour. That was not new to me for I was the only Asian on The Rocks Walking Tour the day before. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the tour. The Sydney Architecture Walks tour that I had embarked on was known as "SAW 02 Utzon".  This tour gave an in-depth and comprehensive overview to Danish architect Jørn Utzon and his vision of the Sydney Opera House. The tour is not so much about the Sydney Opera House that we see today but on the original design of the Sydney Opera House that Utzon had envisioned but was never realised for the interiors.

On our way to the Sydney Opera House, our knowledgeable and humble guide shared with us the persons who have influenced Utzon's work and style. Being a visual learner, although I kept hearing the name of "Antonio Gaudi" being mentioned many times in a few variations, I did struggled to remember his name. The good thing was that I knew I could count on search engines to help me out after the tour. I learnt from the online sources that Gaudi studied nature and he incorporated the angles and curves that he had observed from nature into his designs and mosaics. One quote by Gaudi that had particularly drew my attention goes as such: "Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the Creator".

Other figures that had influenced Utzon's style of work were Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe and Picasso.

At the Royal Botanic Gardens and under a tree that faced the Sydney Opera House, the tour group sat down to learn about the source of Utzon's inspirations and his working methods. I took note that Utzon was inspired by Nature and ancient architecture. He had an interesting working method whereby he would make models and develop prototypes before the actual part of the building was built.

I was very inspired by the tour that while writing this post, I read all the 93 pages of the pdf article titled "Sydney Opera House: Utzon Design Principles" so that I could better appreciate the source of Utzon's inspirations, his vision for the Sydney Opera House and his working methods. The softcopy of the article came along with the souvenir pack that I had purchased after the Sydney Opera House Essential Tour on 19 Nov 2010. I thought it was a great idea to include the article in the souvenir pack.

The planning for the Sydney Opera House began in the late 1940s. Eugene Goossens who was the Director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music was lobbying for a suitable venue for large theatrical production. By 1954, Goossens had managed to get the support of New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill to call for designs for an opera house. (source: wikipedia).

When a design competition for the opera house was launched in 1955, Utzon had yet to visit Sydney. In preparing for the design, Utzon referred to naval charts over Sydney. His design of a light sculptural roof of the Sydney Opera House over a heavy mass of a large platform was in a way a response to the natural sandstone heads of the Sydney Harbour.

If you were looking at me during the tour, you might have seen how intrigued I was. The guide used various drawings and models to show us Utzon's design principles. I could say that his design principles were meant to respond to the unique terrain and landscape of the Bennelong Point. Another source of inspiration for Utzon was ancient architecture. I learnt that he was inspired by the architecture of the Mayan People, particularly the ceremonial platforms, after an earlier visit to Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Since that day, I looked at the platforms and the wide stairs of the Sydney Opera House with a totally different eye. Yes, they did unconsciously make me feel liberated from the mundane daily world as I walk up on them.

The tour also brought us to appreciate the beauty of how Utzon have conceptualised the interior. Many of his ideas had not been realised. However, one of the latest spaces which form a part of the Accessibility and Western Foyers project is a good example of Utzon's ideas for the interior spaces of the Sydney Opera House. This spaces were designed by architect Jørn Utzon and his son, Jan Utzon, in collaboration with Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker, as part of the Sydney Opera House's Building Program. The tour guide reminded me of the value of simplicity in leading the visitors of the Sydney Opera House to be awed by the beauty of the Sydney Harbour as they look out of the glass panels. If the interior spaces had been overly cluttered with lavish design, the visitors may be overwhelmed by the complex spaces to even pay attention to the beauty that Nature has granted to the Sydney Harbour.

In solving the many practical issues of building and maintaining a monumental-sized Opera House, I learnt that Utzon came up with simple and efficient ideas to solve many of the complex issues. That was genius at work. We learnt about how Utzon envisioned the ribs and folds of the base to function. I love the ingenuity of the thoughtful drainage system of Utzon's design.

During the walk, I knew that I would start viewing the stairs of Sydney Opera House from an inspired perspective since then. The stairs were no longer mere stairs anymore. They were steps that elevated one from a mundane world, as one walked up to meet the Divine.

Our guide also pointed us to a model that demonstrated "key to the shells". Through lateral thinking, Utzon found a solution whereby the shells of the Sydney Opera House could be developed according to a spherical geometry. This meant mass production and pre-casting could be made possible. Admittedly, I was awed by the ingenuity of the simplicity and brilliance of the "key to the shells". That naturally led me to awe at the ribs of the shells.

The tiles on the roof of the Sydney Opera House deserve a discussion on its own. Utzon worked with one of the best ceramic factories in the world to develop the tiles. He subdivided the tile surface into glossy tile lids with matte tiles at the edges. In doing so, he had managed to realise the philosophy of "structure expresing the architecture and vice versa".

We went on to learn about Utzon's vision for how the glass wall enclosing the ends of the shells would be built. However, many of Utzon's vision and designs did not materialise when he was led to resign from the project due to changes in the political scene in New South Wales in 1966.

So the Sydney Opera House that we see today is not quite exactly the Sydney Opera House that Utzon had envisioned. Yet, Utzon was a person of humility and wisdom, and he recognised that rebuilding the entire Sydney Opera House according to the old plans will not be a viable solution (source: "Sydney Opera House: Utzon Design Principles"). Instead, he had suggested modifications to be made whenever the needs arise based on various design principles.

By the end of the tour, my mind was still trying to assimilate what had went on. The content was of lesser importance than the inspirations I have received after learning about Utzon's vision and his sources of inspirations. I would never be able to have the honour to meet Utzon in person. He passed away on 29 Nov 2008.

If you like the Sydney Opera House or if you like architecture or if you simply want to learn anything interesting about Sydney, Utzon by the Sydney Architecture Walks is one tour that I would recommend. It does not have the thrill of climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, neither does it have the novelty of riding a ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay, but this is one tour with depth and with inspirations.

As I have yet to go on the other tours under the Sydney Architecture Walks, it looks like I have lots of excuses to visit Sydney yet again.

People and moments that I am grateful for:
1) I thank our tour guide (I remember that his name's Eoghan) for the inspiring and interesting tour.
2) I am thankful for the wonderful weather. I felt blessed that throughout my short stay in Sydney, the weather has been extremely kind towards me and my planned schedule.
3) I am grateful to visionary architects like Utzon. They serve simply because their works are meaningful.
4) I am grateful to my friend, KF, for accomodating to my last minute changes in schedule. This had allowed me to attend this very walk.
5) I am thankful to have come across this tour by good chance.

New things that I did:
1) It was my first time taking the Sydney Architecture Walks and I love it!

My learning points:
1) I am reminded that we can also look back to the ancient world for inspirations.
2) I was touched by Utzon's humility as I hear about his works and his story during the tour. I learnt the value of humility.
3) I was reminded how principles can be more important than the procedures. The procedures are usually meant to serve the principles, and often not the other way round. I guess this reminded me how living our lives based on sound principles and values could often be more important than living them based on strict procedures.
4) I've learnt about the beauty of simplicity. It is profound, and I am still seeking to appreciate it.
5) I was reminded that Nature has plenty to inspire us. We just have to make time to learn from Nature.

Sydney Architecture Walks
SAW 02 Utzon is a 2.5 hours tour. It takes place on most Saturdays, 10.30 a.m. - 1.00 p.m.
Meeting point: Museum of Sydney, Corner Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney, NSW 2000.
Cost: General $35 (includes museum entry)

No comments: