About the Sydney Opera House

Architecture in Australia by Jorn Utzon

the front of the Sydney Opera House like two groups of 3 triangular white shells, one on top of another like humping shells
Sydney Opera House in Australia. Barry Cronin/Getty Images

Danish architect Jørn Utzon, 2003 Pritzker Prize Laureate, broke all the rules when he won an international competition in 1957 to design a new theater complex in Sydney, Australia. By 1966, Utzon had resigned from the project, which was completed under the direction of Peter Hall (1931-1995). Here's your introduction to why this Modern Expressionist building is one of the most famous and most photographed structures of the modern era.

About the Sydney Opera House

black and white photo of scaffolding and cranes surrounding triangular structures
Sydney Opera House Under Construction in August 1966. Keystone/Getty Images (cropped)

Designs for most major public sector architectural projects are often determined by a competition — similar to a casting call, a tryout, or a job interview. Jørn Utzon had just entered an anonymous competition for an opera house to be built in Australia on a point of land jutting into Sydney harbor. Out of some 230 entries from over thirty countries, Utzon's concept was selected. Interestingly, the Sydney Opera House drawings are public records held in the archives of the New South Wales government.

The exterior construction materials included preccast rib segments "rising to a ridge beam" and a concrete pedestal "clad in earth-toned, reconstituted granite panels." The design was for shells to be clad with glazed off-white tiles. Utzon called this process of construction "additive architecture," where prefabricated elements were joined onsite to create a whole.

Professor Kenneth Frampton suggests this building block approach of construction comes from the stepped methods found in Chinese architecture instead of the Western tradition of using trusses. Combining "prefabricated components in a structural assembly in such a way as to achieve a unified form that while incremental is at once flexible, economic and organic," writes Frampton. " We can already see this principle at work in the tower-crane assembly of the segmental pre-cast concrete ribs of the shell roofs of the Sydney Opera House, wherein coffered, tile-faced units of up to ten tons in weight were hauled into position and sequentially secured to each other, some two hundred feet in the air."

Jorn Utzon's Plan for the Sydney Opera House

overhead deail of white-tiled shells like hoodies on top of each other
The Sydney Opera House in Australia. James D. Morgan/Getty Images

The media described Jørn Utzon's plan as "three shell-like concrete vaults covered with white tiles." Utzon saw the project a little more complicated than that.

On an expedition to Mexico, the young architect had been intrigued by the Mayan use of platforms. "On top of the platform the spectators receive the completed work of art and beneath the platform every preparation for it takes place," Utzon has said. Like many of Utzon's designs, including his own home Can Lis, the Sydney Opera House makes ingenious use of platforms, an architectural design element he learned from the Mayans in Mexico.

"To express the platform and avoid destroying it is a very important thing, when you start building on top of it. A flat roof does not express the flatness of the platform...in the schemes for the Sydney Opera House...you can see the roofs, curved forms, hanging higher or lower over the plateau. The contrast of forms and the constantly changing heights between these two elements result in spaces of great architectural force made possible by the modern structural approach to concrete construction, which has given so many beautiful tools into the hands of the architect." — Utzon

Design is in the Details

black and white photo of white man looking up from his desk toward the camera
Architect Jorn Utzon, February 1957. Keystone/Getty Images (cropped)

The Danish architect Jørn Utzon grew up on the water near a shipyard and around sails. His childhood and travels informed his designs all of his life. But design is also in the details.

Utzon won the design competition and £5,000 on January 29, 1957. For some architects, presenting the ideas in architectural drawings is more fun than actually getting the thing built. For the young architect who had been practicing for only about a decade, it seemed everything was against the project's realization. First, for an architect at age 38, Utzon was young with limited experience. Second, Utzon's design concept was visually artistic, but lacked practical engineering know-how. He could not estimate the costs because he did not know the construction challenges. Perhaps most important at a time of nationalism, the government was pressured to select an architect from Australia and Utzon was from Denmark.

From Design to Construction

black and white photo of construction site, seen from behind an iron fence, cranes surround soaring triangular structures surrounded by water
Sydney Opera House Under Construction circa 1963. J. R. T. Richardson/Getty Images (cropped)

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

The plan was to build in three stages — stage 1: the podium or platform (1958–1961); stage 2: the vaulted shells or sails (1962–1967); and stage 3: the glass skin and interiors (1967–1973).

Construction began in March 1959. 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, so by 1962 the current ribbed shell system was proposed. Stage 2 construction began in 1963, behind schedule.

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

Behind schedule and over budget, multi-year projects — especially government projects — are difficult to complete, especially in the time before computer-aided design. Arup began to doubt Utzon's specifications, but the architect wanted complete control and the necessary funds to complete his blueprints. By 1966, after seven years of construction and a change in Australia's government, Utzon resigned under the continued pressure.

Ceramic Tile Skin

close up of white tiles on open shell-like structures
Famous Shell Design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Tim Graham/Getty Images

The Opera house was completed by other designers under the direction of Peter Hall. However, Utzon was able to accomplish the basic structure, leaving just the interiors to be finished by others.

Because Utzon left the project in 1966 as the shells were being built, it's often unclear who made certain decisions along the way. Some have claimed that the "glass walls" were "constructed according to the modified design by Utzon’s successor architect, Peter Hall." No doubt has ever been cast on the overall design of these geometric shell-forms displayed atop a platform.

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."

Disputes Over the Sydney Opera House Remodeling

looking down at white tent-like shells on land jutting into water
Aerial View of the Sydney Opera House. Mike Powell/Getty Images

Although sculpturally beautiful, the Sydney Opera House was widely criticized for its lack of functionality as a performance venue. Performers and theater-goers said that the acoustics were poor and that the theater didn't have enough performance or backstage space. When Utzon left the project in 1966, exteriors were built, but the built designs of the interiors were overseen by Peter Hall. In 1999, the parent organization brought back Utzon to document his intent and help solve some of the thorny interior design problems.

In 2002, Jørn Utzon began design renovations that would bring the building's interior closer to his original vision. His architect son, Jan Utzon, traveled to Australia to plan the renovations and continue future development of the theaters.

"It is my hope that the building shall be a lively and ever-changing venue for the arts," Jorn Utzon told reporters. "Future generations should have the freedom to develop the building to contemporary use."

A Masterpiece of 20th Century Architecture

white shell-like buildings atop a platform jutting into water filled with boats
Sydney Opera House Complex and the Australian Waters of Sydney Harbour. George Rose/Getty Images

The 16 years it took to complete the venue continues to be the subject of study and the telling of cautionary tales. "Sydney could have a new opera theatre for not much more than the cost of fixing the old one," the Australian newspapers were saying in 2008. "Rebuild or remodel" is a decision commonly faced by homeowners, developers, and governments alike.

In 2003, Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The well-known architect Frank Gehry was on the Pritzker Jury and wrote that Utzon had "made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that an epic piece of architecture has gained such universal presence."

Located on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, the complex is really two main concert halls, side-by-side, on the waterfront of Sydney, Australia. Officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1973, the famous architecture was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007 and also was a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World. UNESCO called the Opera House "a masterpiece of 20th century architecture."


  • Sydney Opera House, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/166/ [accessed October 18, 2013]
  • Sydney Opera House History, Sydney Opera House, https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/our-story/sydney-opera-house-history.html
  • Kenneth Frampton, The Architecture of Jørn Utzon 2003 Laureate Essay, The Hyatt Foundation, PDF at https://www.pritzkerprize.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/2003_essay.pdf
  • Biography, The Hyatt Foundation, PDF at https://www.pritzkerprize.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/2003_bio_0.pdf
  • Peter Hall, The University of Sydney, http://sydney.edu.au/architecture/alumni/our_alumni.shtml#peter_hall [accessed September 6, 2015]
  • Ceremony Speech, Thomas J. Pritzker, PDF at https://www.pritzkerprize.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/Tom_Pritzker_Ceremony_Speech_2003_Utzon.pdf [accessed October 18, 2013]
  • Greg Lenthen. "Let's rethink this renovation, and build a new opera house," The Sydney Morning Herald, February 7, 2008, http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/lets-rethink-this-renovation-and-build-a-new-opera-house/2008/02/06/1202233942886.html
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Craven, Jackie. "About the Sydney Opera House." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/sydney-opera-house-architecture-jorn-utzon-178451. Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). About the Sydney Opera House. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sydney-opera-house-architecture-jorn-utzon-178451 Craven, Jackie. "About the Sydney Opera House." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sydney-opera-house-architecture-jorn-utzon-178451 (accessed March 30, 2023).