Monday, December 1, 2008

A Great Australian Hero

A great Australian hero has passed away, and he wasn’t even an Australian. In fact, he hadn’t even set foot in Australia since his controversial departure in 1966. And yet his legacy will continue to help define our national identity for generations to come. Joern Utzon, the Danish architect who created the Sydney Opera House passed away at the weekend at the age of 90. Some believe he was always bitter about his experience with Australia, but others, including his family, say that is not the case.

The story of how the Opera House came to be is an epic saga, and perhaps it could be an opera itself. History remembers the selection of Utzon’s design as the winning entry in an international competition, the arrival of Utzon to oversee the project, and the controversy which followed. The opera house construction project ran years overschedule, and ten times over budget. The political skullduggery saw a shortsighted government virtually sabotage the project by stopping payments to Utzon’s company. The headlines at the time said that he quit, but really he was left unable to pay his staff or keep his office open. He had no choice but to leave.

As a result, the task was completed by others, famously described as “a conspiracy of nobodies”, leading to the now iconic form of the Opera House containing an interior nothing like the one originally intended. Today, work continues to refurbish and revitalize the building, but now it is being done in keeping with design principles drawn up by Utzon himself, and supervised by his son.

The story of the Opera House is more than epic history. It is also a lesson for the 21st Century. At a time when the world is reeling under the influence of the Global Financial Crisis, where bottom line thinking has driven us to the edge of disaster, the Sydney Opera House stands as a symbol of greatness. It has become a unique icon of our nation, a national treasure beyond value. Regardless of the extraordinary cost, and the political acrimony at the time, the investment has turned out to be not only worthwhile, but absolutely priceless. The Opera House should serve to remind us all that life is about more than just money. It is about achievement against adversity, the transcendence of beauty, and the importance of integrity.

Joern Utzon may have lived in Australia for only three years, but his legacy has made a greater contribution to our national identity than any of the petty minded politicians who treated him so badly all those years ago. That makes him a great Australian hero, regardless of his citizenship.

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