‘Working at the frontiers of what was possible’, is how the late and revered engineer, Sir Jack Zunz, reflected upon the experience of leading the engineering design of Sydney Opera House. The building was a defining project of a career that spanned forty years, a career which saw Zunz travel the world, pushing the boundaries of his profession while helping to build one of the world’s leading firms of consulting engineers.
Characteristically humble, he attributed most of his professional success and achievements, for which he received a knighthood in 1989, to ‘luck’. Whilst luck might have played a part, his story – both professional and personal – reveals great determination, skill and dedication.
The Sydney Opera House is one in a long list of landmark engineering projects Sir Jack led or contributed to over the course of his career, with others including Stansted Airport’s terminal building, HSBC’s Hong Kong Headquarters, Britannic House for BP and Emley Moor transmission tower. The awards and accolades he received over his lifetime are numerous.
Zunz was a child of the interwar period, born on Christmas Day in 1923 in Germany, to a family he described as stable, loving and affectionate. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to South Africa, where he attended school and commenced studies towards an engineering degree at the University of Witwatersrand which were interrupted for three years by his joining the army to support the fight against the Nazis. He described an inability to stand by and do nothing with the world gripped by ‘such evil’, claiming his conscious would ‘not forgive him’.
After returning to university and completing his degree, he married Babs Maisel in December 1948 and found work in the steel design and fabrication industry in Johannesburg. Ambitious to progress in his profession, he wrote to a friend completing a PhD at Imperial College London, requesting a list of recommended engineering consultancies in the city. He then wrote to the first name on the list, a move which led him to the firm at which he would spend the remainder of his career, eventually serving as Co-Chairman between 1984 and 1989. That firm was Arup, now one of the largest and most admired engineering design firms in the world. Still in its infancy when he joined in 1950, Zunz played an important role in the firm’s development and geographical expansion.
Zunz described how he felt a strong connection with Sir Ove Arup upon their first meeting in London. Referring to Ove fondly as an ‘outsider’ with ‘strong artistic leanings’, he recounted an initial interview lasting well over an hour, in which he and Ove touched on virtually all subjects, with the notable exception of anything relating to engineering. Despite being told there was no job available at the end of their chat, an offer letter arrived the very next morning.
Zunz spent the next few years honing his skills, working amongst colleagues he held in high esteem, many of whom he soon counted as close friends. In the early 1950s, his mother’s deteriorating health called him back to South Africa. There, he teamed up with former colleague Michael Lewis to establish the firm’s first South African office in 1954.
It was here that the firm began to work on tall structures and telecommunications masts, and where Zunz began to make a name for himself. The Sentech Tower, commonly known as the Brixton Tower, was one of the office’s stand-out projects. This iconic structure, sitting on the Johannesburg skyline, required state-of-the-art engineering in its day, standing 237m high.
The defining project – the building that would not stand
Zunz returned to London in 1961. Two weeks later, the Sydney Opera House brief landed on his desk. He described an ‘irrevocable change’ in his life upon taking on the project. It would dominate his day-to-day for the best part of the next decade, bring considerable challenge and also some controversy.
The background to the brief made it a particularly complex one. Danish-born architect Jorn Utzon had won an international competition for the design of the building. The final selection had been made based on a few sketches by Utzon, without full consideration of the engineering involved. Utzon's design, resembling the billowing sails of a ship, required a highly complex arrangement of unique shell shapes. For years, various approaches to the structure were tested and abandoned, and at points, it seemed no formula or method existed to bring the building to life.
Zunz and his team worked tirelessly until eventually, a breakthrough came and a solution was found. It involved constructing the shells from a fanlike series of precast concrete arch ribs, each made of multiple subsections, an approach unprecedented for a roof, especially on such a large scale. To make construction feasible, every arch would be formed from the surface of a single sphere. The complexity was unprecedented, and the new techniques developed continue to be of value. The project was also noteworthy for the first use of computers in a serious way in structural design.
The team had worked under intense public and media scrutiny, as well as considerable political pressure. Concerns over cost and time meant the architects and engineers faced considerable criticism and hostility at times. To see the building finished in 1973 was therefore an enormous achievement, and likely relief for Zunz and his team.
Zunz said that life got a little ‘duller’ after Sydney, although he followed this up with an acknowledgment that dullness can be a ‘beautiful’ thing.
Following contributions to a series of further high-profile and impressive projects, Zunz eventually retired in 1989. His enormous contribution to the engineering community is acknowledged and highly valued worldwide, and his legacy lives on at Arup, the firm to which he dedicated his working life.
Sir Jack Zunz received an Honorary Doctorate of Science in Engineering Honoris Causa, from his alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand’s Faculty of Engineering on 9 December 2015. This was in recognition of his vast contribution to engineering and the built environment, as well as his philanthropic initiatives, implemented through the Ove Arup Foundation.
He is survived by his wife Babs, daughter Laura and son Leslie.