Louis Kahn remarked: "The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building".
As well as many touring theatre, ballet, and musical productions, the Opera House is the home of Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony. It is administered by the Sydney Opera House Trust, under the New South Wales Ministry of the Arts.
The Sydney Opera House is an expressionist modern design, with a series of large precast concrete 'shells', each taken from a hemisphere of the same radius, forming the roofs of the structure. The Opera House covers 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) of land. It is 183 metres (605 feet) long and about 120 metres (388 feet) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk up to 25 metres below sea level. Its power supply is equivalent for a town of 25,000 people. The power is distributed by 645 kilometres of electrical cable.
The roofs of the House are covered with 1,056,006 glossy white and matte cream Swedish-made tiles, though from a distance the tiles look only white. Despite their self-cleaning nature, they are still subject to periodic maintenance and replacement.
The Concert Hall and Opera Theatre are each contained in the two largest groups of shells, and the other theatres are located on the sides of the shell groupings. The form of the shells is chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, rising from the low entrance spaces, over the seating areas and up to the high stage towers. A much smaller group of shells set to one side of the Monumental steps houses the Bennelong Restaurant. Although the roof structures of the Sydney Opera House are commonly referred to as shells (as they are in this article), they are in fact not shells in a strictly structural sense, but are instead precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs. The building's interior is composed of pink granite quarried in Tarana and wood and brush box plywood supplied from Wauchope in northern New South Wales.
The Sydney Opera House contains five main performance spaces, other areas used for performances, a recording studio, five restaurants, and four souvenir shops.
The five venues making up the main performance facilities:
Other spaces used for performances and other events include:
Besides theatrical productions and concerts, venues at the Sydney Opera House are also used for activities such as conferences, ceremonies, and social functions.
Planning for the Sydney Opera House began in the late 1940s when Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, lobbied for a suitable venue for large theatrical productions. The normal venue for such productions, the Sydney Town Hall, was not considered large enough. By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house. It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site for the Opera House. Cahill had wanted it to be on or near Wynyard Railway Station in the north-west of the CBD.
The competition was launched by Cahill on 13 September 1955 and received a total of 233 entries from 32 countries. The criteria specified a large hall seating 3000 and a small hall for 1200 people, each to be designed for different uses including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and other presentations. The basic design announced in 1957 was submitted by Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. Utzon arrived in Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project.
The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot, occupying the site at the time of these plans, was demolished in 1958, and formal construction of the Opera House began in March, 1959. The project was built in three stages. Stage I (1959–1963) consisted of building the upper podium. Stage II (1963–1967) saw the construction of the outer shells. Stage III consisted of the interior design and construction (1967–73).
Stage I commenced on 5 December 1958, by the construction firm Civil & Civic. The government had pushed for work to begin early fearing that funding, or public opinion, might turn against them. However major structural issues still plagued the design (most notably the sails, which were still parabolic at the time). 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 on 31 August 1962. 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.
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, but because there was no repetition in any of the roof forms the construction of precast concrete for each individual section would possibly be even more expensive.
From 1957 to 1963 the design team went through at least twelve 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 in order to understand the complex forces the shells would be subject to. In mid-1961 the design team found a solution to the problem: the shells all being created as sections from a sphere.
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 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. As Peter Murray states in The Saga of the Sydney Opera House:
...the two men - and their teams - enjoyed a collaboration that was remarkable in its fruitfulness and, despite many traumas, was seen by most of those involved in the project as a high point of architect/engineer collaboration.
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' 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. By the end of 1965, the estimated finish for stage II was July 1967.
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. This ultimately led to Utzon's resignation (see below).
The cost of the project so far, even in October of that year, was still only $22.9 million, less than a quarter of the final cost. However the projected costs for the design were at this stage much more significant.
In 1966, following Utzon's resignation, the acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer, confirmed to SOHEC that Utzon's original acoustic design only allowed for 2000 seats in the main hall, and further stated that increasing the number of seats to 3000 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".
The second stage of construction was still in process 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.
The four significant changes to the design after Utzon left were:
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.
Before the Sydney Opera House competition, Utzon had won seven of the eighteen competitions he had entered, but had never seen any of his designs built. Utzon's submitted concept for the Sydney Opera House was almost universally admired and considered groundbreaking. The Assessors Report of January 1957, stated:
The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, 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.
For the first stage of the project Utzon worked very successfully with the rest of the design team and the client, but as the project progressed it became clear (with the revised hall usage insisted by the clients) that the competition requirements had been inadequate with regards to acoustics, specifications of performance spaces and other areas, and that the client had not appreciated the costs or work involved in design and construction. Tensions between the client and the design team grew further when an early start to construction was demanded despite an incomplete design.
The relationship of client, architect, engineers and contractors became an increasing point of tension, between Utzon and the clients, and also Utzon and Arup. Utzon believed the clients should receive information on all aspects of the design and construction through his practice, while the clients wanted a system (notably drawn in sketch form by Davis Hughes) where architect, contractors, and engineers each reported to the client directly. This difference had great implications for procurement methods and cost control, with Utzon wishing to negotiate contracts with chosen suppliers (such as Ralph Symonds for the plywood interiors), and the Australian government insisting contracts were put out to tender.
However, the reasons for Arup's need to be able to contact the clients directly were equally clear. Peter Murray explains that:
when he moved to Australia, he closed his office down for three months and went travelling. Arups were unable to contact him and were forced to make a number of design choices without Utzon's input. This was to have a significant effect on Utzon's relationship with his engineers.
Utzon was highly reluctant to respond to questions or criticism from the client's "Sydney Opera House Executive Committee" (SOHEC). However Utzon was greatly supported throughout by Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth, a member of the committee and one of the original competition judges. However, the relationship was not helped by Utzon, who was unwilling to compromise on some aspects of his designs that the clients wanted to change. As he said to Jack Zunz, the senior member of the structural design team, in 1961: "I don't care what it costs. I don't care how long it takes. I don't care what scandal it causes. That is what I want."
Utzon consistently claimed to have solved all problems "in his head", but he was reluctant to produce either drawings or documentation in order to demonstrate, cost or later construct his design vision. Peter Murray states:
Utzon was continually investigating new solutions but, with a reluctance to commit himself, he would worry away at a problem for months.
During the concept and early design stages this was no problem, but later in the process it led to considerable tensions. Utzon's ability was never in doubt, and indeed Ove Arup stated that Utzon was "probably the best of any I have come across in my long experience of working with architects", and: "The Opera House could become the world's foremost contemporary masterpiece if Utzon is given his head."
Throughout the following years the relationship only got worse, with Utzon refusing access to drawings and documents by the Minister of Public Works' representative, and in 1964 dropping all first names from project correspondence, referring to people only as "Dear Sir". At the same time, there were also arguments over work Utzon had carried out and not received payment for. Arups were increasingly cast in the role of peacekeepers, and had to reconcile the two sides. Jack Zunz, a member of the Arup design team, stated following a meeting with Utzon in London in 1964:
He put up very powerful arguments to support his case and insists ... we support him loyally as he has supported us in Stages I and II. We should do this. .... provided it does not conflict with our basic responsibilities to the client.
In May 1965, Davis Hughes became Minister for Public Works. In October 1965, Utzon gave Hughes a schedule setting out the completion dates of parts of his work for stage III. Hughes withheld permission for the construction of plywood prototypes for the interiors.
Utzon was at this time working closely with Ralph Symonds, a manufacturer of plywood based in Sydney and highly regarded by many, despite Arup's warnings in March 1964 that Ralph Symonds' "knowledge of the design stresses of plywood, was extremely sketchy" and that the technical advice was "elementary to say the least and completely useless for our purposes". Ralph Symonds went broke within the year. However, the relationship between Utzon and the client never recovered, and the government minutes record that following several threats of resignation, Utzon stated to Davis Hughes: "If you don't do it, I resign". Hughes replied: "I accept your resignation. Thank you very much. Goodbye."
Utzon left the project on 28 February 1966. He said that Hughes' refusal to pay Utzon any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation, and later famously described the situation as "Malice in Blunderland". In March 1966, Hughes offered him a reduced role as 'design architect' under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House's construction, but Utzon rejected this.
Following the resignation, there was great controversy about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The Sydney Morning Herald initially reported:
No architect in the world has enjoyed greater freedom than Mr Utzon. Few clients have been more patient or more generous than the people and the Government of NSW. One would not like history to record that this partnership was brought to an end by a fit of temper on the one side or by a fit of meanness on the other.
However on 17 March 1966 it reported:
It was not his fault that a succession of Governments and the Opera House Trust should so signally have failed to impose any control or order on the project .... his concept was so daring that he himself could solve its problems only step by step .... his insistence on perfection led him to alter his design as he went along.
To this day, opinion is still split on the roles of the different parties in the project.
In an article in Harvard Design Magazine in 2005 , professor Bent Flyvbjerg argues that Utzon fell victim to a politically lowballed construction budget, which eventually resulted in a cost overrun of 1,400 percent. The overrun and the ensuing scandal that it created kept Utzon from building more masterpieces. This, according to Flyvbjerg, is the real cost of the Sydney Opera House.
The Sydney Opera House opened the way for the immensely complex geometries of some modern architecture. The design was one of the first examples of the use of computer analysis to design complex shapes. The design techniques developed by Utzon and Arup for the Sydney Opera House have been further developed and are now used for architecture such as works of Gehry and "blobitecture", as well as most reinforced concrete structures. The design is also one of the first in the world to use araldite to glue the precast structural elements together, and proved the concept for future use.
The Opera House was also a first in mechanical engineering. Another Danish firm, Steensen Varming, was responsible for designing the new air conditioning plant, the largest in Australia at the time, supplying over 600,000 cubic feet of air per minute , using the innovative idea of harnessing the harbour water to create a water cooled heat pump system that is still in operation today
The Opera House was formally opened by Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, on 20 October 1973, which a crowd of millions attended. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
Prior to the opening, two performances had already taken place in the finished building. On 28 September, a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's opera War and Peace was presented in the Opera Theatre. On 29 September, the first public concert in the Concert Hall took place. It was an all-Wagner concert, performed by the Sydney Symphony, conducted by Charles Mackerras and with accompanying singer Birgit Nilsson.
During the construction of the Opera House, a number of lunchtime performances were arranged for the workers, with Paul Robeson the first artist to perform at the (unfinished) Opera House in 1960.
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.