A career in full sail - Vale Jack Zunz Tuesday, 25 December 2018

The principal structural designer on the construction of the Sydney Opera House's iconic roof sails, Jack Zunz, an outstanding civil engineer who nurtured generations of engineers, has died aged 94.

Known as Jack, Sir Gerhard Jacob Zunz FREng FIStructE FICE, was born in South Africa in 1923 and graduated in civil engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 1948. He moved to London in 1950 to join Arup and spent his entire career with the company.

Zunz returned to South Africa in 1954 to set up the local office of Ove Arup and continued to rise through the company's ranks. In 1961, he was appointed associate partner with the firm and in the same year he became the structural designer on the Sydney Opera House, working alongside Danish architect, Jørn Utzon.  

UK architect Norman Foster, who work with Zunz, paid tribute to the engineer saying he was the only constant presence on the Opera House project that was dogged with set-backs over its 14-year construction. He showed Foster hardwood models that interlocked to demonstrate the design of the structurally ambitious building's roof.

According to the Australian Society for History of Engineering and Technology, Zunz was a senior engineer who proposed a different solution for the construction of the Opera House roof, after Arup had mulled over the problem for some time without success. Eventually a final design concept was worked out between the architect and Arup and all the shells would be segments of a sphere of a 75-metre radius and all concrete segments would be cast in the same moulds.

Zunz went on to work on many landmark international projects including Britannic House for BP, The Standard Bank building in Johannesburg; the Emley Moor transmitting station, HSBC's headquarters in Hong Kong; and the first Stansted Airport Terminal in the UK. He became a senior partner in Arup in 1965, chairman of the Ove Arup Group from 1977 to 1984; and co-chairman of the firm globally from 1984 to 1989.

In recognition of his vast contribution to engineering, Zunz was honoured in many ways. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1983 and received the UK's Institution of Structural Engineers' Silver and Gold Medals. He was knighted in 1989 and received a number of honorary doctorates from universities in the US, UK and South Africa. He lectured widely on his projects and related topics and was the author and co-author of many papers.

Image: Construction of the Sydney Opera House in 1965. Credit: Max Dupain. Source: State Library of NSW.