On 5 December 195, construction of Stage I of the Sydney Opera House began.
The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre in Sydney. Located on the banks of the Sydney Harbour, it is often regarded as one of the world’s most famous and distinctive buildings and a masterpiece of 20th century architecture.
Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, but completed by an Australian architectural team headed by Peter Hall, the building was formally opened on 20 October 1973 after a gestation beginning with Utzon’s 1957 selection as winner of an international design competition.
The Government of New South Wales, led by the premier, Joseph Cahill, authorised work to begin in 1958 with Utzon directing construction. The government’s decision to build Utzon’s design is often overshadowed by circumstances that followed, including cost and scheduling overruns as well as the architect’s ultimate resignation.
Planning began in the late 1940s when Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, lobbied for a suitable venue for large theatrical productions. The normal venue for such productions, the Sydney Town Hall, was not considered large enough.
By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house. It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site: Cahill had wanted it to be on or near Wynyard Railway Station in the northwest of the CBD.
An international design competition was launched by Cahill on 13 September 1955 and received 233 entries, representing architects from 32 countries.
The criteria specified a large hall seating 3,000 and a small hall for 1,200 people, each to be designed for different uses, including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances, and other presentations.
The winner, announced in 1957, was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. According to legend, the Utzon design was rescued by noted Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen from a final cut of 30 “rejects”. The runner-up was a Philadelphia-based team assembled by Robert Geddes and George Qualls, both teaching at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
They brought together a band of Penn faculty and friends from Philadelphia architectural offices, including Melvin Brecher, Warren Cunningham, Joseph Marzella, Walter Wiseman, and Leon Loschetter. Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, and Cunningham went on to found the firm GBQC Architects.
The grand prize was 5,000 Australian pounds. Utzon visited Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project. His office moved to Palm Beach, Sydney in February 1963.
Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honour, in 2003. The Pritzker Prize citation read:
There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city but a whole country and continent.
The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot, occupying the site at the time of these plans, was demolished in 1958 and construction began in March 1959. It was built in three stages: stage I (1959–1963) consisted of building the upper podium; stage II (1963–1967) the construction of the outer shells; stage III (1967–1973) interior design and construction.
Stage I: Podium
Stage I commenced on 2 March 1959 with the construction firm Civil & Civic, monitored by the engineers Ove Arup and Partners. The government had pushed for work to begin early, fearing that funding, or public opinion, might turn against them.
However, Utzon had still not completed the final designs. Major structural issues still remained unresolved. By 23 January 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind, mainly because of unexpected difficulties (inclement weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper construction drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents).
Work on the podium was finally completed in February 1963. The forced early start led to significant later problems, not least of which was the fact that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the roof structure, and had to be re-built.
Stage II: Roof
The shells of the competition entry were originally of undefined geometry, but, early in the design process, the “shells” were perceived as a series of parabolas supported by precast concrete ribs. However, engineers Ove Arup and Partners were unable to find an acceptable solution to constructing them.
The formwork for using in-situ concrete would have been prohibitively expensive, and, because there was no repetition in any of the roof forms, the construction of precast concrete for each individual section would possibly have been even more expensive.
From 1957 to 1963, the design team went through at least 12 iterations of the form of the shells trying to find an economically acceptable form (including schemes with parabolas, circular ribs and ellipsoids) before a workable solution was completed.
The design work on the shells involved one of the earliest uses of computers in structural analysis, to understand the complex forces to which the shells would be subjected. The computer system was also used in the assembly of the arches. The pins in the arches were surveyed at the end of each day, and the information was entered into the computer so the next arch could be properly placed the following day.
In mid-1961, the design team found a solution to the problem: the shells all being created as sections from a sphere. This solution allows arches of varying length to be cast in a common mould, and a number of arch segments of common length to be placed adjacent to one another, to form a spherical section. With whom exactly this solution originated has been the subject of some controversy. It was originally credited to Utzon.
Ove Arup’s letter to Ashworth, a member of the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee, states: “Utzon came up with an idea of making all the shells of uniform curvature throughout in both directions.”
Peter Jones, the author of Ove Arup’s biography, states that “the architect and his supporters alike claimed to recall the precise eureka moment … ; the engineers and some of their associates, with equal conviction, recall discussion in both central London and at Ove’s house.”
He goes on to claim that “the existing evidence shows that Arup’s canvassed several possibilities for the geometry of the shells, from parabolas to ellipsoids and spheres.” Yuzo Mikami, a member of the design team, presents an opposite view in his book on the project, Utzon’s Sphere.
It is unlikely that the truth will ever be categorically known, but there is a clear consensus that the design team worked very well indeed for the first part of the project and that Utzon, Arup, and Ronald Jenkins (partner of Ove Arup and Partners responsible for the Opera House project) all played a very significant part in the design development.
As Peter Murray states in The Saga of the Sydney Opera House:
… the two men—and their teams—enjoyed a collaboration that was remarkable in its fruitfulness and, despite many traumas, was seen by most of those involved in the project as a high point of architect/engineer collaboration.
The design of the roof was tested on scale models in wind tunnels at University of Southampton and later NPL in order to establish the wind-pressure distribution around the roof shape in very high winds, which helped in the design of the roof tiles and their fixtures.
The shells were constructed by Hornibrook Group Pty Ltd, who were also responsible for construction in Stage III. Hornibrook manufactured the 2400 precast ribs and 4000 roof panels in an on-site factory and also developed the construction processes.
The achievement of this solution avoided the need for expensive formwork construction by allowing the use of precast units and it also allowed the roof tiles to be prefabricated in sheets on the ground, instead of being stuck on individually at height.
The tiles themselves were manufactured by the Swedish company Höganäs Keramik. It took three years of development to produce the effect Utzon wanted in what became known as the Sydney Tile, 120mm square. It is made from clay with a small percentage of crushed stone.
Ove Arup and Partners’ site engineer supervised the construction of the shells, which used an innovative adjustable steel-trussed “erection arch” (developed by Hornibrook’s engineer Joe Bertony) to support the different roofs before completion. On 6 April 1962, it was estimated that the Opera House would be completed between August 1964 and March 1965.
Stage III: Interiors
- The Concert Hall and organ
- View from the stage of the Concert Hall.
- View from the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.
- Interior of the Studio Theatre.
Stage III, the interiors, started with Utzon moving his entire office to Sydney in February 1963. However, there was a change of government in 1965, and the new Robert Askin government declared the project under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. Due to the Ministry’s criticism of the project’s costs and time, along with their impression of Utzon’s designs being impractical, this ultimately led to his resignation in 1966 (see below).
The cost of the project so far, even in October 1966, was still only A$22.9 million, less than a quarter of the final $102 million cost. However, the projected costs for the design were at this stage much more significant.
The second stage of construction was progressing toward completion when Utzon resigned. His position was principally taken over by Peter Hall, who became largely responsible for the interior design. Other persons appointed that same year to replace Utzon were E. H. Farmer as government architect, D. S. Littlemore and Lionel Todd.
Following Utzon’s resignation, the acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer, confirmed to the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC) that Utzon’s original acoustic design allowed for only 2,000 seats in the main hall and further stated that increasing the number of seats to 3,000 as specified in the brief would be disastrous for the acoustics.
According to Peter Jones, the stage designer, Martin Carr, criticised the “shape, height and width of the stage, the physical facilities for artists, the location of the dressing rooms, the widths of doors and lifts, and the location of lighting switchboards.”
Completion and cost
The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, having cost $102 million. H.R. “Sam” Hoare, the Hornibrook director in charge of the project, provided the following approximations in 1973: Stage I: podium Civil & Civic Pty Ltd approximately $5.5m. Stage II: roof shells M.R. Hornibrook (NSW) Pty Ltd approximately $12.5m. Stage III: completion The Hornibrook Group $56.5m. Separate contracts: stage equipment, stage lighting and organ $9.0m. Fees and other costs: $16.5m.
The original cost and scheduling estimates in 1957 projected a cost of £3,500,000 ($7 million) and completion date of 26 January 1963 (Australia Day). In reality, the project was completed ten years late and 1,357% over budget in real terms.