13 Feb Geraldine Brooks
Myers says that Utzon’s perfectionism and his refusal to be rushed into anything were summed up in an anecdote – “I must have heard him tell it fifteen times” – about the Danish furniture designer Kaare Klint. “Someone comes to Klint’s studio and asks him, ‘What are you working on?’ Klint replies, ‘I’m working on a chair.’ Eighteen months later, the same man visits and again asks klint what he is working on. ‘I told you,’ Klint says, ‘I’m working on a chair.’ ”
The roof tiles of the Syndney Opera House were Utzon’s version of the chiar. He liked to say that almost everything about the building’s design was “on the edge of the possible,” and for the tiles he wanted something very specific: a tile that “had gloss but did not have a mirror effect. A tile with a coarse structure that resembled hammered silver.” He did not want a blinding flare off the roof surfaces, or a “normal” glaze, which looks “as if it is made from white cardboard.” He used many metaphors for what he was seeking. The tiles, he said, should contrast matte against sheen, like fresh layer of snow on a frozen snowbank, or the shine of a fingernail against skin. “The material,” he wrote, “would have to be sought in the building of the ancient world, which has stood up to many years’ use without detrioration.” He travelled to China and Japan, looking at samples of ancient roof tiles and half-glazed ware. In an archive of his papers kept in a Sydney library, images of the tiled dome of the Great Mosque at Esfahan, in Iran, are filed alongside a more contemporary inspiration: an advertising photograph of a Swedish swimsuit model, the chevron pattern of her costume flowign easily over her curves. The Opera House tiles, Utzon decided, would be laid in chevrons, fanning out across the roof curves to express the form of the concrete beams beneath.
The Opera House tiles would need to stand up to extreme conditions, and, to develop them, Utzon chose a Swedish ceramic factory, Hoganas, which normally produced a far less glamorous product: stoneware tiles to line the sluices in paper mills, which are alternately exposed to boiling water and ice-cold river water. After many trials, Utzon settled on a tile made of the smooth local clay mixed wth grainy, crushed matter to add texture. The raw tile was painted with a sauce or slick of the same material, fired, then overlaid with a transparent glaze before a final firing. Fixing more than a million tiles on steep surfaces hundreds of feet in the air posed immense difficulties, so the tiles were laid on the ground, where quality could be controlled, in chevron-shaped “lids”, which were then hoisted into place. To allow for variations in stress, the spaces between the tiles in each section had to be calculated by computer, at that time a novelty in building projects.
Developing the tiles and the method for laying them took more than three years…