Sydney Australia Opera House
Sydney Opera House from the harbour, image by McDaniel Woolf Architects
The Sydney Opera House is Australia's most recognisable building and is an icon of Australia's creative and technical achievement. Since its completion in 1973 it has attracted worldwide acclaim for its design and construction, enhanced by its location on Bennelong Point within a superb harbour setting.
The design of the building, with its soaring white roof shell shaped sails atop a massive red granite platform, has been internationally acclaimed as an architectural icon of the 20th century. As a dominant sculptural building that can be seen and experienced from all sides, it is the focal point of Sydney Harbour and a reflection of its character.
It is placed right at the end of Bennelong Point, juxtaposed to the harbour and completely to scale in relation to the Harbour Bridge, the sandstone cliff face, Macquarie Street and Circular Quay. Viewed from a ferry, from the air, or by approach on foot, the vision is dramatic and unforgettable.
Sydney Opera House construction, 1964, image by Max Dupain, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales
It took 16 years to build. Constructed between 1957 and 1973, is a masterpiece of modern architectural design, engineering and construction technology in Australia. It exhibits the creative genius of its designer, the Pritzker Prize winner Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the successful engineering by the Danish firm Ove Arup and Partners, and the Australian building contractors M R Hornibrook. The completion of the project was overseen by the architects Hall, Todd and Littlemore, and the story of its construction was one of great controversy.
Complex engineering problems and escalating costs made it a source of great public debate that only subsided when the beauty and achievement of the completed building placed it on the world stage.
The technical challenge of how to construct the roof sails took four years to solve. The roof sails were based on the geometry of the sphere and Utzon used this to demonstrate the creative potential and the assembly of prefabricated, repeated components. It was seen as a structure at the leading edge of endeavour.
Today the Sydney Opera House is a national cultural centre that has gained widespread recognition and respect as a performing arts venue, and includes a concert hall, opera and drama theatres, a playhouse and a studio. It is a fitting showcase for many of the world's leading performers. As Utzon envisioned, the Sydney Opera House reflects its pivotal place in Australia's creative history ‘an individual face for Australia in the world of art' (Frampton and Cava, 1995 in Statement of Values for Sydney Opera House National Heritage Listing)
Utzon showing model of Sydney Opera House, Courtesy of Sydney Opera House.
The architect Jørn Utzon reached an unique understanding of the site at Bennelong Point—its topography and relationship to the harbour and surrounding land marks—by studying naval charts, photographs, a site plan, and watching a short film on Sydney. It was his intention to create a sculptural form that would relate as naturally to the harbour as the sails of its yachts.
Organic or natural forms were important principles in his design, ‘evident in the leaf form pattern devised for the ceramic roof tiles. (Australian Heritage Database, Sydney Opera House). Utzon used ‘nature's colours on the exterior. That was the general idea—concrete, granite and ceramics. White shell as contrast' (Jørn Utzon, June 2000 in Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)
The concrete platform is faced in red-granite, and this material is also used for the paving on the waterfront promenade which surrounds the building. Its uniformity was intended to give a rock-like character that was desired for the base, ‘as a contrast and anchor to the soaring roofs'. The granite underwent a process of needle hammering ‘giving a slightly matt surface which should also have the advantage of weathering evenly'. (Jørn Utzon, Descriptive Narrative, 1965, State Records Office of NSW in Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)
‘A large sculptural building'
From the very outset Utzon ‘was convinced that a new building in such a position has to be seen from all sides, and has to be a large sculptural building'.
He was inspired by the sandstone heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour and believed that the approach to the new building should be similar, where one could look upwards and, only at the last minute, get a magnificent view of the harbour or sea. This feeling of moving upwards, with the white roof-shells, determined the shaping of the large platform or plateau which would house all the performance facilities.
In turn, the platform was influenced by Utzon's experience of Mayan architecture in Mexico, where there are wide stairs leading to the platform which gives one a limitless view. For this reason he made the large staircase at the Sydney Opera House 100 metres wide and created the plateau on the top, to give people the feeling of liberation from daily life and being in another world. (Jorn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House)
The roof shells
Sydney Opera House, photograph by Dragi Markovic, Australian Heritage Database 0
As work progressed, no definite geometry for the roof shells had been established although Utzon was working on solving the geometry of the tiling, relying upon full scale mock-ups to solve the problem. Utzon noted that, as was often the case with the construction, the solution of one problem led to another. As work progressed the shells were developed on the geometry of a sphere – it was this spherical surface which led to similar curvature throughout.
Utzon thought this ‘an elegant solution to a construction' which would otherwise have led to a lot of scaffolding and shuttering. The roof shells had to span large areas to accommodate the main hall and a smaller hall. The solution devised by Utzon and Ove Arup and Partners, the engineers, was to produce arched segments of varying curvature. The concrete shells were produced by cutting a three-sided segment out of a sphere. The roof shells and their vaulted concrete ribs were pre-cast and held together by pre-stressing steel tendons, an innovation at the time. (Sydney Opera House, Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)