The Sydney Opera House, Architecture by Jorn Utzon

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Sydney Opera House Photo Tour

Danish architect Jørn Utzon broke all the rules when he won an international competition in 1957 to design a new theater complex in Sydney, Australia. Today, this Modern Expressionist building is one of the most famous and most photographed structures of the modern era.

Fast Facts About the Sydney Opera House:

Begun in 1957
Designed by Jørn Utzon, 2003 Pritzker Prize Laureate
Two main concert halls, side-by-side
Utzon resigns from the project in 1966
Construction is completed under the direction of Peter Hall (1931-1995)
Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973
Located on Bennelong Point, Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia

In 2007, the venue was named a UNESCO World Heritage site and also was a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World. UNESCO called the Opera House "a masterpiece of 20th century architecture."

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

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About the Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House Under Construction in August 1966
Sydney Opera House Under Construction in August 1966. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

The iconic design of the Sydney Opera House complex comes from the shell-shape of the multiple roofs. How did a Danish architect's idea become an Australian reality? A plaque located onsite describes the derivation of these shapes—they are all geometrically part of one sphere.

Exterior Construction Materials:

  • Preccast rib segments "rising to a ridge beam"
  • Concrete pedestal "clad in earth-toned, reconstituted granite panels"
  • Shells are clad with glazed off-white tiles

Construction Process - Additive Architecture:

"...one of the more intrinsic challenges that are inherent to his [Jørn Utzon] approach, namely the combination of 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. 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."—Kenneth Frampton

Sources: Sydney Opera House History, Sydney Opera House; The Architecture of Jørn Utzon by Kenneth Frampton, Jørn Utzon 2003 Laureate Essay (PDF) [accessed September 2, 2015]

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Jorn Utzon Comments on his Design for the Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House in September, 1998.
Sydney Opera House in September, 1998. Photo Barry Cronin/Getty Images Sport Collection/Getty Images

Because Utzon left the project mid-stream, it's often unclear who made certain decisions along the way. The official website claims 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.

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.

Commentary by Jørn Utzon:

"...the idea has been to let the platform cut through like a knife and separate primary and secondary functions completely. On top of the platform the spectators receive the completed work of art and beneath the platform every preparation for it takes place."

"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."

Sources: Sydney Opera House History, Sydney Opera House; Biography, The Hyatt Foundation / The Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2003 (PDF) [accessed September 2, 2016]

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How the Sydney Opera House Was Built

Black and white photo of 38-year-old Jorn Utzon, architect of Sydney's Opera House, designing at his desk, February 1957
Jorn Utzon, the 38-year-old architect of Sydney's Opera House, designing at his desk, February 1957. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

Commentary from the Pritzker Prize Committee:

The saga of the Opera House actually began in 1957, when, at the age of 38, Jørn Utzon was still a relatively unknown architect with a practice in Denmark near where Shakespeare had located Hamlet's castle.

He was living in a small seaside town with his wife and three children - one son, Kim, born that year; another son Jan, born in 1944, and a daughter, Lin, born in 1946. All three would follow in their father's footsteps and become architects.

Their home was a house in Hellebæk that he had built just five years before, one of the few designs that he had actually realized since opening his studio in 1945.

Source: Biography, The Hyatt Foundation / The Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2003 (PDF) [accessed September 2, 2016]

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Jorn Utzon's Plan for the Sydney Opera House

Aerial view of the Sydney Opera House
Aerial view of the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images Sport Collection/Getty Images

The design for most major architectural projects around the world is 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.

The media described Jørn Utzon's plan as "three shell-like concrete vaults covered with white tiles." Learn more about Jørn Utzon's Architectural Design.

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Several Theaters Combine at the Sydney Opera House

Outdoor public courtyard, the Forecourt, at the Sydney Opera House in New South Wales, Australia
The Forecourt at the Sydney Opera House in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Simon McGill/Moment Mobile Collection/Getty Images

The Sydney Opera House is actually a complex of theaters and halls all linked together beneath its famous shells. Venues include:

Design of the Utzon Room is the only interior space fully attributed to Jørn Utzon. Design of the Forecourt and Monumental Steps, a vast outdoor public area that leads to Utzon's platform and the entrance to the halls and theaters, has been attributed to Peter Hall.

Since its opening in 1973, the complex has become the busiest performing arts center in the world, attracting 8.2 million visitors a year. Thousands of events, public and private, are held each year inside and outside.

Sources: Peter Hall, The University of Sydney; Sydney Opera House History and Sydney Opera House Media Room and Sydney Opera House Venues, Sydney Opera House official website [accessed September 6, 2015]

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Jorn Utzon Battles Controversy Over the Sydney Opera House

Black and white photo of Sydney Opera House (1957-1973) Under Construction circa 1963
Sydney Opera House (1957-1973) Under Construction circa 1963. Photo by J. R. T. Richardson/Hulton Archive Collection/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Danish architect Jørn Utzon has been described as an intensely private person. However, during the construction of the Sydney Opera House, Utzon became entangled in political intrigue. He was besieged by a hostile press, which eventually forced him out of the project before it was completed.

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.

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Frank Gehry Comments on the Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House complex juts out into the Australian waters of Sydney Harbour
Sydney Opera House complex juts out into the Australian waters of Sydney Harbour. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

Commentary by Frank Gehry, a Pritzker Laureate and Juror:

"[Jørn Utzon] made a building well ahead ovf 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."

Books have been written, and films made chronicling the sixteen years it took to complete the venue.

  • Utzon and the Sydney Opera House by Daryl Dellora (Buy this Penguin Special Kindle Edition on Amazon)

Source: Ceremony Speech, Thomas J. Pritzker [accessed October 18, 2013]

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Remodeling at the Sydney Opera House

Architect Jan Utzon, son of Jorn Utzon, at Sydney Opera House in May 2009
Architect Jan Utzon, son of Jorn Utzon, at Sydney Opera House in May 2009. Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images Entertainment Collection/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."

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Disputes Over the Sydney Opera House Remodeling

The iconic Sydney Opera House, downtown Sydney, in 2010
The iconic Sydney Opera House, downtown Sydney, in 2010. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

"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.

The Reception Hall, now called the Utzon Room, was one of the first interior spaces to be  remodeled. An exterior Colonnade opened up views to the harbor. Except for the Utzon Room, the acoustics of the venues remain problematic, if not "extreme." In 2009, funding was approved for improvements to the backstage area and other major renovations. Work was scheduled to be completed by the venue's 40th Anniversary. Shortly before his death in 2008, Jørn Utzon and his family of architects were still revising details of the remodeling project at Sydney Opera House.

More About the Acoustics:

Sources: Let's rethink this renovation, and build a new opera house by Greg Lenthen, The Sydney Morning Herald., February 7, 2008; Overiew: The Building, Sydney Opera House website [accessed October 18, 2013]

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Craven, Jackie. "The Sydney Opera House, Architecture by Jorn Utzon." ThoughtCo, Jan. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/sydney-opera-house-architecture-jorn-utzon-178451. Craven, Jackie. (2017, January 15). The Sydney Opera House, Architecture by Jorn Utzon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sydney-opera-house-architecture-jorn-utzon-178451 Craven, Jackie. "The Sydney Opera House, Architecture by Jorn Utzon." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sydney-opera-house-architecture-jorn-utzon-178451 (accessed November 18, 2017).