A glistening harbor and palm-studded gardens frame the white sails of the Sydney Opera House. It is a world-class performing arts center that became an icon of both Sydney and Australia after its completion in 1973.
But few of the 1.2 million people who attend shows each year or the 8.2 million visitors who walk around Bennelong Point would know that its original architect was treated like a pariah by his government.
Why is it so famous?
The iconic building is home to symphony concerts, choir performances, and popular music shows in the Concert Hall, which seats over 2,600. Opera and dance performances take place in the Opera Theatre (renamed the Joan Sutherland Theatre in 2012 to honor the Australian operatic soprano) and three smaller venues.
Eugene Goossens, the director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, convinced New South Wales Premier Joseph Cahill that Sydney needed a major performance venue. He and the government announced an international competition to design an opera house at Bennelong Point.
The winner of the contest was Danish architect Jorn Utzon. There’s a legend that a visiting American architect, Eero Saarinen, showed up at the judging session after the three other members of the panel had shortlisted designs and picked out Utzon’s plan by sheer chance.
Few of the 1.2 million people who buy tickets each year for performances at the Sydney Opera House or the seven million visitors from around the world will ever guess that its visionary architect was once treated like a pariah by the government that commissioned it.
In 1954 orchestra conductor Eugene Goossens launched a movement to build a world-class performing arts centre for Sydney. A year later the state Premier Joseph Cahill held an international competition for designs. 233 entries were received but Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s dramatic design emerged victorious.
The soaring shell structures were inspired by bird wings, walnuts, palm trees, and, according to Utzon himself, the act of peeling an orange. It was a radical concept that caused great controversy. Engineers Ove Arup had to work hard to translate the free-form shapes and individualized plans into something that could be constructed.
Jorn Utzon’s design won an international competition in 1956, beating out 230 other submissions. His concept centered around a solid base that could hold two large halls for opera and concerts and smaller ones used for smaller musical events. The main and the smaller halls are capped by a series of asymmetrical vaults supported on precast concrete bases.
The plan was controversial from the start, as it sought to enlarge access to theater and music in a time of austerity. The project was overseen by Joseph Cahill, the Labor Party mayor of Sydney and a member of the government’s executive committee.
The project went through several changes in leadership and design during construction, which was slowed by the changing administrations in New South Wales. Utzon grew increasingly reluctant to answer questions or criticism from the client, the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee, and was unwilling to compromise on aspects of his designs that the clients wanted to change.
With the COVID-19 restrictions lifted, the Sydney Opera House was welcoming audiences to a wide range of performances. From a special show by Sting to a performance by The Cure, the halls are filled with world-class musicians.
In 1959, Danish architect Utzon won a competition to design the Sydney Opera House. His distinctive silhouette resembles white sails on the sea and the design was considered revolutionary at the time.
However, when it came to construction, the building took far longer than expected. Engineers from the London-based firm Arup were struggling to translate Utzon’s free-form shapes into a design that could be fabricated and constructed. It was a long journey that ended with the resignation of Utzon in February 1966. This prompted a storm of letters, petitions, and even street protests.
Despite its massive size, the Opera House has a very human scale. Its iconic shells are so large that eight Boeing 747 jets could park wing to wing underneath them, and its roof is the height of a 22-story building.
After a long saga involving Utzon and the Australian government, the building was finally completed in 1973, at a cost far higher than the initial budget. But the Sydney Opera House has more than earned back that debt, bringing in billions of dollars each year for Australia from tourism and cultural events.
Since its opening, the Sydney Opera House has hosted an extraordinary array of performances and events. From Stephen Hawking appearing as a hologram to a projection honoring firefighters who battled COVID-19, the venue continues to inspire.