The story behind Sydney Opera House

Sydney Harbour and Opera House

  Sydney Opera House   

The Opera House at night

Today, the graceful orbs of the Opera House glow below the stars of the Southern Cross. Yet the original award-winning design was never actually constructed.

Paris has its Eiffel Tower; Sydney, its Opera House. Today the graceful structure counts as one of the world’s landmark buildings. But it almost wasn’t built.

In the mid-fifties, New South Wales decided that Sydney needed a new arts and music complex. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects announced an international competition to select a design. More than 200 firms entered, each eager for the opportunity to establish a worldwide reputation.

The winner, selected in 1957, was an obscure Danish architect named Jorn Utzon. “The drawings submitted were simple to the point of being diagrammatic,” wrote the judges, “...yet we are convinced that they present a concept of an opera house which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world. We consider this scheme to be the most creative and original submission.” Utzon won the commission.

Unfortunately, he had no real idea how to build the structure he had so sketchily designed. In fact, nobody knew how to calculate the various forces on such a complex interaction of curving shapes. Structural engineers who went to work on the problem soon concluded that the design was technically impossible to implement. The low-slung, curved roofs, intended to be reminiscent of billowy sails, could not be created as self-supporting structures with any materials then known.

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In the years that followed, the yet-unbuilt Sydney Opera House became the most controversial architectural project on the planet. Cost estimates skyrocketed. Engineers changed the design dramatically, first to make it buildable, then to make it affordable. Utzon left the project in a huff, and a national lottery was established to pay for his creation.

The Opera House opened in 1973, and became Sydney’s most photographed landmark. But Jorn Utzon never returned to see it.