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

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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.”


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Going warm and fuzzy for the 2024 Pantone Colour of the Year

Prepare yourself for the year of the peach

Fri, Dec 8, 2023 2 min

Pantone has released its 2024 Colour of the Year — and it’s warm and fuzzy.

Peach Fuzz has been named as the colour to sum up the year ahead, chosen to imbue a sense of “kindness and tenderness, communicating a message of caring and sharing, community and collaboration” said vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, Laurie Pressman.

“A warm and cosy shade highlighting our desire for togetherness with others or for enjoying a moment of stillness and the feeling of sanctuary this creates, PANTONE 13-1023 Peach Fuzz presents a fresh approach to a new softness,” she said.

Pantone Colour of the Year is often a reflection of world mood and events

The choice of a soft pastel will come as little surprise to those who follow the Pantone releases, which are often a reflection of world affairs and community mood. Typically, when economies are buoyant and international security is assured, colours tend to the bolder spectrum. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israeli-Gaza conflict and talk of recession in many countries, the choice of a softer, more reassuring colour is predictable. 

“At a time of turmoil in many aspects of our lives, our need for nurturing, empathy and compassion grows ever stronger as does our imaginings of a more peaceful future,” she said. “We are reminded that a vital part of living a full life is having the good health, stamina, and strength to enjoy it.”

The colour also reflects a desire to turn inward and exercise self care in an increasingly frenetic world.

“As we navigate the present and build toward a new world, we are reevaluating what is important,” she said. “Reframing how we want to live, we are expressing ourselves with greater intentionality and consideration. 

“Recalibrating our priorities to align with our internal values, we are focusing on health and wellbeing, both mental and physical, and cherishing what’s special — the warmth and comfort of spending time with friends and family, or simply taking a moment of time to ourselves.”

Each year since 2000, Pantone has released a colour of the year as a trendsetting tool for marketers and branding agents. It is widely taken up in the fashion and interior design industries, influencing collections across the spectrum. 


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