The Opera House Project

Chapter 18: The Tenacity of Davis Hughes

The May elections brought triumph for Robert Askin's Liberal Party, in coalition with the Country Party led by Davis Hughes, ending 24 years of Labor governance in New South Wales, with a margin of six and a half per cent.

Sydney Opera House had been a headline issue in the run up to the election, with coverage dominated by perception of delays and soaring costs. Askin had a long history of criticising the opera house having never shared Cahill's conviction in the project's legitimacy. His election promises included bringing the project back in line and on budget.

Although Davis Hughes was leader of the Country Party, he chose to become Minister of Public Works, allowing his Deputy Minister of the previous years, Charles Cutler, to become Askin's new Deputy.

As far back as 1959, when Premier Joe Cahill had sealed the inaugural plaque in place commemorating the beginning of construction, Davis Hughes had secured a prominent position in The Gold Book to champion Sydney Opera House.

He wrote that "it marked the beginning of a new phase in Australian history."

Whether or not Hughes was using the opportunity for political gain at the time, by 1965 he'd had no direct involvement with the project. But his early interest and his optimism as newly appointed Minister of Public Works suggests he had retained an enthusiasm for the project and was ready to fulfil the government's election promise. It was an appointment that would prove disastrous for Jørn Utzon.

Reflecting on Hughes' role more than thirty years after his withdrawal from the project, Utzon recalled how he had gradually realised Hughes had fallen in love with Sydney Opera House and wanted total command.

Whether or not these reflections capture the truth of Hughes' feelings, the Minister would become the architect's nemesis and, less than a year into his new role, having succeeded in forcing Utzon to withdraw from the project, he would go on to portray it as a resignation.

Ryan and the Labor Ministers had been difficult for Utzon to deal with, Hughes became impossible, and what ensued between the two in many ways personified the clash between Utzons perfectionism and his client's pragmatism that had been increasingly evident for some time.

A rift existed between the European, specifically Scandinavian craft approach to architecture that Utzon so utterly embodied, and the less individualistic approach of the Anglo-Saxon model of construction widely adopted in Australia.

The craft approach involved working intimately with other skilled individuals and companies dedicated to work of the highest quality. A fine example of this approach could be seen in Utzon's work with the Swedish company Hgnas, a slow and careful process of designing and producing the tiles that cover the roof of Sydney Opera House.

As early as 1957, on his first visit to Australia, Utzon had seen the possibilities of working with Ralph Symmonds in this way. Symmonds' company was emerging as the leader in innovative plywood manufacturing worldwide.

When he first arrived on site, Utzon spent a great deal of time ensuring that the finish of the precast concrete rib elements would be of high quality. Hornibrooks builders had to devise new ways of sealing the mouldings to ensure the smooth finish of the concrete, and Utzon would remind them that the concrete would be a finished surface, expressing the form. The idea of exposed concrete as a finished surface was difficult to imagine for Australians.

Peter Myers, then a young Australian architect in Utzon's office, later recalled seeing tears in Utzon's eyes when Hornibrooks staff removed the mouldings to reveal a perfect, unblemished finish on the concrete elements.

But this deep, instinctual attention to quality had less prominence in Australian construction practice at the time. There the approach to building, inherited from the British system, was characterised by an impersonal process of tendering, with work routinely awarded to companies which submitted the cheapest quote.

By August 1965, Hughes had formulated a strategy to take control of the project, devising a plan based on his own convictions and supported by opinions from a range of individuals. Foremost among these was the bureaucratic method favoured by Bill Wood, the Government architect who was still resident in Utzon's office and reporting directly to the government.

Hughes also took advice from Ron Gilling, who headed the New South Wales chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Ted Farmer, the Government's chief architect, and former Minister, Norm Ryan.

Bill Wood's report to Hughes resurrected the text book bureaucratic solution of "cheque book control". Intentionally or not, it was designed to get rid of Utzon by stripping him of his authority as project director by establishing an office of architects to be controlled independently of him.

Rather than develop a way of working that would permit the architect to continue working according to his own professional ethics, the bureaucracy decided that Utzon would either follow the path they'd decided upon with its tenders and itemised deliveries, or be forced out.

Quote from Bill Wood's report: "This I have always termed 'cheque book control' and no other method is equally efficacious... It is very doubtful whether Mr Utzon has or foresees the engagement of a staff adequate to meet the needs of this gigantic project... These would have to be controlled independently of the Contractor, and in collaboration with Mr Utzon... To replace him as the designer would present serious difficulties and would cause a scandal with worldwide reverberations."

The tone of Wood's recommendations suggests that the sole reason for retaining Utzon was to avoid scandal. Hughes was also well aware that Utzon had been appointed by an act of Parliament, and that coercing the architect to leave would be the easiest way to remove him.

By the end of August 1965, Hughes advised Cabinet that his proposal to bring the project into line might alienate the architect. By this time, neither Hughes nor Wood were exhibiting any regard for the integrity of the design or the quality of Utzon's craft approach. Indeed they were humming an entirely different tune.

In August 25 1965, Hughes wrote to Cabinet: "it is possible that the action outlined above could lead to friction with the architect... It may be that the government will be faced with the architect not cooperating or, ultimately, wishing to withdraw from the project. Whilst this would indeed be regrettable and have the most serious repercussions both local and international, there can be no justification for permitting the present unsatisfactory position as to preparation of drawings for Stage 3 to continue."

Utzon was now beginning to perceive and resent Hughes' obvious lack of respect for both himself and his craft.

Quote from Utzon's letter to Hughes, 27 August 1965: "You obviously do not realise that everything that exists at Bennelong Point today I have been doing personally in my office. Every single piece of concrete has been completely designed and controlled by me... if you do not accept my way of working, I am sorry but you will have to find another architect to carry out the rest of the job."

Hughes' next move was to employ Wood's cheque book control, stripping SOHEC of the power to pay Utzon and requiring payments be specifically measured against completed work. This would be disastrous for Utzon. He and his client were now seriously out of step and set inevitably on a path to enduring conflict.

Toward the end of the year, Utzon required funds to pay for the prototyping and modelling of his final solution for the ceilings of the halls that would use large continuous plywood beams to be suspended from the soffits of the arches. However, before the Government would release the funds, Hughes required Utzon to have Arups' approval that the scheme was viable.

Arups engineer John Nutt's report on viability was sent directly to Hughes, bypassing the architect. Both Utzon and Michael Lewis were overseas during the Christmas period. On their return, they saw the report and it did not support Utzon's approach. The engineers feared that the proposed plywood ceilings, through the sheer weight of the suspended forms, might bring the roof vaults down.

They also questioned whether the finished plywood could be delivered from the harbour, through the open vaults of the superstructure, and fitted in place without damaging the finishing.

The Director of Construction for Hornibrooks, Corbett Gore, was deeply sceptical that the operation could be performed at all and certainly not economically. It was another instance where Utzon's aspirations for the building went beyond what was technically possible, and although his daring had paid off time and again resulting in many innovations, this time Arups and Hornibrooks were clearly exasperated at the prospect of what would be required of them to comply with Utzon's latest scheme.

By the time Lewis returned to Sydney in early 1966 and sat down to find a favourable solution with Utzon's architects and his engineers, it was too late.

The cheque book control had already severely constrained Utzon's ability to operate, and he also faced a crippling bill from the Australian tax department. On the 26th February, Utzon told his secretary that without cooperation from the government he would be forced to leave the country.

Two days later, under severe stress from the many converging issues, Utzon stood before Davis Hughes, frustrated and angry, and threatened to resign. Hughes told Utzon he could not keep repeating the threat and that it was no way to address a Minister of the Crown.

This apparent lack of empathy was too much for Utzon to bear and he walked out. Hours later, without legal counsel, Utzon had a letter delivered to Hughes' office in which he accused the Minister of forcing him out.

Quote from Utzon's letter to Hughes, 28 Feb 1966: "You have forced me to leave the job. As I explained to you, and as you also know from meetings and discussions, there has been no collaboration on the most vital items of the job in the last months from your Department's side, and this also forces me to leave the job as I see clearly that you do not respect me as an architect. I have therefore today given my staff notice of dismissal. I will notify the Consultants and Contractors and I will have cleared the office of my belongings and you will receive my final account before March 14 1966."

Hughes, it seemed, had achieved exactly what he had intended.

Although Utzon remained convinced that Hughes would plead for him to return to the job, the Minister instead wasted no time in shoring up his position. That same afternoon he phoned Corbett Gore and Michael Lewis and was given assurances from both men that their companies would not walk away from the project.

The next day Hughes sent a memo to Cabinet detailing his strategy in light of Utzon's withdrawal.

Through it all - including the veiled attempts at reconciliation that followed to bring Utzon back as a consultant with limited oversight - Davis Hughes' measures appeared to have been cleverly orchestrated to deliver a very specific outcome from the beginning of his Ministerial term.

Hughes on Tuesday March 1st 1966: "Anticipating that this position may arise I have discussed the method whereby the Opera House could be completed with the Government Architect and Senior Officers of the NSW Chapter of the Institute. I am satisfied that a means can be found to complete the planning and supervision of the work... I have already taken steps to ensure that progress on Stage 2 will not be interrupted."

On Tuesday 1st March, 1966, just one day after Utzon had stood exasperated in Hughes' office, the Minister rose to his feet in Parliament and, reframing the architect's letter of forced departure, announced that Jørn Utzon had resigned.