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Name   Sydney Opera House
Architects   UTZON, JØRN; ARUP, OVE;
Date   1973
Address   Sydney, Australia
Floor Plan    

The force behind the Sydney Opera House was Eugene Goossens, who was appointed conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1946 and a year later started an “opera house” movement. He was supported by the Labor politician Joseph Cahill (1891–1959), who held the local government portfolio and subsequently became premier of New South Wales in 1952.

The project languished until November 1954, when Cahill sponsored a conference that led to the establishment of a public committee that later agreed to hold an international architectural competition in 1956 for which Jørn Utzon’s design was awarded first prize in a field of 230 entries. Utzon’s scheme was enthusiastically endorsed by a jury comprising Sir Leslie Martin and Eero Saarinen.

Conceived in the mid-1950s, the Sydney Opera House project brief was formulated as a performing arts center with facilities for opera, concerts, and theater under one roof. The enterprise was fraught with party politics from the outset. It was seen as a project of a Labor Party premier who sought to enlarge access to music and theater for all the citizens of Sydney during a period of acute postwar shortages. Popular opposition arose even within his own party, and Cahill cleverly circumvented these arguments by establishing an Opera House Lottery to pay for the building.

The Opera House supplied Sydney with a much-needed civic climax that recognized the concentrating visual effect of its magnificent harbor and that, in the process, cemented its identity. Today, it is an international architectural icon and is regarded by many people as one of the ten greatest architectural works of the 20th century.

In 1956, when Utzon made his design, there was great interest in shell structures. Vilhelm Lauritzen had built two remarkable shells in Copenhagen before this: the first airport terminal in Kastrup (1939) and the Radio Building’s Studio 1 (1945). Utzon’s Sydney design resembled these in its adoption of an inner acoustic shell suspended from a heavier outer shell. Felix Candela in Mexico and Eero Saarinen in the United States, in his TWA Terminal (1962), which was designed the same year with a paired arrangement of balanced flower-petal shells, are other examples.

Both Saarinen and Utzon chose “free” structural forms that lacked circular, rectangular, or parabolic geometries. Although the TWA Terminal kept its free form, Utzon was criticized for his design’s lack of geometry, which was essential to standardize the formwork. When, after three years of intense research, Ove Arup and Partners failed to establish a satisfactory mathematical description of the shell shapes after applying parabolic and then elliptical systems, Utzon broke the impasse in mid-1960 by proposing a spherical geometry.

In May 1965, there was a change of government. The incoming minister for public works placed himself in charge of the Opera House project, withheld permission for Utzon to proceed with his scheme to use plywood for the interior acoustic shells and glass wall mullions, and delayed fee payments. In February 1966, Utzon withdrew and was replaced by an Australian team led by Peter Hall, who completed the third stage for the interiors in October 1973. Hall attempted to realize the work as Utzon intended, but a Review of Programme submitted in December 1966 recommended that the Major Hall should be a single-purpose hall and that the opera should be transferred to the Minor Hall, thereby eliminating the latter’s use as a theater on the grounds that the multipurpose hall would not be functionally satisfactory. The acceptance of this flawed advice resulted in the elimination of grand opera and invalidated the composition of the roofs, whose size had been determined by the volumetric requirements of the interior functions; the demolition of the stage tower and the stage machinery from the Main Hall permanently crippled the Opera House. Its cost rose from $50 million to $102 million, and the building’s completion was delayed four years.

The changes to the interiors were attended by a severe aesthetic loss when Peter Hall failed to continue in the same spirit as Utzon. Fortunately, the outside was largely unaffected, and the fame of the Opera House today rests largely on the brilliance of the building’s external relationship to its maritime surroundings.

Le Corbusier completed his chapel at Ronchamp in June 1955. It is no accident that the Ronchamp chapel and Utzon’s Opera House are formidable sculptural achievements: Le Corbusier reacted to the four horizons and its isolated situation atop a sacred acropolis; Utzon’s approach was similar: he visualized a promenade from the city to the Opera House leading to its theaters and heightened its isolation further by pushing it to the end of Bennelong Point to increase the surprise of arrival. Like Le Corbusier, who similarly applied the idea of a “Promenade Architecturale” to Ronchamp, Utzon incorporated a promenade into his architecture to enhance the pedestrian experience and increase the interaction between his building and the site and its surroundings.

Utzon’s great concern was to devise the most dramatic route to approach his work by entering it from below and moving upward through its interior spaces to reach the opera and concert and theater halls. The building juts out into the harbor on a platform that he shaped and extended vertically and that contains all the performance services. At its highest, he scooped out a pair of Greek amphitheaters, treating the platform as an artificial hill. With the two stages adjoining the south foyers, the two principal halls, placed lengthwise side by side, have dual foyers at their north and south ends but are entered along the sides. To reach the halls, patrons climb a monumental external flight of stairs at the front or use an internal staircase to reach the southern foyers and then move around the stage backs and up the platform to access the halls. The north foyers, used at intervals, face the water. The side spaces are pressed between the auditoriums and the V-shaped ribs of the precast-concrete roof vaults.

The glory of the Opera House is its white-tiled roofs surmounting the pink precastconcrete platform. The Main Hall is straddled by three asymmetrical vaults and the Minor Hall by similar smaller vaults, and a separate vault encloses the restaurant on the southwest edge of the platform. Between the two main vault groups, a narrow canyonlike cleavage is formed; below this, a tunnel street gives access to the main under-stage service areas. The open ends of the original shells were intended to be enclosed by gullwing saddles of suspended glass between hollow plywood tubes, but Utzon’s proposal was crudely simplified into stiff glass hoods supported on steel trusses.

The sculptural expressiveness and romantic immersion in the harbor setting went beyond and challenged the prevailing functional ethic of modern architecture in 1957. Its assertion of humanist values rooted in Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto proclaimed a new experiential sensibility that sought to soften the image of a machine aesthetic by an appeal to the simple verities of an anonymous vernacular building. The freshness of the Opera House has not dimmed with time; it seems as ageless as the Australian bush. Utzon was inspired by an anonymous language of technique, the building creating its own style from the perfection of its means in the same way that a yacht achieves beauty through the refinement and ultimate perfection of its shape in meeting the challenge of the sea and wind.

In tying his Opera House so perfectly to its peninsula, Utzon created for Sydney a symbol and identity of such extraordinary power that it is impossible to conceive of the city as complete without it.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.


Further Reading

Utzon’s resistance to scholarly research and documentation and his reticence to cooperate with critical assessment have created severe problems for the serious historian, with the unfortunate consequence that there is a proliferation of errors resulting from an overreliance on secondary source material. There has been far more publication and interpretation than research into establishing reliable facts. The Fromonot account, for instance, is largely a compilation of material copied from Zodiac numbers 5, 10, and 14, with additions. Because these issues are rare, their republication in this way is undoubtedly useful. Utzon scholarship remains at an early stage.

The Arup Journal 8, no. 3 (October 1973) (special issue on the Sydney Opera House)

Baume, Michael, The Sydney Opera House Affair, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1967

Drew, Philip, Sydney Opera House: Jørn Utzon, London: Phaidon Press, 1995

Drew, Philip, The Masterpiece: Jørn Utzon, a Secret Life, South Yarra, Victoria: Hardie Grant Books, 1999

Duek-Cohen, Elias, Utzon and the Sydney Opera House: Statement in the Public Interest Sydney: Morgan, 1967

Fromonot, Françoise, Jørn Utzon et l’Opéra de Sydney, Paris: Gallimard, 1998; as Jørn Utzon: The Sydney Opera House, Corte Madera, California: Gingko, and Milan: Electa, 1998

Messent, David, Opera House Act One, Balgowlah, New South Wales, Australia: David Messent Photography, 1997

Murray, Peter, The Saga of Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia, Taylor & Francis, 2003

Nobis, Philip, “Utzon’s Interiors for the Sydney Opera House: The Design Development of the Major and Minor Hall, 1958–1966,” B.Arch. thesis, University of Technology, Sydney, 1994

Pitt, Helen, The house: the dramatic story of the Sydney Opera House and the people who made it, Allen & Unwin, 2018

“The Sydney Opera House,” Zodiac 14 (1965)

Sydney Opera House in Its Harbour Setting: Nomination of Sydney Opera House in Its Harbour Setting for Inscription on the World Heritage List, Glebe, New South Wales: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 1996

Utzon, Jørn, Sydney National Opera House (The Red Book), 1958

Utzon, Jørn, Sydney Opera House (The Gold Book), 1958

Utzon, Jørn, Sydney Opera House (The Yellow Book), 1962

Yeomans, John, The Other Taj Mahal, Harlow: Longmans, 1968

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