Sydney Opera House



Location: Inner City
Located on the shores of one of the world's most picturesque harbours, the Sydney Opera House is one of the world's iconic buildings of the 20th century and one of the few buildings to be erected in that century that is instantly recognisable in just about every country in the world. It's a building some people travel half way around the world to see, and marvel at its shape and setting. That it has one of the most inadequate, ill-designed opera theatres every built is irrelevant to all but those who use if for the function it was built for - what matters to the rest is that it represents Sydney, and indeed Australia, to many people of the world.

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Building of the Opera House
In 1947, English composer and conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Eugune Goossens, himself a decendant of explorer James Cook, pursuaded the government of the day that Sydney should have its own opera theatre and that Bennelong Point was the ideal location for such a building. On 13th September, 1955, the Premier of New South Wales, J.J. Cahill, announced an international competition which invited the world's leading architects to design an Opera House for Sydney. The prize for the winning entry was 5,000 pounds. 233 entries were received, and the winner, announced on 29th January 1957, was 38-year old Danish architect Jorn Utson. Second prize was won by an American group and an English company gained third place.


Demolition of the Bennelong Point tramshed to make way for the Sydney Opera House, 30th December 1958

Utzon hailed from the small village of Hellebaek on Denmark's northern sea coast. His fascination with a nearby castle as a boy gave birth to his interest in architecture. Later in life he travelled widely and was impressed by the plint formation of the ancient Mayan temples of Mexico which strongly influenced his inclusion of a giant podium in his prize-winning opera house design The main feature of Utson's design, however, was a series of shell-shaped roof vaults which suggested the sails of yachts in silhouette.


Jorn Utzon, on the construction site of the Sydney Opera House in 1964. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Selecting the design was one thing, turning its reality was another. What Utzon had submitted was only a set of sketches, preliminary plans and elevations and it was only after the design had been accepted that it became known that Utzon had not yet taken his idea beyond the preliminary concept stage. At first, no one questioned the feasibility of the project, but so complex became the task of creating the huge roof vaults, many in architectural cicles began to believe the design to be unbuildable. 3,000 hours of computer time were put into the shells and roof calculations alone which took eight years to finish, five years more than the Government had allowed for the completion of the whole project. Technological barriers had to be broken, adding greatly to the cost and time required to finish the project. Construction was planned in three sections - the building of the podium; the roof shells; finishing, equipment and furnishing. Preliminary construction work began in May 1958.

A series of public lotteries were launched to raise the money to build the Opera House. Tickets were sold at a cost of 3 pounds each, each lottery of 100,000 tickets having a major prize of 200,000 pounds. The first lottery was drawn on 10th January 1958. In a tragic turn of events, the son of one of the winners, 8-year old Graeme Thorne, was kidnapped, held to ransom then murdered after the ransom was paid.



A change of Government in May 1965 saw Robert (later Sir) Askin take over as the new Premier of NSW and David Hughes as minister for Public Works, under whose portfolio the building of the Opera House came. Alarmed that the estimated cost of the poject had risen by 600% to 25 million pounds, Hughes asked Utzon for a likely completion date and final cost. Utzon would not give him an answer, saying that much of the work being carried out was experimental. Hughes said that the time for experimentation was over and insisted that the plans be modified so that conventional building methods could be used. Utzon's refusal led to an impasse which resulted in him leaving the project in February 1966. He then left Sydney, never to return again to see the structure in its completed glory.

Hughes appointed a new team of architects to complete the project. They prepared a comprehensive review of the project, detailing work done, work yet to be completed and a plan for its completion. The plan included a drastic revision of Utzon's plan for the interior, a fundenmental change being the scrapping of a combined Concert Hall and Opera Theatre. The revised plan, presented to and approved by the Government in 1968, revised the final cost at $85 million (41.5 million pounds in Imperial currency which was changede to Decimal in 1966) and set the end of 1972 as the targetted completion date. The last segment of the last rib of the roof was positioned in January 1967, ending the completion of the second section.



The peak of construction was reached in mid-1972 with more than 1,200 workers engaged on the site with at least that number again involved in the production off the site. Materials were brought in from around the world - exterior tiles from Sweden; interior tiles from Austria and Japan; lighting and curtains from Germany; carpets from New South Wales and Victoria; heat pumps from USA; technical advice from Philips in Holland and General Electric in Britain. After completion, the concert hall was tested for accoustics with a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on 17th December 1972. The installation of the Concert Hall's great organ, the largest of its kind in the world with 11,000 pipes, was not completed until 1976.

Officially opened on 20th October 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II, the Sydney Opera House was completed after 16 years of planning and construction, at a final cost of $102 million, some $95 million above the original estimate. Towering 66 metres above its 20 metre high podium, the peak of the highest shell is 9 metres higher than the roadway of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and is the height of a 22 storey office building.

1959-73 - Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney.


Architect Harry Gesner's "Wave House", once owned by rock singer, Rod Stewart

Early sketches by Utzon which demonstrate the form of the roof "sails" suggest Utzon's inspiration may have been the segments of an orange. Utzon's sails also bear a striking resemblance to the roof structure of a number of homes designed by American architect Harry Gesner. His "Eagle's Watch" and "Cooper Wave House", built on Nicholas Canyon Beach in Malibu, California, in 1956, were featured in European architecture magazines at the time Utzon was working on his Opera House design. Whilst he has never confirmed that Gesner's designs inspired his Opera House sails, Utzon never denied it either.


Sydney's two most recognisable icons - the Sydney Opera House framed by the base of the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

When asked for his opinion, Gesner once recalled, "[Uzton] called me, and he had seen a publication in Life Magazine of the [Wave] house and complimented me on it and I thought, 'that is interesting ...' one architect never calls another architect and compliments them for anything. Their egos are too giant." Commissioned by Gerry Cooper, the beach house was designed to emulate the beauty of a peeling wave. The genesis of the design, according to Gesner, came to him while sitting on his balsa wood surfboard in the cove fronting the site. For a few days, he observed the environmental conditions surrounding the land and was particularly taken with the convergence of elements. With the wind at his back, legs half-submerged in the sea, and a grease pencil in hand, he sketched the designs right onto his surfboard.

Of the design of the Opera House, it has been noted that none of the public spaces are intimate: the southern foyers of the Opera Theatre and Concert Hall soar to the tips of the shells like the ceilings of cathedrals. There are six main performance spaces in the building but the only indication of what's going on inside them are posters outside the building and along the concourse. There are shows by international artists and one off performances by Australian artists, but at the heart of the programme are shows by five local companies that use the Sydney Opera House as a home base and shows initiated by the Sydney Opera House itself.

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