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Jorn Utzon and Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House sits on Bennelong Point, a space first developed as a fort named after Governor Macquarie. It was later used as a tram shed which was demolished in 1958. The project of the Syd­ney Opera House began in 1954 when NSW state premier Joe Cahill brought together a comm­it­tee to begin work on procuring an edifice that would be a credit to the state not only today but also for hundreds of years. An internat­ion­­al design com­p­etition was launched in 1957, attracting 233 entries from around the globe.

Sydney Opera House,
Bennelong Point

 Sails and glass walls

19th century sailing boat on Sydney Harbour

Under the influence of Judge Eero Saarinen, the jury were emboldened into reaching for an ambitious concept of an opera house which was capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world. They selected 38-year-old Danish Architect Jørn Utzon as the winner, writing "because of its very original­ity, Utzon's scheme is clearly a controversial design. We are however, absol­utely convinced of its merits." Utzon won ₤5000 for his submission.

In August 1958 the construction process began with the demol­ition of the Fort Macquarie Tram sheds, which stood on Bennel­ong point.

Utzon began work, assuming that it would take 18 months to develop the design documents for the project, which would be completed 15 years later. But by the time the building was opened in Oct 1973, the fervour of the project had taken several turns which marred the otherwise spectacular design and technical ac­h­ieve­­ments: the unexpected death of Cahill, a change in state government, concerns about time delays and the political football of the budget, all amplified by the constant savage media swirl around the project.

By 1966, disputes erupted between Utzon and the state govern­ment over progress, leading ultimately to Utzon's public and diff­icult resignation. Utzon's popular and professional support in Sydney and internationally was passionate. Rallies in support of Utzon's re­turn to the project marched on Parliament house.

However a state government keen to show progress quickly appointed a panel lead by Peter Hall. Hall's most clear contribution was com­ing up with the solution to the large glass walls on the Northern Kirribilli façade.

The sails sat on top of a heavy podium, which was believed to be the biggest column free chamber in the world. The highest roof shell was 67 metres above sea-level, the equivalent of a 22 storey building. Note that the sails were built with 3 tower cranes made in France for this job, costing $100,000 each. 

Utzon, 1965
In front of the Opera House being constructed

After Utzon's departure in 1966, or as a consequence of it, another major decision was made that would haunt the project. At the requ­est of the ABC, the use of the two main halls were changed to make the main hall, originally intended for Opera, into a symphony con­cert hall of 2,800 seats. The smaller venue was converted from the originally intended drama theatre to the primary opera venue. This compromise in the middle of construction added complexity to the project, as installation of the last precast shell unit of the famous sails had already been completed. The change forever plagued opera performances in the smaller space, which remained too cramped for their productions.

After leaving the difficult and very public experience of the Opera House project, Utzon amazingly got back to new work and continued to apply his approach to designs. The best projects included his own Mallorcan house, Can Lis, in 1966; an Australian family retreat originally intended as a holiday house; the Bagsværd Church outside Copenhagen, designed in 1968 and completed in 1976; and the Kuwait National Assembly Building, completed in 1982. They all demonst­rated Utzon's organic approach to design, and a highly attuned sensitivity to culture.

10,000 construction workers were engaged in the Sydney Opera House which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in Oct 1973. Its final cost was $102 million, largely paid for by a State Lottery.

Jørn Utzon never returned to Australian although many reconciliat­ion attempts were made. But in 2004 he accepted an invitation to collaborate on the redesign of the building’s in­ter­iors, resulting in the dedication of the Utzon Room. In addition there are another 6 performance venues at Sydney Opera House: Opera Theatre, Concert Hall, Playhouse, Drama Theatre, Studio and Fore­court.

The Opera House has evolved to meet the demands of cont­emp­orary aud­iences and performance. The last completed major work on the Opera House was the extension of the western foyer areas and the opening of a drama theatre, playhouse and studio theatre. This el­egant extension by architect Rich­ard Johnson was completed with close attention to Utzon's original design approach, and has great­ly added to the capacity of the Opera House. The house remains one of the busiest performance venues in the world, hosting 1,500 events a year and receiving 8.2 million visitors annually. In 2007, the Sydney Opera House received UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Concert hall

2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House. Thank you to Anthony Burke, UTS Professor of Architecture, used the ann­iversary to explore the above story for Australia's most recog­nis­able icon.

On Ut­zon's death at 90 in 2008, Frank Gehry memorialised the Dane saying: "Ut­zon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extra­ord­inarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country." Four generations of the Utzon family have been architects –Jørn’s father Aage, Jørn, his son Jan, plus Jan’s son Jeppe and daughter Kickan.


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