The Sydney Opera House: history and interesting facts

Iconic and original, the Sydney Opera House has a long history and unique features.

Sydney’s symbolic building is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most famous in all of Australia. The Sydney Opera House is an utterly original structure that everyone recognises at first sight: the same can certainly not be said of many other twentieth-century constructions.

What makes the Sydney Opera House memorable is its exterior structure, enormous white shells that remind many people of large white sails, reinforced by the building’s setting. It should be made clear that this construction does not stand right in the centre of the Australian city but on a small, isolated peninsula that encloses a long, narrow bay: the Opera House is therefore in a decidedly maritime context, north of the Royal Botanical Garden.

Before finding out about the history and features of the Sydney Opera House, it should be remembered that its importance was confirmed in 2007, the year when the building became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The history of the Sydney Opera House

The history of the Sydney Opera House has been extremely interesting, right from the start. In 1954, Joseph Cahill, who had just been elected premier of New South Wales, announced: “This State cannot go forward without adequate facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment, which add grace and charm to life and help develop and shape a better, more enlightened community.” What was wanted, then, was a theatre that could become a source of pride and glory for the country and would remain so for centuries to come. In brief, it was decided right from the start to build something strong and distinct.

To this end, an international contest was announced in February 1956 to select the best design for the theatre’s construction, History relates that 200 architects from all over the world answered the call. One of these was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect considered by many to be an outsider.

Utzon was born in Copenhagen in 1918. Originally, he wanted to be a sailor but soon changed his mind, preferring to take a degree in architecture. After the Second World War, he managed to get to know a number of internationally-renowned architects, such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time of the Australian contest, Utzon was a practically unknown architect, who presented his design along with the plans of a number of houses designed and built in Helsingør.

Utzon’s idea was immediately rejected by the jury of renowned architects. Destiny, however, had other plans. In fact, the jury should have also included the famous Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who, a few days later, began to examine the designs that reached Sydney, starting with the designs that had been rejected. On seeing Utzon’s design, Saarinen made every effort to ensure that this was the project that would win the award, finally convincing the other judges.

So it was that, on 30 January 1957, in the Sydney Morning Herald, a headline stated: “The controversial design of a Dane wins the contest for the Opera House”. It wasn’t the best of receptions.

The construction of the Sydney Opera House

Although there were no working drawings or specifications, the works were ordered to begin in 1958, immediately running into delays from the start as a result. The main problem was how to distribute the weight of the shell-shaped roof and, to resolve this problem, Utzon turned to an engineering company for help and even an early computer. According to one anecdote, the solution came while the architect was peeling an orange, when he realised that the shells could be obtained by carving them from a sphere.

This did not manage to speed up the works, however, which slowed down even further in 1965, when the Conservative, Robert Askin, was elected premier. Davis Hughes was appointed as the new government’s Minister of Infrastructure but he seemed to take no interest in architecture. Controls over Utzon’s works multiplied, as did the restrictions, to the point that funds were suspended: no longer able to pay his staff, Utzon resigned in 1966.

At that time, the exterior structure of the building had been completed but most of the interior had yet to be decided. In any event, construction was completed in 1973, the work of a team of architects made up of Peter Hall, Lionel Todd, David Littlemore and Ted Farmer. It was only in 1999 that Utzon, who had meanwhile become internationally famous, agreed to be involved in upgrading the interior space and was later awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2003, the greatest honour for an architect.

The specifications of the Sydney Opera House

The granite platform on which the Sydney Opera House stands is 606 feet 11 inches long and 393 feet 8 inches wide: one of the greatest merits of this enormous construction which, at its highest point, reaches 219 feet 9 inches, is not having a main façade and being aesthetically pleasing from any point of view. The large shells were made with enormous concrete ribs covered with white tiles: in all, there are more than 2,400 ribs and over a million tiles. The front sides of the largest sails are made up of large windows while the rest of the façade is covered with pink granite panels.

There are many different spaces inside the Sydney Opera House. The largest area is the Concert Hall, so high it is like a cathedral. This is a hall with 2,679 seats and boasts one of the largest organs in the world. The actual theatre is in another hall and has 1,507 seats. There are another two smaller spaces for more modest theatrical performances (with 544 and 398 seats, respectively) and other spaces designed for smaller events.

Many special features were introduced inside this building: for example, the temperature in the entire theatre is regulated by a system of pipes that pump water from the Bay into the building; since there is insufficient space for the scenery backstage, the theatre has two huge lifts between the stage and the storerooms below; the exterior structure does not have any gutters but drains all the rainwater directly into the ocean.