AD Classics: Sydney Opera House / Jørn Utzon

© Flickr - User: Jong Soo (Peter) Lee

There are few buildings as famous as the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Arguably considered the eighth wonder of the world, the opera house has a long history behind its design. The story behind this magnificent structure began in 1956 when the New South Wales Government called an open competition for the design of two performance halls, for opera and for symphony concerts, that would put Sydney on the map. The Danish architect Jørn Utzon was unknown for his work at the time, yet his entry for the competition which consisted of a few simple sketches intrigued the famous Eero Saarinen who was part of the jury. The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic,” observed the jury. “Nevertheless, we are convinced that they present a concept of an opera house that is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.”

More images and information after the break.

Construction of the Sydney Opera House began in March 1959 after the demolition of the existing Fort Macquarie Tram Depot. The project was built in three phases: the foundation and building of the podium overlooking the Sydney Harbor, the construction of the outer shells, and the construction of the interior. The construction of the podium began when Utzon was not yet done with the design of the opera house, and was overseen by the renowned engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners. Due to the fact that construction began abruptly without certain structural problems still unresolved, certain aspects of the podium had to be modified and rebuilt after its completion in 1963 in order to hold the weight of the massive structures it was supporting.

© Flickr - User: Jong Soo (Peter) Lee

Between 1957-1963 in the midst of the construction of the podium, Utzon and Arup worked on developing a shell system that would make the original spherical scheme structurally possible. Twelve iterations later, they came up with a solution that consisted of a ribbed system of precast concrete shells created from sections of a sphere. This system permitted each rib to be built up of a number of standard segments cast in a common mold at the site. Utzon wanted the shells to be portrayed like large while sails in contrast to the deep blue waters of the ocean it stood upon. In order to achieve this aesthetic the shells are covered with 1,056,066 ceramic tiles made in Sweden from clay and crushed stone. Along with the placement of the tiles, it took eleven years to complete the iconic roof structure.

© Flickr - User: fstop22

On February 28, 1966 after a long battle with the New South Wales Government because of the rising construction costs as the concrete shells were progressing towards their completion, Utzon resigned from the project. Despite a 3000-signature protest for Utzon’s reinstatement the government appointed three Australian architects, Peter Hall, DS Littlmore, and Lionel Todd, to complete the project. After the 2,194th precast shell segment was installed in 1967 the second stage of the project was finished.

© Flickr - User: tom.fcb73

At the third and final stage of the project under the supervision of the newly appointed architects Utzon’s original design was signifcantly changed. At the request of the Australian Broadcasting Commission the proposed main hall that was originally designed as a multipurpose opera/concert became a space solely for concerts, thus titled the Concert Hall which is able to accomodate 2,800 people. The minor hall, originally intended for stage productions, was changed to house operas and ballets and was called the Opera Theatre. Grand external staircases lead into the two these two main auditoriums marking an entrance that visitors are unlikely to forget. Due to the switch of the main halls, however, the Opera Theatre is now too small to stage large opera and ballet productions. Three smaller theatres, a library, and a cinema were also added to the original design along with three restaurants, six bars, and sixty dressing rooms. The building has a total of 1000 rooms with access through a concourse that encircles the entire building and links the five performance spaces.

© Flickr - User: Heaven's Gate (John)

The design for the large exterior walls was also left in the hands of the appointed architects. They are supported by vertical steel mullions which extend all the way up the mouth of the shells. Bronze glazing bars run from these mullions to help support the 2000 panes of , which was designed by Ove Arup & Partners, and consists of two layers of joined by an interlayer of plastic in order to strengthen the windows and provide better sound insulation.

© Flickr - User: Heaven's Gate (John)

The building was completed and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in October of 1973. With an original estimate of 7 million dollars the budget was vastly exceeded with a final cost of 102 million dollars. In 1989 the government was informed the opera house would need repairs that would cost approximately 86 million dollars due to fallen tiles and deterioration of the structural ribs. However this excessive cost was the price paid in order to turn the Sydney Opera House into monument of technology, society, and the world during the 20th century. In 2007 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with ancient landmarks such as the Stonehedge. In 2003 Jørn Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize five years before his death in 2008. Due to the political issues that led to his resignation years before, the architect never returned to Australia to experience his finished masterpiece that is regarded as one of the greatest structures ever created.

Architect: Jørn Utzon
Location: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Project Year: 1957-1973
Client: New South Wales Government
Structural Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners
Photographs: Depending on the photograph: Jozef Vissel and on FlickrTomas Klein, massoncraig, Jong Soo (Peter) Lee, John Dalkin , fstop22
References: Sydney Opera House, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Cite: Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Sydney Opera House / Jørn Utzon" 23 Jun 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • ozmoto

    A concept of an opera house that is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world. …that’s a fact jack. It is humbling to be in it. To view it from any position, or at any distance.

  • Juni

    Would have been great to put some plans, sections, elevations. Whatever, Great building

  • Nicholas Patten

    AD Classics: Sydney Opera House.

  • WPstudios

    RT @nicholaspatten AD Classics: Sydney Opera House.

  • Anon

    “In 2003 Jørn Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize four years after his death”.

    You mean before….

    How about some images of the Utzon Room, completed in 2003, his first realised interior at the SOH.

  • Sam

    Having visited the building many times – including a Goldfrapp Concert in the main hall – this building is a truly stunning thing to behold and interact with.

    The thing a lot of photos miss is the texture of the roof tiles and concrete shell, and I’m glad there is a photo here for your viewing pleasure. It’s a building that reveals different aspects depending on your viewpoint, and truly, truly amazing.

  • yimyim

    I think its actually sad that the article doesnt talk at all about the political problems of getting the building built. Theres a reason Mr. Utzon never went to see the thing.

  • hZ!

    feel free to add my earlier comments. in the cold light of day, unfortunately, i can stand by them, typos notwithstanding

  • Chris

    …such as during the grand opening of 1973 Jorn Utzon’s name wasnt mentioned once.

  • Kikai

    Contributes to the Australian identity as no other building ever has. Went on a architecture walking tour (don’t want to name names, in case this is filtered as spam) but it was fantastic. Guy himself was an architect and provided the most amazing insight into the politics of architecture.

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  • hZ!

    here they are again…
    “how typical of the aussie moral cowardice not to have let the architect finish his project. and how typical of aussie opportunism that all the contractors charged the frigging earth for their ’services’ and inflated the cost to ludicrous proportions. is it any wonder we’ve now lost rudd, most decent leader i ever remember.
    as i recall, the original intention was for its geometry to have been parabolic? or do i remember wrongLy?
    anyway, all i can say apart from grr is that if this country has the opera house, it’s no thanks to US!!! we suck, as we have witnessed this sorry day.”
    …that was yesterday

  • hZ!

    we are a nation of vulgar fat men, sociopaths and soulless bureaucrats. and every permutation thereof. we wouldn’t know a beautiful building from our own arses. the opera house as a symbol of australian identity???? i don’t think so. australian pretence more like. how very convenient- AFTER the fact, AFTER doing everything possible to thwart and stymie and otherwise f*** up the process.

    • yeah

      Oh, come on. He exceeded the budget 1400% – that’s NOT a typo. This would concern ANY government, mayor etc. where people that give money have no idea about architecture at all. If they only knew that they’re buying a timeless icon which will spread the word about Sydney worldwide – they would pay even 10x more. But you don’t know that before the thing is built.

      Yes – Australians acted horrible but they also had many reasons to do so and underestimated the project’s value. What if the building wasn’t so great at the end? It would be called the biggest financial buiding fiasco of all time and a shame for the whole country. The thing is, the officials didn’t know if it’ll turn out any good.

  • Kikai

    I challenge you to find a building that evokes ‘Sydney’ as the Opera House has. And considering I wasn’t born when it was constructed, I can hardly be held responsible for what a very small fraction of Australian politicians said and did decades ago.

    In any case, I suppose what I was getting at is that this is a very loved building by many. Or at least by me, an Australian.

  • jeux de gestion

    Amazing … since 1973 and still avant-garde

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