The Sydney Opera House – an Architectural Masterpiece

The world is full of fascinating architecture, but top of the list for many is the Sydney Opera House. There is something enchanting about this wonderful building, which enthrals people from across the world. It is an architectural wonder that is quite unlike any other building on earth.

Sydney Opera House

The fascinating story of how the Opera House was built

Not only is it a wonderful building to look at, it also has a fascinating history. The story starts in 1954 when Eugene Goossens, the then Director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, finally persuaded the city authorities that Sydney needed a new music venue.

At that point, NSW Premier Joseph Cahill asked for an international design competition to be set up. The competition caught the attention of the architectural community of the day.

In total, 233 entries were received from architects located in 32 different countries. The fact that the brief was so loose made it an attractive proposition for the world’s greatest architects. No cost or time limits were put on the project, which gave the architects of the day almost unheard of freedom to come up with radical designs.

Jørn Utzon’s enters the competition

In 1957, it was announced that the Danish architect Jørn Utzon had won the competition. He was already a well-known architect who had won already won 7 of the 18 international design competitions that he had entered. Unfortunately, none of his winning designs had got any further than the drawing board.

However, in his home country, some of his designs were brought to life. At the time he entered the competition, he was in the process of supervising the building of the Kingo Housing Estate in Denmark. It was a remarkable development that later won several awards, and is still today viewed as the gold standard for social housing.

Utzon’s design nearly fails to make the first cut

Utzon was already an established and well thought of architect when he entered the Sydney Opera House design competition, yet his innovative design almost fell at the first hurdle.

The selection process was carried out in two parts. To start with, the 233 entrants were whittled down to 30 finalists.

Almost unbelievably, Utzon’s iconic plan was thrown onto the rejection pile during the first stage of the selection process. Fortunately, the noted Finnish American architect, Eero Saarinen, was a member of the jury that made the final decision.

Saarinen was a disappointed by the quality of the 30 designs that the earlier jury had chosen from the original 233 entries. As a result, he decided to work his way through the rejections to double-check what had been discarded.

When he saw Utzon’s design, he knew it was something special, so had it put back into the competition. Saarinen described Utzon’s design as ‘genius’.

The rest is history – Utzon’s radical design ultimately won the competition.

From the start, the new Opera House enthralled the population of Sydney. Despite the fact that most of the city’s residents were not regular attendees at the opera, the new design was greeted with excitement and interest. This was fortunate given the fact that entire project was to be funded by a dedicated lottery, which meant that the public had to be willing to buy the tickets.

The new Opera House was off to a good start, but that was far from the end of the story. There were several interesting twists and turns to come.

The site of the Opera House is cleared

The location of the building, Bennelong Point, was chosen and set aside before the international design competition was announced. Therefore, it was possible to clear the site quickly in preparation for the building work.

Australia flag

Building work commences

However, the actual building work did not start until 1959. Unfortunately, there was a problem – the designs that Utzon had submitted to the competition were not detailed plans. They were really just preliminary drawings, which made it hard to find a contractor who was confident enough to do the actual building work.

Cahill was desperate for the building work to start as soon as possible. He was up for reelection, so needed the project to start before the elections, so he pushed hard for construction to begin even if not everyone was ready.

Signs of trouble

This, and the fact that there were no detailed plans available during the early stages of the construction process, proved problematic. For example, the first set of podium columns proved to be too weak to support the roof. This meant that they had to be torn down, and rebuilt.

In addition, at this stage, Utzon was still living in Denmark. He was still working on two major housing estates there, juggling producing detailed drawings for The Sydney Opera House with completing projects he was already working on. He only moved to Australia permanently in 1963, and then devoted himself to the Opera House project on a full-time basis.

However, things still did not go smoothly for the project. Utzon had come up with the design idea, but had not had time to do the detailed planning before the New South Wales authorities started the building process. He pointed this out repeatedly, but his protests were ignored, and construction started anyway.

It is said that he had no idea of how the famous shells, that form the roof of the Opera House, would actually be constructed. As the building went up, he had to solve problems on the fly.
He was reasonably successful at doing so with the help of Ove Arup, who was responsible for the engineering and structure on the project. Understandably, given this less than ideal situation, errors were made and the costs started to spiral out of control.


Utzon resigns

When this started to happen, the relationship between Utzon and his client began to break down. Things got worse when Robert Askin took over as the Premier of New South Wales. His new team had no emotional attachment to the project, so had no patience for the delays and cost overruns that were occurring. Some had even opposed the idea of the new building being constructed while they were in opposition.

Askin’s team changed the set-up radically when they took power. For example, the way materials and labour was procured for the project was altered. Up until that point, Utzon had been in charge, so had control over the quality of the materials used in the project.

The Askin team also wanted to tie Utzon into a strict completion timetable. This was understandable given the fact that the building was supposed to have opened in 1962. However, at that stage, Utzon was still struggling to work out a system that would enable the roof to be constructed. He was virtually there, but knew that there was still a lot of work to be done, and that the new timetable was unrealistic.

At that stage, he was owed over $100,000 in fees, and could not pay his staff. The relationship was getting worse every day. In addition, the fact that money was being withheld meant that bills were not being paid on time, which, of course, slowed progress even more.

Matters reached a head in February 1966, when Utzon felt compelled to resign from the project. His freedom to realise his ideas in full had been curtailed, so he felt there was no point carrying on. He left Australia, and, sadly, never went back.

New architects take over

In April 1966, new architects were appointed to oversee the completion of the building. The leaders of the team were David Littlemore, Lionel Todd and Peter Hall. However, it was Hall who ultimately supervised the construction.

The design team were surprised to find that the design was still not complete, even at that stage. It was still not clear how the required number of seats would be fitted into the building, and the acoustics were still being worked out. In addition, surprisingly, there was also no proper client brief.

The new architectural team had to bring in all kinds of experts to help them to resolve these issues. For example, they did not have the necessary expertise to resolve the acoustic problems.


The Opera House finally opens

It took another nine years for the Opera House to be finished. It finally opened in 1973.

The building had cost more than $100m to complete. This was a staggering overspend of 1400%, given that the original budget was just $7m.

It was worth it in the end

However, it is said that despite this huge overspend, the building paid for itself just a year after being build. Today, it is a vital part of Australia’s tourist industry, and is a national asset. Deloitte drew up a financial model, which showed that the Opera House adds around $775 million to the Australian economy every year.

Sydney Opera House 2

Utzon’s legacy

In 2003, Utzon was honoured when he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Sadly, this brilliant architect died in 2008, at the age of 90.

During his lifetime, he was recognised as a leading architect, and won several awards. However, s he will be best remembered for the Sydney Opera House.

In 2007, the Opera Hose became a World Heritage Site, and Utzon became only the second architect to receive such recognition for his work during his lifetime.

Posted by Mark
July 20, 2016

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