Designing the Sydney Opera House, 1957 to 1973

How did a Danish architect's idea become an Australian reality?

Architectural Shell Game

Aerial View of the Sydney Opera House in Australia
Aerial View of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Photo by James D. Morgan / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Danish architect Jørn Utzon was only 38 when he won the competition to build the Sydney Opera House.  The project became the highlight of his career but brought enormous challenges in engineering and building technology. Utzon's winning design, submitted in 1957, moved through a complicated process with many adaptations and innovations before the Sydney Opera House officially opened on October 20, 1973. Here's the rest of the story, filled with complications and controversies,

The Competition Sketch

Competition sketches by Jørn Utzon for the Sydney Opera House, 1956
Competition drawings by Jørn Utzon for the Sydney Opera House, 1956. Jørn Utzon 1956 plans including report, State archives, State Records Authority of New South Wales

Utzon won the competition with the design shown here (view larger image), but it seemed everything was against its realization:

  • For an architect at age 38, Utzon was young with limited experience
  • Utzon's design concept was visually artistic, but lacked practical engineering know-how
  • Utzon could not estimate the costs because he did not know the  construction challenges
  • the government was pressured to select an architect from Australia and Utzon was from Denmark

Sources: Sydney Opera House, Advisory Body Evaluation, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations; Sydney Opera House Competition Drawing courtesy The State Records Authority of New South Wales, A Division of the Department of Finance and Services at http://gallery.records.nsw.gov.au/index.php/galleries/sydney-opera-house/sydney-opera-hous%0Ae-drawings/ [accessed October 18, 2013]

Why Does the Sydney Opera House Look This Way?

Bronze plaque on Sydney Opera House reveals the architect's key to design
Bronze plaque on Sydney Opera House reveals the architect's key to design. "Key to the Shells" plaque in the public domain by the photographer via Wikimedia Commons

A bronze plaque at the Sydney Opera House visually demonstrates the architectural idea and design solution of Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The architect wanted the plaque to explain the spherical concept of the architecture. The key to the shell design, as shown here, is that each shell or sail is an element of a solid sphere.

View a larger image of the plaque.

Plaque Inscription:

after three years of intensive search for a basic geometry for the shell complex I arrived in october 1961 at 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, precision in manufacture and simple erection and with this geometrical system I attain full harmony between all the shapes in this fantastic complex.

jórn utzon

Source: 1990-1997 History, Sydney Opera House website [accessed October 18, 2013]

From Design to Construction

Famous shell design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia
Famous shell design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The year after architect Jorn Utzon won the competition/commission, structural engineers from London-based Arup & Partners were brought on-board for every stage of construction.

Jørn Utzon's approach to building the Sydney Opera House has been called additive architecture—prefabricated elements joined onsite to create a whole.

Three Stages of Architectural Composition:

  • stage 1 (1958–1961): the podium or platform
  • stage 2 (1962–1967): the vaulted shells or sails
  • stage 3 (1967–1973): glass skin and interiors

Source: Sydney Opera House, Advisory Body Evaluation, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations [accessed October 18, 2013]

Ribs

The ribs of the Sydney Opera House sails from inside the building
The ribs of the Sydney Opera House sails from inside the building. Interior ribs photo by Brian Voon Yee Yap [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Arup & Partners engineers helped make the architect's vision a reality. While the podium platforms were being constructed, Arup tested Utzon's original design for the shell sails. Structural engineers found Utzon's design would fail in the Australian wind. By 1962, the current ribbed shell system was proposed, and Stage 2 construction began in 1963.

UNESCO says that the project "became a testing laboratory and a vast, open-air pre-casting factory."

Sources: 1959-1965 History, Sydney Opera House website; Sydney Opera House, Advisory Body Evaluation, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations [accessed October 18, 2013]

Ceramic Tile Skin

Glazed ceramic tiles of the Sydney Opera House
Glazed ceramic tiles of the Sydney Opera House. Glazed ceramic tiles photo by Greg O'Beirne (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Utzon did not envision the shells simply as geometric pieces pulled out of a sphere. He wanted them to look like bright sails on the Australian dark waters. After more years of experimentation, a new type of ceramic tile was invented—"the Sydney tile, 120 mm square, made from clay with a small percentage of crushed stone." The roof/skin has 1,056,006 of these tiles.

UNESCO reports that the "design solution and construction of the shell structure took eight years to complete and the development of the special ceramic tiles for the shells took over three years."

Sources: 1959-1965 History, Sydney Opera House website; Sydney Opera House, Advisory Body Evaluation, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations [accessed October 18, 2013]

Architectural Masterpiece

Interior of Sydney Opera House
Interior of Sydney Opera House. Inside the Sydney Opera House photo by I, Sailko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Utzon resigned from the project in 1966, leaving Stage 3 to be finished by others. The architect's vision was realized, however, and the Sydney Opera House officially opened on October 20, 1973—six years late and ten times over budget.

Utzon returned in 2002 to complete renovations which would move the interior of the Opera House closer to his original concept. Utzon and his family of architects were still making revisions when Utzon died in 2008.

"Utzon's design concept included unprecedented architectural forms and demanded solutions that required new technologies and materials," according to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Because of the project's visionary design, exceptional engineering, and experimental construction technologies, UNESCO calls the Sydney Opera House "a great artistic monument and an icon" and a "masterpiece of 20th century architecture."

Source: Sydney Opera House, Advisory Body Evaluation, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations [accessed October 18, 2013]

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Craven, Jackie. "Designing the Sydney Opera House, 1957 to 1973." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2016, thoughtco.com/designing-the-sydney-opera-house-1957-to-1973-177936. Craven, Jackie. (2016, August 25). Designing the Sydney Opera House, 1957 to 1973. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/designing-the-sydney-opera-house-1957-to-1973-177936 Craven, Jackie. "Designing the Sydney Opera House, 1957 to 1973." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/designing-the-sydney-opera-house-1957-to-1973-177936 (accessed November 23, 2017).