Sydney Opera House (photo courtesy http://www.photoeverywhere.co.uk)
When the Danish architect JÃ¸rn Utzon, who died last week at 90, designed the Sydney Opera House a half century ago, one of his inspirations was Chichen Itza.
At first blush it is hard to see any of the massive, heavy monuments of the Maya in the floating design of the opera house. There is nothing at Chichen Itza comparable to the shell-like vaults of the opera house that splay into the air as if they were trying to catch the wind like a sail. But what many people miss is that the building rests on a large platform, and that feature was Utzon’s nod to the Maya.
Utzon visited Chichen Itza in 1949 and never forgot the architecture. “All the platforms in Mexico were positioned and formed with great sensitivity to the natural surroundings and always with a deep idea behind,” Utzon wrote in his groundbreaking essay, “Plateaus and Platforms.” He continued, “A great strength radiates from them. The feeling under your feet is the same as the firmness you experience when standing on a large rock.”
Maya Changed the Landscape
“By introducing the platform with its level at the same height as the jungle top, these people had suddenly obtained a new dimension of life, worthy of their devotion to their Gods. On these high platforms–many of them as long as 100 metres–they built their temples. They had from here the sky, the clouds and the breeze, and suddenly the jungle roof had been converted into a great open plain. By this architectural trick they had completely changed the landscape and supplied their visual life with a greatness corresponding to the greatness of their Gods.”
Utzon started his opera house plan with a giant platform that would completely cover the location of the opera house, Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbor. Upon it he placed his shell-design of an opera house. Utzon’s design was selected over hundreds of competitors in an international competition in 1957. And work soon began on his vision.
Utzon quit the project in 1966 when a new local government, bent on austerity, came to power. Only the exterior had been completed; the interior was finished without Utzon’s involvement. Queen Elizabeth dedicated the new opera house upon its completion in 1973. Utzon never returned to Sydney to see his masterpiece.
In 1999 the government and Sydney Opera House Trust patched it up with Utzon, who agreed to develop a set of design principles that would apply to any future changes to the building. His firm also took on the design of several additions to the building, including a long extension called The Colonnade. Utzon once again returned to Chichen Itza for his inspiration, and based the design on the Plaza of the Thousand Columns, which lines one side of the Temple of the Warriors, just as the Colonnade runs along one side of the opera house.
The Colonnade, which was the first exterior change to the building, opened in 2006, and like the opera house, Queen Elizabeth II was on hand to cut the ribbon. JÃ¸rn’s son and architectural partner, Jan, stood in for his father at the ceremony. But even though his father was too old to make the trip to Australia, Jan Utzon said, “he lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it.”
Last week Utzon closed his eyes for the last time.