The Sydney Opera House: The Construction Details

Abstract

This report surveys the construction details of the Sydney Opera House. The report starts by outlining a brief history and the cultural orientation of the house. The main discussion then focuses on other key details that relate to this house such as the site and the purpose for the building, the connection between the design, the materials used, and structural context. The report further examines the factors that contributed to the quality of work, the program that was used during the construction and the challenges faced. A written interview conducted courtesy of the director of Building Development and Maintenance of the Sydney Opera House is also included, and finally past and recent photographs and a sketch of the house are included.

Introduction

In his book The Sydney Opera House, Floyd (2005: 1) defines an Opera House as a theatre edifice that is suitable for Opera performances. The Sydney Opera House is the most popular modern building in Australia. It is a magnificent building and is regarded as one of the wonders of the contemporary world. It was constructed on a Peninsula near the Sydney harbor, from a distance one can mistake this opera house with a ship ready to sail. The brain behind this audacious design which consists of shell-like roofs was Jorn Utzon’s. Currently, this house has been rated as the world’s busiest performing arts center. Ever since it was opened to the public in 1973, millions of people have witnessed incalculable hours of entertainment and it has continually opened doors for world-class talents annually. The complex design of the house consists of theatres and halls which are connected underneath the legendary shells. Below is a photograph of the Sydney Opera House (Drew and Browell, 2002: 12).

Sydney Opera House

Historical Background

The proposal for the construction of a world-class opera house was embraced after the second world. This was after the Australian government realized that the country did not have a world-class house for opera performances. Since the house was to be world-class, the New South Wales Government needed an architect who could produce an excellent design. By December 1956, 234 architects from nine different countries had presented their designs (Parks, 2004: 21). This competition attracted many architects from different parts of the world but in the end, Utzon was selected although his design was described as ‘too ambitious’. This was because its successful completion would require advanced technology. Funds for this opera house were received from a lottery called ‘Opera House Lottery. There had been public funding but it failed to raise sufficient funds. Apart from its popularity as an Australian Icon, the Sydney Opera House has been used to represent Australia in the same that the pyramids represent Egypt. Below is a sketch of the Sydney Opera house presented by Utzon (Smith, 1988: 16).

Sydney Opera House

The construction of the house was done in three stages; stage 1 was that of the podium between 1958 and 1961, stage 2 saw the construction of the vaulted shells between 1962 and 1967; stage 3 took place between 1976 and 1973 where the glass walls and the interiors were constructed. Since Utzon was in charge, he had a clear mental picture of the overall design and this made him the most suitable person to supervise the construction of the podium and the vaulted shells. The photo below shows the construction process in 1966 (Shofner, 2006: 23).

Sydney Opera House

Other architects who had been selected to supervise the construction of the glass walls and the interiors consulted him on issues related to the design. The house was officially opened on 20th December 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II. Sixteen years is the exact period that it took for the Sydney Opera house to build, the initial period for the completion was ten years hence it took six years longer to build, in addition, the total cost was greater than the estimated amount by ten times. Maintenance of this house is possible thanks to the New South Wales Government which contributes 30% of the total cost of maintenance (Shofner, 2006: 30). Today, the house has been used to present theatre, music, modern dances, and every form of music. The house hosts about 3000 events annually and big audiences each year, moreover, close to 200,000 people take pleasure in taking a guided tour of the house annually. The house currently operates throughout with the exception of two public holidays; Christmas Day and Good Friday (Floyd, 2005: 66). This house is composed of seven main venues for performances, these are; the playhouse, studio, Utzon room, Forecourt, Drama Theatre, Opera Theatre, and the Concert Hall.

Site context and purpose for building

It is evident that Bennelong Point was the most suitable site for the construction of the opera house. The decision to use this site was arrived at after a careful examination of the alternatives that had been presented. To be precise, 21 sites had been investigated. The main sites that were prioritized include Philip Park, Vicinity of Conservation, the Macquarie St, and Fort Macquarie which houses Bennelong. The stunning position of the site and the fact that it provided an ample view of the Sydney harbor made it be selected (Parks, 2004: 40-43). Although there were some considerations that were made when choosing the site, it was Eugene Goosens, the then head of the North-South Wales (NWS) Conservation of Music, who insisted that the Bennelong site was the best site for the construction. He was of the view that it was necessary to have a location that could house a big opera house. Although this venue was not large enough to house the expected size of the opera house he managed to convince the NWS President Joseph Chill who wanted the house to be constructed in the neighborhood of the Wynyard Railway Station. It was then that Chill requested the designs for the opera house to be constructed.

The site is also magnificent since it presents visitors with a nice view of the harbor, the unforgettable skyline of the harbor bridge in the vicinity, the blue waters, and the Sydney Opera House. The spectacular view makes the site maintain the splendor of a building that was constructed nearly four decades ago. This point was also chosen since it was associated with significant events in Australian history. This included the coming of the first fleet of convicts from Britain in 1788, scientific investigations, defense, marine and transport, as well as cultural themes. This site was not just an apt site for the construction but it had added value since it was seen as a base that represented Australian history (Drew and Browell, 2002: 14-16).

The demand for a bigger theatre heightened the need for the construction of the Sydney Opera house. It was deemed necessary to have a world-class theatre where the best talents in the world would perform. There was also need to build an opera house that could host many types of artistic performances apart from operas. This would be a national cultural centre where many artists would be able to showcase their talent to a big audience. The government wanted a spectacular opera house which could attract artistic performances from all over the world. Floyd (2005: 89) notes that this was why the government did not just pick any architect to undertake the task of coming up with a world class design, there had to be an international competition where the best would be assigned the task. The architects were required to submit their designs according to given specifications. Utzon emerged the architect who was best suited for the job since his design was creative and very original. Diverse arts performances could now be hosted in the new opera house unlike the old times. Principally, there was need for an exceptional opera house that could be used then and many years to come.

The design, materials, and the structural system

There is a close connection between the design, the materials used, and the structural system of the opera house. It is important to note that Utzon’s design incorporated all the factors that were necessary for the successful completion of the Sydney Opera house. The design and the structural system have remained the same since the materials used were strong enough to offer support. The walls and the ceilings were completed using laminated glass. This glass is not prone to breakages hence the design and the structure have not been altered. The roof is made up of ceramic tiles, the ribs and the tiles of this opera house were built using pre-cast concrete. The roof of this house has not fallen since the completion of the building in 1973. The materials used to build the roof were appropriate. Generally, the right Choice of construction materials brings the connection between the design, materials, and the structure. If it were not for the correct use of construction materials in each and every section, then the building could have collapsed many years ago.

Factors leading to the good quality work

The successful completion of any project is made possible by the presence of the main stakeholders and the availability of resources. Utzon was an asset during the construction since he is the one who came up with the design. He demonstrated his professional skills by coming up with a modern building that called for professional skills. Despite the fact that he was under pressure from the government, he was ready to undertake his task prudently. Although he resigned before his masterpiece was completed, he had already done much of what was necessary for its completion. The materials used were strong enough hence the building still stands strong today. Although Utzon’s design seemed to be beyond the competence of the engineers at that time, this fact was overlooked since the end result would be evidently spectacular. He supervised the construction of the house so as to ensure that everything run smoothly.

According to Smith (1988: 144), other engineers who gave Utzon a hand did so courtesy of the constant conversations they would have with him, this means that they consulted him on matters to do with the construction. This further ensured that his idea about the design of the house was not altered and if any adjustments were to be made, he would make them himself. After his resignation, the work was handed over to some Australian architects who only dealt with the interior since the exterior had already been completed; the impact of the adjustments made had minimal effects hence Utzon’s initial ideas were still applied. This generally shows that other architects agreed with his ideas since they were creative and practical.

Parks (2004: 44-46) notes that funds from the lottery were provided throughout the construction period. This meant that no element in the initial plan was compromised, that is why the actual cost was ten times the estimated amount. Although the government was initially pushing Utzon to reduce the cost of construction, it was deemed necessary to produce a world class opera house that was worth the effort and resources. Public campaigns that had been initiated to raise funds for the construction did not provide enough money to produce a world class opera house that Utzon had in mind hence it was necessary to find new means of raising more funds. The presence of dedicated individuals ensured that the lottery raised enough funds for the completion of the building. Frauds were not reported in these lotteries showing that individuals selected did not assume that this was a money making venture. Evidently, resources are important ingredients to the successful completion of a project; in this case funds were important resources that helped to ensure that Utzon and his crew produced a high class opera house.

The above factors were primary and they made it possible for the opera house to be completed. Clearly, Utzon needed help with the construction hence he could not operate alone but on the other hand, it was his ideas that were used. This means that in the absence of Utzon and his design, then this world class opera house would not exist. His careful planning ensured that the right combination of materials was used, that is why the house still stands strong forty years after its construction. To push an idea to become a reality, resources are necessary. That is why funding was also an important factor that ensured that Utzon came up with a good quality masterpiece. Sufficient funds ensured that good quality materials for the construction were bought. Although there had been some financial and political problems that could have acted as barriers to the realization of his dream of a modern opera house, these problems were curbed and were a thing of the past once that Sydney Opera House was completed and officially opened. Floyd (2005: 23) states that Sydney was now admired by many nations across the world, this house actually bought Sydney a precious place in the world map because of the architectural skills that were mirrored by the audacious design as well as a reflection of the culture the local people.

Construction Program and challenges

The construction program or the Sydney Opera house was almost like that of any other building. There was need for an appropriate site, a desired design, the correct choice and use of construction materials, time limit, and also the estimated costs. These factors were prioritized since they were the main elements that could ensure successful completion of the house. The idea of a world class opera house arose after the Second World War.

As noted earlier, the process of site selection was characterized with various considerations of the alternatives that had been presented to the committee selected by the government. An appropriate site had to be selected since the opera house to be constructed had to be magnificent. The many alternatives that had been presented did not appeal to the panel chosen to survey the sites hence most were disqualified. The Bennelong point was seen as the potential site, it bore most of the qualifications that were suitable for the construction; this is despite the fact that it was smaller. The process of selecting a site and the decision made received support from the government thanks to Eugene Goosens. After the selection of the site, there arose a need for a good opera house since Eugene’s design did not impress most of the political leaders. It was then that an international competition for the opera house was announced. Utzon was selected and he began his work.

Apart from design, Utzon also suggested the materials to be used in the construction. The materials were therefore bought hence the work kicked off. The opera house was expected to be completed in ten years but it took an extra six years. The government was pressuring him to ensure that the construction process was complete within the given time limit but he was behind schedule due to the many problems and the adjustments he had to make in his design. It was necessary to collect more funds hence public campaigns and a lottery were on.

One challenge that Utzon faced was the pressure from the government. He had requested more time to complete the design but his request was disregarded. The government altered his initial plan hence he was forced to work with what the government provided rather than what he deemed necessary. The project was always behind schedule and it constantly experienced financial problems, sadly Utzon was blamed for all the problems that the construction process was facing. He was under much pressure that he did not witness the completion of the interiors since he had resigned and some architects had been assigned the task (Drew and Browell, 2003: 9-11). The issue of starting the construction without a complete design, monetary issues, and pressure from the government gave Utzon a hard time hence he lacked a good environment to undertake the task that had been assigned to him.

An interview with Greg McTaggart

I conducted a phone interview with the director of Building Development and Maintenance, Mr. Greg McTaggart. My efforts to reach him and conduct the interview were not successful until two days ago. I carefully recorded his responses to the questions that I had already prepared. He was kind enough to answer my questions despite his tight schedule. The interview lasted about ten minutes and the questions focused on the issue of maintaining and conserving the design of the house. After the introduction and explaining my reason for conducting the interview, he agreed to answer my questions with the condition that he had only spared fifteen minutes for the interview, I agreed since I had three questions to ask him. The interview proceeded as follows:

  • Me: Sir, have there been plans to alter the design of the Sydney Opera house in the recent past?
  • Mr. Greg: No. such proposals have not yet been presented since the board has always considered the design unique and highly artistic. It is unfortunate that despite its outstanding design, this building is only viewed as iconic and no building has taken that shape to date.
  • Me: Does the government play any role in the maintenance?
  • Mr. Greg: The maintenance of the design and its elements has been successful thanks to the support of the Australian government.
  • Me: Are there new building projects at the moment?
  • Mr. Greg: At the moment…no. The last one took place in 2008 where indoor escalators and lifts were fixed.
  • Me: Thank you for your time sir; I really appreciate your help.

Conclusion

The spectacular Sydney Opera House owes its splendour to one Jorn Utzon; he was the architect who designed the house and supervised the completion of its interior. This opera house was constructed after the Australian government decided that it was time the country owned a big theatre where a wide range of artistic performances could be hosted. The construction process kicked off after a site had been selected. Although there were many problems that were faced during this process, they were forgotten after its official opening by Queen Elizabeth II. Today, the Sydney Opera house hosts approximately 3000 events and an audience of 200,000 people annually. The Australian government contributes about 30% of the total maintenance cost.

References

Drew, P. and Browell, A. (2002) Sydney Opera House: Jørn Utzon, New Jersey: Phaidon.

Floyd, C. and Collingwood, J. (2005) The Sydney Opera House, Barrow-Upon-Humber: New Holland.

Parks, P. J. (2004) The Sydney Opera House, Greenock: Blackbirch Press.

Shofner, S. (2006) Sydney Opera House, Ferensway: The Creative Company.

Smith, V. (1988) The Sydney Opera House, New York: Summit Books.