Almost 40 years after it opened the Sydney Opera House is now acclaimed as an architectural and engineering masterpiece. It is one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions, and is listed by Unesco as World Heritage Site. But, like many iconic structures, the building’s journey from concept to completion was far from straightforward, and was characterised by controversy, cost overruns, construction complications and arguments between the client and architect.
The story began on 1 February 1956 when an international design competition for “the best opera house that can be built” was launched. The competition brief only
provided broad specifications, including that it should provide space for two performance halls, one for opera and one for symphony concerts. It did not specify design parameters or set a cost limit.
Ten months later, when the competition closed, the jury had received 233 entries from 28 countries, including Australia, the UK, Germany, Morocco, Iran and Kenya.
Despite some of these coming from the world’s best known design fi rms, the jury awarded the commission to a relatively unknown Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who had proposed a challenging design made up of sets of interlocking vaulted “shells” sitting on a vast terraced platform.
It was originally thought that the construction programme would take four years, but in reality it took 14.
Part of this was due to the complexity of the structure. Partly it was due to the fact that the government changed the requirements for the building after construction had started, adding two more theatres to the two originally envisaged.
The complex vaulted roof shells were designed in collaboration with structural engineer Ove Arup & Partners (now Arup), which was appointed in November 1958,. The final shape of the shells was derived from the surface of a single imagined sphere. Each shell is composed of precast concrete rib segments radiating from a concrete pedestal and rising to a ridge beam.
In all there are 2,194 precast concrete sections, each weighing up to 15.5t, giving a total weight for the roof shells of 27,230t. The shells are covered with more than 1M ceramic tiles.
Cost overruns and the ever-lengthening construction programme contributed to public criticism of the project, eventually resulting in Utzon’s resignation in 1966.
He was succeeded by local architect Peter Hall, who saw the project through until it was opened by the Queen on 1 October 1973.