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.

It is a testament to Utzon’s approach that in design and engineering his ideas constantly pushed at the boundaries of the possible.

The first problem led to another, whether to approach the roof as a shell or a rib structure. A ribbed structure would provide a very different interior to the smooth concave surfaces imagined in the original sketches, a surface that Utzon had lined with gold leaf in his competition sketches, hinting at the bold use of colour he would later use in his designs.


Utzon’s original sketch using gold leaf to highlight the smooth underside of the roof sails

After a meeting with the site engineers Utzon had decided on the ribbed expression of the soffit of the shells. However, significant problems remained unresolved, including the requirement that each rib still be unique, because of adherence to the existing paraboloid geometry.

A solution was needed to solve the paraboloid geometry of the roof.  From his own account, Utzon was alone at the Hellebæk office one evening, with these considerations very much weighing on his mind. While stacking the shells of the large model to make space, he was surprised to notice how similar the shapes appeared to be in this context. Previously, each shell had seemed distinct from the other, but now it struck him that if they were so similar, perhaps each could be derived from a single constant form, such as the plane of a sphere.

Joern Utzon displays a diagram of a detail of the Sydney Opera House.

Utzon using a 3D wire model to demonstrate the solution to the roof construction problem

The simplicity of the idea appealed very much to Utzon. It would mean that not only the building’s form could be prefabricated from a repetitive geometry, but that a uniform pattern could also be achieved for the tiling of the exterior surface. It was the binding discovery that allowed for the distinctive characteristics of Sydney Opera House to be finally realised. The vaulted arches, the exceptionally beautiful finish of the tiles and the timeless sail-like silhouette of the house all derive from his decision to move the form to a spherical geometry.

By any standard it was a beautiful solution to these crucial problems, which elevated the architecture beyond mere style and timelessly expressed the fusion between design and engineering.


Aerial view of construction

During those years in which the Sydney Opera House had gone from idea to reality, the project had come to symbolise Australia’s growing cultural awareness, sophistication and the sense that it was establishing a new identity for itself in the world, as alluded to in Patrick White’s note.

A new generation had inherited Joseph Cahill’s (Premier of N.S.W) hopes and aspirations. The transformation of Bennelong Point held the promise of the shrine to culture Cahill had envisaged for his people — a modernist masterpiece, unique and signifying the avant garde through the impressive platform.

These new waves of youthful idealism, buoyed by the revolutionary mood of the 1960s, sustained Cahill’s idea that the opera house would embody the flowering of Australian culture, and nurture it into the future.

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Construction of roof sails


Despite the official commencement of Stage 2 at the start of 1963, the site seemed visibly unchanged until the first pedestal was positioned in November that year. This only added to a perception that little progress was being made. In fact, the contrary was true.


Utzon and Cahill inspecting The Yellow book

As a result of building work having commenced too soon, the government was facing a bill for Stage 1 that was almost twice that of the original quote. Now, another problem arising from the premature start dramatically presented itself.

It was discovered that the podium columns designed to bear the load of the roof were too weak and needed to be strengthened – a process which took four months.

The columns had to be demolished and replaced – a process which was inevitably loud and impossible to carry out without gaining undesired attention. Michael Lewis, the supervising engineer on site, recalls how demolitions were scheduled to coincide with morning rush hour traffic, in an attempt to minimise exposure.


The Yellow Book

This 1962 report (commonly known as the Yellow Book) comprises plans submitted by Jørn Utzon and consultants. The plans include, in addition to plans of the minor and major halls, geometrical construction showing the shells of the major hall, details of precast lid, tiling on shells and development of shells.

Stage 2 took three years to complete, an entire year longer than the initial estimate. It was during this period, as Bennelong Point was again transformed and the vaulted shells gradually assumed their iconic place beside the harbour, that Utzon’s struggle for the perfect building was ultimately lost.

Sydney Opera House Under Construction

Nearing completion of Stage 2


With the May elections brought triumph for Robert Askin’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the Country Party led by Davis Hughes, ending 24 years of Labor governance in New South Wales.

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LEFT: Davis Hughes RIGHT: Hughes and Farmer inspecting the concrete cladding of the Opera House

Utzon had been hounded all year by an overtly critical and newly vexatious client (the new Minister of Public Works- Mr Davis Hughes) and his relationship with the project engineers was no longer the ideal of previous years, and while his creation was now starting to take form, he was being asked to redesign its interiors in a way that utterly compromised the vision towards which he and his architects had been working in previous years.

Whether or not Hughes was using the opportunity for political gain at the time, by 1965 he’d had no direct involvement with the project. But his early interest and his optimism as newly appointed Minister of Public Works suggests he had retained an enthusiasm for the project and was ready to fulfill the government’s election promise. It was an appointment that would prove disastrous for Jørn Utzon. The Minister would become the architect’s nemesis and, less than a year into his new role, having succeeded in forcing Utzon to withdraw from the project, he would go on to portray it as a resignation.


By the end of August 1965, Hughes advised Cabinet that his proposal to bring the project into line might alienate the architect. By this time, neither Hughes nor Wood were exhibiting any regard for the integrity of the design or the quality of Utzon’s craft approach.

Without legal counsel, Utzon had a letter delivered to Hughes’ office in which he accused the Minister of forcing him out.

Quote from Utzon’s letter to Hughes, 28 Feb 1966: “You have forced me to leave the job. As I explained to you, and as you also know from meetings and discussions, there has been no collaboration on the most vital items of the job in the last months from your Department’s side, and this also forces me to leave the job as I see clearly that you do not respect me as an architect. I have therefore today given my staff notice of dismissal. I will notify the Consultants and Contractors and I will have cleared the office of my belongings and you will receive my final account before March 14 1966.”

Hughes, it seemed, had achieved exactly what he had intended.

On Tuesday 1st March, 1966, just one day after Utzon had stood exasperated in Hughes’ office, the Minister rose to his feet in Parliament and, reframing the architect’s letter of forced departure, announced that Jørn Utzon had resigned.

Within two days of this announcement, the architect Harry Seidler and Hall Missingham, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, had rallied other architects, students, intellectuals and labourers into the streets, congregating at Bennelong Point for speeches, and marching to Parliament House to deliver a petition of 3000 names to Premier Askin that called for Utzon’s reinstatement. Patrick White and Denis Winston, Dean of Architecture at Sydney University, led the march alongside Seidler and Missingham.


Protesters including Seidler and Missingham on the Opera house construction site

Utzon described the protest as “Marvellous”.

By February 1966 Utzon was owed more than $100,000 in fees. He threatened to quit and when Hughes called his bluff, did so. He believed the government would back down. At 4.30 on the fateful afternoon of March 4, 1966, there was a farcical meeting between Utzon and Askin in the premier’s wing of the old State Office Block on Macquarie Street. Utzon ended up climbing over a rear yard wall to avoid the press and being saved from a seven-metre drop only by the quick thinking of a colleague, Bill Wheatland.

The Utzons left Sydney on April 28, travelling to Hawaii under false names to evade the press. Still, Utzon fully expected to be recalled, but the government had already set about replacing him with what Drew describes as “a conspiracy of nobodies”.

Once the final tile lids were in place and the stunning impact of their finish had been revealed, the cranes stopped — and the site was at a standstill for two years. Only then did the 3rd Stage begin, and in the absence of the original author.

Sydney Opera House.

Aerial view of the finished exterior of The Sydney Opera

For Utzon the sense of loss and disappointment would understandably endure for many years. He had, a decade before, been very surprised to have won the competition, and though young and inexperienced, he had risen to the occasion. He had brought an unmistakable genius to the project which endures in the finished building today.

Yet his relentless pursuit of perfection had gradually been abandoned by all around him until the endeavour had become impossible. Utzon withdrew from the building project as an artist unwilling to compromise his vision or contemplate anything less than his imagined ideal. And he never wished to set eyes upon the imperfect result.

Stage 3 would be the crafting of the interiors and the glass walls which would seal the House, along with every other detail not covered off in the previous stages. Many have observed that perhaps the greatest tragedy in the story of the opera house lies in the fact that Utzon withdrew before being able to see the magnificent interiors he had designed realised. Stage 3 naturally presented itself as the most architecturally oriented stage of the building, and Utzon’s absence from it remains deeply poignant to this day.

By December 1966, Hall, Todd and Littlemore (Sydney based architects) submitted their proposals for Stage 3. They recommended the main hall be designed purely for concerts and not — as it had always been in the original brief — a dual-purpose venue.


Minister for Public Works Mr Davis Hughes, left, and Premier Robert Askin tour the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House during construction in 1972.

The significance of the change was profound — not just because it alleviated the complexity of having to create a dual-purpose hall with different reverberation times for opera and concerts, but because it also meant that the stage machinery already installed beneath the shell structure would have to be demolished.

Despite stringent and detailed project management, the final cost in 1972 was $102 million dollars, a very distant figure to the original estimate of 3.5 million Australian pounds envisaged in 1957.

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Construction of Stage 3- The Interior

Nevertheless, at the time of its opening the concert hall was celebrated for its world class acoustics, and in 2004 continued to attain high ranking in Leo Beranek’s index of 58 Concert Halls across the world.

Finally, between 1968 and 1973 Sydney Opera House emerged as a finished building.

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The opening of the Sydney Opera House by Queen Elizabeth

Thirty three years after leaving Australia, with the tumult of 1966 long behind him, Jørn Utzon once again signed a contract with the New South Wales Government and re-engaged with Sydney Opera House.


The Opera House in its picturesque harbor setting

But as the millennium approached, conservation and continuity of the Opera House were the foremost considerations of The Sydney Opera House Trust and the Carr Government.

Premier Bob Carr wrote to Utzon on the 25 October 1998, asking the architect to consider establishing a set of design principles that could be used to continue his vision for the building in centuries to come. These principles would be employed as a guide for future architects and designers to maintain and renew the building. Utzon agreed.

Sydney Opera House - Utzon Design Principles

Click on the image above to see the — ” Sydney Opera House – Utzon Design Principles “

On publication of the Design Principles in 2002, the Carr Government committed $69 million to the refurbishment plan. This included the creation of the first interior space fully realised to Jørn Utzon’s specifications. The room celebrates the form of the concourse beams which define the ceiling, and its Southern wall is glass, overlooking the harbour. The North wall is dominated by a tapestry designed by Utzon, inspired by the music of Bach and Raphael’s painting, “Procession to Cavalry”.

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The Utzon Room

Throughout the long estrangement, Utzon has said, he never stopped thinking about the Opera House for a single day: “I have the building in my head like a composer has his symphony.” He has already remodelled the interior of one small reception room. Behind high hoardings, construction workers are punching large holes through the granite-faced podium walls, to bring light and views of the harbor into the previously dingy drama-theatre foyers. Utzon is also redesigning the interior of one of the two main halls, and has completed a set of design principles that will guide future alterations, long after he is gone, to an edifice likely to stand for centuries. Perhaps for the first time in history, an architect is designing spaces he will never see for a building in which he has never set foot.

In 2007, World Heritage Listing was awarded to Sydney Opera House.

This has been the story of a remarkable and unlikely series of events which led to the creation of one of the greatest buildings of the twentieth century; a building which, through a union of geometry and ancient ideal, transcends the style of its time, leaving a lasting impact on all who experience it.

It is a shrine to the arts, music and the stories of the world, and evokes a time when the nation began to assert its modern cultural identity.

Six decades have past since Utzon’s initial version triumphed, and the Sydney Opera House has been host to tens of thousands of performances and millions of visitors. It had become the most recognised and esteemed symbol of Sydney and part of its identity — as well as the nation’s.

bangarra on top of the sails at sydney opera house

Performer at the summit of roof sail

Its cultural and architectural value is beyond doubt.


Joern Utzon.

Jorn Utzon- 1958

Jørn Oberg Utzon, (9 April 1918 – 29 November 2008) was a Danish architect, most notable for designing the Sydney Opera House in Australia. When it was declared a World Heritage Site on 28 June 2007, Utzon became only the second person to have received such recognition for one of his works during his lifetime. Other noteworthy works include Bagsvaerd Church near Copenhagen and the National Assembly Building in Kuwait. He also made important contributions to housing design, especially with his Kingo Houses near Helsingor.


Utzon was born in Copenhagen, the son of a naval engineer, and grew up in Aalborg, Denmark, where he became interested in ships and a possible naval career. As a result of his family’s interest in art, from 1937 he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where he studied under Kay Fisker and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. Following his graduation in 1942, he joined Gunnar Asplund in Stockholm where he worked together with Arne Jacobsen and Paul Henningsen. He took a particular interest in the works of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1950 he established his own studio in Copenhagen and, in 1952, built an open-plan house for himself, the first of its kind in Denmark.


Utzon had a Nordic sense of concern for nature which, in his design, emphasized the synthesis of form, material and function for social values. His fascination with the architectural legacies of the ancient Mayas, the Islamic world, China and Japan enhanced his vision. This developed into what Utzon later referred to as Additive Architecture, comparing his approach to the growth patterns of nature. A design can grow like a tree, he explained: “If it grows naturally, the architecture will look after itself.”


While some of Utzon’s most notable works are spread around the globe, he completed a number of projects in his native Denmark. Bagsvaerd Church, just north of Copenhagen, is considered to be a masterpiece of contemporary church architecture, thanks to its bright, naturally illuminated interior and its ceiling straddled with softly-rounded vaulting. Designed in 1968, the church was completed in 1976. The Kingo Houses in Helsingor (1958) consist of 63 L-shaped homes based on the design of traditional Danish farmhouses with central courtyards. Built in rows following the undulations of the site, each of the houses not only has a view of its own but enjoys the best possible conditions for sunlight and shelter from the wind. Utzon described the arrangement as “flowers on the branch of a cherry tree, each turning towards the sun.”


Bagsværd Church

His Paustian Furniture Store (1988) on Copenhagen’s waterfront stands on a multitude of columns inspired by a beech forest. A temple-like finish is achieved by 11 columns with fan-shaped capitals overlooking the harbour. Similar columns are also present inside the spacious interior, stretching up to the skylight dominating the roof.


Paustian Furniture Store- Interior

In 2005, in close collaboration with his son Kim Utzon, he helped to plan the Utzon Centre in Aalborg (completed 2008) designed to inspire young students of architecture. Located on the waterfront, its high sculptured roofs rise over an auditorium, a boathall and a library while the lower roofs of its exhibition rooms and workshops surround a central courtyard, sheltered from the wind.


Utzon Center- Aalborg

Kuwait’s National Assembly Building, completed in 1982, stands on the sea front with (in Utzon’s words) “haze and white light and an untidy town behind.” Benefiting from an understanding of Islamic architecture, Utzon designed a building consisting of a covered square, a parliamentary chamber, a conference hall, and a mosque. Its waving roof conveys the impression of moving fabric.


Kuwait’s National Assembly Building


The Utzon Centre in Aalborg, designed together with his son Kim, was the architect’s last assignment. In 2005 he commented, “From the bottom of my heart, I hope that the Utzon Center will be a place where positive thoughts converge and where students from the School of Architecture gather when they want to get together to discuss their ideas. It is intended to be a power centre for the architects and people of the future.”

Utzon died in Copenhagen on 29 November 2008, aged 90, of a heart attack in his sleep after a series of operations. He had never returned to Australia to see the completed opera house. On 2 December 2008 the Parliament of New South Wales passed a special motion of condolence to honour Utzon’s life and work. He was survived by his wife, Lis, his sons Jan and Kim, his daughter Lin, and several grandchildren.


On 17 May 1985, Utzon was made an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). He was also involved in redesigning the Opera House, and in particular, the Reception Hall, following an agreement made in 2000. In March 2003, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney for his work on the Opera House. Utzon’s son accepted the award on his behalf as Utzon himself was too ill to travel to Australia. He was also given the Keys to the City of Sydney. In 2003, he received the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor.

Following Utzon’s death in 2008, on 25 March 2009, a state memorial and reconciliation concert was held in the Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House.


Jorn Utzon died aged 90



  1. GB - June 8, 2018

    May his soul rest in peace.
    A genius architect, I will miss

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