Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak bridge

© Wojtek Gurak

The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre in Sydney. Located on the banks of the Sydney Harbour, it is often regarded as one of the world’s most famous and distinctive buildings and a masterpiece of 20th century architecture.

Sydney Opera House Technical Information

And with a few moments like that, with doubt from here and there, and within ourselves we were just striving for excellence. We had somehow understood and felt that all the musicians who would come to the House later on, that all the singers, the big artists, were striving for excellence in their life and we thought a house for them, there’s no limit to the excellence it should have because it should match their strive for perfection

– Jørn Utzon 1

Sydney Opera House Photographs
Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak skyline

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak exterior

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak front river

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes exterior

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak passage

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak corner

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Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak shells

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Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak stair main

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak stairs

© Wojtek Gurak

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes Wojtek Gurak blue interior

© Wojtek Gurak

Text by the Architects

There are few buildings as famous as the Sydney Opera House in Sydney. 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.

Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, but completed by an Australian architectural team headed by Peter Hall, the building was formally opened on 20 October 1973 after a gestation beginning with Utzon’s 1957 selection as winner of an international design competition. The Government of New South Wales, led by the premier, Joseph Cahill, authorised work to begin in 1958 with Utzon directing construction. The government’s decision to build Utzon’s design is often overshadowed by circumstances that followed, including cost and scheduling overruns as well as the architect’s ultimate resignation.

The building and its surrounds occupy the whole of Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbour, between Sydney Cove and Farm Cove, adjacent to the Sydney central business district and the Royal Botanic Gardens, and close by the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

On 28 June 2007, the Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having been listed on the (now defunct) Register of the National Estate since 1980, the National Trust of Australia register since 1983, the City of Sydney Heritage Inventory since 2000, the New South Wales State Heritage Register since 2003, and the Australian National Heritage List since 2005. Furthermore, the Opera House was a finalist in the New7Wonders of the World campaign list.

The facility features a modern expressionist design, with a series of large precast concrete “shells”, each composed of sections of a sphere of 75.2 metres (246 ft 8.6 in) radius, forming the roofs of the structure, set on a monumental podium. The building covers 1.8 hectares (4.4 acres) of land and is 183 m (600 ft) long and 120 m (394 ft) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk as much as 25 m (82 ft) below sea level. The highest roof point is 67 metres above sea-level which is the same height as that of a 22-storey building. The roof is made of 2,194 pre-cast concrete sections, which weigh up to 15 tonnes each.

Although the roof structures are commonly referred to as “shells”, they are precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs, not shells in a strictly structural sense. Though the shells appear uniformly white from a distance, they actually feature a subtle chevron pattern composed of 1,056,006 tiles in two colours: glossy white and matte cream. The tiles were manufactured by the Swedish company Höganäs AB which generally produced stoneware tiles for the paper-mill industry.

Apart from the tile of the shells and the glass curtain walls of the foyer spaces, the building’s exterior is largely clad with aggregate panels composed of pink granite quarried at Tarana. Significant interior surface treatments also include off-form concrete, Australian white birch plywood supplied from Wauchope in northern New South Wales, and brush box glulam.

Of the two larger spaces, the Concert Hall is in the western group of shells, the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the eastern group. The scale of the shells was chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, with low entrance spaces, rising over the seating areas up to the high stage towers. The smaller venues (the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio) are within the podium, beneath the Concert Hall. A smaller group of shells set to the western side of the Monumental Steps houses the Bennelong Restaurant. The podium is surrounded by substantial open public spaces, and the large stone-paved forecourt area with the adjacent monumental steps is regularly used as a performance space.

Sydney Opera House Construction

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes under construction tif Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes construction

Utzon and his resignation

Before the Sydney Opera House competition, Jørn Utzon had won seven of the 18 competitions he had entered but had never seen any of his designs built. Utzon’s submitted concept for the Sydney Opera House was almost universally admired and considered groundbreaking. The Assessors Report of January 1957, stated:

The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.

For the first stage, Utzon worked successfully with the rest of the design team and the client, but, as the project progressed, the Cahill government insisted on progressive revisions. They also did not fully appreciate the costs or work involved in design and construction. Tensions between the client and the design team grew further when an early start to construction was demanded despite an incomplete design. This resulted in a continuing series of delays and setbacks while various technical engineering issues were being refined. The building was unique, and the problems with the design issues and cost increases were exacerbated by commencement of work before the completion of the final plans.

After the 1965 election of the Liberal Party, with Robert Askin becoming Premier of New South Wales, the relationship of client, architect, engineers and contractors became increasingly tense. Askin had been a “vocal critic of the project prior to gaining office.” His new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, was even less sympathetic. Elizabeth Farrelly, an Australian architecture critic, wrote that:

at an election night dinner party in Mosman, Hughes’ daughter Sue Burgoyne boasted that her father would soon sack Utzon. Hughes had no interest in art, architecture or aesthetics. A fraud, as well as a philistine, he had been exposed before Parliament and dumped as Country Party leader for 19 years of falsely claiming a university degree. The Opera House gave Hughes a second chance. For him, as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius.

Differences ensued. One of the first was that Utzon believed the clients should receive information on all aspects of the design and construction through his practice, while the clients wanted a system (notably drawn in sketch form by Davis Hughes) where architect, contractors, and engineers each reported to the client directly and separately. This had great implications for procurement methods and cost control, with Utzon wishing to negotiate contracts with chosen suppliers (such as Ralph Symonds for the plywood interiors) and the New South Wales government insisting contracts be put out to tender.

Utzon was highly reluctant to respond to questions or criticism from the client’s Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC). However, he was greatly supported throughout by a member of the committee and one of the original competition judges, Harry Ingham Ashworth. Utzon was unwilling to compromise on some aspects of his designs that the clients wanted to change.

Utzon’s ability was never in doubt, despite questions raised by Davis Hughes, who attempted to portray Utzon as an impractical dreamer. Ove Arup actually stated that Utzon was “probably the best of any I have come across in my long experience of working with architects” and: “The Opera House could become the world’s foremost contemporary masterpiece if Utzon is given his head.”

In October 1965, Utzon gave Hughes a schedule setting out the completion dates of parts of his work for stage III. Utzon was at this time working closely with Ralph Symonds, a manufacturer of plywood based in Sydney and highly regarded by many, despite an Arup engineer warning that Ralph Symonds’s “knowledge of the design stresses of plywood, was extremely sketchy” and that the technical advice was “elementary to say the least and completely useless for our purposes.” Australian architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly has referred to Ove Arup’s project engineer Michael Lewis as having “other agendas”. In any case, Hughes shortly after withheld permission for the construction of plywood prototypes for the interiors, and the relationship between Utzon and the client never recovered. By February 1966, Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees. Hughes then withheld funding so that Utzon could not even pay his own staff. The government minutes record that following several threats of resignation, Utzon finally stated to Davis Hughes: “If you don’t do it, I resign.” Hughes replied: “I accept your resignation. Thank you very much. Goodbye.”

Utzon left the project on 28 February 1966. He said that Hughes’s refusal to pay him any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation and later described the situation as “Malice in Blunderland”. In March 1966, Hughes offered him a subordinate role as “design architect” under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House’s construction, but Utzon rejected this. Utzon left the country never to return.

Following the resignation, there was great controversy about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The Sydney Morning Herald initially opined: “No architect in the world has enjoyed greater freedom than Mr Utzon. Few clients have been more patient or more generous than the people and the Government of NSW. One would not like history to record that this partnership was brought to an end by a fit of temper on the one side or by a fit of meanness on the other.” On 17 March 1966, the Herald offered the view that: “It was not his [Utzon’s] fault that a succession of Governments and the Opera House Trust should so signally have failed to impose any control or order on the project … his concept was so daring that he himself could solve its problems only step by step … his insistence on perfection led him to alter his design as he went along.”

The Sydney Opera House opened the way for the immensely complex geometries of some modern architecture. The design was one of the first examples of the use of computer-aided design to design complex shapes. The design techniques developed by Utzon and Arup for the Sydney Opera House have been further developed and are now used for architecture, such as works of Gehry and blobitecture, as well as most reinforced concrete structures. The design is also one of the first in the world to use araldite to glue the precast structural elements together and proved the concept for future use.

It was also a first in mechanical engineering. Another Danish firm, Steensen Varming, was responsible for designing the new air-conditioning plant, the largest in Australia at the time, supplying over 600,000 cubic feet (17,000 m3) of air per minute, using the innovative idea of harnessing the harbour water to create a water-cooled heat pump system that is still in operation today.

Sydney Opera House Plans
Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes floor plan

Floor Plan | © Jørn Utzon

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes plan

Roof Plan | © Jørn Utzon

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes section

Section | © Jørn Utzon

Sydney Opera House Australia auditorium Jorn Utzon architecture building ArchEyes diagrams

Plans | © Jørn Utzon

Sydney Opera House Plans Image Gallery
About Jørn Utzon

Danish architect Jørn Utzon was born in 1918. An admirer of the ideas of Gunnar Asplund, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright while still in school, Utzon acknowledges that Aalto, Asplund, and Wright were all significant influences in his work. Most of Utzon’s projects have been completed in his native Denmark, but he is best known for the Sydney Opera House, an iconic building of curving roof forms. Construction began in 1959 and was not complete until 1973, and Utzon left the project in 1966 after bitter arguments with Australian officials regarding cost and schedule issues.
Other works from Jørn Utzon 

  1. Aalto, Utzon, Fehn: Three Paradigms of Phenomenological Architecture by Roger Tyrrell (Author)

Cite this article: "Sydney Opera House / Jørn Utzon" in ArchEyes, January 20, 2022, https://archeyes.com/sydney-opera-house-jorn-utzon/.