Iconic Structures, Deconstructed: The Sydney Opera House

THESE WALLS CAN TALK

The world’s iconic structures are a sight to behold. The sheer size of the Burj Khalifa is matched by the glass facade that covers a majority of the 828-meter supertall. The Eiffel Tower, arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable structure, looks even more striking in the evenings thanks in part to the 20,000 light bulbs used to keep the tower visible to all throughout the night.

But behind these structures are the minutiae of facts and histories that collectively construct a fascinating narrative that not everyone may know. These structures, like Rome, were not built in a day, and in some cases it took many years—not to mention many workers and building materials—to bring them to life. In this series, Blueprint, presented by CBRE, highlights the fun facts and tidbits behind some of our favorite landmarks to give readers a new appreciation of the small details that make these structures so remarkable. For our third installment, we go to the Land Down Under to break down one of its finest architectural achievements: the Sydney Opera House.

One of the world’s most daring architectural icons almost didn’t come to fruition. In 1956, the Government of New South Wales and Premier Joe Cahill launched a design competition for a national opera house that would be judged by a panel of four architects, including Cobden Parkes and Eero Saarinen. One of the competition’s 233 entrants was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect, whose design was initially overlooked by the panel of judges. Dissatisfied with all of the submissions, it’s rumored that Saarinen pulled Utzon’s design from the rejection pile and declared it the winner, calling it “controversial” due to its originality.

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Today, the Sydney Opera House is revered for its innovative design and world-renowned performing arts programs. Here are 10 facts about the Sydney Opera House that detail the great amount of craftsmanship that went into its construction.

1. The most distinctive feature of the Opera House is its roof, which was designed to resemble seashells and sails. It is made up of 2,194 precast concrete sections, with each of these sections weighing upwards of 15 tons. They’re held together by 350 kilometers of tensioned steel cable that, if laid out, would reach Canberra. An estimated 645 kilometers of electrical cable is also used throughout the Opera House. 

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2. Given the Opera House’s location at Bennelong Point on the Sydney Harbour, Utzon was convinced that “a new building in such a position had to be seen from all sides, had to be a large sculptural building.” The style of the building itself is expressionist modernism—a mix of innovative form with novel construction styles and materials. Saarinen was one such architect who was praised for his expressionist modernist designs, most notably the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in 1962.

3. Construction on the project commenced in 1959. Engineering was overseen by Ove Arup and Partners, a Danish firm, and construction was overseen by M R Hornibrook, an Australian company. Over 10,000 people were hired to work on the structure.

4. The project was initially budgeted for AU$7 million. When it was finally completed in 1973, the total budget ballooned to AU$102 million. In the end, the project was completed 10 years late and 1,457 percent over budget.

5. The “sails” were built with three tower cranes that had been made in France. Each crane cost AU$100,000. The Opera House was one of the first buildings in Australia to be built with tower cranes.

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6. The tiles of the Opera House were designed to capture and reflect light at various times throughout the day. Utzon hired Höganäs, a Swedish company, to make the 1,056,006 tiles that would eventually cover the structure’s roof. It took Utzon and Höganäs 12 months to develop the tiles.

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7. The structure’s concrete platform is made of red granite, the same material that was used for paving the waterfront promenade that surrounds the building. It was intended “as a contrast and anchor to the soaring roofs.” The matte surface of the granite is the result of a needle hammering process.

8. The Opera House’s glass walls were intended to give the appearance that they were “hanging from the shell.” The building boasts over 67,000 square feet of glass, which was custom made by Boussois-Souchon-Neuvesel, a French glass manufacturer.

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9. Despite having designed the Sydney Opera House, Utzon was no longer working on the project when it was completed in 1973. He had left in 1966 after butting heads with Robert Askin, then the newly elected premier of New South Wales, while also struggling to pay his staff due to escalating costs. Architecture firm Hall, Todd and Littlemore took over for Utzon and oversaw the completion of the Opera House.

10. The Sydney Opera House was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace was the first opera performed there. Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr. Olympia title in the Concert Hall in 1980. And in 2007, the Sydney Opera House was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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