The Sydney Opera House is built on Bennelong Point, a promontory that forms the east bank of Sydney Cove. The first known concert on Bennelong Point was held in March 1791 when Bennelong, the Aboriginal man after whom the promontory was named, provided an evening of entertainment for the Governor and his party. The site was initially occupied by Fort Macquarie which was designed by Francis Greenway in 1817. Later, it was the site of the Bennelong Point Tram Depot. This in turn was demolished to make way for the Opera House.
Public pressure to build a suitable concert facility in Sydney intensified in the 1940s. In 1956 the New South Wales Premier, The Hon Joe Cahill, announced an international competition for the design of an opera house for Sydney which attracted more than 200 entries from around the world.
Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s entry was selected as the winning design. His design was for a complex with two theatres side by side on a large podium. This was covered by interlocking concrete shells, which acted as both wall and roof. A third smaller shell set apart from the others was to cover the restaurant.
Story goes that during the judging of the competition one of the judges, renowned American architect, Eero Saarinen, arrived in Sydney after the other three judges had started assessing the entries. He looked through their rejected entries and stopped at the Utzon design declaring it to be outstanding.
Utzon’s competition entry was a schematic design, clearly explaining the concept for the building. The sketches and “geometrically undefined” curves of course needed to be developed for the building to be built. This is quite normal for competition projects. Utzon himself was sure it could be built and in the pioneering spirit present in Sydney at the time, construction went ahead.
It was Utzon’s life and travels that had shaped his ideas for the Sydney Opera House. Though he had never visited the site, he used his maritime background to study naval charts of Sydney harbour. His early exposure to shipbuilding provided the inspiration for the Sydney Opera House ‘sails’ and would also help him solve the challenges of their construction. From his travels to Mexico, he had the idea of placing his building on a wide horizontal platform.
Construction of the podium began on 2 March 1959 with a ground breaking ceremony presided over by NSW Premier The Hon Joe Cahill. Over several years Utzon gradually made changes from his original concept designs in order to develop a way to construct the large shells that cover the two halls. After extensive testing, Utzon and engineer Ove Arup developed a design based on the complex sections of a sphere.
“The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.” American architect, Louis Kahn
From 1964 the pre-cast rib vaults of the shells began to be erected on the completed podium. The construction of the roof brought together some of the world’s best construction engineers and craftsmen for this complex stage of the project, devising new and innovative techniques to find the goal of architectural perfection and in doing so, create a major visual impact which delivered Utzon’s vision.
Although Utzon had spectacular plans for the interior of the completed shells he was unable to realise this part of his design. In mid 1965 a new Liberal government was elected in the State of NSW. The Minster of Works Davis Hughes began questioning Utzon’s designs, schedules and cost estimates and eventually stopped payments to Utzon who was forced to withdraw as chief architect in February 1966.
Following Utzon’s letter of resignation there were protests and marches through the streets of Sydney led by Australian architect Harry Seidler, author Patrick White and others, demanding Utzon be reinstated as architect. The NSW government did not offer him this role, Jørn Utzon left the country at the end of April 1966 with his family, never to return to see his masterpiece again.
The Opera House was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973. Utzon was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Architects Australia but was not present at the opening ceremony.
Utzon said of the Design Principles, published in 2002, “My job is to articulate the overall vision and detailed design principles for the site, and for the form of the building and its interior”.
“I like to think the Sydney Opera House is like a musical instrument, and like any fine instrument, it needs a little maintenance and fine tuning, from time to time, if it is to keep on performing at the highest level.”