National Heritage Places - Sydney Opera House

New South Wales

Overview

The Opera House has become the nation's most recognisable building and an icon synonymous with Sydney and Australia's independent cultural spirit. For most observers, the white billowing silhouette, harbour-side location and proximity to the curves of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, create an unforgettable panorama.

Today, the Sydney Opera House is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world, each year staging up to 2500 performances and events, drawing around 1.5 million patrons, and attracting an estimated four million visitors.

The Sydney Opera House was included in the National Heritage List on 12 July 2005, and inscribed on the World Heritage List on 28 June 2007.

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More information

The story of the construction of this remarkable and improbable building is one of controversy and debate. Escalating costs and complex engineering problems made it a source of constant public debate, which only subsided when the beauty and technical achievement of the finished Opera House placed it on the world's architectural stage.

Designing an icon

In 1956, the New South Wales Government ran an international competition for the design of a national opera house. Out of 233 entries from 33 countries the judges chose the drawings of 38-year-old Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, stating:

'we are convinced that they present a concept of an opera house which is capable of being one of the great buildings of the world'.

Utzon has explained that the two ideas that inspired his Sydney Opera House design were the organic forms of nature, and the desire to create sensory experiences to bring pleasure to the building's patrons. He used shapes and materials in an unprecedented way to make this happen. The white Swedish tiles covering the shells give the Opera House its own vitality and moods. Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University, Richard Weston, described them as 'some of the most alive surfaces in architecture, by turn flaring with diamonds of light; sheer dazzling white in full sun, pearlescent in shadow; or glowing cream, pink or ochre as they return the ambient light'.

Building the Opera House

The engineering company Ove Arup and Partners accepted the challenge to construct the building. It took 16 years to build and in the process pushed architectural and engineering knowledge to its limits.

The Opera House Lottery

Throughout these years, delays and mounting costs dogged development. A creative solution was found to fund the venture and the revenue-raising Opera House Lottery was established, collecting some $102 million from 496 lotteries. This was almost the cost of the Opera House.

Project challenges

The technical challenge of how to construct the sculptural sail-like roof shells took Utzon and Ove Arup and Partners more than four years to solve. When they found the solution, they then had to revisit some of their earlier construction work and rebuild and strengthen the foundations so that they could support the revised structures. Issues such as this fuelled controversy and took their toll on the troubled relationship between the New South Wales Government and the architect. In 1966, this relationship shattered beyond repair and Jørn Utzon resigned. Architects Todd, Hall and Littlemore completed the job over the next seven years.

Leading the way in building design and construction

In every respect, the Sydney Opera House is a leading edge structure. Its construction, at a time of international experimentation in modern architecture, led to a number of technical and creative solutions that were pioneering in the history of building design and construction in Australia. The cutting-edge nature of the technology used for the Opera House led to the establishment of a testing laboratory at the University of New South Wales, making it one of the first organisations in the world to commercialise university research.

Performance space

The Opera House was built as a performance venue and includes a concert hall, opera and drama theatres, a playhouse and studio. In the years since its opening by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973, it has provided a fitting showcase for some of the world's most renowned artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Miriam Makeba, kd lang, Billy Connolly, John Williams, Dame Joan Sutherland, Bryn Terfel, Mel Gibson, Philip Glass, Luciano Pavarotti, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The Sydney Opera House is the extraordinary expression of an architect's vision, a government's will, engineering and public hopes. Above all, it is now a vibrant entity in the Australian psyche – a reflection of what this nation is, and what it aspires to be.

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