Sydney’s Scandinavian Opera House

2023 marks 50 years since the opening of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House – one of the most celebrated and troubled architectural projects in history. It gets a passing mention in The Northern Silence, so here’s a little more (and some links to further writing).

Side elevation: Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House from the harbour

Before the theatres in Oslo and Copenhagen, there was the opera house in Sydney – the life’s work of Danish architect Jørn Utzon, even though he spent the vast majority of his life estranged from it.

The story of the unknown Utzon’s winning of the contract to build the Sydney Opera House is the fairy-tale prelude to the nightmare that ensued. That didn’t stop the structure Utzon disowned becoming the world’s most iconic theatre – perhaps the most immediately recognisable man-made structure in the world.

Louis Kahn famously said of the Sydney Opera House that the sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off it. Specifically, the sun was reflecting off more than a million clay tiles manufactured in Sweden by the ceramic factory Höganäs.

I’ve never been to Australia (I’ll get there one day) but my partner Sarah was baptised in the building Utzon designed immediately after the opera house: the parish church at Bagsværd in the north Copenhagen suburbs.

As written in The Northern Silence, Bagsværd Church (pronounced Bow-Svair) strikes me as an architectural counterpart to Svend Hvidfelt Nielsen’s Symphony No 3 – a symphony that spirals upwards before evaporating into white space much like the ‘horizontal’ tower of Utzon’s Church.

Apparently, Utzon conceived of the undulating surfaces that line the interior of the Bagsværd tower like rolling clouds while lying on a beach in Hawaii. He was tracking homewards, heartbroken, following the collapse of his relationship with his client in Sydney.

Before it all went sour, Utzon had moved his family to Australia and set up an office there staffed by aspiring Danish and local architects. It was a creative dream, until it wasn’t. Compromise after delay after soaring cost after yet more compromise resulted in the biggest calumny of all: Utzon’s enforced resignation at the hand of the newly elected Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, who insisted the design for the building’s interior be put out to fresh tender.

The ‘horizontal tower’ of Utzon’s church at Bagsværd, north of Copenhagen

Hughes, in cahoots with the newly appointed house architects of Sydney City, authorized the pivotal design alteration that would set in train the building’s decades of practical and acoustic problems: the transferal of the opera auditorium to the smaller, second ‘pod’ indented for spoken theatre (Utzon’s plan was for a hybrid main auditorium that could present both concerts and opera).

Theatre moved to a space designed for backstage operations that would have no relationship with the building’s foyers nor its harbourside environment. Tons of specially built machinery and equipment was binned. Utzon’s ideals – a merging of principles borrowed from Yucatán temples and the building practices of the Sung dynasty – were unceremoniously trampled.

Utzon vowed never to step foot on Australian soil again. The project effectively ended his relationship with the famed structural engineer Ove Arup and practically torpedoed the architect’s own career – tainted, as it was, by the disgrace of a grand project left unfinished. Personally, Utzon was devastated. Barely a day went by, according to his son Jan, when wouldn’t make mention of the opera house in Sydney.

Utzon wouldn’t travel to Sydney again. But in 2005, 50 years since the announcement of the Sydney competition, Jan did so on his father’s behalf. Utzon was re-hired by the Opera House to make good on a tiny proportion of the havoc wrought on his own designs (mostly front-of-house, but incorporating improvements to the opera theatre), with his architect-son as partner and envoy.

Foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre (the opera theatre) at the Sydney Opera House

Minds had softened. It was acknowledged by Utzon that the building was organic, imperfect and would be subjected to inevitable generational change. Almost more important was the sense of a reconciliation with Sydney, with Australia. It brought Utzon some peace and lubricated his path to work on other projects.

At the Utzon Center in Aalborg, the north Jutland city where Utzon’s father managed the shipyard, you can see the wooden model for his design for a new opera house in Zurich – a fascinating auditorium which, if built, would have been configured like no other (it was scrapped in a cost-cutting measure, a move described by some as yet another manifestation of the ‘Utzon Curse’). You can see drawings pertaining to his one other nationally significant project, the Kuwait National Assembly (eventually vandalised by violence and bad taste), and a boat designed by his father whose hull hints at the form of the Sydney building’s distinctive roof.

In the meantime, Australia’s long and admittedly apologetic attempt to put right what went wrong with Utzon’s building, as much for the benefit of the current audience as anyone else, has completed its latest phase – and right in time for the building’s half-centenary celebrations in 2023. This latest redress, mostly focused on the concert hall, has been deemed a triumph – a rare cause for joy in the history of a grossly troubled building. It was marked with a performance of, appropriately, Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony given by the Sydney Symphony under Simone Young.

Further Reading

Peter Murray: The Saga of the Sydney Opera House

Michael Asgaard Andersen: Jørn Utzon: Buildings and Drawings

Geraldine Brooks: Unfinished Business (The New Yorker, 2005)

History Lesson: the American Society of Civil Engineers

Arquitectura Viva: Bagsværd Church


Kentucky Fried Keflavík

In 2013, I had the chance to work in Iceland for the first time. The assignment was to interview the Finnish musician Osmo Vänskä, who was in Reykjavík to conduct the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Lots happened on my brief visit, some of which is recounted in The Northern Silence. I met Lárus Jóhannesson for the first time, at his brilliant record shop 12 Tónar. I had my first taste of Harpa. And I ate a KFC at one of the most architecturally distinctive branches of the restaurant anywhere, situated near the airport in Keflavík. I wrote about the building for my now-defunct blog Moose Report, and re-publish it here.

While I’m at it: I write in The Northern Silence about Iceland’s societal intimacy and closeness – which comes with pros and cons (the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is particularly eloquent on this in the book). Recently I was chatting to the Icelandic composer Bára Gisladóttir – who lives in Copenhagen and is also featured in the book – and mentioned the KFC in Keflavík. She told me that the franchise is owned by a relative of hers.

Another curious thing about that first trip: I landed in Iceland on 13 June. On my two subsequent visits to the country – unconnected work assignments – I would arrive on exactly the same date. I have gleaned a good sense of how western Iceland feels in midsummer.

PK Arkitektar’s KFC building, Keflavík, Iceland

Calm descends easily over Keflavík’s KFC. The high ceiling sucks up conversation. The west-end wall-window thrusts nature into a space built for its distortion. Like the raw Icelandic landscape outside, the cast-concrete walls urge you to pause and consider things bigger than chicken and chips. Bigger than yourself.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Iceland bestowed a new restaurant on the coastal settlement of Keflavík in 2005. The town is a satellite to the Icelandic capital, living off small-time maritime industry and the airport four clicks away. The franchise owners wanted the job done by Reykjavík firm PK Arkitektar. The chicken shifters got a stand-alone building that strives for a certain uncompromising beauty born of its distinct surroundings. 

From the side that faces the sea, it sits up, sharp – like a statement Grand Design or a new Nordic railway station. From the opposite side, it’s more unassuming, a sibling to the grander but equally angular office building that looms behind it, just by the sea shore. On the outside, the matt-black tiles refract that green-black solidified lava on which Iceland sits. Concealed partially within that tiled blackout are the entrances. You have to work hard to find them. Gotta earn that chicken.

The building has been described by one critic as ‘a play of boxes’. It’s not much of a game, more a satisfying exercise in positioning – one long shoebox with two protruding squat towers, knowingly spaced. On one tower the KFC logo is distilled down into its white initials, aligned classily top left. The grinning colonel is exiled to the other rump. On their own, white-on-black, with the dignity of a corner positioning, those letters take on a new status. Suddenly they have the weight and dignity of an organisation built on diligence and authority. KFC as KPMG.

Not for long. Inside there’s faux-wood, brown plastic and stencilled glass aplenty – all described by one journal as a ‘dialogue’ with the modernist sheen of the exterior structure. In reality it’s a compromise. McDonald’s can fill its eateries with Arne Jacobsen furniture without turning its customers off, so couldn’t KFC have strived for something better?

Side elevation

Like a metaphor for life, operational realities are flies in the ointment of PK’s aesthetic vision. On-site marketing promos sully the grey concrete and frosted glass. The children’s play structure seriously compromises the effect of that west window. These flaws are by their nature temporary. Maybe it’s the kids who get the last laugh, up on that multi-coloured plaything, getting a close and unusual perspective on a nifty piece of design that has Lego-like simplicity.

The room isn’t entirely ruined. Perhaps it’s the light play that changes the feel of it: the brightness and shadows from the high, deep strip window that runs from north to south above the counter and the opposing ketchup bar. The brutal Icelandic coastline tamed by the perpendicular windows in the main dining area.


Joi is the broad, blonde twenty-something who sells me my chicken, chips and Pepsi from behind the counter fronted by a slab of frosted glass with more elegant KFC initialling, this one etched (it’s the only interior fitting that has real beauty). ‘I think people just come here for food, not to look at the architecture,’ he says, and acts with professional benevolence when I ask if someone from the restaurant might be able to order me a taxi. ‘But yeah, it’s a really cool building,’ he adds with a creeping smile. ‘Not all the KFCs in Iceland are like this. I think there are seven or eight. Maybe they’ve had the same big ideas about architecture in one or two of them, but not the others.’

You can’t deny the instant-hit of the food. It might not have the taste-depth of the super-good lamb I eat later in the day at Sólon on Bankstræti, but boy does that greasy bread-crumbed chicken hit a spot. (The chips have nothing on McDonalds’s, but you knew that.)

Try to spot Keflavík’s KFC from the airport road – or even from your plane (landing from the east at KEF, you might fly right over it) – and the chances are you won’t. It hunkers down among its neighbours, into the streets and into the black rock. That’s one aesthetic victory.  If the calm that infuses the space fills diners in parallel to their chicken, that’s another.