The Opera House Project

The Opera House Project

In 2001, the NSW Government provided $69.3million for several projects to improve the facilities and environment for performing arts companies, patrons and visitors. These projects seek to redress some of the practical limitations affecting the day-to-day workings of Sydney Opera House while preserving its unique heritage.

Some of those funds have been used to develop “The Sydney Opera House Project” which is a documentary that encompasses the design, engineering and construction of the building and through to forty years of performance and events. It highlights the controversial history of the Opera House and it’s magnificent future to come.


“To me it is a great joy to know how much the building is loved, by Australians in general and by Sydneysiders in particular.” Jørn Utzon, 2003


The Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece of late modern architecture. Internationally admired and proudly treasured by the people of Australia. This iconic building was the profound vision of Danish architect Jørn Utzon.


Jorn Utzon posing with the original model of The Sydney Opera House

Utzon’s design gave Australia a challenging, graceful piece of urban sculpture to be the home to culture, the arts, and the great stories and performances from around the world.

The iconic design attributes much of its success to the interlocking vaulted shells.  These shells are constructed upon an expansive terraced platform and pedestrian concourse.

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LEFT: Joseph Cahill- Premier of N.S.W. CENTRE: Jorn Utzon- Project Architect RIGHT: Charles Moses- General Manager of the A.B.C.


In 1954, the Sydney Opera House was the brain child of Charles Moses, General Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Director of the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and Joseph Cahill, Premier of New South Wales. By December 1955, the Bennelong point site had been selected and the international design competition for the national opera house had been announced.

Bennelong Point before construction of the Sydney Opera House had begun

Bennelong Point

Bennelong Point before construction began


The Brown Book

Commonly known as the “Brown Book”, this is the 1955 booklet for the conditions and programme for the International Competition for a National Opera House at Bennelong Point, Sydney. The booklet includes: conditions of competition, B&W photos of the site, site and building requirements, schedule of dates and more.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world Danish architect Utzon set to work on his Opera House designs for the competition. His entry, inspired both by ancient architecture and the sculptural possibilities of modern concrete shell design. He submitted his design and it was given the number ‘218’ among the last entries to be received.


A replica model of Utzon’s original design

Competition entries were to be judged by a panel of four architects. Harry Ashworth, the organising judge, was joined by Mr Cobden Parkes, the government architect, and Sir Leslie Martin, head of architecture at Cambridge University. The fourth judge was the eminent American architect Eero Saarinen, who already knew Utzon quite well.

Judging began on a Monday — December 7th. Saarinen arrived four days later by which time his colleagues had between them narrowed down the field of over 200 competitors.

There is no precise record of how the winning design was finally chosen, but a popular story is that the judges were underwhelmed by the already shortlisted entrants, and pulled Utzon’s entry out of a pile of rejected schemes, exclaiming that it was easily the winning design.

Alone among the entrants, Utzon had recognized that the building would be seen from all perspectives; when looked down upon from the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the buildings nearby, it would have, in effect, a “fifth façade.” Eero Saarinen, the most distinguished of the competition judges, called the design “a work of genius.” Utzon had disregarded competition rules, using gold on drawings that were supposed to be black and white, and neglecting to include a required perspective of the building in its harbor setting. Saarinen himself took up pastels and completed two large sketches to fill the gap. In the end, the judges’ decision was unanimous, and Utzon began work on one of the most famous architectural designs of the twentieth century. The architect Louis I. Kahn remarked, “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.”


Front page of the Sydney Morning Herald announcing Utzon as the winning architect for the design of The Sydney Opera House


On the afternoon of Tuesday 29th of January, 1957, Premier Cahill announced the winning design at The National Art Gallery as “218”, design by Jørn Utzon.


The Gold Book

The printed booklet, commonly known as the “Gold Book”, was issued to accompany the “Ceremony to Commemorate the Commencement of the Sydney Opera House” on 2 March 1959. At this ceremony the Premier, the Hon. J.J. Cahill M.L.A., positioned a plaque indicating the point from which all measurements of the Sydney Opera House would be taken.

The design and construction soon followed which was fraught with problems and setbacks.

Even as Utzon basked in his win, the furore began. His winning scheme was displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art beside Saarinen‘s TWA Terminal. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe hated Utzon’s design; Saarinen and Richard Neutra loved it. In Sydney, the profession generally backed the winning scheme, with Harry Seidler calling it “magnificent . . . pure poetry”, and Arthur Baldwinson producing a watercolour impression to help communicate Utzon’s design to the public. But the politics had begun. The March 1959 re-election of Cahill as premier saved the Opera House for the time being, but the posse was gathering on the hill.


Opera House Photos

LEFT: The roof structure almost complete CENTRE: Utzon in front of the Opera House RIGHT: Construction of roof ‘Shell’ Structure

On a chilly Monday afternoon, the “ceremony to commemorate the commencement of the building of Sydney Opera House” took place on Bennelong Point.

The construction process was firstly broken down into three stages. This would allow the project to begin with the demolition of the tram sheds and construction of the podium, also known as the substructure, while the architects and engineers continued to resolve the multitude of complex aesthetic and engineering problems concerning the roofs and interiors.


Stage 1 construction under way


Stage 1 would capture the construction of the podium, and represented the most straightforward of the stages.

An ingenious element of Utzon’s design of Sydney Opera House is the way much of the machinery and workings of the House are folded out of sight, beneath the public and performance spaces. Changing rooms, rehearsal spaces, the smaller theatres additional to the main halls, as well as much of the stage machinery, are all contained in this substructure, the podium.

Both ingenious and — with so much to accommodate – also challenging, the podium gives the impression of a strong base from the outside while inside it is a maze of rooms and corridors, busy with the smooth running of constantly changing productions. Actors, dancers, musicians and administrators all share this space in preparation for the performances that will occur around them.

Two major problems confronted the engineers in their approach to Stage One. Firstly, the geology of Bennelong Point had not been accurately surveyed at the time of the competition guidelines, which assumed that the promontory was comprised of Hawkesbury sandstone mass, like the surrounding land, whereas in fact, it was made of loose alluvial deposits, permeated with sea water and completely unsuitable for bearing the weight of the intended structure.

Some 700 steel-cased concrete shafts, nearly a metre each in diameter were bored down into the perimeter and northern half of the site. Mass concrete foundations filled in the unstable rock in the central area of the site.


The interior of the Podium featuring the exposed beams on the ceiling

At Bennelong Point, four years of work to realise Stage One had begun on what, at the time, was emerging as the largest concrete structure in the Southern hemisphere. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, teams of architects and engineers in Hellebæk, Denmark, and Fitzroy Street in London worked to realise the design and construction of Stages Two and Three of Sydney Opera House.


Stage 2 would involve the building of the roof, which in 1958 was still understood to be a series of concrete shells, but which by 1962 had evolved into the beautiful vaulted arches we see today. The arches were an outcome of the Spherical Solution which Utzon arrived at in response to the great difficulty encountered in creating the shells.

Joern Utzon.

Utzon with Sydney opera House model

By the middle of 1961, almost three years had passed since Utzon had put a plastic ruler on a table and bent it to the forms he wanted expressed in the roof. Three problems complicated the design process from the beginning. All revolved around being absolutely faithful to Utzon’s original conception of the shape of the roof.

Firstly, despite a significant change in form between the submission sketches in 1957 and 1958, each shell remained unique, precluding prefabrication of the form, which had implications for both ease of construction and cost.



The Red Book

This 1958 report (known also as the Red Book) was presented by Jørn Utzon to the Premier and the Opera House Committee in order to “give … a project which realizes in practical form the vision of the competition”. The report comprises: plans, sections, elevations, photographs of models of the Opera House; and reports by other consultants.

The technical plans are intersticed with Utzon’s free-form drawings and conceptual studies, creating, as a whole, an extraordinary essay in realized imagination.