Sydney Opera House 50: A reflection of a tenacious revolutionary design icon

To celebrate the 50th Birthday of the Sydney Opera House some of the team immersed themselves in a tour of the iconic World Heritage Listed UNESCO masterpiece and discovered the many fascinating facts of its winding history.

Bennelong Point, where The Sydney Opera House was built in 1973, was named after a senior Eora man named Woollarawarre Bennelong in 1788 during colonisation by the British. In the thousands of years prior, the land known as Tubowgule, was used by aboriginal peoples for celebrations and gatherings. The current monumental public artwork by Megan Cope, a Quandamooka artist, consisting of 85,000 oyster shells which are positioned across the Sydney Opera House are a reflection of these histories. The impressionable artwork, which had over 3,000 volunteers to clean the oyster shells, drill and thread, is a wonderful symbol of community, history and country.

In 1956 an International Design Competition was held for the Sydney Opera House, in which 233 designs were submitted. A shortlist was compiled by 3 of the judges however Eero Saarinen, a Finnish Architect and the 4th judge, was not captivated by any of the selected designs. He perused the discarded pile and was instantly drawn to the works of entrant 218 – Jørn Utzon, a Danish Architect, and he immediately knew it was iconic.

Utzon, who entered the competition from his humble home in Hellebaek, Denmark, poured over nautical maps and photos to develop a sense of the prevailing topography. The sails on the harbour in the photos he studied became his key inspiration and the narrative for his revolutionary design composition.

The design and build of the Opera House has a long and eventful history. The original cost estimate of $7M came in at a staggering $102M on completion and was constructed over a 14 year period, which was 10 years longer than anticipated. There were a diverse range of challenges with how to best execute the iconic, complex and groundbreaking design and see it all come to life.

During the course of its creation, 10,000 workers constructed the Sydney Opera House, with not 1 rope or safety precaution by today’s standards, and yet amazingly not one death was recorded.

As costs blew out, tensions grew. In a bid to raise the much needed funds, to see the completion of the project, a State Lottery was put into action. Each ticket had a cost of $10, with the first prize being $200,000. It was this State Lottery that largely funded the build of The Sydney Opera House.

The most problematic aspect of the sculptural design was how to realise Utzon’s roof. A multitude of methodologies were tested to achieve the landmark roof however it was the ingenious spherical geometry notion that allowed the shells to be prefabricated, repetitive and allow for uniform tiling, which was a breakthrough in 20th century architecture.

Cladding the 1.62 hectares of curved roof space were over 1 million roof tiles. The self-cleaning roof tiles, which were made in Sweden, were inspired by textured Japanese ceramic bowls. Utzon wanted the Sail Shaped Roof to contrast the blue sky, the deep blue of Sydney Harbour and the white reflections of the waves. From a panoramic view, the 2 white and cream toned tiles collectively appear white and it is this approach which reduces the reflectivity. Up close, the composition of the two tones creates an intricate pattern which presents awe-inspiring detailing.

During the construction, a new Minister of Works Davis Hughes was appointed. Hughes, who didn’t see the merit in the project, cut funding to Utzon. As a result, Utzon was unable to pay employees and was sadly forced to resign from the project. Utzon never saw his vision completed.

Hughes appointed a young Australian architect, Peter Hall, and his partners; Lionel Todd and David Littlemore, to the challenging role to complete the Opera House.

Inside the Sydney Opera House there were essential acoustic requirements which came into play. Temperature and humidity are critical to the tuning of instruments and so it was crucial a constant 22.5 degree temperature was maintained. Seawater extracted from the harbour was circulated through 35km’s of pipes to power the heating and cooling of the building. The walls, stage and auditorium floor were finished in a hardwood – Australian Brushbox Timber, the seats a softwood – Birch Veneer with woollen upholstery.  The combination of finishes was a direct response to the necessity of acoustics.

In recent years it has been noted that the acoustics could be improved and so from 2015-2022, Concert Hall was renewed by ARM Architecture. The height of the original donut shaped noise reflectors above stage were originally positioned too high, so sound was not reverberated back to the musicians quickly enough, creating a lag. As a result, musicians could not hear in real time. To combat this issue additional elements were added which were in keeping with the original design and materiality. The highlight would have to be the 18 new petal shaped reflectors that now hang above the stage. The adjustable magenta-coloured panels which compliment the original woollen seats can be lowered and tilted horizontally above the stage to reflect the sound as needed, depending on performance.

In 1996 Bob Carr, the Premier of NSW, worked to get Utzon back to Australia to see his work. Unfortunately, by this point, Utzon was too elderly to travel back to Australia from Denmark. To make amends, Utzon was however engaged to set out the design principles of the Opera House to ensure the intent of original design is maintained throughout history. 5 years later Jorn Utzon was finally recognised for his brilliance by being awarded the Pritzker, the Nobel Prize of architecture.

Our remarkable experience at the Sydney Opera House was truly insightful and was both heartfelt and inspiring. The unconventional design and innovative approaches to construction undeniably pushed those boundaries and opened all our eyes to the power of imagination and tenacity.