The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre at Sydney Harbour in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. It is one of the 20th century’s most famous and distinctive buildings.
Fusing ancient and modernist influences, the sculptural elegance of the Sydney Opera House has made it one of the most recognisable buildings of the twentieth century, synonymous with inspiration and creativity. As Pritzker Prize judge, Frank Gehry, said when awarding architecture’s highest award in 2003: ” Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology… a building that changed the image of an entire country.”
Built to “help mould a better and more enlightened community,” Sydney Opera House has, since opening in 1973, been home to many of the world’s greatest artists and performances and a meeting place for matters of local and international significance. Today it is one of the world’s busiest performing arts centres and Australia’s number one destination, presenting uniquely diverse experiences to more than 8.2 million visitors, 363 days a year.
Those experiences range from the work of seven flagship performing arts companies – Opera Australia, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Theatre Company, The Australian Ballet, Bell Shakespeare and Bangarra Dance Theatre – to burgeoning contemporary music, talks-and-ideas and children’s programming, and award-winning restaurants and bars.
Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the building was formally opened on 20 October 1973 after a gestation beginning with Utzon’s 1957 selection as winner of an international design competition. The Government of New South Wales, led by the premier, Joseph Cahill, authorised work to begin in 1958 with Utzon directing construction. The government’s decision to build Utzon’s design is often overshadowed by circumstances that followed, including cost and scheduling overruns as well as the architect’s ultimate resignation.
The building and its surrounds occupy the whole of Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbour, between Sydney Cove and Farm Cove, adjacent to the Sydney central business district and the Royal Botanic Gardens, and close by the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The building comprises multiple performance venues, which together host well over 1,500 performances annually, attended by more than 1.2 million people. Performances are presented by numerous performing artists, including three resident companies: Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As one of the most popular visitor attractions in Australia, the site is visited by more than eight million people annually, and approximately 350,000 visitors take a guided tour of the building each year. The building is managed by the Sydney Opera House Trust, an agency of the New South Wales State Government.
The Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks and this is your chance to truly get up-close. Run your hands over the world-famous shell tiles, take a seat in the elegant custom-made white birch timber chairs and marvel at the vaulted ceilings. Visit areas off-limits to the public and capture photographs from rare vantage points.
On 28 June 2007, the Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having been listed on the (now defunct) Register of the National Estate since 1980, the National Trust of Australia register since 1983, the City of Sydney Heritage Inventory since 2000, the New South Wales State Heritage Register since 2003, and the Australian National Heritage List since 2005. Furthermore, the Opera House was a finalist in the New 7 Wonders of the World campaign list.
As the Opera House approaches its 45th Anniversary in 2018, a year that also marks the centenary of architect Jørn Utzon’s birth, a suite of projects is underway to renew the building for future generations of artists, audiences and visitors. As part of this Renewal, the Opera House is committed to bringing the vision and ambition that inspired its creation to all that it does. Google Cultural Institute provides an unparalleled opportunity to share the many facets of the Opera House, past, present and future, with people wherever they are.
The facility features a modern expressionist design, with a series of large precast concrete “shells”, each composed of sections of a sphere of 75.2 metres (246 ft 8.6 in) radius, forming the roofs of the structure, set on a monumental podium. The building covers 1.8 hectares (4.4 acres) of land and is 183 m (600 ft) long and 120 m (394 ft) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk as much as 25 m (82 ft) below sea level. The highest roof point is 67 metres above sea-level which is the same height as that of a 22-storey building. The roof is made of 2,194 pre-cast concrete sections, which weigh up to 15 tonnes each.
Although the roof structures are commonly referred to as “shells” (as in this article), they are precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs, not shells in a strictly structural sense. Though the shells appear uniformly white from a distance, they actually feature a subtle chevron pattern composed of 1,056,006 tiles in two colours: glossy white and matte cream. The tiles were manufactured by the Swedish company Höganäs AB which generally produced stoneware tiles for the paper-mill industry.
Apart from the tile of the shells and the glass curtain walls of the foyer spaces, the building’s exterior is largely clad with aggregate panels composed of pink granite quarried at Tarana. Significant interior surface treatments also include off-form concrete, Australian white birch plywood supplied from Wauchope in northern New South Wales, and brush box glulam.
Of the two larger spaces, the Concert Hall is in the western group of shells, the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the eastern group. The scale of the shells was chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, with low entrance spaces, rising over the seating areas up to the high stage towers. The smaller venues (the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio) are within the podium, beneath the Concert Hall. A smaller group of shells set to the western side of the Monumental Steps houses the Bennelong Restaurant. The podium is surrounded by substantial open public spaces, and the large stone-paved forecourt area with the adjacent monumental steps is regularly used as a performance space.
Performance venues and facilities
The Sydney Opera House includes a number of performance venues:
Concert Hall: With 2,679 seats, the home of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and used by a large number of other concert presenters. It contains the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ, the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world, with over 10,000 pipes.
Joan Sutherland Theatre: A proscenium theatre with 1,507 seats, the Sydney home of Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet. Until 17 October 2012 it was known as the Opera Theatre.
Drama Theatre: A proscenium theatre with 544 seats, used by the Sydney Theatre Company and other dance and theatrical presenters.
Playhouse: A non-proscenium end-stage theatre with 398 seats.
Studio: A flexible space with 280 permanent seats (some of which can be folded up) and a maximum capacity of 400, depending on configuration.
Utzon Room: A small multi-purpose venue for parties, corporate functions and small productions (such as chamber music performances).
Outdoor Forecourt: A flexible open-air venue with a wide range of configuration options, including the possibility of utilising the Monumental Steps as audience seating, used for a range of community events and major outdoor performances.
Other areas (for example the northern and western foyers) are also used for performances on an occasional basis. Venues are also used for conferences, ceremonies and social functions.
The building also houses a recording studio, cafes, restaurants, bars and retail outlets. Guided tours are available, including a frequent tour of the front-of-house spaces, and a daily backstage tour that takes visitors backstage to see areas normally reserved for performers and crew members.
Be led through every aspect of the building’s 14-year creation and 58-year history. Delve into the stories behind Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece.
Design and construction
The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot, occupying the site at the time of these plans, was demolished in 1958 and construction began in March 1959. It was built in three stages: stage I (1959–1963) consisted of building the upper podium; stage II (1963–1967) the construction of the outer shells; stage III (1967–1973) interior design and construction.
Stage I: Podium
Stage I commenced on 2 March 1959 with the construction firm Civil & Civic, monitored by the engineers Ove Arup and Partners. The government had pushed for work to begin early, fearing that funding, or public opinion, might turn against them. However, Utzon had still not completed the final designs. Major structural issues still remained unresolved. By 23 January 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind, mainly because of unexpected difficulties (inclement weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper construction drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents). Work on the podium was finally completed in February 1963. The forced early start led to significant later problems, not least of which was the fact that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the roof structure, and had to be re-built.
Stage II: Roof
The shells of the competition entry were originally of undefined geometry, but, early in the design process, the “shells” were perceived as a series of parabolas supported by precast concrete ribs. However, engineers Ove Arup and Partners were unable to find an acceptable solution to constructing them. The formwork for using in-situ concrete would have been prohibitively expensive, and, because there was no repetition in any of the roof forms, the construction of precast concrete for each individual section would possibly have been even more expensive.
From 1957 to 1963, the design team went through at least 12 iterations of the form of the shells trying to find an economically acceptable form (including schemes with parabolas, circular ribs and ellipsoids) before a workable solution was completed. The design work on the shells involved one of the earliest uses of computers in structural analysis, to understand the complex forces to which the shells would be subjected. The computer system was also used in the assembly of the arches. The pins in the arches were surveyed at the end of each day, and the information was entered into the computer so the next arch could be properly placed the following day. In mid-1961, the design team found a solution to the problem: the shells all being created as sections from a sphere. This solution allows arches of varying length to be cast in a common mould, and a number of arch segments of common length to be placed adjacent to one another, to form a spherical section. With whom exactly this solution originated has been the subject of some controversy. It was originally credited to Utzon. Ove Arup’s letter to Ashworth, a member of the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee, states: “Utzon came up with an idea of making all the shells of uniform curvature throughout in both directions.” Peter Jones, the author of Ove Arup’s biography, states that “the architect and his supporters alike claimed to recall the precise eureka moment … ; the engineers and some of their associates, with equal conviction, recall discussion in both central London and at Ove’s house.”
He goes on to claim that “the existing evidence shows that Arup’s canvassed several possibilities for the geometry of the shells, from parabolas to ellipsoids and spheres.” Yuzo Mikami, a member of the design team, presents an opposite view in his book on the project, Utzon’s Sphere. It is unlikely that the truth will ever be categorically known, but there is a clear consensus that the design team worked very well indeed for the first part of the project and that Utzon, Arup, and Ronald Jenkins (partner of Ove Arup and Partners responsible for the Opera House project) all played a very significant part in the design development.
The design of the roof was tested on scale models in wind tunnels at University of Southampton and later NPL in order to establish the wind-pressure distribution around the roof shape in very high winds, which helped in the design of the roof tiles and their fixtures.
The shells were constructed by Hornibrook Group Pty Ltd, who were also responsible for construction in Stage III. Hornibrook manufactured the 2400 precast ribs and 4000 roof panels in an on-site factory and also developed the construction processes. The achievement of this solution avoided the need for expensive formwork construction by allowing the use of precast units (it also allowed the roof tiles to be prefabricated in sheets on the ground, instead of being stuck on individually at height). Ove Arup and Partners’ site engineer supervised the construction of the shells, which used an innovative adjustable steel-trussed “erection arch” (developed by Hornibrook’s engineer Joe Bertony) to support the different roofs before completion. On 6 April 1962, it was estimated that the Opera House would be completed between August 1964 and March 1965.
Stage III: Interiors
Stage III, the interiors, started with Utzon moving his entire office to Sydney in February 1963. However, there was a change of government in 1965, and the new Robert Askin government declared the project under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. Due to the Ministry’s criticism of the project’s costs and time, along with their impression of Utzon’s designs being impractical, this ultimately led to his resignation in 1966 (see below).
The cost of the project so far, even in October 1966, was still only A$22.9 million, less than a quarter of the final $102 million cost. However, the projected costs for the design were at this stage much more significant.
The second stage of construction was progressing toward completion when Utzon resigned. His position was principally taken over by Peter Hall, who became largely responsible for the interior design. Other persons appointed that same year to replace Utzon were E. H. Farmer as government architect, D. S. Littlemore and Lionel Todd.
Following Utzon’s resignation, the acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer, confirmed to the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC) that Utzon’s original acoustic design allowed for only 2,000 seats in the main hall and further stated that increasing the number of seats to 3,000 as specified in the brief would be disastrous for the acoustics. According to Peter Jones, the stage designer, Martin Carr, criticised the “shape, height and width of the stage, the physical facilities for artists, the location of the dressing rooms, the widths of doors and lifts, and the location of lighting switchboards.”
Significant changes to Utzon’s design
The major hall, which was originally to be a multipurpose opera/concert hall, became solely a concert hall, called the Concert Hall. The minor hall, originally for stage productions only, incorporated opera and ballet functions and was called the Opera Theatre, later renamed the Joan Sutherland Theatre. As a result, the Joan Sutherland Theatre is inadequate to stage large-scale opera and ballet. A theatre, a cinema and a library were also added. These were later changed to two live drama theatres and a smaller theatre “in the round”. These now comprise the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio respectively. These changes were primarily because of inadequacies in the original competition brief, which did not make it adequately clear how the Opera House was to be used. The layout of the interiors was changed, and the stage machinery, already designed and fitted inside the major hall, was pulled out and largely thrown away, as detailed in the 1968 BBC TV documentary Autopsy on a Dream, which “chronicles the full spectrum of controversy surrounding the construction of the Sydney Opera House”.
Externally, the cladding to the podium and the paving (the podium was originally not to be clad down to the water, but to be left open).
The construction of the glass walls (Utzon was planning to use a system of prefabricated plywood mullions, but a different system was designed to deal with the glass).
Utzon’s plywood corridor designs, and his acoustic and seating designs for the interior of both major halls, were scrapped completely. His design for the Concert Hall was rejected as it only seated 2000, which was considered insufficient. Utzon employed the acoustic consultant Lothar Cremer, and his designs for the major halls were later modelled and found to be very good. The subsequent Todd, Hall and Littlemore versions of both major halls have some problems with acoustics, particularly for the performing musicians. The orchestra pit in the Joan Sutherland Theatre is cramped and dangerous to musicians’ hearing. The Concert Hall has a very high roof, leading to a lack of early reflections onstage—perspex rings (the “acoustic clouds”) hanging over the stage were added shortly before opening in an (unsuccessful) attempt to address this problem.
Completion and cost
The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, having cost $102 million. H.R. “Sam” Hoare, the Hornibrook director in charge of the project, provided the following approximations in 1973: Stage I: podium Civil & Civic Pty Ltd approximately $5.5m. Stage II: roof shells M.R. Hornibrook (NSW) Pty Ltd approximately $12.5m. Stage III: completion The Hornibrook Group $56.5m. Separate contracts: stage equipment, stage lighting and organ $9.0m. Fees and other costs: $16.5m.
The original cost and scheduling estimates in 1957 projected a cost of £3,500,000 ($7 million) and completion date of 26 January 1963 (Australia Day). In reality, the project was completed ten years late and 1,357% over budget in real terms.
The Sydney Opera House was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia on 20 October 1973. A large crowd attended. Utzon was not invited to the ceremony, nor was his name mentioned. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
In the late 1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust resumed communication with Utzon in an attempt to effect a reconciliation and to secure his involvement in future changes to the building. In 1999, he was appointed by the Trust as a design consultant for future work.
In 2004, the first interior space rebuilt to an Utzon design was opened, and renamed “The Utzon Room” in his honour. It contains an original Utzon tapestry (14.00 x 3.70 metres) called Homage to Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. In April 2007, he proposed a major reconstruction of the Opera Theatre, as it was then known. Utzon died on 29 November 2008.
A state memorial service, attended by Utzon’s son Jan and daughter Lin, celebrating his creative genius, was held in the Concert Hall on 25 March 2009 featuring performances, readings and recollections from prominent figures in the Australian performing arts scene.
Refurbished Western Foyer and Accessibility improvements were commissioned on 17 November 2009, the largest building project completed since Utzon was re-engaged in 1999. Designed by Utzon and his son Jan, the project provided improved ticketing, toilet and cloaking facilities. New escalators and a public lift enabled enhanced access for the disabled and families with prams. The prominent paralympian athlete Louise Sauvage was announced as the building’s “accessibility ambassador” to advise on further improvements to aid people with disabilities.
On 29 March 2016, an original 1959 tapestry by Le Corbusier (2.18 x 3.55 metres), commissioned by Utzon to be hung in the Sydney Opera House and called Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast), was finally unveiled in situ after being owned by the Utzon family and held at their home in Denmark for over 50 years. The tapestry was bought at auction by the Sydney Opera House in June 2015. It now hangs in the building’s Western Foyer and is accessible to the public.
In the second half of 2017, the Joan Sutherland Theatre was closed to replace the stage machinery and for other works. The Concert Hall is scheduled for work in 2020–2021.
Public and commemorative events
In 1993, Constantine Koukias was commissioned by the Sydney Opera House Trust in association with REM Theatre to compose Icon, a large-scale music theatre piece for the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House.
During the 2000 Summer Olympics, the venue served as the focal point for the triathlon events. The event had a 1.5 km (0.9 mi) swimming loop at Farm Cove, along with competitions in the neighbouring Royal Botanical Gardens for the cycling and running portions of the event.
Since 2013, a group of residents from the nearby Bennelong Apartments (better known as ‘The Toaster’), calling themselves the Sydney Opera House Concerned Citizens Group, have been campaigning against Forecourt Concerts on the grounds that they exceed noise levels outlined in the development approval (DA). In February 2017 the NSW Department of Planning and the Environment handed down a $15,000 fine to the Sydney Opera House for breach of allowed noise levels at a concert held in November 2015. However the DA was amended in 2016 to allow an increase in noise levels in the forecourt by 5 decibels. The residents opposing the concerts contend that a new DA should have been filed rather than an amendment.
The Sydney Opera House sails formed a graphic projection-screen in a lightshow mounted in connection with the International Fleet Review in Sydney Harbour on 5 October 2013.
On 31 December 2013, the venue’s 40th anniversary year, a New Year firework display was mounted for the first time in a decade. The Sydney Opera House hosted an event, ‘the biggest blind date’ on Friday 21 February 2014 that won an historic Guinness World Record. The longest continuous serving employee was commemorated on 27 June 2018, for 50 years of service.
On 14 June 2019, a state memorial service for former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was held at the Sydney Opera House.