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Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House from the harbour, image by McDaniel Woolf Architects

The Sydney Opera House is Australia's most recognisable building and is an icon of Australia's creative and technical achievement. Since its completion in 1973 it has attracted worldwide acclaim for its design and construction, enhanced by its location on Bennelong Point within a superb harbour setting.

The design of the building, with its soaring white roof shell shaped sails atop a massive red granite platform, has been internationally acclaimed as an architectural icon of the 20th century. As a dominant sculptural building that can be seen and experienced from all sides, it is the focal point of Sydney Harbour and a reflection of its character.

It is placed right at the end of Bennelong Point, juxtaposed to the harbour and completely to scale in relation to the Harbour Bridge, the sandstone cliff face, Macquarie Street and Circular Quay. Viewed from a ferry, from the air, or by approach on foot, the vision is dramatic and unforgettable.

Sydney Opera House construction, 1964, image by Max Dupain, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales

It took 16 years to build. Constructed between 1957 and 1973, is a masterpiece of modern architectural design, engineering and construction technology in Australia. It exhibits the creative genius of its designer, the Pritzker Prize winner Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the successful engineering by the Danish firm Ove Arup and Partners, and the Australian building contractors M R Hornibrook. The completion of the project was overseen by the architects Hall, Todd and Littlemore, and the story of its construction was one of great controversy.

Complex engineering problems and escalating costs made it a source of great public debate that only subsided when the beauty and achievement of the completed building placed it on the world stage.

The technical challenge of how to construct the roof sails took four years to solve. The roof sails were based on the geometry of the sphere and Utzon used this to demonstrate the creative potential and the assembly of prefabricated, repeated components. It was seen as a structure at the leading edge of endeavour.

Today the Sydney Opera House is a national cultural centre that has gained widespread recognition and respect as a performing arts venue, and includes a concert hall, opera and drama theatres, a playhouse and a studio. It is a fitting showcase for many of the world's leading performers. As Utzon envisioned, the Sydney Opera House reflects its pivotal place in Australia's creative history ‘an individual face for Australia in the world of art' (Frampton and Cava, 1995 in Statement of Values for Sydney Opera House National Heritage Listing)

The vision

Utzon showing model of Sydney Opera House, Courtesy of Sydney Opera House.

The architect Jørn Utzon reached an unique understanding of the site at Bennelong Point – its topography and relationship to the harbour and surrounding land marks – by studying naval charts, photographs, a site plan, and watching a short film on Sydney. It was his intention to create a sculptural form that would relate as naturally to the harbour as the sails of its yachts.

Organic or natural forms were important principles in his design, ‘evident in the leaf form pattern devised for the ceramic roof tiles. (Australian Heritage Database, Sydney Opera House). Utzon used ‘nature's colours on the exterior. That was the general idea – concrete, granite and ceramics. White shell as contrast' (Jørn Utzon, June 2000 in Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

The concrete platform is faced in red-granite, and this material is also used for the paving on the waterfront promenade which surrounds the building. Its uniformity was intended to give a rock-like character that was desired for the base, ‘as a contrast and anchor to the soaring roofs'. The granite underwent a process of needle hammering ‘giving a slightly matt surface which should also have the advantage of weathering evenly'. (Jørn Utzon, Descriptive Narrative, 1965, State Records Office of NSW in Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

‘A large sculptural building'

From the very outset Utzon ‘was convinced that a new building in such a position has to be seen from all sides, and has to be a large sculptural building'.

He was inspired by the sandstone heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour and believed that the approach to the new building should be similar, where one could look upwards and, only at the last minute, get a magnificent view of the harbour or sea. This feeling of moving upwards, with the white roof-shells, determined the shaping of the large platform or plateau which would house all the performance facilities.

In turn, the platform was influenced by Utzon's experience of Mayan architecture in Mexico, where there are wide stairs leading to the platform which gives one a limitless view. For this reason he made the large staircase at the Sydney Opera House 100 metres wide and created the plateau on the top, to give people the feeling of liberation from daily life and being in another world. (Jorn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House)

The roof shells

Sydney Opera House, photograph by Dragi Markovic, Australian Heritage Database 010444-5290

As work progressed, no definite geometry for the roof shells had been established although Utzon was working on solving the geometry of the tiling, relying upon full scale mock-ups to solve the problem. Utzon noted that, as was often the case with the construction, the solution of one problem led to another. As work progressed the shells were developed on the geometry of a sphere – it was this spherical surface which led to similar curvature throughout.

Utzon thought this ‘an elegant solution to a construction' which would otherwise have led to a lot of scaffolding and shuttering. The roof shells had to span large areas to accommodate the main hall and a smaller hall. The solution devised by Utzon and Ove Arup and Partners, the engineers, was to produce arched segments of varying curvature. The concrete shells were produced by cutting a three-sided segment out of a sphere. The roof shells and their vaulted concrete ribs were pre-cast and held together by pre-stressing steel tendons, an innovation at the time. (Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

The white ceramic tiled surface

Detail of Roof Tiles, 1994, image by Anthony Browell Archive, courtesy of the Sydney Opera House archive.

Utson commented that this resolution of the spherical roof-shells ‘gave way for a very logical and orderly geometry for the tile lids that were to cover the entire surface of the shells'. One of the judges, Eero Saarinen, told Utzon after the result of the competition was made public: ‘keep it white', because the Harbour (surrounding buildings) is dark, with all its dark, red or brown-brick structures.

The tiles were a major item in the building. 'It is important that such a large, white sculpture in the harbour setting catches and mirrors the sky with all its varied lights dawn to dusk, day to day, throughout the year.' The citation from the American architect Louis Kahn describes the importance of this surface and of the decision to make the surface white:

The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.
(Louis Kahn in Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

Utzon spent twelve months developing the tiles with one of the best ceramic factories in the world, Höganäs in Sweden. Inspired by a Chinese tradition in ceramic firing, for a glass-like finish, Utzon worked with Höganäs to develop the tiles which were specifically suited to the building.

 

A partially-tiled vault, 1964, photo Max Dupain, courtesy of State Library of NSW

Höganäs developed a technique in which the raw tile is painted with a clay slip of the same material and then fired. It is overlaid with a glossy, transparent glaze before it is fired the final time. This gave a beautiful lustre or sheen to the surface that would retain its visual qualities even when the tile became dirty. Over one million tiles were cast into precast concrete lids on the ground, and then bonded onto the ribbed superstructure of the shells (Frampton and Cava 1995, 280 in Australian Heritage Database, Sydney Opera House).

The ceramic tiles were part of Utzon's plan to preserve the character of the whole building through the ages;

the top surface of the shells is covered with a weatherproof membrane, a series of precast panels matching the rib segments and covered with white glazed tiles. All the materials are non-corrosive, weather resistant, durable, and will age and acquire a patina without changing their character.
(Jørn Utzon, ‘Descriptive Narrative, Sydney Opera House', January 1965 in Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

The glass wall facing the harbour

The glass wall that was built after Utzon left the project was in line with the glass wall that he envisioned with ‘its feeling of hanging from the shell', although the original solution was not splayed out as it was ultimately . These glass walls provide spectacular views from the main foyers out across Sydney Harbour.

Sydney Opera House glassed in windows with harbour views, anonymous

The solution used was based on Utzon's sketches – drawings of mullions made of twin pipes and a distance between them, later constructed of a light steel framework supported off the concrete ribs. He drew inspiration from nature for organic form with the ‘glass wall ribs like bird's wings'.

From the point of view of science, the Opera House embodies within its structure the integration of sophisticated geometry, technology and art. It epitomises the extraordinary creative potential of the assembly of prefabricated, repeated components.
(Norberg-Schulz 1996, 101 in Australian Heritage Database, Sydney Opera House ).

 

Inside, a sensory experience – colour and sound

Entering inside the performance halls was to be a culmination of space and colour;

the meeting place between the performers and the audience… a succession of visual and audio stimuli, which increase in intensity as you approach the building, as you enter, and finally sit down in the halls, culminating with the performance.
(Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

Whilst the design of the interiors was completed by architects Todd, Hall and Littlemore after the departure of Utzon in 1966, it was Utzon's intention to create a rich expression of colour for the interior in order to put people in a festive mood, and take them out of their daily lives.

The Sydney Opera House Utzon Room, courtesy of the Sydney Opera House

In discussions in 1999, Utzon referred to Chinese and Buddhist art, temples and caves, where the interior colours are very different from the outside, and colours range from cream to yellow and red to orange. This experience was the feeling of what he wanted it to be like inside the theatre, noting the tradition in Europe of red velvet seats (Jørn Utzon, Jan Utzon and Richard Johnson, ‘Private Records of Discussion' Mallorca, April, October & November 1999 in Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles, May 2002 )

Inside, the two main halls … plywood panels were designed as part of the internal lining to conceal the services. Linings in this [concert] hall are birch plywood, in radiating ribs on a suspended hollow raft ceiling, running down the walls to laminated brush box linings which match the floor. The Opera Theatre by contrast has black-stained ceilings and walls…The general experience of the interiors of the Sydney Opera House is one of majestic spaces defined by strong structural forms.
(Australian Heritage Database, Sydney Opera House)

Opera Theatre proscenium curtain designed by John Coburn, Curtain of the Sun, 1973

Both of the main halls, the concert and opera, have proscenium curtains designed by John Coburn. In addition, two large murals were commissioned to enhance the aesthetic values of the interior – John Olsen's ‘Five Bells' (based on Kenneth Slessor's poem), and Michael Nelson Jagamara's ‘Possum Dreaming'.

The design of the tapestry curtains by John Coburn reflected the vision and ‘its vibrant energy – characterising Australia's natural and cultural life'. When Sydney Opera House opened in 1973, Coburn's Curtain of the Sun was hung in the proscenium of the Opera Theatre. ( The Curtain of the Moon hung similarly in the Drama Theatre.)

The curtains were commissioned in 1970 and woven in Aubusson, France. They were woven from Australian wool, and John Coburn spent three years there overseeing the project.

Opera Hall exterior wall from gallery walk, anonymous

The acoustical shape designed by Utzon with Danish and then German acoustic engineers was absolutely clear. The design principle ‘was that, rather than changing the acoustics by absorbing certain unwanted sounds or frequencies, it is better to adjust the physical shape of the hall in such a way that you achieve the perfect acoustical properties'. (Jørn Utzon, ‘Sydney Opera House', June 2000)

The German firm Cremer and Gabler had designed more than 30 concert halls around the world, including a famous hall in Berlin for Berlin's Philharmonic Orchestra. The design was tested in models made on a scale of 1 to 10 in their laboratory. The adjustment to the physical shape of the hall:

has proved superior to the conventional small size panels since the latter do not reflect the deepest notes from orchestral instruments ...
When I asked the acoustical experts if we should change the shape of the acoustical ceiling further they say, “No, no don't do that because it is perfect, actually it is almost too perfect”.
(Jørn Utzon, ‘Descriptive Narrative, Sydney Opera House' January 1965 in Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

The Process

In 1952 the Premier of New South Wales, Joe Cahill, announced the government's intention to build an opera house with the intention of putting the city on the world map. An international competition was announced in January 1956, attracting more than 220 final entries received from 32 countries.

Site Plan, Jørn Utzon : Plans of SOH, Oct 1958-1973 State Records NSW

Utzon's design won the competition in 1957 and was hailed by the architectural critic Sigfried Giedion as opening a new chapter in contemporary architecture. In September 1957, the New South Wales Government announced the establishment of an Opera House Lottery to pay for the construction costs of the building, and over the next 16 years it yielded just over $100 million for construction.

Utzon's designs for the Opera House were initially presented as concept diagrams, a normal process for competitions. On the insistence of Premier Cahill due to the timing of the March 1959 election, building commenced before the design for the shells and their supports had been resolved. Consequently, design and construction were undertaken in parallel so:

construction began at the building site a long time before we had completed the drawings, and construction drawings were being produced just ahead of construction as the building grew.
(Utzon, June 2000 in Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

In 1965, there were difficulties between Utzon and a new NSW Government, led by Premier Askin. The venture experienced cost blow-outs and there were occasions when the NSW Government was tempted to call a halt. In 1966, with arguments about cost and the interior design, and the Government withholding progress payments, the situation reached crisis point.

Rallies in support of the Opera House, 1966, anonymous, courtesy of Sydney Opera House History

Davis Hughes, the minister in charge, simply refused to pay Utzon. As a result Utzon resigned in February 1966, with the podium in place and the roof structure nearly complete. It proved disastrous for Utzon personally and for his vision as well. In spite of petitions, rallies and support from leading Australian architects, Utzon was not recalled to finish the project. Instead the government appointed new architects who essentially redesigned the rest of the project and blew the budget out further from $18.4 million to $102 million. (Jørn Utzon and the Construction of Sydney Opera House)

In the changes that followed the exterior remained intact, but the newly appointed team of architects made significant changes to his designs for the interior. These changes included reversing the main performance spaces so that the opera theatre became the concert hall and the opera was relegated to a theatre space that was once described by Dame Joan Sutherland as a 'pocket handkerchief of a stage'. (Jørn Utzon and the Construction of Sydney Opera House)

In 1999, after more than 30 years, there was reconciliation with the Sydney Opera House which resulted in Utzon submitting his Design Principles booklet to the Sydney Opera House Trust in 2002. He noted that ‘luckily Ove Arup stayed on the job; otherwise it would never have been completed. He acknowledged that ‘the Opera House today is of course not my or our building, it is as much a building made by Hall, Todd & Littlemore'.

Utzon stated that he wanted the Australian architect Richard Johnson to work on any modifications and consequently, they collaborated on The Colonnade, the Accessibility and Western Foyers Project, and the concept designs for the Opera Theatre Renewal Project.

After more than 30 years, the Sydney Opera House had its first interior designed by Utzon in collaboration with his son Jan Utzon and Richard Johnson. The Utzon Room, a transformed reception hall that brings to life Jørn Utzon's original vision for his masterpiece, was officially opened on September 2004.

In 2003, Opera House executives indicated that the long-term plan for the redesigned opera hall was to restore the Curtain of the Sun to the proscenium arch. (Tony Stephens, Curtain call, SMH October 25, 2003)

The site – Bennelong's Point

Sydney Opera House site works, 1964, photo Max Dupain, courtesy of State Library of NSW

The beginning of European settlement in Australia in 1788 occurred within a short distance of the site. In 1790, under the directions of Governor Arthur Phillip, a hut was built for Bennelong, a prominent Aboriginal figure in and around the European settlement.

Bennelong solicited the government to ‘build him a hut at the extremity of the eastern point of the cove'. This, the governor, who was very desirous of preserving the friendly intercourse which seemed to have taken place, readily promised, and gave the necessary directions for its being built. 'The hut, built of brick, twelve feet square, and roofed with tiles, was completed in November 1790.' (David Collins, An Account of The English Colony in New South Wales , 1798, vol 1, p. 113)

The Architect – Jørn Utzon

The Danish architect Jørn Utzon (1918–2008) grew up in the town of Aalborg, where his father was a naval architect and engineer and director of the local shipyard. A keen sailor, Utzon originally intended to follow his father as a naval engineer, but opted to study architecture. ( Utzon Centre)

I of course had the marvellous thing that we had the shipyard adjacent ... you see big ships being built with the ribs etc. In the shipyard small men made one big steam ship every six months and you would see the whole process.
(Jørn Utzon, Jan Utzon and Richard Johnson, ‘Private Records of Discussion' Mallorca, April, October & November 1999 in SOH Design Principles, 2002)

Utzon believed that the principles of boat building and naval architecture would help solve the engineering and architectural processes required when construction started.

In 1949 Utzon received a grant that enabled him and his wife Lis to travel extensively in USA and Mexico, coming into contact with some of the most influential architects of his day, like Frank Lloyd Wright's school at Taliesin, Mies van der Rohe, Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Neutra and others. Utzon also went to Paris and met with Le Corbusier and the sculptor Henri Laurens, whose influence taught him much about form. (Sydney Opera House, Architect Jørn Utzon)

The Sydney Opera House has received many awards for its design and construction. These include the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Award to Jørn Utzon in 1973 upon its completion, the United Kingdom Institution of Structural Engineers Special Award in 1973, and a Commemorative Sulman Award in 1992.

In 2003, Utzon received the prestigious international Pritzker Prize for his contributions to architecture and in recognition of his masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House. The Pritzer Prize Juror, architect Frank Gehry, observed that

Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious criticism to a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that such an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence.
(Pritzker Architecture Prize, Jørn Utzon, 2003 Laureate)

The Sydney Opera House was included in the National Heritage List in 2005, and inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007.

Performing arts site

Paul Robeson singing to workers, 1973, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Prior to its opening in 1973, the renowned black American actor and singer Paul Robeson climbed onto the scaffolding of the Sydney Opera House during construction, and sang to the workers. At its opening it was acclaimed by Martin Bernheimer, the music critic of the Los Angeles Times, as ‘the most beautiful home constructed for the lyric and related muses in modern times'. (Kerr 2003, in Australian Heritage Database, Sydney Opera House)

Since its opening, the Opera House has attracted great artists from across the world, and hosted performances by many nationally and internationally acclaimed performers.

These include Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, June Bronhill, Joan Carden, Luciano Pavarotti, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Bob Hope, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Mikhail Barishnikov, Twyla Tharp, Ella Fitzgerald, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Secombe and Crowded House. Since 1973 over 45 million people have attended over 100,000 performances. (SOH website).

Today, the Sydney Opera House is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world, each year staging up to 2500 performances and events, drawing around 1.5 million patrons, and attracting an estimated four million visitors.

Sydney Opera House Festival Poster 1973, featuring the John Coburn designed tapestry curtains. Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum

Sydney Opera House facts and figures

The Sydney Opera house:
  • was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon
  • opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973
  • presented, as its first performance, the Australian Opera's production of War and Peace
  • cost $AU 102,000,000 to build
  • conducts 3000 events each year
  • provides guided tours to 200,000 people each year
  • has an annual audience of 2 million for its performances
  • includes 1000 rooms
  • is 185 metres long and 120 metres wide
  • has 2194 pre-cast concrete sections as its roof
  • has roof sections weighing up to 15 tons
  • has roof sections held together by 350 km of tensioned steel cable
  • has over one million tiles on the roof
  • uses 6225 square metres of glass and 645 kilometres of electric cable.

Useful links

Listen, Look and Play

Projected image on Sydney Opera House, Vivid Festival, 2012, image by Kathryn Wells.

The architect: Jørn Utzon

The Design and construction

Sydney Opera House photos and information

Awards and heritage listing

Last updated: 24 June 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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