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Sydney Opera House

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Sydney Opera House
General information
Type Arts complex
Architectural style Expressionist
Location Sydney, Australia
Completed 1973
Opening October 20, 1973
Technical details
Structural system Concrete frame & precast concrete ribbed roof
Design and construction
Architect Jørn Utzon
Structural engineer Ove Arup & Partners
Main contractor Civil & Civic (level 1), M.R. Hornibrook (level 2 and 3 and interior)

The Sydney Opera House is located in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 28 June, 2007. Designed by Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect, and Ove Arup & Partners, the Sydney Opera House is one of the world's most distinctive 20th century buildings, and one of the most famous performing arts venues in the world. It is situated on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, close to the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. The building and its surroundings are one of the best known icons of Australia.

As well as many touring theatre, ballet, and musical productions, the Opera House is the home of Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony. It is administered by the Opera House Trust, under the New South Wales Ministry of the Arts.


Sydney Opera House at Night

The Sydney Opera House is an expressionist modern design, with a series of large precast concrete ' shells', each taken from a hemisphere of the same radius, forming the roofs of the structure. The Opera House covers 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) of land. It is 183 metres (605 feet) long and about 120 metres (388 feet) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 580 concrete piers sunk up to 25 metres below sea level. Its power supply is equivalent for a town of 25,000 people. The power is distributed by 645 kilometres of electrical cable.

The roofs of the House are covered with 1.056 million glossy white and matte cream Swedish-made tiles, though from a distance the tiles look only white. Despite their self-cleaning nature, they are still subject to periodic maintenance and replacement.

The Concert Hall and Opera Theatre are each contained in the two largest groups of shells, and the other theatres are located on the sides of the shell groupings. The form of the shells is chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, rising from the low entrance spaces, over the seating areas and up to the high stage towers. A much smaller group of shells set to one side of the Monumental steps and houses the Bennelong Restaurant. Although the roof structures of the Sydney Opera House are commonly referred to as shells (as they are in this article), they are in fact not shells in a strictly structural sense, but are instead precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs. The building's interior is composed of pink granite quarried in Tarana and wood and brush box plywood supplied from northern New South Wales.

Performance venues and facilities

The Concert Theatre and Grand Organ

The Sydney Opera House contains five theatres, five rehearsal studios, two main halls, four restaurants, six bars and numerous souvenir shops.

The five theatres making up the performance facilities:

  • The Concert Hall, with 2,679 seats, contains the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ, the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world with over 10,000 pipes.
  • The Opera Theatre, with 1,547 seats, is the main performance space for Opera Australia; it is also used by the Australian Ballet Company.
  • The Drama Theatre, with 544 seats
  • The Playhouse, with 398 seats
  • The Studio Theatre, with 318 seats

Besides theatrical productions, venues at the Sydney Opera House are also used for functions such as weddings, parties and conferences.

Construction history


Planning for the Sydney Opera House began in the late 1940s when Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, lobbied for a suitable venue for large theatrical productions. At the time, the normal venue for such productions was the Sydney Town Hall, but this venue was not considered large enough. By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house. It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site for the Opera House. Cahill had wanted it to be on or near the Wynyard Railway Station, located in the north-western Sydney CBD.

The competition was launched by Cahill on 13 September 1955 and received a total of 233 entries from 32 countries. The criteria specified a large hall seating 3000 and a small hall for 1200 people, each to be designed for different uses including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and other presentations. The basic design announced in 1957 was the one submitted by Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. Utzon arrived in Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project.

Design and construction of the Opera House

Construction progress in 1968

The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot, occupying the site at the time of these plans, was demolished in 1958, and formal construction of the Opera House began in March, 1959. The project was built in three stages. Stage I (1959–1963) consisted of building the upper podium. Stage II (1963–1967) saw the construction of the outer shells. Stage III consisted of the interior design and construction (1967–73).

Stage I: Podium

Stage I commenced on December 5, 1958, by the construction firm Civil & Civic. The government had pushed for work to begin early fearing that funding, or public opinion, might turn against them. However major structural issues still plagued the design (most notably the sails, which were still parabolic at the time). By January 23, 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind, mainly because of unexpected difficulties (inclement weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper construction drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents). Work on the podium was finally completed on August 31, 1962. The forced early start led to significant later problems, not least of which was the fact that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the roof structure, and had to be re-built.

Stage II: Roof

Sydney Opera House shell ribs

The shells of the competition entry were originally of undefined geometry, but early in the design process the "shells" were perceived as a series of parabolas supported by precast concrete ribs. However, engineers Ove Arup and partners were unable to find an acceptable solution to constructing them. They had to find a way in which to economically construct the shells from precast concrete, because the formwork for using in-situ concrete would have been prohibitively expensive. Without repetition in the roof forms the construction of precast concrete would also be too expensive.

From 1957 to 1963 the design team went through at least twelve iterations of the form of the shells (including schemes with parabolas, circular ribs and ellipsoids) before a workable solution was completed. The design work on the shells involved one of the earliest uses of computers in structural analysis in order to understand the complex forces the shells would be subject to. In mid-1961 the design team found a solution to the problem: the shells all being created as sections from a sphere.

With whom exactly this solution originated has been the subject of some controversy. It was originally credited to Utzon. Ove Arup's letter to Ashworth, a member of the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee, states: "Utzon came up with an idea of making all the shells of uniform curvature throughout in both directions." Peter Jones, the author of Ove Arup's biography, states that "the architect and his supporters alike claimed to recall the precise eureka moment ...; the engineers and some of their associates, with equal conviction, recall discussion in both central London and at Ove's house". He goes on to claim that "the existing evidence shows that Arup's canvassed several possibilities for the geometry of the shells, from parabolas to ellipsoids and spheres." Yuzo Mikami, a member of the design team, presents an opposite view in his book on the project, Utzon's Sphere. It is unlikely that the truth will ever be categorically known, but there is a clear consensus that the design team worked very well indeed for the first part of the project and both Utzon, Arup, and Ronald Jenkins (partner of Ove Arup and Partners responsible for the Opera House project) played a very significant part in the design development. As Peter Murray states in The Saga of the Sydney Opera House:

...the two men - and their teams - enjoyed a collaboration that was remarkable in its fruitfulness and, despite many traumas, was seen by most of those involved in the project as a high point of architect/engineer collaboration.

The shells were constructed by Hornibrook Group Pty Ltd, who were also responsible for construction in Stage III. Hornibrook manufactured the 2400 precast ribs and 4000 roof panels in an on-site factory, and also developed the construction processes. The achievement of this solution avoided the need for expensive formwork construction by allowing the use of precast units (it also allowed the roof tiles to be prefabricated in sheets on the ground, instead of being stuck on individually at height). Ove Arup and Partners' site engineer supervised the construction of the shells which used an innovative adjustable steel trussed 'erection arch' to support the different roofs before completion. On April 6, 1962 it was estimated that the Opera House would be completed between August 1964 and March 1965. By the end of 1965, the estimated finish for stage II was July 1967.

Stage III: Interiors

Stage III, the interiors, started with Utzon moving his entire office to Sydney in February 1963. However, there was a change of government in 1965, and the new Robert Askin government declared the project under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. This ultimately led to Utzon's resignation (see below).

The cost of the project so far, even in October of that year, was still only $22.9 million, less than a quarter of the final cost. However the projected costs for the design were at this stage much more significant.

In 1966, following Utzon's resignation, the acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer, confirmed to SOHEC that Utzon's original acoustic design only allowed for 2000 seats in the main hall, and further stated that increasing the number of seats to 3000 as specified in the brief would be disastrous for the acoustics. According to Peter Jones, the stage designer, Martin Carr, criticised the "shape, height and width of the stage, the physical facilities for artists, the location of the dressing rooms, the widths of doors and lifts, and the location of lighting switchboards".

The second stage of construction was still in process when Utzon resigned. His position was principally taken over by Peter Hall, who became largely responsible for the interior design. Other persons appointed that same year to replace Utzon were E.H. Farmer as government architect, D.S. Littlemore and Lionel Todd.

The four significant changes to the design after Utzon left were:

  1. The cladding to the podium and the paving (the podium was originally not to be clad down to the water, but to be left open).
  2. The construction of the glass walls (Utzon was planning to use a system of prefabricated plywood mullions, but a different system was designed to deal with the glass).
  3. Use of the halls (The major hall which was originally to be a multipurpose opera/concert hall, became solely a concert hall, called the Concert Hall. The minor hall, originally for stage productions only, had the added function of opera and ballet to deal with and is called the Opera Theatre. As a result, the "Opera Theatre" is inadequate to stage large scale opera and ballet. A theatre, a cinema and a library were also added, (later changed to two live drama theatres and a studio). These changes were primarily because of inadequacies in the original competition brief, which did not make it adequately clear how the Opera House was to be used. The layout of the interiors was changed and the stage machinery, already designed and fitted inside the major hall, was pulled out and largely thrown away).
  4. The interior designs: Utzon's plywood corridor designs, and his acoustic and seating designs for the interior of both major halls, were scrapped completely. His design for the Concert Hall was rejected as it only seated 2000, which was considered insufficient. Utzon employed the acoustic consultant Lothar Cremer, and his designs for the major halls were later modelled and found to be very good. The subsequent Todd, Hall and Littlemore versions of both major halls have some problems with acoustics, particularly for the performing musicians. The orchestra pit in the Opera Theatre is cramped and dangerous to musicians' hearing. The Concert Hall has a very high roof leading to lack of early reflections onstage - perspex rings (the "acoustic clouds") hanging over the stage were added shortly before opening in an (unsuccessful) attempt to address this problem.

The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, having cost $102 million. H.R. ‘Sam’ Hoare, the Hornibrook director in charge of the project, provided the following approximations in 1973: Stage I: podium Civil & Civic P/L approximately $5.5m. Stage II: roof shells M.R. Hornibrook (NSW) P/L approximately $12.5m. Stage III: completion The Hornibrook Group $56.5m. Separate contracts: stage equipment, stage lighting and organ $9.0m. Fees and other costs $16.5m.

The original cost estimate in 1957 was £3,500,000 ($7 million). The original completion date set by the government was January 26, 1963.

Utzon and his resignation

Before the Sydney Opera House competition, Utzon had won seven of the eighteen competitions he had entered, but had never seen any of his designs built. Utzon's submitted concept for the Sydney Opera House was almost universally admired and considered groundbreaking. The Assessors Report of January 1957, stated:

The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.

For the first stage of the project Utzon worked highly successfully with the rest of the design team and the client, but as the project progressed, it became clear (with the revised hall usage insisted by the clients) that the competition requirements had been inadequate with regards to acoustics, specifications of performance spaces and other areas, and that the client had not appreciated the costs or work involved in design and construction. Tensions between the client and the design team grew further when an early start to construction was demanded, despite an incomplete design.

The relationship of client, architect, engineers and contractors became an increasing point of tension, between Utzon and the clients, and also Utzon and Arup. Utzon believed the clients should receive information on all aspects of the design and construction through his practice, while the clients wanted a system (notably drawn in sketch form by Davis Hughes) where architect, contractors, and engineers each reported to the client directly. This difference had great implications for procurement methods and cost control, with Utzon wishing to negotiate contracts with chosen suppliers (such as Ralph Symonds for the plywood interiors), and the Australian government insisting contracts were put out to tender.

However, the reasons for Arup's need to be able to contact the clients directly were equally clear. Peter Murray explains that:

when he moved to Australia, he closed his office down for three months and went travelling. Arups were unable to contact him and were forced to make a number of design choices without Utzon's input. This was to have a significant effect on Utzon's relationship with his engineers.

Utzon was highly reluctant to respond to questions or criticism from the client's "Sydney Opera House Executive Committee" (SOHEC).. However Utzon was greatly supported throughout by Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth, a member of the committee and one of the original competition judges. However the relationship was not helped by Utzon, who was unwilling to compromise on some aspects of his designs the clients wanted to change. As he said to Jack Zunz, the senior member of the structural design team, in 1961: "I don't care what it costs. I don't care how long it takes. I don't care what scandal it causes. That is what I want."

Utzon consistently claimed to have solved all problems "in his head" but he was reluctant to produce either drawings or documentation in order to demonstrate, cost or later construct his design vision. Peter Murray states:

Utzon was continually investigating new solutions but, with a reluctance to commit himself, he would worry away at a problem for months.

During the concept and early design stages this was no problem, but later in the process it lead to considerable tensions. Utzon's ability was never in doubt, and indeed Ove Arup stated that Utzon was "probably the best of any I have come across in my long experience of working with architects", and: "The Opera House could become the world's foremost contemporary masterpiece if Utzon is given his head."

Throughout the following years the relationship only got worse, with Utzon refusing access to drawings and documents by the Minister of Public Works' representative and in 1964 dropping all first names from project correspondence, referring to people only as "Dear Sir". At the same time, there were also arguments over work Utzon had carried out and not received payment for. Arups were increasingly cast in the role of peace keepers, and had to reconcile the two sides. Jack Zunz, a member of the Arup design team, stated following a meeting with Utzon in London in 1964:

He put up very powerful arguments to support his case and insists ... we support him loyally as he has supported us in Stages I and II. We should do this. .... provided it does not conflict with our basic responsibilities to the client.

In May 1965, Davis Hughes became Minister for Public Works, In October 1965, Utzon gave Hughes a schedule setting out the completion dates of parts of his work for stage III. Hughes withheld permission for the construction of plywood prototypes for the interiors.

Utzon was at this time working closely with Ralph Symonds, a manufacturer of plywood, based in Sydney and highly regarded by many, despite Arup's warnings in March 1964 that Ralph Symonds' "knowledge of the design stresses of plywood, was extremely sketchy" and that the technical advice was "elementary to say the least and completely useless for our purposes". Ralph Symonds went broke within the year. However, the relationship between Utzon and the client never recovered, and the government minutes record that following several threats of resignation Utzon stated to Davis Hughes: "If you don't do it, I resign". Hughes replied; "I accept your resignation. Thank you very much. Goodbye."

Utzon left the project on February 28, 1966. He said that Hughes' refusal to pay Utzon any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation, and later famously described the situation as "Malice in Blunderland". In March 1966, Hughes offered him a reduced role as 'design architect', under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House's construction but Utzon rejected this.

Following the resignation, there was great controversy about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The Sydney Morning Herald initially reported:

No architect in the world has enjoyed greater freedom than Mr Utzon. Few clients have been more patient or more generous than the people and the Government of NSW. One would not like history to record that this partnership was brought to an end by a fit of temper on the one side or by a fit of meanness on the other.

However on 17 March 1966 it reported:

It was not his fault that a succession of Governments and the Opera House Trust should so signally have failed to impose any control or order on the project .... his concept was so daring that he himself could solve its problems only step by step .... his insistence on perfection led him to alter his design as he went along.

To this day opinion is still split on the roles of the different parties in the project.

Consequences for Utzon, architecture and engineering

In an article in Harvard Design Magazine in 2005 , professor Bent Flyvbjerg argues that Utzon fell victim to a politically lowballed construction budget, which eventually resulted in a cost overrun of 1,400 percent. The overrun and the scandal it created kept Utzon from building more masterpieces. This, according to Flyvbjerg, is the real cost of the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Opera House opened the way for the immensely complex geometries of some modern architecture. The design was one of the first examples of the use of computer analysis to design complex shapes. The design techniques developed by Utzon and Arup for the Sydney Opera House have been further developed and are now used for architecture such as works of Gehry and " blobitecture", as well as most reinforced concrete structures. The design is also one of the first in the world to use araldite to glue the precast structural elements together, and proved the concept for future use.


Gold lettering on collectible Sydney Opera House wine, a Riesling

The Opera House was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II, in her capacity as Queen of Australia, on October 20, 1973, which crowds of millions attended. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Prior to the opening, two performances had already taken place in the finished building. On September 28, 1973, a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace was played at the Opera Theatre. On September 29, the first public concert in the Concert Hall took place. It was performed by the Sydney Symphony, conducted by Charles Mackerras and with accompanying singer Birgit Nilsson.

During the construction of the Opera House, a number of lunchtime performances were arranged for the workers, with Paul Robeson the first artist to perform at the (unfinished) Opera House in 1960.

Reconciliation with Utzon and new works

The Utzon Room : rebuilt and redecorated to Utzon's original design.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust began to communicate with Jorn Utzon in an attempt to effect a reconciliation, and to secure his involvement in future changes to the building. In 1999 he was appointed by the Sydney Opera House Trust as a design consultant for future work. In 2004, the first interior space rebuilt to match Utzon's original design was opened, and renamed "The Utzon Room" in his honour. In April 2007, he proposed a major reconstruction of the Opera Theatre.

In 1993 Constantine Koukias was commissioned by the Sydney Opera House Trust in association with REM Theatre to compose Icon, a large-scale music theatre piece for the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House.

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