‘He even said to me after we were walking back from that last meeting with Davis Hughes, “I bet they come running after me.”’ Bill Wheatley, Jørn Utzon’s Australian assistant during the construction of the Sydney Opera House, has a wry smile on his face as he recounts those troubled times and that encounter with the then NSW Minister for Public Works. ‘Of course, they didn’t.’
Wheatley is just one of the fascinating characters interviewed for The Edge of the Possible, an intriguing documentary, originally released in 1999, about an inspired architect and his feud with an interfering government. One of the others is, of course, Utzon himself, who speaks of that time – from winning an international contest to design an opera house to leaving the country with only the podium and sails completed – with an admirable lack of bitterness.
Watch a preview of the documentary: The Edge of the Possible
Filmmakers Daryl Dellora and Sue Maslin were the first people in 25 years to entice the architect to speak at length about this great achievement and his time spent living in Sydney. Now, almost a year after his death, the film is being released on DVD with extended versions of the interview, as well as an edited version of a silent Super 8 film made by Mogens Prip-Buus from Utzon’s office, showing construction at the site and the protests that took place there when Utzon resigned nine years into the project in 1966.
Both before and after the Opera House, Utzon worked on several major projects – Melli Bank in Tehran, the Fredensborg housing group and his own houses, including two in Majorca – although none has attracted anywhere near the interest of the design that Eero Saarinen, one of the competition judges, described as ‘genius’. In 2003, Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize, and in 2007 the Opera House was made a World Heritage Site. When Utzon died in November 2008, he had been working with son Jan on updating his masterpiece. He never visited Australia to see the completed building, perhaps the most tragic part of this entire saga.