The house of the future still putting Australia on the world stage | Kanebridge News
Kanebridge News
Share Button

The house of the future still putting Australia on the world stage

It’s an immediately recognisable national symbol but the Sydney Opera House was almost binned before it got off the ground

By Robyn Willis
Fri, May 26, 2023 10:29amGrey Clock 7 min

Y ou could argue we didn’t deserve the Sydney Opera House. In fact, some would say we still don’t.

Regularly referenced in Australian popular culture on everything from tea towels to Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, it’s easy to gloss over that the design for this iconic building on a narrow peninsula in Sydney Harbour came from a vision literally half a world away.

For architecture aficionados, it’s a work of unparalleled excellence. For Australians, it’s as synonymous with our identity as Uluru, kangaroos and Bondi Beach.  

This year marks the 50th anniversary since the World Heritage-listed building was opened in October 1973, amid budget blowouts, design changes and disputes among politicians, engineers and designers that eventually lead Danish architect, and visionary Jørn Utzon to resign, vowing never to return.

For more stories like this, subscribe to Kanebridge Quarterly magazine here

Now considered Utzon’s greatest work, the site went through a 10 year building program at a cost of almost $300 million, including the renewal of the Concert Hall by ARM Architects, which reopened last year. It is designed to ensure it maintains its position as an architectural masterpiece, as well as being a fitting venue for world-class performing arts experiences.

But it almost wasn’t so.

Conceived on the other side of the world

When the NSW Government under Labor Premier Joseph Cahill announced a design competition in 1956 for a new opera house on Bennelong Point, there were more than 200 entries from local and international architects. Among them was a simple but radical design with curved ‘shells’ by an unknown Danish architect that had already been rejected by the judging panel as impossible to build.

Current heritage architect at the Sydney Opera House, Alan Croker, says it was the renown American-Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who was on the judging panel, who suggested the design be reconsidered.

“Saarinen was late to the meeting and he pulled it out of the reject box,” says Croker. “He recognised that it was possible (to build) because of some of the work he was doing at JFK Airport in New York. But at that stage it was not physically possible to build a shell structure of that height.”

circa 1965: Danish architect Jorn Utzon in front of the Sydney Opera House during its construction. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

While Utzon had grown up literally half a world away in Denmark, his home town in Aalborg is known for its waterfront which cuts through the Jutland region. The son of a seaman, Utzon understood the notion of peninsulas as pieces of land that could be viewed and accessed from all sides. In an age where commercial air travel was still a novelty, he also recognised that any building in a prominent position like this would be regularly viewed from above.

“He understood the site from similar places in Denmark and Europe and from his knowledge of navigation charts, so he understood plans from below and above the water,” says Croker. “He looked to Kronborg Castle (in Helsingør) which is on a headland and he saw it as being a similar idea to this building which would be seen from all sides while still having a relationship to the land.”

As it turns out, the unknown architect from Denmark understood the potential of the Sydney Harbour site better than most, says heritage manager at the Sydney Opera House, Laura Matarese.

“There were commonalities in how he could read the design brief and the site, which is what made it so special,” she says. “Because of the way he grew up and his understanding of water and how it moves, he knew that what the site needed was inspiration from nature.”

A spiritual experience

Prior to submitting his design to the NSW Government, Utzon had travelled extensively, including trekking through New Mexico and Central America where he had been inspired by the temples of the Mayan and Aztec cultures.

Director of Exhibitions at the Utzon Center in Denmark, Line Nørskov Eriksen, who wrote her PhD on Utzon’s work, says the influence of those structures is evident in the design of the Sydney Opera House.

“He travelled to Aztec and Mayan archaeological sites and the Yucatan peninsula where these civilisations had created platforms in the jungle,” she says. “Utzon described moving up these platforms step by step and how, when you stand upon the platform, your world is transformed. You have this sense of being closer to heaven. 

“It has this authentic quality of a temple. Even though the platform was built thousands of years ago, you have that same feeling.”

Coupled with the romance of the curved shells, the soaring ceilings and its connection to landscape, the opera house steps, where countless tourists have posed for photos and many more music lovers have enjoyed their favourite bands, were a deliberate decision to elevate the experience of seeing live performance from the everyday lives of visitors.

“The opera house is almost like a temple structure,” says Croker. “It has the ability to elevate the experience from a physical one to an emotional level, which was something that Utzon was trying to do — to create a disconnect with the ordinary world.”

The beauty of a
simple idea

There’s no question that building the opera house was extremely challenging. By the time it opened, the initial budget had blown out from $7 million to $102 million and timelines had stretched from a four-year completion target to the eventual 14 years it took to finish the building.

All this for a building Nørskov Eriksen describes as “a window into the beauty of a simple idea.”

John Weiley’s 1968 documentary Autopsy on a Dream, which examines the cultural, political and architectural forces at play during construction, suggests work began on the site before the question of building the revolutionary shells was resolved for political expediency. That is, that the project may have been cancelled with a change of government if work wasn’t already underway.

The knock-on effect, where, as narrator Bob Ellis puts it, ‘mistakes were made in concrete and steel rather than pencil and paper’ contributed to soaring costs. Public opinion varied from those who thought it was a waste of public money (it was being funded by a government lottery) and those who felt it was Sydney’s moment to launch itself on the world stage.

In this environment, Utzon and the engineering team were separately trying to solve the puzzle of creating structurally sound shells.

Costs for the opera house soared during construction. Image: Sydney Opera House

“They had to find a way to do a raised structure that would support the shell covering,” says Croker. “There was a long period of examining a lot of the geometrics to try to get a model that would work in an ordered manner. It was only when Utzon came up with the idea where he thought maybe they could be the same curvature. 

“He tested it with a beach ball in the bath and then he went to his father’s workshop and worked it out. There was a lot of testing and then there was a bit of a Eureka moment from Utzon that solved it and that made prefabrication much easier.”

While there were claims that Utzon was difficult and uncompromising, Nørskov Eriksen says he was integral in drawing others into his vision for the building.

“When Utzon spoke about the idea sitting behind this drawing, he got the whole office involved in solving the construction of the building because it was so objectively beautiful,” she says. 

Disputes over design changes and budgetary concerns eventually lead to Utzon leaving the project, and Australia, after nine years. 

Protests followed and local architect Peter Hall was charged with completing the opera house, with many in the architectural fraternity considering the design compromised. Croker says Peter Hall’s contribution was significant.

“With my involvement, I came to understand the role that Peter Hall had in it,” he says. “He tried his utmost to complete Utzon’s vision — and he did it so beautifully in so many ways.”

Birthday celebrations

With upgrades to the Concert Hall and Joan Sutherland Theatre to improve acoustics, lighting and rehearsal options now complete, the stage is set for the Sydney Opera House to continue its position as Australia’s premier performing arts space for the next half century.

For Croker, who watched the building being constructed as a young architecture student and someone with a lifelong love of the performing arts, it’s more than just a focal point in the harbour.

“I have a passion for performing arts, and these things have a capacity to elevate you and think about higher ideas and bring complex issues to the world. The building did that for me.”

“It’s a wonderful building and it is a huge gift that has been given to us by Utzon and Peter Hall and (engineer Ove) Arup and we should look after it and enjoy it.”

The commitment to upgrades and maintenance have set the building up well to perform its many and varied roles for the next 50 years, says Matarese.

“It’s an incredibly hardworking building,” she says. “It’s a world heritage site but it’s also a living, breathing, functional art centre. 

“It’s not just a monument or a museum — there’s a lot happening here 24/7.”

Heritage architect Alan Croker has been a fan of the opera house since he saw it being constructed as a student. Credit: Design 5 Architects/Sheridan Burke

And while Australians value the building highly, Nørskov Eriksen says its place in world architecture is also assured.

“It’s the greatest piece of architecture in the world, in my opinion,” she says.

The Utzon Center will be acknowledging the 50th anniversary next year with a permanent exhibition on the Sydney Opera House, which is still Utzon’s best known work internationally.

“We will have a dedicated gallery space for Utzon’s work on it with original models and an exhibition that explains the basic foundation of his approach to architecture,” she says. “The Sydney Opera House is the most important project. We find many of our visitors know the opera house but they don’t know the architecture behind it. It’s a gateway into the rest of Utzon’s work.”

Nørskov Eriksen says in some ways, it’s amazing it was ever built. 

“When I think about what happened in Sydney, the trust the committee put in Utzon, it is one thing to say yes, but the actual public who built it and how people let themselves be persuaded by a beautiful idea — I wish there was more of that.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

Related Stories
China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West
By GREG IP 08/06/2023
How Hackers Can Up Their Game by Using ChatGPT
By Cheryl Winokur Munk 08/06/2023
World Bank Brightens View of Global Growth This Year, Downgrades 2024
By YUKA HAYASHI 07/06/2023
China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop