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Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House
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Sydney Opera House

O

pera House stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind.

Expert evaluation report to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, 2007.

Opera House in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, is one of the most distinctive and famous 20th-century buildings, and one of the most famous performing arts venues in the world. It is a masterpiece of late modern architecture by Jørn Utzon that pushed architecture and engineering to new limits. The design represents an extraordinary interpretation and response to the setting in Sydney Harbour. Situated on Bennelong Point (originally called Cattle Point) in Sydney Harbour, with parkland to its south and close to the enormous Sydney Harbour Bridge, the building and its surroundings form an iconic Australian image. The Opera House is Sydney’s best-known landmark. Sydney Opera House was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2007.

Mention “Sydney, Australia” and most people think of the Opera House. Shaped like huge shells or billowing sails, this famous building on Sydney’s Bennelong Point graces the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is one of the world’s great architectural icons. The location is stunning. Water surrounds the structure on three sides, and the Royal Botanic Gardens border it to the south. The building is managed by the Sydney Opera House Trust, an agency of the New South Wales State Government.

Today, the Opera House is Australia’s number one tourist destination, welcoming more than 8.2 million visitors a year and one of the world’s busiest performing arts centers, presenting more than 2000 shows 363 days a year for more than 1.5 million people, theatre, and dance and the superstars of classical and contemporary music.

Today, you can enjoy a performance here; dine at one of the restaurants; or take a tour of the building, which encompasses theaters, studios, a concert hall, exhibition rooms, and a cinema. But it’s far more impressive viewed from a distance.

The Opera House provides 45,000 square meters (11 acres) of usable office space out of 18,000 square meters (4.5 acres) of land. It is 183 meters (600 feet) tall and about 120 meters (394 feet) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 580 concrete piers sunk up to 25 meters below sea level. Its power supply is equivalent for a town of 25,000 people. The power is distributed by 645 kilometers of electrical cable. It has about 1000 rooms. It has five theatres, five rehearsal studios, two main halls, four restaurants, six bars and numerous souvenir shops.

The opera house’s roof is constructed of 1,056,000 glazed white granite tiles imported from Sweden. Despite their self-cleaning nature. Its interior is composed of pink granite mined from Tarana, NSW and white birch and brush box plywood supplied from northern NSW.

Its five theatres are the Concert Hall (with a seating capacity of 2679), Opera Theatre (1547 seats), Drama Theatre (544 seats), Playhouse (398 seats) and Studio Theatre (364 seats). The Concert Hall contains the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ. It is the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world with over 10,000 pipes.

Construction History

Planning began in the late 1940s, when Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, lobbied for a suitable venue for large theatrical productions. The normal venue for such productions, the Sydney Town Hall, was not considered large enough. By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house. It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site: Cahill had wanted it to be on or near Wynyard Railway Station in the northwest of the CBD.

An international design competition was launched by Cahill on 13 September 1955 and received 233 entries, representing architects from 32 countries. The criteria specified a large hall seating 3,000 and a small hall for 1,200 people, each to be designed for different uses, including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and other presentations.

The winner, announced in 1957, was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. According to legend, the Utzon design was rescued from a final cut of 30 “rejects” by the noted Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. The runner-up was an entry by firm GBQC of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The grand prize was 5,000 Australian pounds. Utzon visited Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project. His office moved to Palm Beach, Sydney in February 1963.

Jørn Utzon
Jørn Utzon

The Bennelong Point Tram Depot, present on the site at the time, was demolished in 1958, and formal construction of the Opera House began in March 1959. The project was built in three stages.

  • Stage I (1959-1963) consisted of building the upper podium.
  • Stage II (1963-1967) was the construction of the outer shells.
  • Stage III consisted of the interior design and construction (1967-73).

Stage I was called for tender on December 5, 1958, and worked commenced on the podium on May 5, 1959, by the firm of Civil & Civic. The government had pushed for work to begin so early because they were afraid funding, or public opinion might turn against them. By January 23, 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind, mainly due to unexpected difficulties (wet weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper engineering drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents). Work on the podium was finally completed on August 31, 1962.

Stage II, the shells were an originally designed as a series of parabolas, however engineers Ove Arup and partners had not been able to find an acceptable solution to constructing them. In mid-1961 Utzon handed the engineers his solution to the problem, the shells all being created as ribs from a sphere of the same radius. Ove Arup and partners supervised the construction of the shells, estimating on April 6, 1962, that it would be completed between August 1964, and March 1965. By the end of 1965, the estimated finish for stage II was July 1967.

Oper House in Construction
Opera House in Construction

Stage III, the interiors, started with Utzon moving his entire office to Sydney in February 1963. However, there was a change of government in 1965, and the new Askin government declared that the project was now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. In October 1965, Utzon gave the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, a schedule setting out the completion dates of parts of his work for stage III. Significantly, Hughes withheld permission for the construction of plywood prototypes for the interiors (Utzon was at this time working closely with Ralph Symonds, an inventive and progressive manufacturer of plywood, based in Sydney). This eventually forced Utzon to leave the project on February 28th, 1966. He said that Hughes’es refusal to pay Utzon any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation, and later famously described the situation as “Malice in Blunderland”. In March 1966, Hughes offered him a reduced role as ‘design architect’, under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House’s construction but Utzon rejected this. The cost of the project, even in October of that year, was still only $22.9 million, less than a quarter of the final cost.

The second stage of construction was still in process when Utzon was forced to resign. His position was largely taken over by Peter Hall, who became largely responsible for the interior design. Other persons appointed that same year to replace Utzon were E.H.Farmer as government architect, D.S.Littlemore, and Lionel Todd.

The opera house was formally completed in 1973, to a bill of $102 million. The original cost estimate in 1957, was £3,500,000 ($7 million). The original completion date set by the government was Australia Day (January 26) in 1963. In reality, the project was completed ten years late and 1,357% over budget in real terms. By this time, Utzon had left the country for never returning to see his magnificent creation. In 1999 Utzon agreed to return as the building’s architect, overseeing an improvement project. He redesigned the former Reception Hall, and it was reopened in 2004 as the Utzon Room.

The Sydney Opera House was formally opened by Queen of Australia Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. a large crowd attended. Utzon was not invited to the ceremony, nor was his name mentioned. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

In 1997, French urban climber, Alain “Spiderman” Robert, using only his bare hands and feet and with no safety devices of any kind, scaled the building’s exterior wall all the way to the top. It received attention during Sydney 2000 Olympics. It was included in the Olympic Torch route to the Olympic stadium and involved Australian swimmer Samantha Riley standing on top of the Opera House waving the Olympic torch. It was the backdrop of some Olympic events, including the triathlon—which began at the Opera House—and the yachting events on Sydney Harbour.

Security at the Opera House has increased as the result of the likelihood of it attracting the attention of terrorists because of the Australian Government’s support of the invasion of Iraq. This security did not prevent two climbers painting a “No War” slogan at the top of one sail in March 2003. The repair bill for this was later revealed to be over $100,000.

No WAR

Noted for its excellent acoustics, it is the only authentic Utzon-designed space at Sydney Opera House and was renamed the Utzon Room in his honor in 2004. In 2003 Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, international architecture’s highest honor. The Pritzker Prize citation read:

There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city but a whole country and continent.

Have you been to Sydney Opera House? What was your favorite memory to share with other readers!? Comment Please!

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