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Sydney Opera House

Updated on December 31, 2016

Symbolic Landmark

Sydney Opera House Regarded as one of the greatest architectural and engineering achievements of the 20th century because of its unique design, the Sydney Opera House was the centre of controversy from its conception by the NSW State government in 1954 to its completion in 1972.

The Opera House stands on Bennelong Point, which itself is steeped in history, being associated with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. From 1819 until 1902 it was used as a fortress; it was then converted into a tram depot, which remained until construction of the Opera House began in 1959.

International Design Competition

When the government announced in 1955 that an international competition would be held to find a design for an opera house, worldwide interest was aroused. On 29 January 1957 the first prize was awarded to a Danish architect, Joern Utzon, who submitted his sketches without ever having visited Australia, basing his drawings on photographs of Sydney Harbour and the site. Almost immediately after construction began, doubts arose as to the feasibility of building the roof sections (or shells) as originally planned. After much controversy the system of constructing the roof was modified and in the process the shape of the roof was slightly altered. In 1967 the last roof section was lowered into place. Meanwhile, in 1965, a new government had come into office and early in 1966, following disagreement with government officials and engineers over methods of construction Utzon resigned as architect.

Some months later he was replaced by a panel of Sydney architects consisting of Peter Hall, David Littlemore and Lionel Todd. On the advice of the panel much of the interior of the building was redesigned, the major change being that the smaller hall was to become the Opera Theatre and the larger auditorium, to be known as the Concert Hall, would henceforth be the permanent home of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This arrangement of the functions of the two main halls engendered further controversy among a public already dissatisfied over rising costs and concerned that the building would be used solely for operas and classical performances. However, it had always been intended that the Opera House would be available for all forms of entertainment. Thus, while full-scale productions of opera and ballet are held in the Opera Theatre, the Concert Hall is available for performances of every form of music-symphony concerts, chamber recitals, pop, jazz, and folk concerts, as well as solo performances. Besides the Concert Hall and the Opera Theatre, the complex houses a Drama Theatre, Music Room, Exhibition Hall, Recording Hall and two restaurants, as well as rehearsal rooms and a dining room for artists and staff.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

Escalating Costs

The cost of constructing this unique building was astronomical. From an original estimate of $7 million, costs soared until the final figure was in excess of $100 million. This was financed mainly by profits from NSW State Lotteries; other sources of revenue were the government and public appeals .

The Opera House is so highly regarded throughout the world that a picture of it as one of the world's greatest engineering feats was included in a space probe, the contents of which were designed to portray the earth, its people and its technology to any would-be interceptor from another world.

The Architect

Joern Utzon (1918-2008) was a Danish architect, born in Copenhagen, he graduated from the Copenhagen Royal Academy of Fine Arts, winning the gold medal for architecture. During the following years he worked as an architect in Denmark, and traveled extensively in many countries of Europe, as well as USA and Mexico.

He won the competition organized by the NSW State Government in 1955 for the design of a cultural center, which became known as the Opera House, at Bennelong Point, Sydney. He was awarded the first prize of $10,000 in this world-wide competition and was given a contract to supervise the construction. Utzon's innovative design received much international acclaim, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects; however, almost from the beginning of the project in 1959, there were problems, particularly about the sail-like structure of the roof.

Utzon clashed with some local people and with a few politicians; construction costs rose rapidly, the problems increased, and the clashes intensified, and finally in 1966 he resigned. He was replaced by a panel of local architects and, on their advice, modifications were made to the design, and construction was completed in 1973.

Utzon continued an illustrious and well rewarded career with many more major building projects as well as a professor of architecture at the University of Hawaii. In 2007 he became only the second person to have his work recognized as a World Heritage Site while he was still alive.

Sydney Opera House facts and figures

  • Was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon
  • Was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973
  • Presented, as its first performance, The Australian Opera's production of War and Peace by Prokofiev
  • Cost $AU 102,000,000 to build
  • Conducts 3000 events each year
  • Provides guided tours to 200,000 people each year
  • Has an annual audience of 2 million for its performances
  • Includes 1000 rooms
  • Is 185 metres long and 120 metres wide
  • Has 2194 pre-cast concrete sections as its roof
  • Has roof sections weighing up to 15 tons
  • Has roof sections held together by 350 kms of tensioned steel cable
  • Has over 1 million tiles on the roof
  • Uses 6225 square metres of glass and 645 kilometres of electric cable

Photos of Sydney Opera House taken in the 1970s

Photo reprinted with permission
Photo reprinted with permission

What do you think of her?

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    • N376 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @seegreen: That kid is me.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      The last time we were there would have been the 70's. Who is the kid in the top photo?

    • juditpaton profile image

      Iudit Gherghiteanu 

      7 years ago from Ozun

      great photos, certainly makes you curious about the Opera House. However, for me it was the biggest disappointment, about 2 years ago, seems to me unfinished, the toilets as in a village train station, the entrance hall dirty, naked concrete, my beautiful shoes got busted, Otherwise, i saw a beautiful opera.Location is great, indeed.

    • emmajowebster profile image


      7 years ago

      would love to go - the photographs are rather wonderful!

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 

      7 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I love the Sydney Opera House too, it is really original and now well known Sydney landmark.


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