Impossible the Next

The Opera House

As the rest of the commuters on a city-bound bus prepare to pile off to go to work, the leisure loving tourist has time instead to turn to the left and enjoy the view from the Sydney Harbour Bridge and see Sydney's most famous site: the Opera House. Most people who see it describe it either as a series of interlocking caves covered in shining white tiles or else it appears like the billowing sails of yachts of various sizes, pointing in opposite directions in a chaotic regatta played out every day on the Harbour.

We owe the construction of the Opera House, so they say, "to chance". And they are correct, for once, but not for the reason they think. Most believe the origin of this expression is the generally very well known fact that the Opera House was financed by a series of state-run lotteries. The architect, Jorn Utzon, had submitted so intimidatingly elaborate and detailed a set of construction plans for the building that the government knew their tiny budget would simply not cover the exorbitant expense of his grandiose designs. So they planned to leave the fundraising to chance, so to speak, by selling tickets in a lottery.

Now you might think for the people running a lottery it is not really any kind of risk at all: you sell more tickets than you give away in prize money and - hey presto - you couldn't have a surer source of income if you owned the mint itself. But it's not failsafe: a bad week of sales, a winner with a lucky birthday, and before you know it you're running a lottery to pay for the shortfall of the last money-spinner. So they fixed the lottery. The government realised that with a bit more judicious a distribution of tickets, a generous citizen could be found who would happily support the construction of the building by donating back their winnings. And what an effect the generosity of the first winner had! To the casual observer it seemed like every winner of the lottery was keen to emulate the model of generosity the first winner had set.

So the risk was stripped out of the lottery plan. The real element of chance was the completion of the designs of the building itself. You see, although Utzon had claimed to have incredibly precise plans, nothing could have been further from the truth. Utzon submitted what he had thought were plans so impossible to realise that they would simply be knocked back on spec. If the government were foolish enough to stump up the money for the first design of the Opera House, Utzon trusted his own genius to modify the plans and come up with something worth building even if it didn't precisely fit what he first promised. With their little lottery scam running a tidy profit, the government duly defied expectations and came up with the money.

Now at first this didn't bother Utzon because he had supreme confidence in his ability. But when he sat down to modify his plans he suffered the first doubts he had ever experienced in his professional career. What if the changes from the first plans were too severe? What if a crowd of angry lottery losers criticised his building? Bennelong Point has pride of place on the Harbour, and this increased the pressure on the suffering architect. Utzon was paralysed by doubt. After his initial difficulty changing the design, Utzon became less and less able to make modifications, since after such a long period of inactivity the modifications would have assumed a larger significance, they carried an implication that they were incredibly considered and absolutely settled. Utzon was a proud man, and refused to get help. He couldn't collaborate with another architect to complete the project. And he didn't think seeing a therapist - lying on a long couch and having his failings attributed to his childhood - was going to provide any kind of relief either.

But then, inspiration of a different sort came to Utzon. Remembering that the impoverished government had solved their problems with a lottery, he wondered if his architect's block might not similarly be improved by the hand of lady luck. It might seem improbable that it would help, but even with his impeded creativity he would still have the technical ability to recognise if pure chance produced anything worthwhile. And of course relying on chance had the distinct benefit of saving Utzon from having to admit to anyone that he had failed so far.

Utzon threw himself into the new venture with great gusto. He purchased dozens of different coloured pairs of dice, and rolled them in various combinations to determine every detail of his new construction: the number of seats in the main theatre (3253); the ratio of the height to width of the stairs in the forecourt; even the number of billowing white sails we see today. Friends and intimates of Utzon became very concerned that he had abandoned his architectural plans in favour of a fierce gambling habit or an obsession with magic tricks, as he had even taken to asking strangers on the ferry to pick a card from an enormous deck.

The results of the design-lottery were surprisingly encouraging. At first it seemed that the dimensions of the sails would prove impossible to support, or else couldn't accommodate a theatre large enough. But just when it appeared that chance would dictate a feat of engineering as literally impossible as the one Utzon had first cooked up, one last roll of the dice would produce an unexpected variable, a different angle of inclination or number of supports, and suddenly the structure became possible again, just. Utzon was naturally elated. He quickly made modifications to his original designs, making up the time lost in his paralysis and sent plans off to the government for immediate construction. He wasn't unequivocally pleased to have resorted to chance, he was still disappointed he hadn't succeeded by dint of his creativity alone. But he justified it to himself by saying that chance had merely opened a conduit to his subconscious, that the dice and cards were just tools like a set-square which he had manipulated and directed to his own artistic ends.

Well the construction started on the Opera House and the modifications were revealed to the adoring Australian public. They were more than pleased with the new building. It got rave reviews. It won awards. People said Utzon had outdone himself, that this was not just Sydney's or Utzon's best building, but possibly the greatest architectural feat achieved anywhere ever. Now this praise, starkly elevating the Opera House above his other work, started to gnaw away at Utzon. It became harder and harder for him to maintain to his own satisfaction the conceit that the Opera House was his own work, even that of his subconscious. What did it say about his famed creative genius that any idiot draftsman with a pair of dice could have designed the Opera House?

As the building grew closer and closer to finishing, Utzon determined to try and break the winning streak of lady luck. He decided to turn his life over entirely to Fortune, believing that if the result were less satisfactory than the life he'd already made then at least he would prove he'd been doing something right all these years. Now everything Utzon did was dictated by chance: what time he got up; which ferry he took to the city; which appointments he kept. Utzon became increasingly erratic but remained wildly successful. His professional reputation grew when he refused appointments, the people of the city believing he had done so because of his unswerving commitment to the artistic integrity of his vision and not because he had flipped tails outside the office of the Minister for Planning. He even developed the gambling habit his friends had feared: the minute he was paid an enormous sum for the Opera House design, he went down to the Star City casino and put his entire pay packet on black. And won. Utzon was blessed by Lady Luck and it was driving him mad.

The time came for the opening of the building. Utzon arrived roaring drunk because he'd asked the dice how many gin and tonics he should have to steady his nerves. The Sydneysiders didn't mind, happy to indulge the genius who had given their city such a rare thing of beauty. Some say that in the inaugural opera, Utzon had leaned over and vomited on the Premier's shoes, but the Premier had just laughed and challenged him to a drinking contest after the show.

Now, as you can imagine, Utzon's luck couldn't hold. Fortuna spun her wheel downwards, and eventually Utzon broke his winning streak. He gambled his entire fortune (this time on red), and lost. He missed one too many appointments, and got the reputation of a temperamental genius content to rest on his laurels. He was considered utterly unreliable and people believed he would never produce anything as great as the Opera House. Now Utzon was properly ruined: he was broke; he had no work; and worst of all, the fame of the Opera House, which he did not believe he deserved, had put all of his other great achievements in the shade.

The people of Sydney were certainly sorry to hear how Utzon had ended up. Nobody felt at all responsible for him though, they didn't draw the link between the impossible they had demanded of him and his present state. And besides, they had their world-famous Opera House. Utzon would just have to rely on what he had left of his original skills. So he sobered up, stopped frequenting the casino and went back to the drawing board.

The buildings he designed after were very innovative, though they never won the critical acclaim of the Opera House. Utzon didn't take that so badly, he was just glad something of his creative spark had returned, and he was humbled by the thought that maybe it was only luck that had given him those abilities to begin with. So I'm not asking you to feel sorry for Utzon. But when you see the beauty of the white sails of the Opera House shining in the morning sun, at the very least you should feel thankful and, truth be told, a little lucky. And remember not to question the gifts of Fortuna if you are lucky enough to receive them. It takes a peculiar type of arrogance for one not to be content making one's own luck, and instead insist on making one's own misfortune also.