Listen: Anthony Chidiac, author of ‘The Priceless Gift’, chats to Clare Bruce. Above: An illustration by Michael Arvithis from the book.
Sydney wouldn’t be the same without its beloved Sydney Opera House, an icon that’s known and loved by visitors from around the world.
But the remarkable and tumultuous story of how it came to be – and of its brilliant designer, Danish architect Jørn Utzon – has been forgotten by many.
Anthony Chidiac, a high school teacher from Fairfield, learnt about the heartache and triumph behind the international icon, after Utzon died in 2008 —and felt compelled to bring the story back to life for a new generation.
He’s retold the tale in the form of a picture book, titled The Priceless Gift – just published in time to celebrate 100 years since Utzon’s birth. And with gorgeous watercolour illustrations by Michael Arvithis, the story is almost like a fairytale in the telling.
The book begins with an acknowledgment of the original Aboriginal occupants who lived at Bennelong Point before European settlement—and then paints a picture of Utzon’s childhood on the other side of the world: growing up by a harbour in Denmark, the son of a boat builder, watching boats on the water.
“Utzon was inspired by nature,” Anthony told Hope 103.2. “He always had this knack of blending the buildings with the surrounding environment.
“It’s believed he was most likely inspired [for the Opera House design], by the sails of boats that he saw as a child around his home town in Denmark. He was a keen sailor, his father was a boat builder. And he used to sail around Kronborg Castle where Hamlet was staged. The famous castle there was built on a platform, and he used that very same platform (design) for the Opera House.
“If you look at a lot of his designs, he always said, ‘what would fit this environment?’ He studied the waves and tides of Sydney meticulously before he came up with his design.”
The Competition, and a Change of Government
The call for designs for the Sydney Opera House was conducted by a competition in 1957. Utzon’s remarkable design with its shining white sails was almost overlooked in favour of a plain boxy building, so the story goes, but was rescued at the last minute from a pile of rejects.
Construction began in 1959 but hit a major hurdle in 1966 after a change of government, and a new Minister for Public Works halted funding as costs escalated. Utzon resigned and returned to Denmark, feeling let down. The work was completed with his son overseeing the project, but the interiors didn’t follow Utzon’s original designs.
Due to ill health, Utzon was never able to come back to Sydney to see the completed work.
The struggle between the designer and the government is a theme Anthony captures in his book.
“Utzon wasn’t a politician or a diplomat, he was an artist,” he said. “There’s a clash between artists and politicians. They see the world from totally different angles.
“What cost do we put on beauty and excellence? I know governments always have to deal with budgets and deadlines and it’s an important part of their role. But when you look at this building now, it is bittersweet, because the money that this building now generates for the NSW and Australian economy with tourism, has basically made up for the cost.”
A Spiritual Quality to Utzon’s Designs
Anthony, who has a Catholic faith, references a Bible verse in the opening pages of the book: ‘Every good a perfect gift comes from above’.
He believes divine inspiration was involved at some level in the design of the Sydney Opera House.
“They say that there are three transcendentals: beauty, truth and goodness, and these point us to God,” he said. “God is essentially where we get all our gifts from. And Jørn Utzon, like all of us, had a special gift. The Opera House is like a projecting to the heavens. It’s got that quality of transcendence which makes it such a beautiful building.
“I think he was a person that understood what beauty is and knew that nature essentially comes from God, and that there’s great design there. Deep down I think Utzon was a very spiritual man.”
Near the end of his life, it’s clear that Utzon had made peace with the struggles and hurt surrounding the building of the Sydney icon.
“At the end of his life it’s almost like there was a reconciliation that took place,” Anthony said. “The minister who forced him to leave the Opera House [Davis Hughes] died … and Utzon composed a letter to his widow that expressed his sympathy. He didn’t bear any bitterness. That’s a special quality.”
In 2006 Utzon’s son Jan said at the opening of a new section of the Opera House, that even though his father didn’t get to see the completed building in person, it was still in his heart: “He lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it.”
The Priceless Gift is suitable for all reading ages from primary school to adult, and is available through the website, www.thepricelessgift.com.au.