Design Inspiration

It’s hard to tell in the photo above (click to enlarge) but that’s actually part of the famous Sydney Opera House in the background. The short bald guy in the foreground is me, looking out towards the harbor while reflecting on the story behind the iconic structure… which is really quite inspiring. During our two-week visit to Oz, my wife and I had many wonderful experiences — a ghost tour of The Rocks in an old section of Sydney, seeing Nadal and Djokovic play in the  Australian Tennis Open (separately in their respective quarterfinals matches, not the epic five-set finals they played) which was in Melbourne, snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef up by Cairns (pronounced “Cans” for reasons no one could explain), feeding wallabies and petting koalas at a wildlife park, and so on. But the guided tour of the Sydney Opera House stands out most in my memories of our trip.

To begin with, it wasn’t what I imagined from photos I’ve seen before. I was always under the impression that the “shells” were smooth white surfaces. As you get closer though, you see it’s more like ivory or an off white shade, and if you squint hard at the picture you’ll see the surface is actually composed of many small tiles that form geometric patterns and are in different shades of white, forming designs within the structural design… which is ambiguous too. To me, they always looked like seashells. To others, they resemble sails — which makes sense for a couple of reasons: the opera house is on the water, surrounded by sailing vessels, and the designer’s father was a shipbuilder. In fact, Danish architect Jørn Utzon said parts of the interior were meant to be similar to the bows of ships and you can see that clearly when you stroll around inside the opera house.

But supposedly Utzon said the basic concept came from peeling an orange and taking apart the segments. He did some rough sketches and entered them in a contest that received a little over 200 submissions. Most of those were polished architectural drawings that were very detailed. But Utzon’s entry was so different it stood out among the more conventional designs and approaches. No one was sure how it would be constructed — or even if it could be built. Yet his radical/graceful/controversial vision was so unique that he was given the commission despite the lack of specifics in his initial plans.

When was the last time you heard a pitch for a movie or book that made you feel the same way? Something that would inspire others to champion the concept and risk their careers on making that idea into reality… and then motivate those involved to keep going every time they encountered obstacles or naysayers. That’s Act 2 of the story. The cost estimates were miscalculated or intentionally low-balled to get approval, and of course it cost much more to build than was anticipated because of the unique design elements. Inside, the materials used were mostly natural and selected for their acoustical properties. To pay for it all, the Aussies came up with a creative financing approach: they ran a lottery to raise the funds needed.

But due to delays and conflicts, Utzon eventually left the project before it was finished and never returned to see the completed Sydney Opera House in person. Think about how sad that must have been for him and those who were close to Utzon. But, hold on… there’s the “fake” ending in every story, and the “real” ending that leads to the resolution. In this case, after years went by, there was a reconciliation of sorts. Utzon never returned to Australia, but was asked to resume work on the opera house because it’s still a work in progress. Some things he wanted to do originally are now being addressed. During the tour we saw examples of his revisions, and you see a big difference between the utilitarian get-it-done stuff and his vision of how certain rooms were meant to be… and he was right. His way was better. Utzon died in 2008, but in his final years had left enough plans for more improvements and changes that will take another decade or two to finish.

When I heard that last part, it brought a tear to my eyes. I often wonder if any of my crude “sketches” or ideas for movies and books will ever come to fruition. Then you behold something like the Sydney Opera House and you realize that it starts with a boldness, a willingness to ignore conventions and think in broad, simple strokes. Maybe if you can dream it, they will build it. Powerful ideas are organic things that take on a life of their own that will outlast us. Be bold.

For another take on my Aussie trip, here’s a link to my Honolulu Star-Bulletin blog post on that.

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