Sydney Opera House

Engineering places: Sydney Opera House

Image credit: Dreamstime

In celebration of IET@150 we look at feats of engineering from around the world. Here, we venture to Australia to explore its famous white sail-inspired venue.

The iconic white sails seen from Sydney Harbour are a mesmerising sight to many who visit the ‘Land Down Under’. The sculptural elegance of the Sydney Opera House, which fuses ancient and modern influence, made it one of the most recognisable buildings of the 20th century, and it still stands at the harbour in all its architectural glory.

Built to “help mould a better and more enlightened community”, in the words of New South Wales (NSW) Labour Party Premier Joseph Cahill in 1954, the Sydney Opera House has hosted many of the world’s greatest artists and performers, and has been a meeting place for matters of local and international significance since opening in 1973.

How was this magnificent structure made? In 1952, Cahill announced the government’s intention of putting Sydney on the world map by creating an opera house. Following this, the NSW government announced an international competition in January 1956, attracting over 220 entries from 32 countries. As a result, they chose a design by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who aspired to create a “sculptural form that would relate as naturally to the harbour as the sails of its yachts”.

Yet construction was not straightforward. The NSW government insisted work on the building would begin in 1957 before architects decided how the unique shell designs and their supports would be implemented. Because of this abrupt decision, completing construction of the Opera House took 16 years. It took over three years just to finish the design for the glazed ceramic tiles that make up each of the house’s shells. Following this, it took eight years to build the shell structure – one of the most difficult engineering tasks ever to be attempted.

By 23 January 1961, construction was running 47 weeks behind, mainly due to unexpected difficulties like inclement weather, diverting storm water and changes of original contract documents. The forced early start later led to major setbacks such as the podium columns not being strong enough to support the roof structure, forcing reconstruction. Yet after many hurdles, the building’s podium was finally completed in February 1963.

In mid-1965, NSW citizens elected a new state Liberal government and tensions arose between architect Utzon and the new works minister, Sir Davis Hughes. Hughes questioned Utzon’s designs and costs – which increased significantly – and eventually took financial control of the project. As a result, Utzon quit in 1966, telling Hughes in a letter: “You do not respect me as an architect. I have therefore today given my staff notice of my dismissal.”

With the podium in place and structure of the roof incomplete, the government appointed new architects – Peter Hall, DS Littlemore, and Lionel Todd – to complete construction of the Sydney Opera House, with the final budget standing at AU$102m (£56.5m).

Following the building’s completion, and after several test performances, organisers greeted guests with a production of Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’ on 28 September 1973 – the first public performance in the building. The following night, they inaugurated its Concert Hall with a performance of an all-Wagner programme by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the Opera House on 20 October 1973, in a ceremony complete with fireworks and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Thousands of boats crowded the harbour, along with thousands on the shore, all trying to get a glimpse of proceedings. It was also broadcast to around three million television viewers around the world. According to reports, they did not invite Utzon to the opening ceremony, nor was he acknowledged for the building’s design.

However, this wasn’t the last people would hear about Utzon and the Opera House. After a series of conversations and meetings with the Opera House Trust and the NSW government, Utzon agreed to be re-engaged as a design consultant for future work on his masterpiece in 1999. Over the next few years following his re-instatement, he developed a set of design principles as a basis for all future changes to the building.

Despite many controversies in its development, the Sydney Opera House still stands as one of the most iconic engineering and architectural landmarks in the world. Indeed, as Pritzker Prize judge Frank Gehry said when awarding architecture’s highest award to Utzon in 2003: “[Jørn] Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology... a building that changed the image of an entire country.”

The United Nations also added the Opera House to the World Heritage list of culturally significant sites back in 2007. According to an expert evaluation report to the Unesco World Heritage Committee, the Sydney Opera 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.”

For more on the engineering behind the Sydney Opera House, see 
Ove Arup: Engineering at the heart of design

Timeline: Sydney Opera House

13 Sept 1955: Then-premier Joseph Cahill announces an international design competition for an opera house, with Sydney’s Bennelong Point approved as the site.

29 Jan 1957: Danish architect Jørn Utzon is the winner and is awarded AU£5,000 (£2,765). (Australia changed from the Australian pound to the Australian dollar in 1966.)

July 1957: NSW Parliament allocates AU£3.5m (£1.9m) of public funds to the project. Utzon makes his first trip to Sydney. Although he designs the Sydney Opera House, he never sees the site in person.

2 March 1959: Construction begins on the upper podium, which will house all people, facilities, changing rooms, bars, and lobbies. It is 1.8 hectares across two platforms.

Oct 1959: Cahill dies and is succeeded by Robert James Heffron.

23 Jan 1961: Construction is delayed by 47 weeks.

Aug 1962: The podium is completed and a year later the interior design is built.

1965: For two years, various roofing alternatives are trialled. The original parabolic surfaces were dangerous because if one collapsed, others would follow. Utzon devised that covers would be made using ‘ribs’ of a sphere, forming independent layers.

1966: After a long conflict with the NSW government over costs, Utzon quits the project and Peter Hall takes over.

1967: Hall works on the interior, changing some of Utzon’s designs, increasing the galleries and modifying the shape of the concert hall’s ceiling.

20 Oct 1973: The Sydney Opera House is officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.

1973: Final cost was estimated at AU$3.5m (£1.9m), but this increases to AU$120m (£66m).

2007: The United Nations adds the Sydney Opera House to the World Heritage list of culturally significant sites.

29 Nov 2008: Utzon dies in his home town of Copenhagen. His legacy lives on in architectural projects around the world, but his masterpiece remains the Sydney Opera House, though he never got to see the completed work in person.

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