Sydney’s iconic Opera House is a triumph of engineering and architecture,
recognizable around the world. As downunder journalist David Killick discovers,
the famous Opera House would never have been built if it hadn’t been for
the role of a designer from Michigan…
Sally Kalina loves coming to work. She has quite an “office”: The
Sydney Opera House, with its glittering spinnaker-like roofs, and views over
the sparkling blue waters of one of the world’s finest harbors.
A view of the Sydney Opera House, one of Australia’s remarkable claims to fame. Looking like a building within a building within a building, its dramatic curves and intersecting angles inspire an emotional response whether you are looking at it inside or out.
As a tour guide, Sally has been taking visitors from around through the Opera
House for the last five years, marveling at its multiple theaters and the sculptural
harmony of its architecture. “I never get tired of it,” says Sally. “Every
day’s different, meeting different people. I always learn from people on
tour. It’s always looking different, in the morning when you see it, in
the afternoon, it’s just an incredible building.”
What reactions do visitors have? “Quite taken aback. They can’t believe
it’s so big, it’s like seeing the pyramids in Egypt. You know, they’re
huge when you see them up close, and also I think the Concert Hall takes people’s
breath away – it’s so unusual, so much wood, and just everything. It’s
Sitting high atop the original construction of the Opera House, safety standards then would not meet OSHA standards of today.
Today, the Opera House has become a symbol for a city and a country. “Its
been a magnet to Australia. From a city that was not well-known for many, many
years, and from a building that was criticized quite a bit at the beginning,
it has done a full circle. It seems like everyone loves it and it has drawn
people from all around the world.”
Indeed it has. From singer and actor Paul Robeson, who climbed the scaffolding
when the building was under construction in 1960 to sing to the workers, to
Queen Elizabeth II, who officially opened it on October 20, 1973, the Opera
continued to draw world-famous visitors: Pope John Paul II, who spoke in the
Concert Hall in 1986; Nelson Mandela, shortly after his release from prison,
in 1990; President Clinton, who jogged into the Opera House in 1996; Hillary
Clinton, who spoke on the role of women in the 21st century; Chancellor Helmut
Kohl of Germany…And another visitor shortly after the Opera House was opened
was The Chief Engineer’s editor-in-chief, John Fanning, then on furlough
from serving in the Vietnam War. The building has created a lasting impression.
Early construction photos instantly give one the idea of the massive amount of structural ingenuity that went into the design of this building.
Just about every famous singer has performed here in some venue – jazz, operatic,
classical and contemporary. They include Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr.,
Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Tony Bennett, KD Lang, Norah Jones, and,
Australia’s own opera diva soprano Dame Joan Sutherland.
In 2000, the Sydney Opera House set the stage for the Sydney 2000 Olympic
Games, with 176 performances of 35 different events over a six-week period.
Yet for all its celebrated status, the Sydney Opera House might never have
been built at all, or may well have looked quite different. Declared wildly
and an engineering impossibility at the outset, its early history is mired
in controversy, cost overruns, and rancorous disputes. The budgeted cost was
million; it ended up costing close to $75 million.
How did the saga begin?
In 1947, Belgian-British musician Eugene Goossens, who had been conductor
of the Cincinnati orchestra, was engaged as principal conductor of the Sydney
Symphony Orchestra, and was amazed there was no opera house. goossens, explains
petitioned New South Wales state premier Joseph Cahill.
“The premier said, ‘Mate, I’ve never been to an opera’,
but he was an astute politician and he realized there was an election coming
up…so politics and music prevailed. He decided to have this competition with
architects submitting their sketches from all around the world.”
The site was one of Sydney’s most spectacular: Bennelong Point, jutting
out from Circular Quay, which would allow the building to be viewed easily
from all angles.
About 230 designs were submitted. “In 1957 all the judges arrived, trying
to decide whom to choose when an American judge arrived a few days late.”
He was actually Finnish-American, Eero Saarinen, famous for the St. Louis
Arch and TWA building in New York City. “Michigan boy, he came roaring in, looked
at all the entry forms, he didn’t like anything, but we went to the reject
pile…he looked through it, he saw the sketches of the Opera House, and he said ‘Gentlemen,
that’s your winner!’”
Danish Architect, Joern Utzon, shows the concept design for the Sydney Opera House. Thousands of hours of research developed the idea of a “sliced sphere” to form the roofs.
The winner was Danish Architect Joern Utzon. What struck Saarinen was the
dramatic, highly individual shape of the rooflines. Looking like spinnakers
of a yacht
under sail or upended shells, these roofs have also been described, in rugby
parlance, as “a nun’s scrum.”
Utzon was supposedly inspired by palm fronds. He himself penned these splendidly
poetic lines expressing his vision: “In the hot sun of the day it will
be a beautiful white shimmering thing.”
The design has been called “an adventure at the edge of what was technically
possible.” A sometimes overlooked aspect of Utzon’s designs is his
emphasis on a supporting platform, based on his early inspiration from shipbuilding.
The platform was not a problem; the roof shells, also called “the fifth
facade” on the other hand, looked impossible to build.
Sure, it looked dramatic, but Utzon’s early designs did not work mathematically.
As the most important structural requirement for any building if for the roof
to stay up and for the building to hold together, a solution was imperative.
Together with another Dane, engineer Ove Arun, from London, Utzon worked
for thousands of hours using 1950s-era computers to come up with the idea of
This bronze model outside the Opera House shows Utzon’s idea, arrived at after thousands of hours theorizing, to base the roof shells on a sphere. All shapes have the same radius, greatly simplifying construction.
A bronze model outside the Opera House explains Utzon’s and Arun’s
reasoning. Think of a sphere or a globe – or an orange. Now slice it into quarters,
or any number of adjoining shapes. All have the same radius, simplifying construction.
These slices form the roofs: an elegant and simple solution. In Utzon’s
own words: “After three years of intensive search for a basic geometry
for the shell complex, I arrived in October 1961 with the spherical solution
shown here. I call this my key to the shells because it solves all the problems
of construction by opening up for mass production and precision in manufacture
and simple erection and with this geometrical system I attain full harmony
between all the shapes in this fantastic complex.”
The first attempts at gluing prefabricated pieces of concrete together had
been made in San Francisco. For the Sydney Opera House, epoxy resin was used.
Because concrete loves compression, but cannot take tension, some 217 miles
of pre-stressed post tension steel cabling were used. According to official
the entire building weighs 158,412 tons, with the roof shells along weighing
26,799 tons. A total of 7,442 square yards of glass were used in the windows.
Large parts of the Opera House could be prefabricated, then swung into place
by crane. The shells required an incredible 1,056,006 Swedish roof tiles. These
are painted off-white and beige to reveal their distinctive chevron shapes.
Putting all the pieces together was rather like a giant Lego set – another
A video shows what the construction was like: workers dangle from cranes high
above the harbor as giant pieces of glass and concrete are maneuvered into
place. A contemporary observer notes, wryly, that the methods used then would
be allowed under today’s stringent health and safety regulations.
A ferry trip takes passengers underneath the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Known as the “Coathanger”, the single-span arch bridge took eight years to build and is itself an architectural triumph.
Sadly, Utzon never got the chance to complete his design. A series of wranglings,
costs disputes and political pressure compelled the Danish architect to resign
in disgust in 1966. marches on parliament took place, but Utzon had had enough.
It was up to an Australian design team, let by architect Peter Hall to complete
The next stage, the interior, presented different problems. Originally, the
Concert Hall was intended to serve for opera, ballet, symphonies and concerts.
make this difficult: if you are singing, you need a short reverberation time.
A big orchestra needs a long reverberation time. If you put opera in the concert
hall, Lucia di Lammermoor would sound more mad than usual, explains Sally.
One solution, used in the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, designed
architect IM Pei, is a roof that can be raised for symphonies and lowered for
Utzon had realized the multi-purpose space would have been difficult, but
had not finalized the plan. Hall decided to keep the Concert Hall for concerts
and turned what was originally designed as the drama theater into an Opera
By changing the design, he allowed the creation of three more theaters. Under
the ten sails of the Opera House, a huge range of performances take place inside
the Concert Hall, Opera Theater, Drama Theater, Playhouse and Studio. The walls
of the Drama Theater and the Opera Theater are painted black, to focus attention
on the stage.
The front north-facing is reminiscent of the bridge of a ship, with views over the harbor and the harbor bridge.
The Concert Hall is the largest space, its elegant lacquered timber seating
accommodating 2,679 people. Giant suspended acoustic “donuts” enhance
sound quality. Timber is native eucalypt, from the gum tree; the over-all effect
is light and
The Opera Theater seats 1,547 people. Under another, smaller sail, diners
can eat out in the Guillaume at Bennelong restaurant and enjoy nighttime views
over the harbor.
A dramatic mix of wood and concrete, the Sydney Opera House is a wonder just to see, even without viewing a concert or play.
Building the Sydney Opera House took 14 years. When the budget blew out and
newspapers revealed the ever-increasing cost, a series of lotteries was held
the project. As the Aussies say: “No worries.”
Utzon, who in 2002 received architecture’s highest award, the Pritzker
Prize, has never returned to see his design completed. There is a happy end,
however, explains Sally. Both Joern utzon, now 86, and his son Jan, are involved
with the Opera House’s latest refurbishments.
The $51 million project – with funding from the state government – will be
the first structural change to the exterior of the building since it opened
It entails creating a 147 foot-long, 16-foot-wide loggia, or colonnade, on
the western side. Underneath the colonnade, nine new large windows and doorways
open out from the theater foyers, affording panoramic views of the harbor,
bridge, and Circular Quay.
The tapestry in the Utzon Room, only opened this year, celebrates the work of the Sydney Opera House’s original architect, Joern Utzon.
NSW premier and Minister for The Arts, Bob Carr, says once completed, more
than half of the western foyers of the Sydney Opera House will be glass. “The
colonnade will create a spectacular vista for the thousands of visitors and international
tourists who stroll around the western boardwalk each day.” A new room,
the Utzon Room, has been opened. It features a simple Scandinavian design, full
of natural timbers and finishes, and a striking 14m tapestry, designed by Utzon.
It was inspired by CPE Bach’s Hamburg Symphonies, and Raphael’s painting, “Procession
to Calvary”, and was woven by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, supervised
by Utzon’s daughter and artist, Lin.
The architect is thrilled to be involved with the Opera House refurbishment.
Although not up to traveling at the moment, he said in a video message: “I
am really delighted that we have been asked…to work on a better situation at
the western side of the Opera House… The naming of the Utzon room was a ‘marvelous
idea’. It gives me the greatest satisfaction. I don’t think you
can give me more joy as the architect. It supercedes any medal of any kind
could get and have got.”
Utzon’s involvement is good news, says Sally. “It’s lovely
to know because it was a sad story when he left. He’s welcome back, if
only we could get him to come to Australia…”
Acting facilities director Paul Ackhurst in the main plant room. Ackhurst is responsible for behind-the-scenes maintenance to ensure all systems are running smoothly.
Another indication of the community involvement of the Opera House is the
Bennelong Program, which has introduced children with visual impairments to
With about 1,000 rooms, finding your way around the Opera House is a bit
like finding your way around different decks in a big ship. It’s easy to get
lost. Sally recounts how during one drama performance a young man on a pushbike
with parcels to deliver made a mistake.
“The poor darling, he took the wrong turn and came on stage. He got a terrible
fright and the actor, being an actor, could think very quickly and said, ‘Thank
heavens, the parcels have come at last!’ So I think the audience thought
it was all part of the script.”
another time, a family of possums from the neighboring Botanic Gardens, no
doubt wanting some culture, wandered on stage.
One man who knows his way around and who would never step through a wrong
door is Sydney Opera House acting facilities director, English-trained engineer
He is tasked with facility operations and maintenance – a big responsibility
in a building that functions like a miniature city. “It covers everything
from the domestic chores of cleaning and general support, raising the flags
and the sundry sort of thing, right through to all the maintenance on all the
the theater systems, the HVAC systems, the sanitary systems, pretty much everything.”
Ceramic exterior tiles – all million plus of them – are relatively maintenance
free, and largely self-cleaning. There are no ugly drain pipes; the rain simply
washes them clean and drains down into the forecourt tiles. Cleaning the double-laminated
topaz and white glass is more labor intensive.
Inside, Ackhurst ranges through seeming miles of corridors, past miles of
cables and pipes. Rather than having separate floors, Ackhurst explains different
levels are expressed by their height above sea level.
There are 27 plant rooms, but these are being consolidated into six, all
The heat exchange system keeps all parts of the Opera House comfortable,
except one glassed area facing north into the sun. The power bill is surprisingly
economical, considering the size and scale of the Opera House.
Instead of large and ugly cooling towers, excess heat is released into the
harbor. It has no harmful effect on marine life, says Ackhurst. “It’s very
economical not building cooling towers…It’s an effective, safe way
of using our excess heat.”
Another quirky fact: there are 15,500 light bulbs which have to be changed
annually. How is this done? Carefully, via precipitous catwalks.
One catwalk takes maintenance engineers out onto the roof and along the spine
of the roof shells for an invigorating but dizzying view.
Another remarkable engineering feature of the Sydney Opera House is its triple
skin construction, which ensures superb sound insulation. “It’s like
a building inside a building inside another building,” says Ackhurst.
With its curves and intersecting angles, the Opera House looks dramatic whichever
way you look at it – inside or out. It’s an amazing building, and inspires
an emotional response. In a time of international uncertainty, tension, and
violence, it is tremendously uplifting to know that the human spirit can create
works that celebrate art and beauty.
As the sound of Amici Forever fills the Concert Hall, one cannot help but
feel that Sydney Symphony Orchestra conductor Christopher Hogwood’s description
of the role of classical music could easily apply to that of the whole Sydney
Opera House: “Food for the soul, a hospital for the mind.”
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