Sydney's Surprising Opera House

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July 14, 2011

The Sydney Opera House is more amazing—and surprising—in person than any photo could convey. Earlier this month, I headed to the Southern Hemisphere for a vacation in Sydney and Cairns, Australia. The Opera House was, of course, on my list of places to see (though its location on Bennelong Point, which juts out into Sydney Harbor, makes it near impossible to miss).

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  Not only is the building incredible but so is its story. In 1954, the premier of New South Wales (the state in which Sydney is located) announced a design competition for a new opera house on Bennelong Point, which had previously housed tram sheds that were no longer used (as trams were replaced by buses). Over 200 designs were submitted to the competition, with the winner being young (and relatively unknown) Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The story, as our Opera House tour guide told us, is that Eero Saarinen, one of the judges, arrived late to the judging session and demanded to look through all the of the rejected entries. In the discard pile was Utzon's proposal, which Saarinen declared the best of the entries and which, in 1954, was presented to the residents of Sydney as the winning design.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    Not only is the building incredible but so is its story. In 1954, the premier of New South Wales (the state in which Sydney is located) announced a design competition for a new opera house on Bennelong Point, which had previously housed tram sheds that were no longer used (as trams were replaced by buses). Over 200 designs were submitted to the competition, with the winner being young (and relatively unknown) Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The story, as our Opera House tour guide told us, is that Eero Saarinen, one of the judges, arrived late to the judging session and demanded to look through all the of the rejected entries. In the discard pile was Utzon's proposal, which Saarinen declared the best of the entries and which, in 1954, was presented to the residents of Sydney as the winning design.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  Unlike most of the submitted designs, which were box-shape and positioned the two requisite halls (one for symphony concerts and one for opera and ballet) one behind the other, Utzon's proposal featured dramatic, curvilinear forms and placed the halls side by side. The incredible thing is that even as the foundation was being poured, no one knew how the shells—or sails as they're commonly called—could or would be constructed.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    Unlike most of the submitted designs, which were box-shape and positioned the two requisite halls (one for symphony concerts and one for opera and ballet) one behind the other, Utzon's proposal featured dramatic, curvilinear forms and placed the halls side by side. The incredible thing is that even as the foundation was being poured, no one knew how the shells—or sails as they're commonly called—could or would be constructed.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  The design was nearly scraped when finally, in 1961, Utzon came up with his "key to the shells" spherical solution for building the sails. In this, the sails are based on the geometry of a sphere with the shape of each sail determined by the shape of a triangle carved out of the sphere. Using this model, Utzon and his team worked with engineers Ove Arup & Partners to successful design and build the iconic sails. This plaque outside of the Opera House commemorates this solution and demonstrates its logic.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    The design was nearly scraped when finally, in 1961, Utzon came up with his "key to the shells" spherical solution for building the sails. In this, the sails are based on the geometry of a sphere with the shape of each sail determined by the shape of a triangle carved out of the sphere. Using this model, Utzon and his team worked with engineers Ove Arup & Partners to successful design and build the iconic sails. This plaque outside of the Opera House commemorates this solution and demonstrates its logic.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  On an evening ferry back from Manly Beach, I took this photo of the western facade of the Sydney Opera House (the iconic face we so often see). The small structure on the far right was originally designed to be the ticket office but was later turned into the Opera House restaurant.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    On an evening ferry back from Manly Beach, I took this photo of the western facade of the Sydney Opera House (the iconic face we so often see). The small structure on the far right was originally designed to be the ticket office but was later turned into the Opera House restaurant.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  The most surprising things to me were that the sails are (1) not pure white, as many photos depict them, and (2) are made up of more than one million ceramic tiles from Sweden. This detail shot shows the cream and off-white tiles, which our tour guide said Utzon chose to create an iridescent look. The tiles are each about three or four inches wide.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    The most surprising things to me were that the sails are (1) not pure white, as many photos depict them, and (2) are made up of more than one million ceramic tiles from Sweden. This detail shot shows the cream and off-white tiles, which our tour guide said Utzon chose to create an iridescent look. The tiles are each about three or four inches wide.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  The morning after our day at Manly Beach, we took The Essential Tour, a one-hour guided tour of the Opera House during which we learned a ton of information about the structure and its history. (I highly recommend it if you're headed Down Under.) I snapped this photo, showing a view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge from outside the Opera House, before we met the group for a tour.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    The morning after our day at Manly Beach, we took The Essential Tour, a one-hour guided tour of the Opera House during which we learned a ton of information about the structure and its history. (I highly recommend it if you're headed Down Under.) I snapped this photo, showing a view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge from outside the Opera House, before we met the group for a tour.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  The tour took us first to the three small stages on the western side of the building: the Drama Theater (which seats 544), the Playhouse (which seats 398), and the Studio (which seats between 220 and 350  depending on its layout). Then we headed into the Concert Hall, where the Sydney Symphony, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, among others, perform. Both the Concert Hall and the Opera Hall (where Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, and the Sydney Opera House perform) are incredibly intimate. The Concert Hall seats 2,679 and the Opera Hall just 1,507. We weren't able to take any photos inside the halls as they were preparing for performances though we were able to enjoy the intermission spaces behind the halls, facing the water and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    The tour took us first to the three small stages on the western side of the building: the Drama Theater (which seats 544), the Playhouse (which seats 398), and the Studio (which seats between 220 and 350 depending on its layout). Then we headed into the Concert Hall, where the Sydney Symphony, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, among others, perform. Both the Concert Hall and the Opera Hall (where Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, and the Sydney Opera House perform) are incredibly intimate. The Concert Hall seats 2,679 and the Opera Hall just 1,507. We weren't able to take any photos inside the halls as they were preparing for performances though we were able to enjoy the intermission spaces behind the halls, facing the water and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  The colors and light in this intermission space were breathtaking. Our guide joked that the carpet gave away when the building was completed: the 1970s. It wasn't, however, Utzon who designed these interiors. In 1965, a new government came into power and due to the project's cost and timeline overruns, they stopped paying Utzon. He was offered the choice of staying on as an unpaid adviser or leaving the job as chief architect. He chose the latter and Peter Hall, with Lionel Todd and David Littlemore as well as the New South Wales government architect Ted Farmer, took over and completed all of the interiors.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    The colors and light in this intermission space were breathtaking. Our guide joked that the carpet gave away when the building was completed: the 1970s. It wasn't, however, Utzon who designed these interiors. In 1965, a new government came into power and due to the project's cost and timeline overruns, they stopped paying Utzon. He was offered the choice of staying on as an unpaid adviser or leaving the job as chief architect. He chose the latter and Peter Hall, with Lionel Todd and David Littlemore as well as the New South Wales government architect Ted Farmer, took over and completed all of the interiors.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  Another part of the intermission space in the Concert Hall overlooks Sydney Cove and Circular Quay, the busy ferry port from which boats are always coming and going.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    Another part of the intermission space in the Concert Hall overlooks Sydney Cove and Circular Quay, the busy ferry port from which boats are always coming and going.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  For me, another surprise was how cathedral-like the building is. When you see photos, you almost always notice the sails but not the arched windows they create. When you visit in person, these windows and vaulted spaces become much more prominent. This photo from inside one of the foyers show the glass windows as well as the precast concrete ribbing that was used to create the vaulted spaces. The pieces were prefabricated offsite then dropped into place in sections. The first section was placed in 1964, ten years after Utzon's design was selected.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    For me, another surprise was how cathedral-like the building is. When you see photos, you almost always notice the sails but not the arched windows they create. When you visit in person, these windows and vaulted spaces become much more prominent. This photo from inside one of the foyers show the glass windows as well as the precast concrete ribbing that was used to create the vaulted spaces. The pieces were prefabricated offsite then dropped into place in sections. The first section was placed in 1964, ten years after Utzon's design was selected.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  This photo shows the view from the Concert Hall foyer toward the Opera Hall through the glass windows. After Utzon was dismissed as chief architect, he never returned to Sydney and never saw the completed Opera House. In 1999, however, he worked on the building again to create design principles to guide all future changes to the structure, which was added to the World Heritage List in 2007.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    This photo shows the view from the Concert Hall foyer toward the Opera Hall through the glass windows. After Utzon was dismissed as chief architect, he never returned to Sydney and never saw the completed Opera House. In 1999, however, he worked on the building again to create design principles to guide all future changes to the structure, which was added to the World Heritage List in 2007.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  Although nearly all of the spaces were structurally altered in one way or another when Hall, Todd, Littlemore, and Farmer took over as the architecture team in 1965, the Reception Hall was the one space that was left largely untouched. After reengaging with the Opera House in 1999, Utzon designed the interior of this hall, which opened and was renamed the Utzon Room in 2004. It is the only interior space of Utzon's design in the entire building. On the wall hangs a 46-foot-long wool and cotton tapestry designed by Utzon. The piece is titled Homage to C. P. E. Bach and was inspired by Bach's Hamburg Symphonies and Raphael's painting Procession to Calvary.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    Although nearly all of the spaces were structurally altered in one way or another when Hall, Todd, Littlemore, and Farmer took over as the architecture team in 1965, the Reception Hall was the one space that was left largely untouched. After reengaging with the Opera House in 1999, Utzon designed the interior of this hall, which opened and was renamed the Utzon Room in 2004. It is the only interior space of Utzon's design in the entire building. On the wall hangs a 46-foot-long wool and cotton tapestry designed by Utzon. The piece is titled Homage to C. P. E. Bach and was inspired by Bach's Hamburg Symphonies and Raphael's painting Procession to Calvary.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  The Opera House was finally completed in 1973 at the cost of $102 million (which today would be nearly half a billion dollars), despite the fact that the original budget was $7 million. Each time we walked by the structure during our trip, it was full of tourists admiring it, just as we were. This image shows the southernmost sail of the restaurant, Circular Quay, and (at the far left) part of the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    The Opera House was finally completed in 1973 at the cost of $102 million (which today would be nearly half a billion dollars), despite the fact that the original budget was $7 million. Each time we walked by the structure during our trip, it was full of tourists admiring it, just as we were. This image shows the southernmost sail of the restaurant, Circular Quay, and (at the far left) part of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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  Here, a view of the Sydney Opera House from the Yurong Precinct of the Royal Botanic Gardens. For more about the Opera House (including a detailed history of the building, shows, and more), visit sydneyoperahouse.com.Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our  FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!   Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake
    Here, a view of the Sydney Opera House from the Yurong Precinct of the Royal Botanic Gardens. For more about the Opera House (including a detailed history of the building, shows, and more), visit sydneyoperahouse.com.

    Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!

    Photo by: Miyoko Ohtake

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