The panoramic montage of the opening shots of the Sydney Opera House1 and its gleaming concrete shells contrasted against the blue sky are monumental. In her voiceover narration, esteemed actor Robyn Nevin reads Taoist quotations with seamless poise, letting us in on a quiet yet turbulent period of Australia’s not so recent past. An accompanying soundtrack by David Bridie and John Phillips is a moody and textural sound composition that is woven throughout the film. The Edge of the Possible is a quietly confronting and a masterfully executed documentary directed by Daryl Dellora about the Sydney Opera House debacle between the architect, Jorn Utzon, his design and the changing of the political guard in New South Wales.
Dellora reflects on the uneasiness of Australian parochialism during Utzon’s time as an architect in Sydney. In1957 he was announced winner of the Architectural International design competition to build a national Opera House for Sydney’s Bennelong Point. In 1966, he was ousted only having completed the Opera House’s exterior. He was replaced with a local reputable architect Peter Hall who could not realize the true vision of the Utzon design interior.
A television art documentary made for the ABC in 1998 was ripe for an exposition. Dellora chronologically unravels the Utzon fiasco using an archival backlog of black and white footage, diagrams, stills and a series of separate interviews including Utzon himself. Utzon is relaxed and at ease in front of the camera wearing a yellow sweater, his smooth, gentle lankiness revealing for the very first time his relationship with Australia since leaving in 1966 and never returning. A reclusive retiree in his early eighties at the time of the interview, he reflects on his work with pride and dignity.
Utzon claimed he stood directly from a human point of view and was influenced by nature and its patterns of symmetry. The then-Labor Premier Joseph Cahill gave free reign to Utzon, who along with his architectural team worked to create the winning design. For three years, models and prototypes were constructed to create Utzon’s unique sculptural curved design known as the concrete shells. Utzon coined the term “additive architecture” during his work on the Opera House in his Sydney Office: he saw it as part of an additive world where both natural and cultural forms contributed to additive systems and hierarchies. Utzon worked with the engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners who lost patience with him, but Utzon’s concept of structures built of small elemental forms and mass produced to construct buildings helped ease tensions between himself and Arup. Utzon continued working out the complexities of the shells and combining his blend of aesthetics and mathematics, and he concluded it was only logical that the shell tiles be square. Interviews with Utzon’s team – such as Yuzo Mikam – thought it a great opportunity at the time as it was groundbreaking work and all about creating new forms. Jorgen Prip-Buus fondly equates the experience to a jazz ensemble, and recalls working day and night with great energy.
Dellora’s documentary questions the relationship Utzon had with the two most significant NSW Premiers during the construction of the Opera House. Cahill was behind the early foundations of the Opera House project, and his passion for Utzon’s grand vision was intrinsically his, too. Cahill was Utzon’s guiding light who gave him freedom and artistic license. When Cahill died in office, Utzon lost his biggest fan and hence began his walk on thin ice until his forced resignation in 1966.
In 1965, the state Liberal Party’s Robert Askin became Premier after a prolonged smear campaign against the Labor Party. His campaign was opportunistic and framed the Opera House as a mess that needed to be cleaned up. A surge of xenophobic parochialism reared its head during the election campaign, which proved to be a major turning point in Utzon’s relationship with the NSW government. An interview with Bill Wheatland – who worked with Utzon between 1963-66 during the development of the interior third stage – outlines the racial bigotry of Askin’s government, and Wheatland claims there was outright opportunism surrounding Utzon’s status as a foreigner. Wheatland reflects on a time when Australia was still grappling with distance and the concept of an international audience. While Australia’s first renowned modernist, immigrant architect Harry Seidler (whom Dellora also made a documentary about in 2016) felt Australia ran with the American ideal of building fast and tall buildings, he goes on to further explain that Utzon had a European logic of musing the design and structure like he was painstakingly building a cathedral.
The government cut Utzon’s funds in 1966 claiming they overspent on the project, and Ove Arup reported back to the government that Utzon’s proposed plywood was not a viable solution for the interiors. Utzon was eighteen months away from completion, and could no longer continue to work without the funds to create the models and prototypes to test his elaborate interior acoustic ideas to stage grand operas and great symphonies. Reputable Sydney architect Peter Hall was called on to work on the interiors, and protests and demonstrations halted the city traffic but did nothing to reinstate Utzon. Hall could only work within the constraints of the Utzon’s design to accommodate the completed exterior. Hall’s design remains inferior and lacks the resonating quality of the original Utzon design. It also cost twice as much and years to complete, opening to the public in 1973. In The Edge of the Possible, Dellora has not only thought-provokingly documented the events surrounding the building of the Opera House, but also reignites interest in the redevelopment of the Utzon design and the recreation of the originally conceived interiors.
The Edge of The Possible (1998 Australia 50 minutes)
Dir Daryl Dellora Scr Daryl Dellora and Ian Wansbrough Prod Sue Maslin Mus David Bridie and John Phillips Phot John Whitteron Ed Mark Askin
Cast Jorn Utzon, Phillip Drew, Elias Duek-Cohen, Joh Lundberg, Yuzo Mikami, Mogens Prip-Buus, Harry Seidler, Bill Wheatland.
Narrator Robyn Nevin
- This article used Daryl Dellora’s book Utzon and the Sydney Opera House (Penguin 2013) as an additional resource ↩