Thursday, October 2, 2008
Sydney Opera House
The Opera House stands on Bennelong Point, which reaches out into Sydney Harbour, close to the famous bridge. It was designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon and engineered by the English firm of Ove Arup and Partners. Fourteen years in the building (1959–1973), the Opera House is one of the internationally recognized icons of Australia; it is also internationally acknowledged by architects, critics, and the wider public as one of the greatest pieces of architecture of the twentieth century, perhaps of any century.
At the end of World War II Sydney, Australia’s largest city, had no satisfactory venue for musical performances apart from its city hall. Orchestral concerts were held there, but opera was out of the question; neither were other theaters suitable. From about 1950 a number of influential people, led by Eugene Goosens, chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of the New South Wales (NSW) Conservatorium of Music, lobbied the state’s Labor government to build a performing-arts center. Their efforts were rewarded late in 1954 when semiderelict industrial land at Bennelong Point was selected as the site for the project.
The following year an international architectural design competition for a performing-arts center was announced—the name “Opera House” was later popularly and inaccurately attached to the building. The competition called for a complex with a 3,500-seat auditorium for opera, ballet, and orchestral concerts and a 1,200-seat theater for drama and smaller musical recitals. There was no budgetary constraint in the design brief. More than 700 architects applied and over 230 entries were received from thirty-two countries. In January 1957 Utzon’s success was announced in controversial circumstances. The judging panel comprised two Australians: Professor H. Ingham Ashworth of the University of Sydney and the NSW government architect Cobden Parkes; and from overseas, Professor Leslie Martin of Cambridge University, England, and the famous American architect Eero Saarinen. There is a persistent legend that, because it ignored competition guidelines, Utzon’s entry was discarded by the others before Saarinen’s late arrival in Sydney. He then reviewed the discarded designs and persuaded his fellow judges that Utzon must win. Other sources claim that Ashworth and Martin had already warmed to the Dane’s proposal. Whatever the case, the judges’ report observed with prophetic accuracy that Utzon’s drawings conveyed “a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.” He was awarded first prize of $A10,000 and commissioned as architect.
Soon the NSW government established a public appeal for the building. When it became clear that the subscription fund would not even approach the estimated cost of $A7 million, the government introduced the Opera House Lotteries. By 1975 they would raise 99 percent of the final cost of $A102 million.
The Opera House stands on a concrete podium projecting into Sydney Harbour, supported on 580 concrete piers founded 82 feet (25 meters) below water level. The podium houses the service areas, dressing and rehearsal rooms, minor theaters, and the box office. The harborside walkways, the raised platform around the building, as well as exterior and interior walls, stairs, and floors are faced with pink-brown reconstituted granite from Tarana, NSW. Rising from the platform are the three sets of roof shells, faced with custom-made white ceramic tiles from Sweden. The smallest shell covers a restaurant; the other two, set slightly off parallel, contain the two major performance spaces—the opera theater and the concert hall—and their foyers. The roof shells are assembled from nearly 2,200 precast concrete elements, each weighing up to 16.5 tons (15 tonnes), held together by steel cable. The two main auditoria, which are actually separate structures under their roofs, are framed with steel and faced inside and outside with brush box and white birch plywood. The open ends of the shells are glazed with laminated, tinted plate glass in bronze frames. The five theaters—there is also a drama theater, playhouse, and “The Studio”—and almost 1,000 rooms cater to the performing arts, cinema, exhibitions, and conventions. There are two other large auditoria, a reception hall, four restaurants and six bars, as well as a library, dressing rooms, rehearsal studios, and offices. About 3,000 events are presented each year, attracting audiences of 2 million.
Work started in March 1959 with a workforce from Australia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, and Chile. By 1963 the podium was completed and the roof vaults had been started. The steep sail shapes originally proposed by Utzon were, according to the engineers, unbuildable. So by October 1961 he revised them as parts of a sphere, enabling time and cost savings. Cost blowouts began to cause the client concern, and in 1966 a newly elected conservative government in NSW made Utzon the undeserving scapegoat in what was really a political intrigue. It withheld part of his fees, forcing his unwilling resignation. That issue divided the Australian architectural profession. Some architects held protest marches in Sydney; others abandoned their calling, and the Victorian Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects blackballed Utzon’s replacement. Not so the NSW chapter, and in April 1966 a team of local architects, Peter Hall, Lionel Todd, and David Littlemore, was appointed to complete the Opera House under the direction of the government architect. Inside the building, they obscured Utzon’s monumental vision by their thoroughly pedestrian design. The thousands of drawings and many models that showed his ideas for the interiors were ignored; almost all the models somehow disappeared after he left Australia.
In the hands of government architects, the completion of the Opera House took longer and cost more than might have been expected under the Dane’s supervision. By September 1973 the roof vaults were completed and work commenced on the glass walls and the interiors, and outside, the promenade and approaches. The building was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1973.
The Opera House remains a politicians’ plaything. In 1998, the NSW Labor government agreed with Utzon, then about 80 years old, that he would have control of all design decisions in a proposed ten-year, $66 million renovation of the building. About the same time, a proposed submission was put forward for formal recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It was titled “Sydney Opera House in its Harbour Setting” because of the imminent changes to the interiors. Nevertheless, Australia’s ultraconservative prime minister John Howard refused to pass on the document to UNESCO because it might “complicate” those alterations. Despite its rough political passage, as the editors of Architecture Australia commented in December 1999, “The original inspiration and genius [seen in the Sydney Opera House] has transcended the ensuing conflicts and controversy to produce an astonishing manifestation of triumphant imagination and spirit.”