The Sydney Opera House

There are few buildings from the 20th century which can match the style and presence of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. While it has attracted a number of different opinions regarding its shape, size and cost to build there is no doubt that the Australian tourist industry has benefited substantially from this massive project which dominates the skies above Sydney. But what do you know about this iconic 20th-century building?

The origins of the Sydney Opera House

While the opera house itself was opened by Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia on 20 October 1973 the venture initially started to take shape back in the 1940s. It was in the 1940s that Eugene Goossens, the director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music began lobbying for a specific venue for large theatrical productions. While at the time there was the Sydney Town Hall this was not considered large enough for the theatrical productions which were planned.

It was not until 1954 that Goossens actually managed to gain support in political circles specifically NSW Premier Joseph Cahill. There was initially some debate as to where the project would be built but will finally Goossens got his own way and a competition was launched on 13 September 1955 inviting designers and architects from around the world to forward their ideas for what is now the Sydney Opera House.

The competition attracted 233 entries from 32 different countries each using the same criteria of a large hall seating 3000 people, smaller hall for 1200 people each of which had to be designed with full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and similar presentations in mind. While the criteria was detailed, trying to structure a new building around these ideas did test the minds of some of the world’s greatest designers and architects.

The winner was announced two years later in 1957 when Jorn Utzon, a Danish architect was awarded the £5000 prize money and his design was put into action. Utzon visited Australia in 1957 to begin overseeing the project and moved his office to Australia full-time in February 1963.

The building of the Sydney Opera House

While the opera house which you see before you today is a perfect example of exquisite 20th-century architecture the project has been dogged by a number of serious issues from day one.

Stage one, the podium (1959 to 1963)

The central podium of the Sydney Opera House began to take shape toward the end of 1958 and construction began in 1959. However, the Australian government were conscious that the public could turn against the project if costs start to spiral and delays were highlighted in the press. As a consequence, something which was to cause major issues with the designer at a later stage, the Austrian government pushed ahead with construction even before the final designs had been agreed.

As a consequence of this rush to begin the project it was found that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the iconic roof structure and had to be demolished and rebuilt at a late stage.

Stage two, the roof (1963 to 1967)

While many people see the roof of the Sydney Opera House as the main attraction many people will be unaware of how difficult it was to design and construct the shell like structures which dominate the Sydney skies. Between 1957 and 1963 it is claimed that the design team went through 12 different structures for the shells and ribs of the roof before finally deciding upon the structure we see today.

There is some controversy as to who had the final say on the design of the 2400 precast ribs and 4000 roof panels which were built on site. There were many issues to take into account not least the escalating cost of the project and the need to keep the Australian public onside. The controversy regarding the roof is something which led to a serious fallout with the designer Utzon in the future.

Stage three, interiors (1967 to 1973)

While the interiors of the Sydney Opera house should have been something of a foregone conclusion, when Utzon moved his office to Sydney in 1963, there was a change of government in 1965 which caused all sorts of problems. Keen to take credit for what was fast becoming one of the greatest landmarks in Australia the new Robert Askin government took the project under government control and installed the Ministry of Public Works to oversee the construction of the site. This was the catalyst which led to Utzon’s resignation from the project in 1966.

At this stage of the project the cost was a mere AUS$22.9 million although as you will see, this was later to rise to approximately AUS$100 million due to a number of late changes to the design and complications which were unforeseen. There was also the decision to expand the earlier design of the opera house, with some government officials in Australia suggesting the design was flawed as it only had 2000 seats.

The opening of the Sydney Opera House

As we mentioned above, the final cost of the project was put at AUS$102 million which while not significant in the current climate was a massive increase on the original 1957 estimate of just AUS$7 million. There was great controversy over the escalating cost of the project, and the delay in completion, as the opera house had been originally due to open in January 1963 rather than 1973.

Interesting facts about the Sydney Opera House

The designer Jorn Utzon never actually saw the finished Sydney Opera House after refusing to return to Australia when he was taken off the project. He died in December 2008 having never seen his brainchild in real life.

When the Sydney Opera House was first opened the designer’s name was airbrushed from all PR and promotional material and he was given no credit for the part he played.

A substantial part of the opera house had to be totally rebuilt in 2004 after serious complaints about the shocking acoustics by various artists.

The Sydney Opera House is officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site having been added to the list on 20 June 2007.

When the project was finished the final cost was over 1400% higher than the initial estimate.

The building takes up 4.5 acres of land, is 183 m long and 120 m wide at its widest point. The structure is supported by 588 concrete piers which have been dug 25 m below sea level to support the building.

The power system for the Sydney Opera House consists of 645 km of electric cable which supplies the equivalent power of a 25,000 population town.

The tiles on the top of the roof are self-cleaning although from time to time some of the 1,056,006 Swedish made tiles do need replacing.

The Sydney Opera House was the first major project to use computer aided design in the pursuit of a supportable roof structure.

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