Sydney Opera House History
Jorn Utzon &
the Construction of Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House history: the story of a lengthy gestation and a difficult birth. Jorn Utzon's baby wasn't quite right inside and its problems increase with age.

Sydney Opera House Sydney Australia Opera House today

Early History of Sydney Opera House

In the late 40s, Sydney saw itself as the premier Australian city. But culturally it was still a provincial town. Among the things it lacked were appropriate Sydney venues for large theatrical performances, including classical music.

Truth to tell, most Sydneysiders, and especially politicians, couldn't care less. Classical concerts were not one of the quintessential Sydney things to do. But there were a few to whom it mattered.

Eugene Goossens was one of these. Composer, conductor and Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, the Sydney Opera House history really started with him. Goossens led the campaign for

   "a musical centre housing a big hall for a symphony orchestra, a small hall
   for chamber music and a fine home for an opera company."

Unsuccessfully, until his proposals meshed with the political needs of the NSW premier of the day, Joseph Cahill. Melbourne had been awarded the Olympics for 1956 and Cahill badly needed something to promote Sydney and New South Wales.

Goossens convinced Cahill that an opera house dedicated to music and the arts was the answer. He also pushed for it to be sited on the point jutting out into the harbour where the tram depot then stood.

Bennelong Point, named after the Aboriginal man whose house stood on the east bank of Sydney Cove, had hosted its first known concert in March 1791 when 24 aboriginal men, women and children danced for Governor Macquarie and his party at Bennelong's hut there.

An international competition for the design of the Sydney Opera House was launched in September 1955, with £5,000 as first prize. 233 entries flooded in.

Jorn Utzon Wins

Sydney Opera House competition second prizewinner Sydney Opera House history
The runner up

Joern Utzon's concept of sails billowing out from Bennelong Point caught the imagination of the judges, in particular Eero Saarinen.

Sydney Opera House history (mythology?) has it that Saarinen, who arrived in Australia a couple of days late for the start of the judging, plucked Utzon's entry out of the discard pile and convinced the other judges to go with his choice.

Utzon's entry was the only one to place the two theatres stipulated in the design side by side, opening up the harbour to the city.

Other entrants had stacked them one behind or above the other, creating a wall between the city and the harbour.

Although the entry was little more than a sketch, the design revolutionary, the necessary technology non-existent and the architect inexperienced, Sydney awarded the prize to Joern Utzon on 29 January 1957.

Construction of the Sydney Opera House

Work started in February 1959 - and the challenges were immediately obvious.

Utzon had designed a solid podium base, harking back to the platforms in Mayan temples. On top of the podium he placed parabolic arches - at this stage more like sails than shells - which gracefully curved down to the base without apparent support. Two banks of them, each three sails high. There were no walls as such.

The problem was merely that no one knew how it could be built. Internationally, not just in Australia. It was clear that considerable time would be required to solve the technical problems. But time ran out.

Cahill was in failing health and faced a dwindling parliamentary majority. Having committed to the project and chosen the Sydney Opera House architect he now wanted to ensure that, no matter what, his initiative could not be reversed. Work had to be past the point of no return.

So construction started before the design process was complete. The foundations were laid and the podium commenced on the basis of a best guess.

Sydney Opera House under construction Photo: Max Dupain: Sydney Opera House history

Inevitably, expensive changes were required. But Cahill achieved his aim. When he died, seven months later, the project continued.

Costs blew out - as they were always going to. They were grossly understated in the first place to gain early public acceptance and a quick go-ahead for the project.

There was nothing surprising in this. It was, and to some extent still is, true for many if not most large public projects built in Australia and around the world.

More importantly, the commencement of on-site work on the Sydney Opera House well before final specifications were available clearly showed that politicians, and not the architect, were in charge.

At first this didn't seem to be too important. A sympathetic opera house management committee mediated between Utzon and the politicians. And the NSW Labor party was loyal to Cahill's vision.

Opera House Architecture - The Break

A change of government in 1965 dramatically changed the situation. It proved disastrous for Utzon personally and for his vision as well. Today's disappointing interiors are a direct result, as were the almost immediate need for upgrades.

The Askin government that came to power in May 1965 was one of the more corrupt governments that New South Wales has produced. Jorn Utzon lacked the experience and political skills to counter the brutal realities of political power, and its abuse.

Their methods were crude, simple and they worked. On various pretexts, Davis Hughes, the minister in charge, simply refused to pay Utzon. Who in turn couldn't pay his staff, his contractors or his taxes.

There is some suggestion that, when he finally resigned and left Sydney Australia in early 1966, Jorn Utzon may have thought that Askin and Hughes would be forced to recall him to get the project completed to his design.

Protesters with banners in front of Opera House Sydney Opera House history:
Unsuccessful rallies and support

They didn't, in spite of petitions, rallies and support from leading Australian architects. Instead the government appointed new architects who essentially redesigned the rest of the project.

When Jorn Utzon left Australia, the exterior construction of Sydney Opera House was complete in its essentials, with mainly only the ceramic tile pattern cladding to be completed. The exterior therefore remained intact, but the newly appointed team made significant changes to his designs for the interior.

These changes included reversing the main performance spaces.

The originally planned opera theatre became the concert hall and opera was relegated to a theatre with, as Dame Joan Sutherland once famously remarked, a 'pocket handkerchief of a stage' and an orchestra pit that is a safety hazard to the hearing of the orchestra.

Not surprisingly in Sydney Opera House history, the total cost of the building - A$18.4 million when Jorn Utzon left Australia with the podium and exteriors almost done - blew out to A$102 million by the time the interiors were completed. By far the greatest expenditure was made by the architectural team that replaced Utzon.

Models that Utzon had made for the interiors also somehow disappeared. Some, but not all of them, have subsequently re-surfaced.

The Sydney Opera House was finally opened by the Queen in 1973. Utzon was not invited and his name was not mentioned at the ceremony. He never re-visited Australia.

Subsequent Sydney Opera House History

It's been a long and rocky road for one of the world's most famous buildings, and it's not home yet.

Technological advances demand further modification of the building if audiences are to receive state of the art accoustics and performances. And the ongoing health and safety of musicians means extension of the Joan Sutherland Theatre's orchestra pit is urgently required.

Recent Sydney Opera House history includes a carpark built under the Botanical Gardens in 1993, the forecourt refurbishment in 1998, various upgrades to both interior and exterior and the opening up of the western side of the podium.

The cost of refurbishment and remedial work, much of it to undo the problems caused by the internal modifications, now dwarfs the original costs.

The new Utzon room in the Opera House Sydney Opera House history:
The re-designed and renamed Utzon Room

A$400 million has been spent or budgeted so far, yet today, as in the past, money and politics still bedevil all attempts at a comprehensive solution.

The cost of addressing the long-standing problems with the Joan Sutherland Theatre, including the cramped orchestra pit, lack of space in the wings and aging stage machinery, plus other necessary upgrades, was estimated at $1 billion in 2009.

The latest proposal for a complete overhaul foundered when the Australian federal government declined to support New South Wales in the financing of the work.

Famous Buildings

In June 2007 the Sydney Opera House was rather belatedly included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List as one of the world's famous structures to be monitored and maintained.

It is the Sydney tourism attraction and is one of the busiest performing spaces in the world. Open every day save Christmas and Good Friday the Sydney Opera House schedule caters to every taste. It anchors the January Sydney music and theatre festival, with everything from rock concerts to symphonies, from Shakespeare to cabaret and from children's performances to experimental theatre.

Performances are not just inside, its exterior courtyard and monumental steps are regularly used for countless open air performances. It's a major centre of New Years Eve concerts and functions, being in the box seat for the fabulous fireworks around the harbour.

Sydney Opera House history includes Kiri Te Kanawa and Bryn Terfel, who have both sung for us there. We've had Tristan and Isolde dying for love, Graeme Murphy and the Sydney Dance Company wowing us with extraordinary choreography and dance and Spencer Tunick snapping hundreds of naked bodies in the forecourt. Peter Greenberg has reported from the steps.

And the Opera House sails provide the backdrop for fantastic light shows, typified by the Vivid Sydney Festival in June each year.

Sydney Opera House sails lit up in Vivid Sydney Sydney Opera House history:

Sydney Opera House sails lit up in Vivid Sydney June's annual Vivid festival

Sydney Opera House sails lit up in Vivid Sydney lights up the shells

Jorn Utzon's creation has become one of the most famous land marks in the world.

Instantly recognizable and immediately associated with Sydney Australia. Its shells link the city to the harbour, its exteriors reflect the changing light and its curves play off the neighbouring Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The internal flaws are being addressed, albeit slowly, following Utzon's design principles. Perhaps it was too much to hope for, that in Sydney Opera House history everything could have gone right in the first place.