/ David Page / Creative Workspace

There is an apocryphal story that the US architect Eero Saarinen in judging the Sydney Opera House competition was dissatisfied with any of the submissions he had been given sight of and decided to go back through the rejected schemes. In this review a series of diagrams caught his attention. Somehow he convinced his jury colleagues that these diagrams were the winner. A quarter of a century later the iconic Opera House emerged. These original sketches show a vigour and clarity of intention that in spite of the challenges were in broad terms delivered.

What did Saarinen see in these drawings. For the architect these sketches are the equivalent of a writers plot for a film, play or story. Where the writer reduces the plot to a summary so the architect seeks to reduce the vision to drawn lines that represent the essence of the project. Like the cave paintings of our ancestors they illustrate what can't be written.

Utzon's elevational sketch illustrates a fleeting sense of the external volumes of the building evoking the idea of plinth and soaring volumes. Some architects focus less on the external volume but rather on the plan, seeking to capture the edges of the form and a sense of the space and movement within it, whilst others concentrate on the section exploring how the building meets the ground and reaches up to the sky. Then there are variations on the elevated perspective, looking down from above or oblique projection which is a more mechanical observation.

The challenge of our office is to ensure that our visual summaries don't sit in splendid isolation, rather they imply a rootedness to place. In that respect Utzon's isolated diagrams capture the idea of a pier extended into Sydney Harbour free of the constraints of urban setting, whereas our diagrams talk about embedding in their adjacent context. What is remarkable is that like a plot which becomes after many years a film or a book so the sketch takes many years to become a building. It is worth getting it right.

Utzon's sketch of the Sydney Opera House. The Red Book, 1958