Iconic Buildings: The Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House is one of the great architectural works  of the 20th century. Completed in 1973 it   brings together multiple strands of creativity and innovation in both architectural form and structural design.

As a great urban sculpture set in a remarkable waterscape, at the tip of a peninsula projecting into Sydney Harbour, the building has had an enduring influence on architecture.

The Sydney Opera House was designed by Danish Architect Jorn Utzon, after his design won a competition in 1957.

This highly controversial project at the time came to define Australia. The Sydney Opera House is a modern expressionist design, with a series of large precast concrete “shells”, each composed of sections of a sphere, forming the roofs of the structure, set on a monumental podium.  It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk as much as 25 m (82 ft) below sea level.

The design was one of the first examples of the use of computer-aided design to design complex shapes.

Although the roof structures of the Sydney Opera House are commonly referred to as “shells”, they are in fact not shells in a strictly structural sense, but are instead precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs. The shells are covered in a subtle chevron pattern with more than a million glossy white- and matte-cream-coloured Swedish-made tiles from Hoganas AB, a factory that generally produced stoneware tiles for the paper-mill industry.

The Sydney Opera House is still among the most famous buildings in the world and is viewed to this day as one of the most complex ever designed.

Jørn Utzon had only built a few smaller buildings in Denmark when he won the competition to design Sydney’s new opera house , beating 232 other proposals.

The winning design was characterized by the Danish architect’s fascination of nature’s elements. Whether you perceive the building’s impressive shapes as the sails of a ship, seashells or waves, the building’s shapes are reminiscent of nature’s elements: the earth, the sky and the sea. Utzon’s structural ideas defy gravity, and no one really knew if they would succeed at the challenge when the project got underway.

It came to mean a great deal that the younger Jørn Utzon had one of the greatest engineers of the time as a partner. Danish Ove Arup was both intuitively and mathematically gifted and quickly recognized Utzon’s special talent.

The work of building the structure with its hundreds of rooms got underway, but resolving how to get the enormous white shells to float at heights of up to 60 meters took years, innumerable attempts and enormous sums of money to achieve.

When the Opera House’s exterior was finally completed, and Utzon was to start on the interior, a new government party wanted to see the building completed quickly and inexpensively. So they halted payments to Utzon, who withdrew from the project in 1966. At the time, the construction had already been delayed by three years.

Utzon left Sydney in anger, never to return The opera house became a true scandal, and by its inauguration in 1973, the original budget had been exceeded by one thousand percent. But time heals all wounds, and today Sydney Opera House is a remarkable and significant landmark for both Sydney and Australia. Besides being part of the Danish cultural canon, it is also on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.


Destination – Australia