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The Sydney Opera House

The story of the building of this extraordinary structure and the nature of its
revolutionary design cemented his reputation. It is hard to overestimate the importance
of this project to Arup personally, to Australia politically, and to architecture
internationally.

The building took many years to construct and its Danish architect, Jorn Utzon left the
project before its completion. How the story began was telling, given what was to
follow. Utzon entered the design competition with no more than a sketch on a scrap of
paper. The judging panel didn't include a single engineer.

The sketch, with its ambitious
soaring sails, or shells, impressed
the panel. But construction began
before the design had been fully
researched and so the problems
started. If present-day computer
technology had been available at the
time the sketches might have been
put aside and the shell design
resolved. As it was, the only hope
for resolving the incredibly complex
geometries of the roof structure was
through an intensive collaboration
between architect and engineer, which is why the Opera House is one of, if not the,
greatest symbol of 20th Century architect-engineer collaborative achievement.

The personal similarities and differences between Arup and Utzon were almost on a par.
They were both passionate, both Danish but each very determined and not always in
agreement when it came to their opinions on beauty and practicality. Their first meeting
took place in early 1957, soon after Arup had sent one of his congratulatory letters to
Utzon asking him if he wanted to work with another Dane and gain specialist advice
from his company. Arup's partner, Ronald Jenkins, was, he pointed out, a "leading
authority on the calculation of shell structures".

By late February 1957 Arup & Partners' appointment as engineer was confirmed. By
1958, Utzon and Arup had visited Sydney together. Hopes for what seemed a perfect
union were high. Amazingly, this was the young architect's first major project to be
built. He had won many other competitions but not a single one of the winning designs
had been commissioned. His consequent lack of experience and political naivet were to
cause great difficulty.

In 1958, Ove Arup & Partners engineer Jack Zunz, who had joined the company in
1950 and would later take over as chairman, took over the running of the project
together with Michael Lewis. The excitement Arup felt about Utzon's design at first
overrode the practical problems of construction.

However, the state government of New South Wales soon had a crisis of confidence in
the roof structure and called in Zunz and Utzon to convince them that it could in fact be
built. In spite of ill-health, Arup stepped in. He was instrumental in convincing the
government that the project was viable, and that his engineering solution for the shells
was sound enough for it to continue.

The shells, each specified to a
different curvature in the original
design, took Ove Arup & Partners six
frustrating years to resolve and the
project tested the concept and practice
of Arup engineer-architect relationship
ideas to the limit. Arup tried to
convince Utzon not to insist on smooth
surfaces for the shells in favour of ribbed structures that could be more easily realized.

Tension mounted unbearably as the struggle to resolve the roof structure brought out the
defensive and competitive sides to Utzon's character. It took all Arup's energy, as well
as endless research, to reach the eventual breakthrough. Utzon eventually conceded that
the shells should have a uniform curvature, making it possible to use repeated precast
units. Precisely who made this decision is still disputed but Arup was generous in
attributing the idea to Utzon.

Collaboration-wise another major difficulty was distance, plus working between offices
in Denmark and London. Neither engineer nor architect had an office in Sydney in the
early years of the project. The building itself had other challenges besides the shell
roofs. These included the approach steps and concourse, the acoustics of the
performance spaces, disputes about the seating capacities, and Utzon's focus on the
exterior rather than the interior of the design. Space was being sacrificed on the interior
in favour of the resolution of other issues, while for the exterior finances were being
stretched beyond all reason. Utzon wanting his shells to be realized no matter what the
cost.

By 1963, relationships were seriously deteriorating both between the engineer and
architect and between Utzon and the Australian government. In 1965 Utzon built a brick
wall between his office space and that of the engineers. In 1966, utterly overwhelmed
by how complex the project had become, Utzon resigned.